This week: new books from Laurie Halse Anderson, C.J. Box, and more.
In this powerful memoir told in free verse, Anderson delves into her past and that of her parents, sharing experiences at the root of novels such as Speak (her rape at the age of 13) and The Impossible Knife of Memory (her father’s PTSD after World War II). In language alternately raw and lyrical, she traces the years from her childhood to the start of her writing career, describing how the memory of her rape finally spurred her to write the truth and to become an activist against censorship and rape culture, which are both addressed in the book along with confusing social messages surrounding sexuality (“the rules they fed you/ were the wrong rules”). Exploring the impact of silence on truth (“I learned then that words/ had such power/ some must never be spoken”), she also portrays her parents’ marriage, her shifting relationships with them, and her closeness with her father after her mother’s death. In one especially contemplative poem entitled “how the story found me,” Anderson turns on its head the common refrain “follow your dreams,” recommending that readers “follow your nightmares instead/ cuz when you figure out what’s eating you alive/ you can slay it.” Her potent words and willingness to shout her message are proof of the soundness of that advice. Ages 12–up.
Bosnian writer Bakic’s debut teems with the oddball narratives of George Saunders, the eerie atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe, and the feminist intellect of Marge Piercy. Her characters all, in one form or another, use language to survive, to manipulate, or to shine. In “Day Trip to Durmitor,” a writer dies and goes to purgatory; she can’t leave until she composes her masterpiece. In “The Talus of Madame Liken,” a sociopathic murderer, so masterful at deceit, gets confronted by someone who knows her secret. “Buried Treasure” shows how children imbue an ordinary summer with mythical undercurrents, when a well digger becomes a monster they’d read about in a supernatural magazine. “Asja 5.0” features a writer named Asja, who lives in a world where people no longer have sex, writes porn for a man whose “hope was to be the first man to achieve an erection in god know how many years,” and also negotiates with one of four clones of herself. “The Underworld” takes place in a future where “one day, with no explanation, writing had been proclaimed the greatest evil to have befallen mankind, and all literary works and the people who’d produced them were banished to space—specifically, to Mars. Told in a straightforward manner that transports speculative fiction into almost realist territory, Bakic’s collection imaginatively and strikingly examines sci-fi tropes from not only the point of view of women, but also from the voice of an effortlessly gifted writer whose future is much brighter than that of those depicted in her stories.
When game warden Katelyn Hamm observes a herd of elk being stampeded by a drone in Edgar-winner Box’s excellent 19th novel starring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett (after 2018’s The Disappeared), she enlists Joe’s aid in tracking down the drone’s owner. It turns out to be Bill Hill, who lives with several bodyguards in an upscale compound. After Hill scoffs at being fined by Joe for tormenting the elk, Joe tries to research Hill online, only to find him devoid of any background history. Meanwhile, Joe’s old friend Nate Romanowski offers to take down the drone with his trained falcons, and Nate’s falcon attack on the drone leads to a pair of arrogant FBI agents warning first Hamm and then Joe not to hassle the drone owner again, on pain of prosecution. But when dead bodies begin turning up showing clear signs of torture, Joe realizes that his county has been infested with something far more dangerous than a drone: a team of professional killers, sent by a Colombian cartel to eliminate a witness. The action-packed final quarter of the book ranks among Joe and Nate’s best and bloodiest confrontations. Box is the king of contemporary crime fiction set in the West.
In a gripping book part scientific exploration, part Cold War thriller, Brown (Dispatches from Dystopia), a University of Maryland historian of environmental and nuclear history, investigates the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and reveals why ferreting out the truth about it is so difficult. The Soviet government assured the world that the meltdown’s repercussions weren’t severe, with only 54 plant staff and firefighters dead from acute radiation sickness, and minimal exposure of families, who’d been swiftly evacuated to safety. But behind that optimistic lie, there were secrets on all sides. The Soviet government didn’t want to reveal how much it actually knew about radiation effects, or how it had learned that information. The American government, meanwhile, refused to share information from its own medical study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims with the Soviets. As the crumbling Soviet Union fought to avoid blame, historians and scientists struggled to document data before it disappeared, and Chernobyl victims found their lives dropped into the hands of bureaucrats more interested in covering up the truth than in helping them. Brown’s in-depth research and clean, concise writing illuminate the reality behind decades of “half-truths and bald-faced lies.” Readers will be fascinated by this provocative history of a deadly accident and its consequences.
In this highly relevant work, Burns, who retired in 2014 as the deputy secretary of state, takes a fascinating look at his career and outlines ways in which American diplomacy can be strengthened. Since 1983 he has served in the Middle East, Russia, and Washington, D.C. Despite being a highly decorated member of the Foreign Service, Burns comes across as humble but forthcoming about American diplomacy’s successes and failures, including his own regrets, such as failing to implement “delayering” of decision-making bureaucracy within the department. His sketches of his colleagues and counterparts are often generous with praise, but also incisive; readers may be particularly interested in his take on Vladimir Putin (“the extreme embodiment of” the “Russian combination of qualities”: “cocky, cranky, aggrieved, and insecure,” but also “sober, ruthlessly competent, hardworking, and hard-faced”). He is particularly forthright in his condemnation of Donald Trump, describing his “erratic leadership” as leaving “America and its diplomats dangerously adrift.” The final section is a blueprint for a “post-Trump reinvention of diplomacy” that emphasizes tradecraft, negotiation, and “updating American priorities.” Burns’s work showcases an impressive combination of dedication, passion, and diligence, and persuasively demonstrates the “quiet power” that diplomacy can have in world affairs. This is not to be missed.
