This week: new books from Tana French, Markus Zusak, and more.
What if It’s Us?
Authors Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) and Silvera (They Both Die at the End) team up for a charming, sweet-natured love story between two very different boys. Arthur (written by Albertalli) is in New York for the summer while his lawyer mother works a big case. His family’s affluent and Jewish, and he’s a Broadway geek and a virgin with good grades. Native New Yorker Ben (Silvera) is Puerto Rican. His family’s on a tight budget, he’s just out of a relationship, and he’s stuck in summer school. Arthur believes in love at first sight; Ben’s not even sure he believes in love. After they bump into each other at a post office, then are separated by a flash mob, Arthur searches the New York haystack to find one adorable high school junior. But the course of meet-cute never did run smooth: complications include friends, Ben’s ex, cultural differences, and the difficult and confusing nature of love. The authors—one known for happy endings, the other for breaking hearts—split the difference believably, and it’s impossible not to root for Arthur and Ben and their many do-overs. Ages 14–up.
Open Your Eyes
Jane Campbell, the narrator of this superior domestic thriller from British author Daly (The Trophy Child), is accustomed to having her husband, Leon, handle their finances, household decisions, and even any comments that may arise over their biracial marriage (she’s white, he’s black). The family lives comfortably in Liverpool on Leon’s income as a top-selling crime fiction writer. Jane concentrates on their two children, their home, and teaching creative writing a couple of times a week. That her own manuscripts have been rejected several times is her one sore spot. Jane’s life changes when Leon is shot in the head with a nail gun in their driveway minutes after a confrontation with their elderly neighbor with whom they’ve had an ongoing feud. As Leon recovers, Jane begins to learn how much her husband has hidden from her—they are deeply in debt, he is way behind in his latest manuscript, and he has made some dangerous enemies. Believable twists and characters who realistically change distinguish this brisk story.
Carmela Full of Wishes
It’s Carmela’s birthday, and she’s finally old enough to accompany her big brother on his errands. On their way to the laundromat, Carmela finds a puffy white dandelion to blow. De la Peña captures with a fine ear the tone of their sibling dialogue: “Did you even make a wish?” her brother asks scornfully. With delicious inspiration, Robinson renders the wishes Carmela considers as papel picado decorations like those hung for her birthday. She wishes for a candy machine; she wishes her mother could sleep in one of the hotel beds she makes every day; she wishes her father could get his papers fixed “so he could finally be home.” Carmela jingles her bracelets: “Why do you have to be so annoying?” her brother snaps. “It’s a free country!” she retorts. But when she takes a tumble, crushing her dandelion, his impatience melts—“You okay?”—and they share a magical wish-making moment. The award-winning team behind Last Stop on Market Street portrays Carmela’s Spanish-speaking community as a vibrant place of possibility, and Robinson’s acrylic-and-cutout spreads introduce readers to street vendors, workers in the fields, and sweeping views of the sea. Sensitively conceived and exuberantly executed, Carmela’s story shines. Ages 4–8.
The Witch Elm
The Witch Elm is Tana French’s first standalone, following six Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. It’s as good as the best of those novels, if not better. Instead of a world-weary detective, our narrator is Toby, an easygoing 20-something who has always taken his wild good fortune as a matter of course. He’s attractive, clever, and universally liked. A publicist for a Dublin art gallery, he has a girlfriend so saintly that it takes a while for her to register as a real character (or at least for him to see her that way). Then robbers break into his apartment and beat him so badly that the physical damage permeates every aspect of his life, fundamentally altering his appearance, his gait, and his sense of self. His memory is newly riddled with gaps; his frustration as he attempts to discern what’s real, what’s remembered, and what’s paranoia adds fuel to the plot. While he’s in the hospital, his beloved Uncle Hugo, keeper of the Ivy House, a family property that’s rendered with French’s signature attention to real estate, is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Toby moves in with him, both to keep him company and because he, too, needs a caretaker. When a human skull turns up in a hollow of a witch elm in the backyard of the Ivy House, the plot revs its engine. Who does the skull belong to? And what does Toby have to do with whoever died in his backyard, or at least who was buried there?
