This week: a William Shakespeare mystery, plus the drug company that addicted America.
In this awe-inspiring debut, Asghar, writer of the Emmy-nominated web series “Brown Girls,” explores the painful, sometimes psychologically debilitating journey of establishing her identity as a queer brown woman within the confines of white America. For Asghar, home is to be found in a people’s collective memory, and throughout she looks at otherness through the lens of generational trauma. The collection’s opening images reflect legacies of destruction and death. In “For Peshawar,” Asghar writes, “My uncle gifts me his earliest memory:/ a parking lot full of corpses.” Her background in the cinematic arts shows in the form of such poems as “How We Left: Film Treatment.” There, while grappling with an identity formed by personal and cultural divisions, the speaker confesses, “I love a man who saved my family by stealing our home./ I want a land that doesn’t want me.” Gendered violence also undergoes scrutiny, with Asghar’s speaker asking, “what do I do with the boy/ who snuck his way inside/ me on my childhood playground?” Honest, personal, and intimate without being insular or myopic, Asghar’s collection reveals a sense of strength and hope found in identity and cultural history: “our names this country’s wood/ for the fire my people my people/ the long years we’ve survived the long/ years yet to come.”
What if William Shakespeare was an intelligence agent before he became a playwright? That’s the clever premise of Brandreth’s impressive first novel. In 1585, the 20-year-old William, who’s been working half-heartedly in the family glove trade, leaves Stratford-upon-Avon at the urging of his father after the discovery of his affair with a young woman, Alice Hunt, whose father, a steward to the local MP, could do him harm. William heads to London, where he becomes an actor and meets Sir Henry Carr, the English ambassador to Venice. Sir Henry, who’s embarking on a delicate diplomatic mission, is looking for actors to be part of the delegation. With his country under threat from Spain, France, and the Netherlands, he hopes that the offer of a trade deal will persuade the Venetians to ally with England. William signs on and travels to Venice, where he must contend with various perils, including Catholic assassins. Brandreth, the rhetoric coach to the Royal Shakespeare Company, plausibly and imaginatively fills a gap in the historical record of the Bard’s life.
This achingly poignant graphic novel by Colfer and Donkin, collaborators on the Artemis Fowl graphic novels, imagines how one Ghanaian orphan ends up adrift in the Mediterranean. Ebo’s older sister Sisi is already in Europe, and he knows his brother Kwame is headed there, too, so Ebo sets out to find him. It’s clear that he succeeds, because the story opens on a scene of the two brothers drifting without food or water on the ocean. But in flashbacks, they see Ebo searching for Kwame in a teeming refugee hub in Niger. Punchy dialogue and wistful narration note both Ebo’s poverty and his gifts: optimism (“I’m stronger than I look,” he tells a boss), a talent for singing, and initiative (he parlays a box of wet wipes into cash by selling them one by one). Water is precious, and Ebo and Kwame endure periods of intense thirst. Rigano brings the brothers’ struggle close, but his magnificent panels include moments of beauty, too. Clouds tower above the ocean, and starry skies light the desert. Refugees, readers will understand, are not statistics; everyone is an individual. Ages 10–up.
England between the two world wars is revisited in this witty and heartfelt novel. Daniel Pitt, a former RFC pilot, is married to Rosie McCosh and runs a tea factory in Ceylon. His brother, Archie, a solider on the North-West Frontier (what is present-day Pakistan), is secretly in love with Rosie—just as Rosie’s spinster sister, Ottilie, back at home in England, is secretly in love with Archie. Readers also meet Rosie’s other sister, Christabel, a bohemian who has a special relationship with Gaskell, a female barnstorming artist; Oily Wragge, the gardener on the McCosh family estate, who suffers from nightmares about his war experiences; and various and sundry mistresses of unhappily married Daniel, who bear him several illegitimate children over the years. Through a variety of points of view, de Bernières (Corelli’s Mandolin) creates an impressionistic depiction of Britain recovering from one world war and slipping inexorably into another as motion pictures begin to talk, land and air records are set, and Daniel and his friends and family heroically try to adjust to changing times. The novel is light on plot, but the characters are such excellent company that it makes for an irresistible reading experience, especially for fans of Downton Abbey.