The lives of three neighboring families in Clearing, Ore., become inexorably entwined in Day’s captivating debut novel of parallel worlds. Dr. Ginny McDonnell, a surgeon, feels disconnected from her son, Noah, and her husband, Mark, a behavioral ecologist convinced that nearby Broken Mountain, a volcano, isn’t quite as dormant as many believe. Realtor Samara Mehta is still reeling from her mother’s death on the operating table and blames the surgeon, Ginny. Cass Stuart is taking a break from earning her PhD in metaphysics to care for her baby girl but longs to continue her research on the theory of everything and the possibility of a multiverse. Cass, Ginny, and Mark start to glimpse different versions of themselves and Samara of her mother, preceded by a bad taste and a trembling under their feet, while Broken Mountain awakens nearby. Often, Day seamlessly slips readers in and out of realities with little warning, and the scenes in which characters observe and, at times, interact with, their alternate realities are intimate, eerie, and startling, such as Mark’s encounters with the wild, disheveled man he dubs “Other Mark.” Effortlessly meshing the dreamlike and the realistic, Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.
Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) gives a sparkling and irresistible view of Italy in her eighth book, in which she and her husband explore the country from north to south. Mayes begins in Piedmont and ends in Catania, Sicily. Along the way she treats readers to “oh-pull-over” views, looks inside glorious churches, descriptions of innumerable meals (in Sardegna “the seafood fritto misto comes to us hot and crisp, and the grilled fish under a heap of chopped celery and tomatoes”), and recipes for the dishes they ate (e.g., gnocchi with wild hare from Friuli-Venezia Giulia). Mayes weaves into her narrative historical background (in mid-11th-century Puglia, Frederick II “built castle, mint, treasury and... brought twenty thousand Arab Muslims from Sicily” as troops) and practical travel tips, such as not checking luggage on planes and packing gold-colored sandals (they transform casual to dressy). Mayes has a wonderful eye for detail as she lyrically describes her surroundings, like a river that’s “a long skein in the moonlight, as though a woman has unfurled her silvery gray hair.” Travel, she explains, provides a chance to see life anew and helps form rich memories. Readers will want to take their time, savoring this poetic travelogue like a smooth wine.
Naqvi’s second novel (after Homeboy) is an uproariously funny, poignant family saga told by a glib septuagenarian contemplating life in his beloved city of Karachi. Once manager of his father’s Hotel Olympus, the philosophical Abdullah, nicknamed “Cossack” because he once outdrank a contingent of visiting Russians, now lives, overweight and diabetic, in the upstairs quarters of a crumbling family house shared with his brother Babu’s family. Beloved uncle of the “Childoos” downstairs, and fancying himself a phenomenologist, Abdullah is nevertheless seen by the majority of his relatives as profligate and irresponsible. Things go treacherously haywire after he’s rescued from thugs in the street by a mysterious lady named Jugnu, and his old friend, a jazz musician dubbed “the Caliph of Cool,” asks him to act as guardian for his grandson Bosco. It so happens that both Jugnu and Bosco’s family are in danger from the Karachi mob. As threats mount, including from Abdullah’s own family, who are pressuring him to give up the title deed to the house so they can sell it, the nostalgic, courageous Abdullah comes up with a scheme to save everyone. Touching on the metaphysical, the moral, and the absurd, this bawdy epic is a fresh-voiced testament to place, family, and the importance of loyalty.
In this sprawling, beautiful novel from Owuor (Dust), a real-life occurrence of a Kenyan woman travelling to China after learning of her Chinese heritage forms the backdrop for a moving story of loss and discovery. In 1992, on Pate Island, a small island off the coast of Kenya, six-year-old Ayaana spends her days scanning the seas for boats and the return of a father she never knew. One day, a “sun-blackened, salt-water-seared, bug-eyed and brawny” sailor appears and Ayaana chooses him for a father, much to his surprise—and to the chagrin of her mother. Then, years later, when cultural emissaries from China arrive at Pate, 20-year-old Ayaana discovers she is a descendent of one of the members abroad the ship of 14th-century mariner Admiral Zhang He, whose seafaring expeditions brought him to Africa, and agrees to set sail for China to be united with distant relatives. Once there, she serves as living justification for a commercial Chinese stake in an increasingly globalized Africa: “Cohabiting with shadows—here was the weight of a culture with a hulking history now preparing itself to digest her continent.” Attracting attention wherever she goes, Ayaana struggles to assimilate to Chinese culture and is as drawn to the sea as ever. Brilliantly capturing Ayaana’s sense of loss of her home and her family, as well as her hope for the future, Owuor’s mesmerizing prose lays bare the swirling global currents that Ayaana is trapped within. With a rollicking narrative and exceptional writing, this epic establishes Owuor as a considerable talent.
