This week: when being ghosted by a date might be more sinister, plus the gritty, rich history of the Bowery.
This anecdote-laden urban history of New York City’s Bowery by Alexiou (The Flatiron) makes for addictive reading. Throughout the 20th century, the street (“synonymous with despair”) in lower Manhattan was once a key thruway in old New Amsterdam, built on an old Lenape Indian footpath north of the colonists’ original settlement, along which rich settlers built their estates. In Alexiou’s hands, the history of the Bowery—from farms to grotty nightlife to bums and back to high-end real estate for the wealthy—is a slice of New York City history. The chapters on the city’s tumultuous early days are top-rate urban history, yet Alexiou hits her stride in describing the 19th century, when the Bowery—with its immigrant riots, gin joints, whorehouses, and attitude that “everything was for sale”—was “America’s center of sin.” Astutely written and smartly researched (this isn’t the same shopworn collection of old anecdotes from Herbert Asbury’s 1928 Gangs of New York), the book dives deeply into such Bowery notables as Tammany Hall boss Tim Sullivan and briefly continues through the early 20th century before coming to life again with the punk music scene at CBGB. This is a fascinating micro-take on New York’s cycle of boom and bust.
British author Atkins takes readers on a thoroughly enjoyable tour of the world’s deserts. After a breakup with his girlfriend of four years and a week spent with Cistercian monks in southwest England, Atkins (The Moor) became obsessed with deserts. His fascination began when he read, in the monastery’s well-stocked library, accounts of desert explorers and he soon became consumed with the desire to “stand in the desert... and imagine what it might to do to a person who abandoned himself to it.” And so began an odyssey that took Atkins to eight deserts across the globe: the Empty Quarter in Oman, the Gobi and Taklamakan in China, Australia’s Great Victoria, the Aral Sea area in Kazakhstan, the Black Rock and Sonoran in the U.S., and Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Interspersed with his own adventures are tales of those who have gone before him, such as Christian missionary Mildred Cable, who traveled the Gobi desert at the turn of the 20th century. Atkins also takes a contemporary look at deserts, describing, for example, the setting of the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Atkins infuses his travel writing with poetic prose (he describes the Great Australian Bight as “a callused web of skin between two digits”) to describe the beauty of what many consider to be wastelands. Atkins’s thoughtful book is a wonderfully satisfying travelogues.
Hevetz Industries intern Althea Sadik is in the Trios planetary system assisting renowned microbiologist Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow when a storm forces the evacuation of their research facility. Most personnel are sent home, but the forewoman orders Thea and Lisbeth to board the Odyssey, which is traveling to the planet Achlys to investigate a distress call. The ship arrives to discover the remote rock strewn with corpses. A now-deceased engineer has left a disturbing video advising Hevetz to abandon the operation, plus a note scrawled in blood: “It got in us and most are dead. Decklan flew for help. Don’t trust the kid.” The Odyssey crew combs Achlys in search of survivors and the cause of the carnage. Unfortunately for them, they find both. First in a duology, this horror-tinged sci-fi thriller from Bowman (Retribution Rails) unfolds from multiple viewpoints via a kaleidoscopic narrative, developing character while escalating pace and ratcheting up tension. Bowman’s plot is intricate and action-packed, her worldbuilding is impressive yet economical, and the book climaxes in a gripping cliffhanger that sets up the sequel. Ages 13–up.
Chen’s charming and thoroughly satisfying debut shines a light on frumpy 19-year-old Mary Bennet, the overlooked sibling of beautiful Jane, desirable Lizzy, and winsome Kitty and Lydia of Pride and Prejudice. Following social tenets, the Bennet clan is engrossed in marriage prospects, which are all but secured for the quartet but not for unattractive Mary. An intellectual, Mary finds solace among books and her own writing, believing her life could never rival her imagination. Although Mary fades into the background at social gatherings, she discovers a newfound independence that her sisters could neither appreciate nor possess: “if no one would speak to me, then I had no cause to speak to them, and my time remained my own.” Mary’s staid life changes trajectory when she is invited to Pemberley, the English estate belonging to Mr. Darcy and Lizzy after they marry, and finds her brother-in-law intrigued by her writing. She even discovers a kindred spirit in surly Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s visiting cousin, and learns there are different ways to capture a man’s attention besides appearance. Chen’s lively retelling proves that centuries after its creation, Mary’s story deserves to be told.