Deep melancholy infuses the crafty whodunit plot of de Giovanni’s superior ninth mystery set in 1930s Italy (after 2017’s Glass Souls). After the corpse of Constantino Irace, the owner of a celebrated fabric store, is discovered on a Naples street, Commissario Luigi Ricciardi and his deputy, Brigadier Raffaele Maione, are under political pressure to close the case quickly with the arrest of Vincenzo Sannino, who once had a successful boxing career in America that was a source of pride for his country. Sannino quit after his trademark punch, dubbed the snakebite, caused the death of an opponent—and even an entreaty from Mussolini to box again proved unpersuasive. Although Irace might have been killed by a blow resembling the snakebite, and Sannino had motive to kill Irace, because he married the woman Sannino had long been pining for, the honest policemen pursue a less obvious theory, despite its risk to their positions. Ricciardi, who’s literally haunted by visions of the dead, continues to be one of the most nuanced and intriguing sleuths in contemporary crime fiction.
Forsythe’s intense and disquieting debut reckons with grief, senseless violence, compassion, and adolescent alienation centered on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Her speakers include the victims, the shooters (who speak directly through excerpts from their journals), a teenage girl living halfway across the country, and an adult reflecting on that teenage girl’s experience. Forsythe details her settings, such as the bedroom of one of the shooters, in a chilling and reverential manner. “You dream under/ a poster of Jenny McCarthy,” she writes. “Fingertips cut from a leather/ glove in a wastebasket.” Recalling the media hysteria of the time, Forsythe describes how the public is “made/ to fear a game in which/ dragons & dungeons/ lead to unchecked occult/ madness.” The angst of adolescence is palpable (“the/ physical boundaries/ of our bodies are cruel/ against the shell of school”), and hormones make the speaker feel “frantic, a werewolf/ in a palace of full moons.” The terror of the students in the school’s library synthesizes the mundane and the disastrous: “A boy in cargo pants, a student, seventeen, a table. A gun and a bomb. All of us have book bags with notes with hearts at the bottom.” Forsythe’s moving catalogue of a horrific event becomes a diagram of senselessness where minutiae take on a stark and eerie resonance when read beside today’s headlines.
Griffin (Touch of Red) weaves just enough romance into this intensely suspenseful novel of murder and passion. Defense attorney Brynn, about to begin a trial to save her client’s life, hears that her former colleague has been murdered. The main suspect is a man she helped put in jail, who’s now free and looking for revenge. Brynn’s boss promptly hires private security to protect Brynn and her cocounsel. At first Brynn is furious about her activities being dictated, but the more she gets to know her guard, Erik, the less she minds. Erik, former military and Secret Service, does everything by the book: no distractions, not even caffeine on the job. But the more time he spends with Brynn, the harder it is to follow the rules. As they embark on the dual thrill rides of the trial and the search for the killer, fire builds between Brynn and Erik. Griffin pulls out all the stops in a phenomenal twist ending that will leave readers stunned.
“Aside from getting champagne in your eye, or being snapped at by your pet toucan, bemoaning a lack of purpose is the most privileged problem in the known universe, so I won’t drone on about it,” writes comedian Higgins in the first essay of her wickedly funny collection. In the 14 pieces that follow, Higgins delivers on her promise to reach beyond the self while addressing such topics as Rent the Runway, a designer-clothes rental service, and the Muslim travel ban with incisive humor and deep humility. In her exceptional essay, “Pen as Gun,” about teaching a comedy workshop in Iraq, questions that begin with the self give rise to political and global considerations: “What if comedy, and creativity, these nebulous things I’ve devoted all these years to, are, in the grand scheme of things, unhelpful? Or even pointless?” While Higgins wisely steers clear of reducing insight to adage—“Comics taking themselves seriously have always made me laugh”—her commitment to wrestling openly and ethically with personhood and privilege suggests “that we are not alone, that we have this common language.” Higgins has the rare gift of being able to meaningfully engage with politics and social ills while remaining legitimately funny.
