This week: the new novel from Emily Giffin, plus why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism.

For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural America

Loka Ashwood. Yale Univ., $40 (328p) ISBN 978-0-300-21535-9

Auburn University agricultural economist and sociologist Ashwood relocated to rural Burke County, Ga., to better understand the growing distrust between the government and rural populations for this thought-provoking investigation. She chose the location because the extremely poor county is home to the first new nuclear power plant built in the U.S. in decades, and the process by which the for-profit companies that own the plants took the land of poor disenfranchised residents, polluted and eroded the country’s natural resources, then found a loophole to avoid paying much-needed taxes to the county, illustrates what she refers to as the “public-private fallacy” that prioritizes benefits to corporations over those of individuals, leading to a system in which profit creation drives policy. While this sounds like a relatively academic concept, the work itself is character-driven, affecting, and philosophical. Recounting many of the interviews she conducted with more than 80 people, Ashwood successfully illustrates the human impact of eminent domain and abstract-seeming ideas such as what she terms “the rule of numbers.” She argues that a centuries-old preference for privatization and industrialization in places like Burke County has germinated loss of faith in the government, and highlights the stories of Burke County residents William Gresham and Lela Roberts, who oppose the for-profit democracy ethos through civil disobedience–for instance, treating the land now owned by the plants as though they still belong to the locals—and religion. A more intellectual cousin to recent cultural soul-searching works like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, this is an accessible exploration of how government affects and is perceived by rural Americans.

Drum Roll, Please

Lisa Jenn Bigelow. HarperCollins, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-279114-6

Middle schooler Melly has always followed the lead of her best friend, Olivia. Olivia insisted that they join band in the fifth grade, and three years later, Olivia decides that they should go to rock-and-roll camp. Luckily, Melly loves playing music (“It felt like the drums were pumping energy into me,” she says), but the timing for camp couldn’t be worse. The day before she leaves, she learns that her parents are divorcing. Carrying a bundle of anger and confusion along with her drumsticks, Melly arrives at Camp Rockaway unprepared for the challenges she will face, including an intimidating audition and working with unlike-minded musicians. In a story about growing pains, turning points, and self-discovery, Bigelow (Starting from Here) shows an equally clear understanding of the dynamics of camp life and young adolescent emotions. Melly’s responses to situations are authentic, especially the excitement and confusion she feels when she is attracted to another female camper. Bigelow has a graceful and genuine touch as her protagonist processes new experiences and navigates changes in friendships and family. Ages 8–12.

Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory

Mike Davis. Verso, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78873-216-1

Davis (In Praise of Barbarians) resuscitates myriad overlooked works of political and environmental history and theory in this insightful collection of four essays. The extended title essay traces the development of Karl Marx’s thought, attentive to how Marx never fully explicated a “theory of proletarian agency.” This survey contains a first-rate timeline of the evolution of the concept of class struggle and notes that technology today allows for the kinds of economic democracy and worker control that Marx envisioned over a century ago. The second essay critiques post-Marxist conceptions of nationalism, looking to recent work by Erica Benner and Marx and Engels’s writings on the revolutions of 1848. The third discusses the largely forgotten contributions to climate science of the renowned 19th-century anarchist geographer Peter Kropotkin. Davis closes with a debate between his pessimistic and optimistic selves about urbanism’s paradoxical role as both problem and solution to anthropogenic climate change. Throughout this thought-provoking volume, he seems less concerned with using history to provide answers to modern problems than with offering readers wide-ranging material to digest for the purpose of asking new and better questions.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Robin Diangelo. Beacon, $16 (184p) ISBN 978-0-8070-4741-5

Diangelo (What Does It Mean to Be White?), a race scholar and professional diversity trainer, delivers a thoughtful, instructive, and comprehensive book on challenging racism by understanding and working against what she terms “white fragility,” the reaction in which white people feel offended or attacked when the topic of racism arises. She explains that the book is primarily intended for white audiences to aid in “building our stamina” for tolerating these discussions in order to challenge racism. Diangelo brings together personal experiences, extensive research, and real-world examples—including missteps she herself has made, such as joking inappropriately about a black colleague’s hair—to demonstrate how entrenched racism remains a societal norm in institutions and white people’s mindsets, including supposedly “colorblind” thinking and behavior. Her analysis effectively challenges the widespread notion that “only intentionally mean people can participate in racism”; rather, she explains, racism is “deeply embedded in the fabric of our society.” She ends with a step-by-step blueprint for confronting and dismantling one’s own white fragility to try to “interrupt” racism. This slim book is impressive in its scope and complexity; Diangelo provides a powerful lens for examining, and practical tools for grappling with, racism today.

