This week: new books from Charlie Jane Anders, Dani Shapiro, and more.
Nebula Award winner Anders (All the Birds in the Sky) sets this riveting genre-bender on a tumultuous planet split into frigid darkness and searing sunlight. On the lighter side, in the rigidly controlled city of Xiosphant, shy student Sophie adores her friend, the outspoken Bianca. After Sophie takes the fall for Bianca’s petty theft, she’s left to die in the frozen wasteland, but she establishes a psychic bond with the creature that saves her. This connection gives her heartbreaking insight into the world of a sentient race Sophie dubs the Gelet, who have been hunted relentlessly by humans. Sophie later reunites with Bianca, now a violent revolutionary, and they fall in with a group of smugglers, including the fierce Mouth, who seeks an artifact linking her to her nomadic ancestors. After an outbreak of violence, they flee Xiosphant, and Sophie is shocked to learn that Bianca wants to use the Gelet, labeling them “animals.” Anders’s worldbuilding is intricate, embracing much of what makes a grand adventure: smugglers, revolutionaries, pirates, camaraderie, personal sacrifice, wondrous discovery, and the struggle to find light in the darkness. This breathlessly exciting and thought-provoking tale will capture readers’ imaginations.
Where were you when you first heard President Kennedy had been shot?” asks Bowman (1957–2012) in the opening of his big, bold, and brilliant posthumous novel, and for the next 600 pages, he investigates what occurred in the years leading up to that monumental event in American history. Through the lives of such iconic figures as Norman Mailer, Elvis, William de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Spock, Ngô Dihn Diem, Aristotle Onassis, the Kennedys themselves, and dozens of others, Bowman conjures an enormous narrative out of the troubled years from 1950 to 1963. Bowman takes the reader to Nevada, where Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow become short-term neighbors while waiting to obtain quickie divorces; to Seattle, where Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee have a strange encounter; to Mexico City, where William S. Burroughs shoots his wife in the head during a William Tell stunt gone horribly wrong; to Robert McNamara’s home, where he and some Washington, D.C., friends have a book club; to Vietnam, where a fake coup quickly becomes a real one; and, of course, to Dallas on the day the President was gunned down. Bowman (Let the Dog Drive) relates all of these remarkable tales with a straight-faced, just-the-facts approach, stripping these giants of the 20th century of their mythic status and rendering them as mere humans—caught, like everyone, in the crossfire of unrelenting history. Bowman’s self-described “nonfiction novel” is a stunning and singular achievement.
British documentarian Brabazon (My Friend the Mercenary: A Memoir) makes his fiction debut with an adrenaline-charged thriller. Soon after Max McLean, who has been an off-the-books assassin for the British government for more than two decades, decides not to kill his target in Caracas, Venezuela, he receives another assignment. He must travel to Karabunda, a jungle outpost in northern Sierra Leone, and kill the white leader of an insurgent force without backup or access to the usual intel. Max poses as a doctor to scout the remote area, only to discover that the military has closed off the entire region, claiming a cholera outbreak. He learns, though, that the dead have been savaged, some dismembered or eviscerated, with human bite marks left on the bodies. Later, in Freetown, he recovers a message left for him by a comrade-in-arms with a phrase in Irish that translates as “kill them all.” Brabazon’s inventive violence, mix of combat styles, and slowly revealed truths will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Curran (Sublime Disorders: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe) returns to the subject of Denis Diderot (1713–1784) in this marvelous account of the philosophe’s life and work. But this is much more than a biography, as Curran renders in vivid detail the social and intellectual life of 18th-century France. Curran discusses Diderot’s education by the Jesuits and initial intention of becoming a priest, the publication of his first influential text, Pensées philosophiques, his resulting imprisonment (which Curran sees as a formative experience), and his decades-long labor on his masterpiece, the Encyclopédie. This last is typical of Curran’s thorough approach: readers learn about the financial and political aspects of publishing such an expansive work (such as its printer’s prized status as one of six designated “printers of the king”); its proto-hypertext cross-referencing tool, the “System of Human Knowledge,” often deployed satirically, such as by connecting “cannibalism” and “communion”; and its political impact, which included a diplomatic incident between France and Switzerland. Equally fascinating are Curran’s summaries of Diderot’s remarkable contributions as art critic, playwright, and sexologist, the last represented by his outlandish novel Les bijoux indiscrets, which features talking vaginas. Readers will be left with a new appreciation for Diderot, of his wide-ranging thought, and of his life as an expression of intense intellectual freedom.