99 Ways to Die
At the start of Lin’s stellar third Taipei Night Market novel (after 2016’s Incensed), Jing-nan Chen, who “makes the best skewers and stews in the Shilin Night Market,” receives a distress call from high school classmate Peggy Lee. Peggy’s wealthy businessman father, Tommy Lee Tong-ming, “who controlled some of the most powerful tax-dodging entities in Taiwan” and is also Jing-nan’s landlord in the market, has been brazenly kidnapped at a banquet. Since a police escort was present, the Taipei PD is desperate to keep their embarrassing security lapse private. Peggy asks Jing-nan to get involved after the kidnappers demand the design for a “power-efficient mobile chip” that they insist is in her father’s files, despite her ignorance of its existence. Jing-nan reluctantly agrees to reach out to a relative with underworld connections as well as to his girlfriend’s former lover, a tech executive imprisoned for bribery who might know the design’s location. Jing-nan has three days to come up with results before the kidnappers’ deadline expires. Lin effortlessly blends humor, plausible plot twists, and the politics and economics of contemporary Taiwan.
Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery
Set in Vermillion, Okla., in 1935, this superb series launch from Loewenstein (Unmentionables) introduces Sheriff Temple Jennings and his stalwart wife, Etha. Once relatively prosperous, Vermillion’s farmers must contend with the continuing crop-killing dust storms, and when they suffer, so do the merchants. People are willing to turn to charlatans who offer false hope, such as rainmaker Roland Coombs. Strangers, many of them young men from families who couldn’t afford them, fill nearby vagrant camps. Others find refuge in the local Civilian Conservation Corp camp. Cleaning up after a nasty dust storm, theater owner Chester Benton finds Coombs’s body buried in a pile of dirt. Someone apparently bashed in the victim’s head with a board or a pipe, and 19-year-old Carmine DiNapoli, a CCC camper, is arrested for the crime. Etha, convinced of Carmine’s innocence, sets out to prove it to Temple. Loewenstein beautifully captures the devastation of the land and people in the dust bowl.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter
Morton (The Lake House) explores the tangled history of people and place in her outstanding, bittersweet sixth novel. In contemporary London, Elodie, a young archivist, encounters among her employer’s collection a satchel, a photographic portrait, and a sketch of a country house. The sketch, in particular, arouses Elodie’s professional curiosity and her memories, since it bears close resemblance to a house figuring heavily in the magical stories her late mother once told her. The trail of Elodie’s research—spurred by her discovery that the sketch depicts an actual place—is woven together with tales of the house’s various denizens between 1862 and the present, as well as with the voice of a spirit who haunts its walls. This specter—who remains nameless for most of the novel—is the clock maker’s daughter of the title, abandoned as a young girl, trained as a pickpocket, and eventually chosen as an artist’s muse, but possessing an artist’s eye of her own. The novel’s central mystery focuses on the circumstances of her abrupt disappearance in the 19th century, entangled with the abduction of a priceless jewel, the murder of the artist’s fiancée, and the artist’s personal and professional collapse. At the novel’s emotional core, however, is the intersection of lives across decades, united, as the ethereal narrator suggests, by a shared experience of “loss that ties them together.” In addition to love—not only romantic love but also love between parents and siblings—and loss, the stories, brilliantly told by Morton, offer musings on art, betrayal, and the ways in which real lives and real places can evolve over time into the stuff of legends.