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement
The hidden dysfunctions in American policing are laid bare in this searching exposé. Horace, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and a CNN analyst, explores the “implicit bias” and overt racism that makes black people the targets of profiling, harassment, beatings, and unjustified gunfire from cops. He surveys a horrific litany of recent police killings of unarmed, unthreatening African-Americans, revisiting notorious cases like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. (he doesn’t opine about the killing, but probes the abusive ticketing of black citizens to drum up city revenue that preceded it and the leaving of Brown’s body in the street following it), and the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago, after which public outcry forced officials to release damning video evidence that revealed a police cover-up and led to an officer being indicted for murder. Horace adds his own fraught experiences: as an officer for 28 years, trying to defuse violent situations and almost getting shot by a white cop who assumed that he was a perp; as a civilian, getting mauled by a police dog and stopped, while driving, for spurious reasons that his white friends never experienced. Horace and coauthor Harris write sympathetically of the dilemmas of policing, but are uncompromising in their indictment of abuses. Horace’s street cred and hard-won insights make this one of the best treatments yet of police misconduct.
A family struggles to balance tradition and change in Kim’s marvelous debut. Sixteen years old and living in a refugee camp in 1951 Busan, South Korea, Lee Haemi is not interested in marrying but knows the plight of her situation might necessitate it. War has put everything on hold except starving, dying, and desperation. Her decision to find a husband—borne partially out of hope for finding help for her ailing little brother, Hyunki—ripples through the lives of those around her, especially the cousins who compete for her affections: quiet, studious Yun Kyunghwan and loyal, clever Yun Jisoo. Kyunghwan and Jisoo are both conscripted and go off to war, where the former is injured and the latter becomes inured to the staggering violence and cruelty he witnesses. After the fighting, Jisoo asks Haemi to marry him, and she agrees, feeling he is the best option to guarantee the safety of her family. After they move to a small town and start a family of their own, Kyunghwan tries to get into college and fails; instead, he lands several demeaning jobs before eventually working his way up the ladder through a series of factory jobs. In a crucible of political upheaval, modernization, and tumultuous love, Haemi is faced with choosing between safety and her own passions when Kyunghwan reenters her life. Kim’s lyrical intergenerational saga resonates deeply and will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Orphan Master’s Son.
Journalist Macy (Truevine) takes a hard and heartbreaking look at the cradle of the opioid addiction crisis, the Appalachian region of Virginia and nearby states. She places the responsibility for the epidemic squarely on Purdue Frederick, makers of OxyContin, and its sales division, Purdue Pharma, which engaged in near-predatory marketing practices to sell a drug that has wreaked havoc on the lives of 2.6 million Americans who are currently addicted, with more than 100 dying per day from opioid overdoses. In the first of three sections, she addresses “big pharma” in telling detail, outlining how the overprescribing of pain medication in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms created a market demand that was then met by illegal drug peddlers on the streets. Section two follows the spiral of addiction as users of prescription pills no longer able to afford their habit turn to heroin, a cheaper and more lethal solution to feed their fix. In the last section, the author changes the focus to what has become an addiction treatment industry. Macy potently mixes statistics and hard data with tragic stories of individual sufferers, as well as those who love and attempt to treat them. One addict, Tess Henry, was just 26 when she was first interviewed by Macy and, despite multiple attempts at rehab so that she could raise her infant son, she was dead within three years. Macy’s forceful and comprehensive overview makes clear the scale and complexity of America’s opioid crisis.