The Inward Empire: Mapping the Wilds of Mortality and Fatherhood

Christian Donlan. Little, Brown, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-50936-7

In this earnest memoir, journalist and first-time author Donlan chronicles his efforts to “navigate the world” as his life changes in his 30s after two almost simultaneous events: the birth of his daughter and his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. He combines careful and unsparing accounts of the “Inward Empire” of experiencing MS—“a place that I am transported to when the truly weird stuff starts to happen”—with short descriptions of MS, how it was first discovered in the 1860s as a “disease of cities and factories,” and how it is currently treated. As he recounts trying to reconcile the “opposing sensations” that his MS onset has on his mental and emotional condition—“the fog of complete bewilderment, the toxic Zen of total comprehension”—he also carefully notes his daughter’s development over the first few years of her life, as a “different person was emerging, outlined by her new abilities.” But Donlan never forces the parallels between his life and his daughter’s; the way his family, friends, and doctors deal with his neurological decline leads him to a greater understanding of his role as a person and a father: “to face death and acknowledge its power, and to acknowledge the equal power of life.” This is a moving, gracefully written story.

The Darkest Time of Night

Jeremy Finley. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-14730-1

Lynn Roseworth, the protagonist of investigative reporter Finley’s outstanding debut, is faced with a crisis after her seven-year-old grandson, William Chance, disappears in the woods behind her Nashville home shortly before the official announcement that her husband, Sen. Tom Roseworth, is the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Memories of her father’s warnings about the terrors of the woods haunt Lynn, especially when the only witness—William’s severely traumatized older brother, Brian—tells her that the “lights took him.” Decades earlier, Lynn worked for an astronomer at the University of Illinois who studied disappearances across the country, including one in which a similar phrase was used. She doggedly pursues explanations for what happened to William that stray from law enforcement’s theory that political enemies of Tom’s abducted the boy. Finley’s complex portrayal of his heroic lead will carry readers through plot developments that would come across as unconvincing in the hands of a lesser writer. X-Files fans will be enthralled.

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer

Margalit Fox. Random House, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-58945-4

New York Times senior writer Fox (The Riddle of the Labyrinth) brings to life a forgotten cause célèbre in this page-turning account of how mystery-writer-turned-real life sleuth Arthur Conan Doyle helped exonerate a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder. In 1908, Marion Gilchrist was found bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home. Early into the investigation, the police centered their suspicions on Oscar Slater, a German Jew expat and known gambler, who was eventually convicted of the murder based on such shoddy evidence as the fact that he’d pawned a brooch similar to one owned by Gilchrist that was missing from the scene of the crime. When Slater’s attorneys reached out to Conan Doyle after the trial, the author investigated the case using the method of rational inquiry that was inspired by his medical training and was the hallmark of his famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Through “Holmesian acumen and Watsonian lucidity, [Conan Doyle] dismantles the Slater case plank by plank,” Fox writes, starting with the brooch, which he deemed inconsequential: first, because it was not a match for the missing one, and, secondly, because it had been pawned by Slater before Gilchrist’s death. Taking a cue from Conan Doyle, Fox then uses the brooch to show how Slater was likely framed for the crime, and how both class bias and anti-Semitism influenced the rush to convict him. The author’s exhaustive research and balanced analysis make this a definitive account, with pertinent repercussions for our times.

All We Ever Wanted

Emily Giffin. Ballantine, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-17892-4

Giffin’s stellar latest (following First Comes Love), set in Nashville, concerns the wealthy Brownings and the scandal that ensues when their Princeton-bound son Finch appears to have taken a racy photo of Lyla Volpe, a high school sophomore on scholarship at the prestigious Windsor Academy. Nina’s husband Kirk grew up with money, and they’re richer than ever now that he’s sold his tech company. Though he’s confident and charming, Nina’s starting to question his character—especially when Kirk doesn’t want high school senior Finch to face the consequences of the photo of Lyla unconscious and exposed at a party. Though it’s not revealed until later in the book who took the photo, it gets widely spread around, and the fallout is substantial. Nina wants Finch to be a good person above all, and she bristles when she learns that Kirk tried to bribe Lyla’s father, Tom, to drop the issue with the school. Nina tries to right things with Tom, a carpenter who also drives an Uber to make extra cash. Tom has a huge chip on his shoulder that’s exacerbated by the stresses of single parenthood, but he finds himself liking Nina despite her wealth. Meanwhile, Finch starts dating Lyla and tells her that he’s covering for the person who really took the photo. Things come to a head as Nina attempts to find out whether her son is honorable or as untrustworthy as his father. Giffin’s plot touches on social class and misogyny while delivering an excellent page-turning story. This satisfying novel will appeal to readers looking for a nuanced, thoughtful take on family and social dynamics.