One Part Woman
This beautiful novel from Murugan, winner of the Translation Prize from India’s National Academy of Letters, plunges readers into Tamil culture through a story of love within a caste system undergoing British colonization in the early 19th century. Everything in Ponna and Kali’s lives seems fruitful: they have a flourishing herd of cows and a stunning flower garden. But after 12 years of marriage, Ponna still has not conceived a child. Ponna has taken the strange, bitter herbs her mother-in-law gives her, has traveled to make countless offerings to the gods, and has tried many traditional rituals, but nothing works. A deep source of shame, their childlessness isolates Ponna and Kali from their community and becomes a subject of ridicule from their friends and neighbors. Their families scheme together in secret to push one last ritual on the couple—at the annual chariot festival celebrating the half-man half-woman god, where men and women are free to copulate with anyone. It’s unthinkable to Kali, but Ponna may be willing to give it a try if it means they will be blessed with a child and their suffering will end. Murugan’s touching, harrowing love story captures the toll that infertility has on a marriage in a world where having a child is the greatest measure of one’s worth.
Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return
Riker’s charming and thoughtful debut opens with the titular Samuel entering young adulthood in a secluded community in Pennsylvania during the 1950s and early ’60s. Against his parents’ wishes, he secretly watches television with a neighbor, whom he falls in love with and eventually marries. They have a son, his wife dies in childbirth, and Samuel’s existence is further rocked when a roaming vagrant tries to kidnap the child when he is 3 years old. During the scuffle, Samuel is killed, and his spirit inexplicably enters the body of his assailant. Now unable to interact from inside this new vessel, Samuel spends decades bouncing from one body to the next, moving on to a new host after his current host dies, inertly looking through the eyes of strangers, all as he attempts to conjure a method to influence his hosts’ actions and make his way home to his son. This shaggy journey shuttles him back and forth across the U.S., as well as oceans, and much like the TV programs Samuel consumes, the bodies he inhabits represent a variety of narrative genres. Riker is a gifted storyteller, and his novel’s enchanting exploration of humanity and philosophy, of how humans connect with their environment and community, is unforgettable.
The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays
This incisive and provocative series of essays collects a decade’s worth of Yang’s writings on politics and cultural paradigms, investigating issues of race, masculinity, and the differences between Eastern and Western cultural values. The collection opens with a taut exploration of the motivations and meanings of Virginia Tech shooter Seng-Hui Cho, whom Yang views through a contentiously sympathetic lens as a desperate social outcast emasculated and ignored partly because of his Korean heritage. This is followed by “Paper Tigers,” originally published in New York magazine, which profiles Asian-Americans in the public eye and considers the difficulties Asians face in the corporate world as a result of being stereotyped as “a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots.” Elsewhere, Yang profiles Eddie Huang, restaurateur and author of Fresh Off the Boat (the memoir on which the ABC sitcom, which he now vociferously denounces, was based), and traces the devolution of the “seduction community” (aka pickup artists) from a relatively innocuous group of men sharing dating tips to reality television humiliation fodder. The collection closes with two essays casting a gimlet eye on the increasingly radical definitions of racism and sexism by progressives. Yang provides piercing, prickly insight into the challenges Asian-Americans face from racial and cultural bias, with literary style.
Bridge of Clay
This exquisitely written multigenerational family saga by Zusak (The Book Thief), his first novel in 13 years, weaves the story of a missing father and a bridge-building brother. The five Dunbar brothers are beholden to only themselves after the death of their mother and abandonment by their father (“Our mother was dead./ Our father had fled”). Matthew, the eldest, puts their story to paper by way of “the old TW,” a typewriter: “Let me tell you about our brother./ The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay./ Everything happened to him./ We were all of us changed through him.” Slipping back and forth in time, the book maps a complex history: grown and married with two children, Matthew recounts their mother’s immigration to the United States at age 18, their father’s upbringing and first marriage, and young life in the chaotic, loving Dunbar household of five boys—then devastation after their father disappears. The deftly woven threads build tension as Zusak’s skillful use of foreshadowing and symbolism brings long-held secrets to the surface. With heft and historical scope, Zusak creates a sensitively rendered tale of loss, grief, and guilt’s manifestations. Ages 14–up.