This week: new books from Kate DiCamillo, Andre Dubus III, and more.
In her stunning memoir, freelance writer Chung tracks the story of her own adoption, from when she was born premature and spent months on life support to the decision, while pregnant with her first child, to search for her birth family. Growing up the only person of color in an all-white family and neighborhood in a small Oregon town five hours outside of Portland, Chung felt out of place. She kept a tally of other Asians she saw but could go years without seeing anyone she didn’t recognize. She knew very little about her birth parents—only the same story she was told again and again by her adoptive parents: “Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” Decades later, Chung, with the help of a “search angel,” an intermediary who helps unite adoptive families, decided to track them down, hoping to at least get her family medical history, but what she found was a story far more complicated than she imagined. Chung’s writing is vibrant and provocative as she explores her complicated feelings about her transracial adoption (which she “loved and hated in equal measure”) and the importance of knowing where one comes from.
Lena Stigersand, one of the decent, talented, hard-working Oslo police detectives in Dahl’s ensemble procedural series, takes center stage in the excellent sixth installment to appear in English (after 2017’s Faithless). When the body of political aide Sveinung Adeler is removed from an icy Oslo fjord shortly before Christmas, Lena takes charge of the case. As she investigates Adeler’s suspicious death, she uncovers international intrigue involving a prominent Norwegian politician and runs into opposition from Norway’s National Security Service. A second case, in which a homeless drug addict apparently committed suicide by jumping onto some train tracks, raises the stakes. Lending assistance are grouchy, intuitive old-school detective Gunnarstranda and still-suspended Frank Frølich, Gunnarstranda’s trusted partner. Meanwhile, Lena must deal with a troubled fellow detective, her mixed feelings about her new journalist lover, and the brutal necessity of confronting her own mortality when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer. Fans of Scandinavian noir will be eager for Dahl’s next book.
Datlow’s 10th-anniversary volume of horror shorts is a stunning and flawless collection that showcases the most terrifyingly beautiful writing of the genre. This anthology opens with its strongest title “Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas, the story of an African woman quarantined with a wealthy white director and his friends on a compound in France after an outbreak of the Red Sweat, a disease as lethal as it is contagious. The woman is sent into the apocalyptic landscape to seek help, only to face the betrayal of these rich, white people upon her return. “Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones, another outstanding piece, suspensefully details the plight of an academic to understand the anthropological transition from human to zombie and his subsequent gory demise. Datlow’s palate for the fearful and the chilling knows no genre constraint, encompassing the undead, the supernatural, and the cruelty perpetrated by ordinary humans. Exciting, literary, and utterly scary, this anthology is nothing short of exceptional.
Fans of Newbery Medalist DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale will delight in finding out what becomes of Raymie’s orphaned friend Louisiana Elefante in this “story of woe and confusion” that is also a “story of joy and kindness and free peanuts.” In Florida, 12-year-old narrator Louisiana is whisked out of bed at 3 a.m. by her grandmother—her caretaker—who declares that “the day of reckoning has arrived” and they must leave straightaway. The trip is aborted in Richford, Ga., when suffering Granny has to have all her teeth removed. Stuck in a motel while her grandmother recuperates, homesick Louisiana seethes with resentment but is distracted by young Burke Allen, who has a pet crow and knows how to get free food from the vending machine. Then Granny abandons Louisiana, leaving her with nothing but a letter revealing that everything Louisiana knows about her past is a lie. Populated with unforgettable characters, including kindhearted adults who recognize Louisiana’s dire situation and offer options, this bittersweet novel shows a deep understanding of children’s emotions and celebrates their resiliency. Readers will feel as much empathy for Louisiana as they did for her friend Raymie. Ages 10–up.