A heart transplant means that Australian high schooler Marlowe is healthy for the first time in years, but she’s still the shy member of a family—with her vegan activist mother and costume-wearing little brother—that likes attention. Still, it’s hard to stay under the radar once she’s back in school, trying to make friends and deal with bullies, and gets caught up in an intense prank war with the adorable guy who works at the butcher’s next door to her mother’s vegan store. Could it be that she isn’t so shy after all? That being healthy means she needs to find out who she really is? Convinced that meeting her donor’s family will answer these questions, Marlowe barrels on despite their refusals, eventually getting caught in an elaborate lie and hurting the people she cares about most. Funny and direct, this book by Plozza (Frankie) is capable of balancing heartbreak, first love, mortality, and the absurd—or, as Marlowe puts it, “that moment when you’re standing in front of Bert’s Quality Butchers holding a speaker blasting ‘Meat Is Murder.’ ” Ages 14–up.
Twelve-year-old Shay’s palms itch when she senses trouble coming, and this year, they seem to be itching more than ever. She and her elementary school besties had dubbed themselves “the United Nations”—Isabella is Puerto Rican, Julia is Japanese-American, and Shay is African-American—but everyone begins moving in different directions as junior high begins. Julia is hanging out more with the Asian girls from her basketball team, and Isabella attracts Shay’s crush when she gets her braces off, leaving Shay jealous. In addition, Shay’s sister, Hana, critiques her for not having black friends, something that Shay isn’t sure matters. Meanwhile, in their city of Los Angeles, tensions are high over the trial of a police officer who shot an unarmed black man. When the officer is set free, and Shay goes with her family to a silent protest, she starts to see that some trouble is worth making. Ramée effectively portrays the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the difficulty of navigating complex social situations while conveying universal middle school questions about friendship, first crushes, and identity. Shay’s journey is an authentic and engaging political and personal awakening. Ages 8–12.
Lawyer Robertson debuts with the definitive account to date of one of America’s most notorious and enduring murder mysteries. In August 1892, the bodies of Lizzie Borden’s father, Andrew, and her stepmother, Abby, were found hacked to death in their home in Fall River, Mass. As the murders were committed during daylight, when the house was occupied by Lizzie, who lived there along with her sister, she became an obvious person of interest. Strong circumstantial evidence showing that Lizzie alone had the opportunity to commit the crimes—along with testimony that she’d attempted to buy prussic acid the day before and that she’d burned a dress after the killings—led to her arrest. The absence of a clear motive, any prior history of violence, and the difficulty many had in viewing the respectable churchgoing Lizzie as a savage killer proved obstacles to widespread acceptance of the prosecution’s case, and Lizzie was acquitted after a trial. Robertson methodically rebuts the numerous theories advanced at the time and since, some of which pointed to other members of the household. The end result is a superior, page-turning true crime narrative that will leave most readers believing that the jury got it wrong.
This fantastic kitchen-sink anthology, introduced by Reading Rainbow star LeVar Burton, features 17 stories from all over the world—a variety of Indian, African-American, Native American, and Asian cultures are all represented—and of every sort of speculative genre. Tobias Buckell’s “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” is firmly in science fiction territory, while Anil Menon’s “The Robots of Eden” gives a glimpse of a Black Mirror–esque future from an Indian perspective. Andrea Hairston’s “Dumb House” is an unexpected yet glorious mix of speculative fiction and old Southern rootwork. Steven Barnes’s “Come Home to Atropos” describes a curious future through an advertisement. “The Fine Print” by Chinelo Onwualu tells the classic tale of a Faustian deal from an African perspective. Readers who appreciate stories from the depths will enjoy Jaymee Goh’s “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea,” and those who prefer their monsters to be earthbound will find Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Harvest” exquisite. This book’s wide range of stories is its greatest strength; though no reader will love them all, every reader will find something worth rereading. This anthology will appeal most to readers of multiple genres interested in exploring the world’s various cultures, and is well suited to library collections.
In this artfully written book, Thompson (Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All) ably elucidates changing understandings of the ancient Polynesian migrations. This story, she tells readers, “is not so much [about] what happened as a story about how we know.” Since “we” here refers to Westerners, the narrative begins not with the prehistoric Polynesians but with Europeans’ first journeys into the Pacific, most notably those of Capt. James Cook, the first European to recognize that the distantly dispersed islands he visited were all populated by related peoples. Thompson looks at the contributions to knowledge of the migrations of Polynesian oral tradition (first shared with Cook by Tahitian “man of knowledge” Tupaia, a master of various fields including navigation, medicine, and genealogy), ethnographers (including Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa), linguists, archaeologists, mathematicians, and latter-day experimental voyagers who recreated Polynesian sea journeys (including Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society; no relation to the author). Thompson does not hesitate to point out erroneous thinking, such as Thor Heyerdahl’s unfounded claims that Polynesians migrated westward from South America. Along the way, she writes with infectious awe and appreciation about Polynesian culture and with sharp intelligence about the blind spots of those investigating it at different times. This fascinating work could prove to be the standard on the subject for some time to come.