Bestseller Dorsey’s superior 22nd crime novel featuring vigilante serial killer Serge Storms (after 2018’s The Pope of Palm Beach) takes Serge and his stoner pal, Coleman, to an area of Florida that Serge has dubbed the Retirement Coast, where they encounter several locals who have been ripped off by unscrupulous salesmen. Serge takes it upon himself to get the victims their money back, while satisfying his own bloodlust by disposing of the con men with creative Rube Goldbergian devices. Meanwhile, Benmont Pinch, an employee of Life-Armor, a security company that both protects and invades privacy through its collection and use of personal data, is troubled by a disturbing pattern in a client’s request for a list of “adjoining Social Security entries with the same birthday” for people who are not twins. That pattern may connect with a series of murders of retirees, and whatever it is that panics high-ups at FBI headquarters in a cryptic prologue. Dorsey ties the two plot lines together logically, offering another successful blend of the funny and the fiendish.
Hall (Introducing the Ancient Greeks), a professor of classics specializing in ancient Greek literature at King’s College, delivers an expansive, practical assessment of Aristotle intended to help readers navigate life. “Wherever you are in life,” Hall writes, “Aristotle’s ideas can make you happier.” Concerns such as living up to one’s potential, making important decisions, and assessing another person’s intentions as factors in moral responsibility are Hall’s main concerns. Aristotle was the first philosopher, in Hall’s estimation, to question the traditional notion of happiness as being synonymous with good health, loving family, and freedom from poverty or destitution. Instead, he wondered whether happiness is an internal state that cannot be measured empirically. With reference to modern neuroscience and physiology, Hall applies Aristotle’s core ideas to an array of modern situations. She handles weighty, difficult topics such as depression and everyday tasks such as preparing for an important meeting or job interview with the same measured, clear prose. General readers might struggle with Hall’s level of philosophical discourse; however, for academics or the philosophically inclined, her book is an engaging, thrilling approach to Aristotle’s pragmatic thought. It is a useful introduction to the ideas of one of the most important philosophers in world history.
Kamal (An Isolated Incident) masterfully transports Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice from Regency England to modern-day Pakistan in this excellent retelling. Alys Binat, 30, and her sister, Jena, 32, are teachers at the British School of Dilipabad and are considered spinsters by the standards of their community and their obsessively matchmaking mother, who still grieves the loss of the Binats’ wealthy lifestyle years ago after they were bilked by a family member. Upon receiving invitations to the wedding of a family friend, Mrs. Binat turns her considerable talents to preparing her five daughters to land rich husbands to secure their family’s future. Enter the handsome, genial Fahad “Bungles” Bengla, who is instantly taken with Jena, and his best friend, the intense Valentine Darsee, who wastes little time offending Alys’s pride and earning her scorn. What ensues is a funny, sometimes romantic, often thought-provoking glimpse into Pakistani culture, one which adroitly illustrates the double standards women face when navigating sex, love, and marriage. This is a must-read for devout Austenites.
Korneliussen’s captivating debut centers around five young people over the course of a party and its aftermath in Nuuk, Greenland, as they come to terms, in various ways, with their identities. Told in bouncy, colloquial prose (“My hair is still partying,” a woman thinks to herself as she looks in the mirror after a night of heavy drinking), the novel honestly explores sexuality and gender identity, and the ways in which they can cause distance and connection with others. Ivik can’t figure out why she panics whenever her girlfriend touches her, while Inuk is unable to cope with his anger at his native country, from which he fled—though he’s actually mad at Arnaq for revealing his scandalous secret. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Fia finds herself drawn to Ivik’s girlfriend, Sara,who herself struggles to remain hopeful when “life is shit.” The deeper issues beneath these stories bring about revelations both touching and heartbreaking. What’s so unexpected and lovely is the narrative’s irrepressible optimism and earnestness. Translated seamlessly into idiomatic English, Korneliussen’s wonderful novel introduces readers to a notable new voice in world literature.