Dubus (Townie) renders this story of love, jealousy, guilt, and atonement in a voice that rings with authenticity and evokes the texture of working-class lives. Danny Ahern and Linda Dubie grow up in the same town north of Boston. As teenagers, Danny is awkward and unattractive, while Linda is beautiful and smart. Their love affair and marriage is a blue-collar Beauty and the Beast, but Danny’s wild love for his wife turns to jealousy and fear that she will leave him. When that seems imminent, he fatally stabs her in a moment of madness, while their three-year-old daughter, Susan, looks on uncomprehendingly. Danny goes to prison, and Susan is raised by her maternal grandmother, a woman locked in hatred and bitterness about her daughter’s tragic demise. After a terminally ill Danny is released 40 years later, he hopes to find Susan. Susan, meanwhile, has never been able to feel real love, and even in her marriage to a kind and understanding man, she is trapped in self-doubt and depression. As the aftereffects of the murder continue to reverberate through their lives, events move to a climax during a hot night in Florida where Susan, newly pregnant, and her father finally confront each other. Though the entire cast is vividly drawn, perhaps most impressive is how Dubus elicits sympathy in the reader for Danny, whose life effectively ended the moment he picked up the knife. This is a compassionate and wonderful novel.
The classic, original text of Frank’s diary is, as Folman writes in his adapter’s note, impossible to improve upon; instead, he and Polonsky (cocreators of the film Waltz with Bashir) focus on illuminating its humor, insight, and supporting cast in this spirited graphic adaptation, authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation. German Jews living in Holland, Anne and her family go into hiding in the “Secret Annex” behind her father’s business in 1942. The sequential art allows readers to get a visual diagram of the apartment shared by Anne and seven other residents. Outside, every allied victory ironically makes the Franks’ lives harder, as Nazi occupiers clamp down on dissidents. Inside, Anne, drawn with large dark eyes, blooms like the hardiest, loveliest weed—a moody teenager whose wit, self-awareness, and rich fantasy life take center stage. In one dinner scene, Polonsky draws Anne’s mother as a sheep keening for “those poor people starving in the Eastern camps,” while her angelic, bespectacled sister, Margot, is an owl who insists, “I feel full just by looking at others.” The narrative devotes ample time to Anne’s romantic feelings and sexual questions. The adaptors of her story take her seriously, but not more seriously than she took herself. The beauty of Anne’s life and the untarnished power of her legacy—here further elevated by Folman and Polonsky—are heartening reminders of the horror of her fate.
Reviewing the lives, principles, and practices of prominent and obscure atheists from centuries past, Gray (Straw Dogs) challenges the presuppositions and positions of contemporary atheists and secular liberals in this powerful book. By looking back at mystical atheists such as Meister Eckhart and Arthur Schopenhauer, or “God-haters” such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the Marquis de Sade (as well as movements such as monism, positivism, Nazism, and communism), Gray peels back the godless sheen to show that much of what is called “atheist” is actually quite religious. He argues that the only real difference between traditional conceptions of atheism and religion is that, in place of a monotheistic God, atheists found faith in humanity and its ability to improve as a species. Many of the examples Gray cites show a zealous commitment to humans “self-realizing” in the midst of history—whether through an uprising of the working class, technology, or Nietzschean Übermensch ethic. Gray sees this belief as just as far-fetched as that of a deity who spoke the world into being. Going after the sacred cows of atheism, Gray’s work is more of a polemic than it is pure explanation or historical overview. Although prone to some sweeping statements, Gray alluringly invites readers to reconsider what atheism is and should be.
These incisive essays by New York magazine columnist Havrilesky (How to Be a Person in the World), some previously published in shorter versions, invite readers into the contradictions of upper-middle-class American life. She’s interested in “how we ingest and metabolize” the “broader poisons of our culture,” yet cannot “figure out why we’re sick.” She relates these poisons—endemic distraction; determinedly amoral entertainment; the dominance of corporate culture, as represented by the ubiquity of Disney—with a combination of anger, dismay, and ambivalence. She calls out the hypocrisy of the “foodie movement,” with its self-congratulatory “heroic sheen,” for failing to prioritize making “healthy food more affordable to the poor.” Her social criticism is keen, but her best writing is personal. There’s a beautiful essay on being unable to extricate herself from a failing relationship, because “I was more at home with longing.” Her goal is to encourage readers to ask of themselves, as she asks herself amid Disneyland’s overcontrolled banality, “How did we get here? Who stood back and let this happen to our world?” She wants Americans to “wake up to the unbelievable gift of being alive,” even though it means facing anomie, despair, and all the scary emotions that are easier avoided. It’s a message she relates with insight, wit, and terrific prose.