A movie critic certain no one reads his reviews fills them with details of his personal life in this sharp, funny debut set in America’s Central Hub some time in the future. Narrating reviews (there are 80 in total) instead of chapters, Noah Body begins with a critique of Having, Not Having, Being, Not Being, a film he sees while hiding in a theater from a man he has angered. Noah’s strong opinions and acerbic humor, though entertaining to the reader, undermine his own personal relationships, including the burgeoning romance with a doctor he consults because he believes himself possessed by his ex–best friend. Noah also dreams about writing, directing, and starring in his own movie. Contemporary cinema still features vampires, monsters, heists, crime family melodramas, and historical dramas such as Unsurfable, which depicts how most of the world’s data and wealth were erased. Noah envisions his own film in the Renaissance and sets about trying to get it actually made. With weapons-grade wit, Mattson satirizes movies, reviewers, and life in the data age. Even the almost-touching scene when robotic AlmostPerson Lawrence observes a sunset ends in edgy irony. Mattson’s exhilarating novel is rife with ingenious humor and inventiveness.
In the third volume of his magnificent five-part memoir, French-Syrian cartoonist Sattouf—aged seven in the book—begins to realize the poverty, patriarchy, and religious stratification that permeates life in Syria. He reluctantly undergoes a circumcision to appease his devout grandmother, becomes cognizant of his mother’s lowly stature in Syrian society, and sees his father’s own limitations and weaknesses. The cultural rift between Sattouf’s French-born mother and his Syrian-born father metastasizes throughout this installment. Sattouf’s mother is vocal about her unhappiness living in her husband’s childhood village: “We’ve got quite a few problems,” she tells her mother over the phone. “Life is hard here.” Sattouf’s father—once a dynamic, progressive student living in France—has lost his hopeful outlook as he is increasingly drawn to his extended family’s religiosity. While the young Sattouf retains his childish whimsy, the tension between the adults in his life looms like a shadow. As the series builds in maturity and depth, Sattouf depicts in unsettling detail how political and religious indoctrination can infect even the most well-meaning idealists. This is essential reading both for graphic novel fans and to provide human context to global political conflicts.
Nuclear war and disease have ravaged the world in this haunting dystopian thriller from Pakistani author Shah (A Season for Martyrs). In Green City, capital of the Sub-West Asia Region, the few remaining women have become breeding commodities forced to have multiple husbands. Despite repression, some women rebel and found an alternate community, the Panah. These women go out at night, hidden under veils and covered in gold powder preventing their DNA from being detected on scanners, to provide nonsexual intimacy to high government officials, who crave being held. Among the rebels are Lin, kidnapped when she was seven by an aunt who groomed her to become the Panah’s ruler, and Sabine, who seeks refuge from Green City after her father arranges an undesirable marriage for her. Reuben Faro, the head of the governmental ruling body, is in love with Lin. He protects the Panah, aware that he will be punished severely if discovered. Lin, Sabine, and Reuben become enmeshed in perilous and treasonous conduct that draws in innocent bystanders. Will the three survive? Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale won’t want to miss this one.
A decade after the publication of Proust and the Squid, neuroscientist Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language at Tufts University, returns with an edifying examination of the effects of digital media on the way people read and think. A “researcher of the reading brain,” Wolf draws on the perspectives of neuroscience, literature, and human development to chronicle the changes in the brain that occur when children and adults are immersed in digital media. When people process information quickly and in brief bursts, as is common today, they curtail the development of the “contemplative dimension” of the brain that provides humans with the capacity to form insight and empathy. In describing the wonders of the “deep reading circuit” of the brain, Wolf bemoans the loss of literary cultural touchstones in many readers’ internal knowledge base, complex sentence structure, and cognitive patience, but she readily acknowledges the positive features of the digitally trained mind, like improved task switching. Wolf stays firmly grounded in reality when presenting suggestions—such as digital reading tools that engage deep thinking and connection to caregivers—for how to teach young children to be competent, curious, and contemplative in a world awash in digital stimulus. This is a clarion call for parents, educators, and technology developers to work to retain the benefits of reading independent of digital media.