Featuring selections from five books augmented by 20 new poems, this generous volume from Laux (The Book of Men) reads something like a life story: notably, one that begins with familial fear, incest, and abuse. Travelling through confusion, adult sex, motherhood, love, fatigue, and redemption, Laux ends where she begins: with her mother, who is, to the last, a troublesome nurse. In spite of everything, the poet can’t help but celebrate the self’s mistakes and triumphs. When Laux welcomes readers into a personal moment, she speaks for humankind: “We’ve forgotten the luxury of dumbness,/ how once we crouched naked on an outcrop/ of rock, the moon huge and untouched/ above us, speechless.” Concrete places abound: bedroom, trailer, hospital psychiatric ward, a porch. There is a lot of sex; for example, “Vacation Sex,” an aroused version of a travel tour, revels in its own obsessive pleasure. Some of the best poems here appear toward the chronologically organized collection’s end, where humor arrives despite a mother’s growing dementia. And in the long biographical poem “Arizona,” Laux writes lovingly of that same mother’s face as “a map of every place she’d been.” This is a catalogue of honest work, from beginning to end.
In this highly original novel by Lee (the Machineries of Empire series for adults), 13-year-old Min must venture to the stars of the Thousand Worlds in order to find her older brother, Jun, who is suspected of deserting the Space Forces to search for the legendary Dragon Pearl. Min’s quick wits and technical prowess come in handy, but it’s her abilities as one of the fox people to shape-shift and charm others that prove vital after she leaves her home planet of Jinju aboard the freighter Red Azalea. When her brother’s former ship rescues the vessel from mercenaries, she poses as slain cadet Bae Jang, promising his ghost that she will avenge his death in exchange for impersonating him on the ship. Disguised as the dead cadet, Min is able to continue both quests, enlisting the aid of two of Bae’s friends—female dragon Haneul and nonbinary goblin Sujin—all the while avoiding the scrutiny of Captain Hwan as the ship heads to the Ghost Sector, the probable location of the Dragon Pearl. Lee offers a perfect balance of space opera and Korean mythology with enough complexity to appeal to teens. Ages 8–12.
Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) pillories the mindfulness movement in this acerbic and surprisingly moving novel of a hesitant guru and his self-involved inner circle. Failed comic Hark Morner writes a book and launches an unexpected craze for “mental archery,” a practice combining disconnected ramblings of invented history, opaque aphorisms, and yogalike poses. Among his devoted inner circle are Kate, an aimless and wealthy 20-something who finances the movement; Teal, a convicted embezzler and unlicensed marriage therapist; and Fraz, a middle-aged man disappointed by his career stagnation and tense marriage. Hark rejects their schemes to monetize his teachings and offers only oblique answers to questions, saying that the only point is to focus. Facing pressures from tech magnate Dieter Delgado, who wants to co-opt mental archery, Hark retreats to the Upstate New York home of true believer Meg. When Fraz accidentally injures his young daughter, he pleads for Hark to call for a worldwide focus to help her survive a coma, leading to a wild conclusion an unexpected denouement. This is a searing exploration of desperate hopes, and Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.
In this reimagining of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a young woman ostracized for the facial scars she received from a wolf attack finds new purpose when she bargains with that same wolf to save her father. Echo Alkaev must spend one year with the wolf in his mysterious “house under the mountain,” whose myriad rooms, packed with wonders and terrors, shift at random and require constant maintenance lest they vanish. Following the tale’s tradition, Echo grows close to the wolf over the course of the year; less predictably, she finds friends, such as lovely princess Mokosh and the charming Hal, while delving into the stories contained within the library’s enchanted mirrors. But in her efforts to save the wolf from falling prey to the sorceress who cursed him, Echo discovers complicated depths to their shared history and the beast’s enchantment. Meyer (Beneath the Haunting Sea) refreshes the familiar framework with additional fairy tale elements—“Cupid and Psyche,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Tam Lin” among them—producing a compelling, satisfying romantic adventure with metafictional undertones. Ages 14–up.