An almost unheard-of diversity of tales absolutely sing in this superlative anthology of short speculative stories. Encompassing a wide range of styles and perspectives, the book swings gracefully from thoughtful superhero SF (“Destroy the City with Me Tonight” by Kate Alice Marshall) to nuanced horror based on Congolese mythology (“You will Always Have Family: A Triptych” by Kathleen Kayembe) to musings on the justice and the multiverse (“Justice Systems in Quantum Parallel Probabilities” by Lettie Prell) without a single sour note. A. Merc Rustad contributes “Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn,” a heartfelt piece about sentient spacecraft and found family, and Caroline M. Yoachim delves further into ideas of family and obligation with the windup characters of “Carnival Nine.” From the Chinese afterlife (“The Last Cheng Beng Gift” by Jaymee Goh) to a future of cyborgs run amok (“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant” by Rachael K. Jones), this anthology delivers.
An idyllic island hides a deadly secret in this atmospheric, Gothic-flavored chiller, which mingles elements of dark fairy tales and outright horror. Sawkill Rock is home to lush forests, rocky cliffs, marvelous horses, and the Mortimer women, who have lived there for generations. Marion Althouse, 16, recently lost her father and has just arrived on the island with her older sister, Charlotte, and their mother. Marion soon befriends the police chief’s daughter, Zoey Harlow, and, to Zoey’s chagrin, seems to be getting close to the beautiful schemer Val Mortimer, matriarch Lucy’s daughter. When Charlotte goes missing, Marion discovers that 23 girls have disappeared in the past century and a half, including Zoey’s best friend. It seems that something inhuman lives in Sawkill Rock’s dense woods, immortalized in the grisly urban legend of the Collector, and the young women, each with an extraordinary emerging power, may be able to vanquish it— if they don’t destroy each other first. Sure to win Legrand (Winterspell) plenty of new fans, this tale, which includes an asexual character and a beautifully wrought queer romance, focuses on the power of female friendship and what it means to pit women against one another in fiction and in life. Ages 14–up.
Rivera Garza’s extraordinary, incantatory novel (following The Iliac Crest) is short but stunning, following a semi-retired detective on the trail of her client’s second ex-wife, who abandoned him for a younger man. Intermittent communications from the couple place them last at the Taiga, an immense, faraway, and largely inhospitable forest province that borders the tundra. People disappear from the Taiga at such a frequency that the phenomenon has a name—the Taiga Syndrome. The detective arrives at the Taiga village from where her client’s ex-wife last sent a telegram, bringing along a translator for help. Though she privately suspects she’s there on a wild goose chase, the detective nonetheless faithfully records all that she comes across, including unsettling interviews with little boys and stories of a wolf cub who seemed to take an interest in the ex-wife and her lover. “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are explicitly referenced throughout the book—the original, darker versions, of course. And there are some truly chilling aspects of the novel, including what the aforementioned little boy confesses he witnessed and a feral child the Taiga lumberjacks find in the forest. In the climax, the detective plunges deep into the Taiga in search of the ex-wife, and discovers where love must go before it can finally be considered over. As lyrical as a poem (“Look at this: your knees. They are used for kneeling upon reality, also for crawling, terrified. You use them to sit on a lotus flower and say goodbye to the immensity”) and as fantastic as a fairy tale, Rivera Garza’s gorgeous, propulsive novel will haunt readers long after it’s finished.