Set in Sandefjord, Norway, Dahl’s heartrending first novel focuses on Cecilia Wilborg, a well-to-do suburban wife seething with anger, frustration, and a long-hidden secret. One October evening, after her daughters’ swimming session, Cecilia finds herself willy-nilly caring for Tobias, a seven-year-old boy who was abandoned at the public pool. When she tries to take Tobias home, she discovers that the address he gives is an empty house. Cecilia’s fraught involvement with the boy soon leads to a dizzying downward spiral of alcohol, drugs, lying, and guilt. Her first-person narrative alternates with two other pain-filled stories, one revealed through the cathartic journal kept by Annika Lucasson—a viciously exploited drug addict who once tended to Tobias and knows Cecilia’s secret—and the other centered on the psychologically damaged Tobias. Their intersecting tales reveal ironic twists of fate en route to the bittersweet conclusion. Dahl savagely delineates the price of living in a society that insists women must try to be perfect wives and mothers and have successful careers, too, or they’ll be inevitably made to feel they’re never good enough.
When Dario Heywood, 17, left Moldovia Studios at age 12, he never intended to return. After starring in the cult classic Zombie Children of the Harvest Moon and suffering emotional and physical abuse from his father, Lucien—the infamous auteur of all of the studio’s B-horror creature features—Dario was legally emancipated. Lured back by his brother, Oren, and his first love, Haley, to attend Lucien’s funeral, Dario must contend with his personal demons and a desire to keep the studio solvent. Debut author Milman’s darkly comedic coming-of-age story seamlessly combines monsters—both real and imagined—with difficult subjects such as neglect, abandonment, and psychosis. Moldovia Studios is a refuge for those who don’t quite fit in anywhere else, and the paradox of it being a safe harbor while simultaneously bringing to life the things of nightmares works on an emotional and a psychological level. Dario’s journey, though more extreme than most, is relatable, but the story’s biggest lesson of all is that it is possible to go home again. Ages 14–up.
Walsh’s bittersweet debut tackles the perils of modern dating. When Sarah meets Eddie in London, she’s sure she’s met the love of her life. After a whirlwind week of romance, Eddie leaves for a trip and tells Sarah how excited he is to see her when he returns. Then he stops returning her texts and calls. Sarah’s friends tell her she’s fallen victim to that terribly modern method of break-up, ghosting. But when she discovers Eddie’s friends haven’t heard from him lately, either, she worries something horrible may have happened. Little does she know that reason for Eddie’s radio silence might be worse than a cowardly breakup, and, indeed, the truth is gut-wrenching, truly surprising, and heartbreaking. Flashbacks to Sarah’s magical week with Eddie provide ample justification for her refusal to just let it go, but she’s also self-aware enough to know how desperate she looks as she keeps searching for Eddie. Though the ending comes abruptly, this tale of heartbreak will please readers who enjoy a good twist.
In this clever synthesis of One Thousand and One Nights and “Hansel and Gretel,” a boy captured by a witch must tell a different spooky story every night if he wishes to stay alive long enough to escape her clutches. But even though he has notebooks full of nightmare-inspired tales, Alex needs to come up with new material to appease his captor, whose impossibly large apartment is filled with lurking terrors. He finds a reluctant ally in Yasmin, a fellow captive, but even she may not be able to help him outwit the witch and return to the real world. Too bad he’s suffering from writer’s block. White (the Thickety series) skillfully interweaves Alex’s peril with the stories he tells, which possess a juvenile gotcha horror in their own right. (Possessed teddy bears, ghost-filled playgrounds, and vampires who steal reflections all make appearances.) The blend of folk and fairy tale elements works extremely well under the circumstances, and the protagonists share an enjoyable camaraderie as they attempt to thwart their common enemy. Despite the dark premise, the narrative never quite crosses the line into horror, making it a safe bet for younger readers. Ages: 8–12.