In this fascinating memoir, Shapiro (Hourglass) writes of how she questioned her identity when a DNA test revealed that she was not, as she believed she was, 100% Jewish. Shapiro grew up in an Orthodox family in suburban New Jersey; blonde-haired and blue-eyed, she often felt out of place in a family of dark-haired Ashkenazi Jews, yet she had shrugged off the physical differences. But when she got the DNA test results, the then-54-year-old began researching her family history, and within months she unraveled a narrative leading back to the 1960s and the early days of artificial insemination. Her own parents had died, but now, with the support of her husband and son, she discovered her biological father, a doctor from Portland. Shapiro realized that her childhood, her ancestral lineage, and the foundation of her world were based on deception. “What potent combination of lawlessness, secrecy, desire, shame, greed, and confusion had led to my conception?” Shapiro writes. With thoughtful candor, she explores the ethical questions surrounding sperm donation, the consequences of DNA testing, and the emotional impact of having an uprooted religious and ethnic identity. This beautifully written, thought-provoking genealogical mystery will captivate readers from the very first pages.
Ullmann’s spellbinding novel (after The Cold Song) is a fragmentary portrait of a place and time, and a testament to the legacies of those she mourns. Blending memoir and literary fiction, this book presents revelatory, frank depictions of the author’s relationship to her father, legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, and of his relationship to the author’s mother, Liv Ullmann, an actress and filmmaker often considered to be his greatest inspiration. Based originally on a brief series of taped conversations between Ullmann and her father just before his death, Ullmann confronts the nature of growing old while subtly studying her own childhood and middle age through the lens of her father’s decline. She reminisces on her often idyllic and tumultuous youth, studying stacks of love letters between her parents, and considering the situations that must have brought the life of her family to where it is. Some of Ullmann’s best passages are about her charming, confounding mother: “Mamma’s rules for good parenting: 1. Children must drink milk. 2. Children must live near trees.” Echoing Duras’s The Lover in its blurring of the real and the imagined as well as in its obsessive attention to detail, this is a striking book about the enduring love between parents and children, and the fierce attachments that bind them even after death.
Vijay’s remarkable debut novel is an engrossing narrative of individual angst played out against political turmoil in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state in the late 2000s. Unmoored by her mother’s death, 24-year-old Shalini apathetically floats from job to job while receiving financial support from her affluent father. In an effort to find closure, Shalini leaves her native Bangalore to search for Bashir Ahmed, her mother’s only friend, who she hasn’t seen in years. Upon arriving in tumultuous Jammu, Shalini is taken in by a Muslim family in Kishtwar and struggles to understand the fractured nature of her surroundings: the role of the omnipresent Indian Army, the disappearances of local Muslims, and the frequent violence against and perpetrated by both Muslims and Hindus. Her search eventually leads to a Himalayan village, whose generous inhabitants temporarily give her a sense of purpose amidst staggering natural beauty. However, Shalini’s ignorance and inability to be honest with herself and others results in dangerous consequences for everyone she comes in contact with. Interspersed with flashbacks of Shalini’s relationships with her dazzling yet mentally ill mother, the mysterious but kind Bashir Ahmed, and her withdrawn father, Shalini’s misguided attempts at love, fulfillment, and friendship are poignant. Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.
Walker’s richly imaginative and quietly devastating second novel (after The Age of Miracles) begins in a college dorm in an isolated town in the hills of Southern California, where a freshman thinks she is coming down with the flu. In fact, she has a mysterious disease that causes its victims to fall into a deep, dream-laden sleep from which they cannot be woken, and which sometimes leads to death. The disease spreads slowly at first, then more rapidly, and soon the whole town is under a quarantine. The perspective moves smoothly in and out of the minds of several of the college students and town residents, drawing back to look at the entire situation from a detached but compassionate point of view and then plunging back into the minds of those attempting to deal with the escalating problems. Among the characters are Mei, a lonely college freshman; 12-year-old Sara, who copes with an unhinged survivalist father; Sara’s neighbors, a faculty couple with a newborn baby; and aging biology professor Nathaniel. As the majority of the people of the town fall victim to the disease, neuropsychiatrist Catherine Cohen, separated from her family by the quarantine, tries desperately to find its cause, until arson at a library that’s being used as a makeshift hospital has unintended results on the state of some of the dreamers. The relatively large number of central characters makes it likely that some will succumb to the disease, upping the suspense of the story. Walker jolts the narrative with surprising twists, ensuring it keeps its energy until the end. This is a skillful, complex, and thoroughly satisfying novel about a community in peril.