In Neal Shusterman (Thunderhead) and son Jarrod’s near-future or alternate-present America, a prolonged drought (“the Tap-Out”) results in the sudden curtailment of Southern California’s water supply. When their parents vanish while seeking desalinated water, 16-year-old Alyssa and 10-year-old Garrett embark on a harrowing journey, searching for their parents and fending for themselves as society deteriorates. Along the way, the siblings pick up three teens: their survivalist neighbor Kelton, unpredictable lone wolf Jacqui, and calculating opportunist Henry. This thriller alternates between the teens’ distinct and plausible viewpoints, occasionally supplementing with brief “snapshots” of others (a fleeing family, a news anchor) dealing with the escalating catastrophe. The dynamic core-character relationships are satisfying, and the intersection of their narrative with the snapshots adds depth to briefly glimpsed characters and illuminates the full scale of the disaster. The lack of warning before the long-looming crisis breaks may require some initial suspension of disbelief, but the palpable desperation that pervades the plot as it thunders toward the ending feels true, giving it a chilling air of inevitability. It is also thoroughly effective as a study of how extreme circumstances can bring out people’s capacity for both panic and predation, ingenuity and altruism. Ages 12–up.
Sides (In the Kingdom of Ice) updates the much-chronicled, epic winter fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War in this splendid account. In September 1950, countering a June invasion by communist North Korean forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched a “bold, sweeping”—and reckless—landing at the port of Inchon. When United Nations troops reached the border of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong and his generals, fearing an invasion, sent troops into Korea to counter the threat. The First Marine Division, led by Gen. Oliver P. Smith, continued to advance, though its commander rightly feared a Chinese trap. He was correct: for three hellish weeks, his 30,000 Marines, U.S. Army, and assorted UN forces fought four times their number of Chinese soldiers, weathering terrifying assaults with little support and fanatical courage. Sides unsparingly describes the theatrical arrogance and misplaced sense of racial superiority that led MacArthur and X Corps Commander Gen. Ned Almond to discount the intelligence warning of major Chinese infiltration, even dismissing President Harry Truman’s concerns about a widening war that could involve nuclear weapons. This account features abundant heroism, vivid battle scenes, and nuanced treatment of the judicious, determined leadership of General Smith. Sides’s lucid assessment of the battles, leadership, politics, and key figures at the turning point of the war show how the First Marine Division’s commanders and fighting men staved off a nearly unprecedented military debacle.
This captivating and evenhanded biography of America’s first celebrity president, Ronald Reagan, reads like a novel but doesn’t skimp on the scholarship. Spitz (Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child) starts with a prologue about Reagan’s great-grandparents’ emigration to America in 1857 and then breaks Reagan’s life into four sections: “Dutch” (Midwest youth), “Ronnie” (the Hollywood years), “Governor” (of California), and “Mr. President.” Despite pacing that keeps things moving at a steady clip, evocative detail abounds throughout; Spitz recreates such episodes as Reagan’s 1976 presidential primary challenge and the 1981 assassination attempt in gripping and sometimes even amusing fashion. (As nurses cut off the “natty” clothes he was wearing when shot, Spitz writes, “ ‘You’re ruining my suit!’ the president protested.”) Impressive research, including numerous interviews with a wide array of Reagan cohorts, from 1930s movie star Olivia de Havilland to national security adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane, undergirds the exceptional writing. Spitz synthesizes other scholars’ analyses, the firsthand memoirs of key players, original press coverage, and archival holdings. Readers need not be Reagan fans or Republicans to enjoy this outstanding biography.
In this sprawling, wonderfully original space jaunt by Walden (Spinning), the depicted characters are all female or gender nonbinary, and the diverse protagonists inhabit cluttered and homey quarters aboard a fish-shaped starship. Teenage Mia joins the close-knit crew of the spaceship Aktis, who travel the galaxy restoring old buildings that float untethered in open space. Flashbacks chronicle Mia’s freshman year at boarding school—bullies, sports, and all—and her doomed romance with the mysterious Grace. When Mia discovers her crewmates’ unexpected connection to Grace, the crew embarks on a dangerous mission to a forbidden planet to find her. The exquisite art foregrounds simply lined characters against intricate architectural constructs, and Walden’s distinctive layers of flat color create temporal cohesion and emphasize themes of memory and family. As Walden develops the relationships, and drops tantalizing hints about the vast universe this graphic novel inhabits, it becomes clear that the meandering, atmospheric journey—and the growth it affords each character—is the point. With a gratifying conclusion, this masterful blend of science fiction–inflected school drama, road trip, and adventure is nothing less than marvelous. Ages 12–up.