My Plain Jane

Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. HarperTeen, $17.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-265277-5

Hand, Ashton, and Meadows follow up My Lady Jane (about Lady Jane Gray) with another tongue-in-cheek novel about a famous Jane—this time, Jane Eyre. In this take on the classic, Jane and Charlotte Brontë are good friends from school, and as Jane’s story unfolds, Charlotte records every moment of it—at first writing it as a murder mystery, then a romance. Jane can also see ghosts, and the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits determines that she is a rare Beacon (someone who can control ghosts), offering her a high-paying job. The chapters switch among the handsome young Alexander, a member of the Society; Charlotte, who convinces Alexander to give her a temp job (and who falls for Alexander); and Jane, who spurns her job offer, heads off to Thornfield, and falls for Rochester. The authors’ prose holds all the flavor of a juicy period novel yet with the addition of numerous, witty asides. The narrative is full of wry humor—at one point, Jane thinks to herself about Rochester, “He was everything she’d ever dreamed about. Tall. Dark. Brooding”—and laugh-out-loud commentary. The authors’ affection for their source material is abundantly clear in this clever, romantic farce. Ages 13–up.

Liar, Liar

Lisa Jackson. Kensington, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-1-61773-467-0

Twenty years after celebrity impersonator Didi Storm disappeared in Las Vegas with her young twins, abandoning her teen daughter Remmi, a woman dressed to look like her jumps to her death from a San Francisco building in this twisty, suspenseful romantic thriller from bestseller Jackson (Ruthless). The apparent suicide of Didi’s look-alike, which Remmi witnesses, follows the publication of a true crime tell-all chronicling the events of Didi’s disappearance. With the help of her long-ago flame, Noah, Remmi desperately attempts to uncover what happened to both her vanished mother and her twin siblings all those years ago, while Det. Dani Settler with the SFPD reopens Didi’s cold case. Their separate investigations reveal a tangled web of lies, money, and familial betrayal. As Remmi gets closer to Noah and narrows in on the truth of her past, an unnamed marksman hunts her in her present. The many threads of this action-packed, female-driven mystery are tied together by the mesmerizing, larger-than-life character of Didi Storm, who haunts the book to its final pages.

Trail of Lightning

Rebecca Roanhorse. Saga, $16.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-5344-1350-4

Roanhorse vividly depicts Navajo land, legends, and culture in her marvelous fantasy debut, which launches the Sixth World series. After a cataclysm flooded much of the earth, the Dinétah—the homeland of the Navajo, or Diné—was one of the few remaining areas where people could survive. Legendary powers have risen among the Diné, and Maggie Hoskie is one of those who wield them. She was trained by a supernatural mentor to hunt monsters, and after vicious creatures commit a series of grisly murders, she has to muster all her skills to confront the incredibly powerful witch creating them. Roanhorse unspools a fascinating narrative of colorful magic in a world made otherwise bleak by both natural and man-made circumstances. The monster-hunting plot nearly takes a back seat to Maggie’s challenging journey of working through personal and cultural trauma, including the violent deaths of loved ones and an abusive relationship. Her partner, Kai, is a force for healing despite, or because of, his own history of pain. Their story is a fresh take on the tale of the emotionally and spiritually wounded hero who faces down increasing evil to make the world better. This rich tale from a strong Native American voice is recommended for all fantasy audiences.

The Cabin at the End of the World

Paul Tremblay. Morrow, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-267910-9

The apocalypse begins with a home invasion in this tripwire-taut horror thriller. Eric and Andrew are vacationing with their seven-year-old daughter, Wen, at remote Gaudet Lake in New Hampshire when their cabin is invaded by a quartet of weapons-wielding strangers, each of whom has been driven there by a shared vision: that the world will end unless one member of this family sacrifices another. That sets the stage for an excruciatingly tense standoff between them and their prisoners as they try to outmaneuver one other. Tremblay (Disappearance at Devil’s Rock) skillfully seeds his tale with uncertainties, including news reports of portentous world catastrophes, that suggest the invaders’ vision is genuine, and he introduces enough doubt into the beliefs and behaviors of all the parties to keep them and the reader off-balance. His profoundly unsettling novel invites readers to ask themselves whether, when faced with the unbelievable, they would do the unthinkable to prevent it.

The Ruinous Sweep

Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick Press, $18.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7636-9745-7

In Wynne-Jones’s tense, eerie thriller that lightly draws from Dante’s Inferno, 17-year-old Donovan Turner lies unconscious in a hospital after a hit-and-run left him gravely injured. His girlfriend, Beatrice “Bee” Northway, is at his side. While Donovan relives the events leading up to the accident in his mind (or, possibly, an otherworldly in-between place), Bee makes careful notes in her journal describing each sound that Donovan utters, hoping to piece together what may have happened. Then Donovan’s father is found beaten to death with Donovan’s baseball bat. After Bee’s boyfriend becomes a suspect in the murder, she puts herself in considerable danger to prove to the police that he’s innocent. Wynne-Jones cleverly employs elements of his trademark magical realism, and readers will enjoy making the connections between Bee’s discoveries and Donovan’s subconscious version of events; both versions are chilling. The courageous, clever Bee is a revelation, and her clear-eyed approach to finding the truth and her enduring love for Donovan, along with believably quirky characters and genuinely terrifying moments, will keep readers enthralled until the bittersweet finale. Ages 14–up.