This week: new books from Kameron Hurley, Preet Bharara, and more.
A crafty plot and a nuanced look at gentrified Boston lifts Abramowitz’s impressive second mystery featuring bike messenger and would-be stand-up comic Zesty Meyers (after 2017’s Bosstown). Zesty has a mixed record with law enforcement, having taken the Fifth when he was called before a federal grand jury to testify against a crook accused of tax evasion, but he remains on good terms with homicide detective Batista Wells, who was involved in the case. One night, Batista walks into Nick’s Comedy Stop, where Zesty is performing, with Anitra Tehran, a Boston Globe investigative reporter. At the end of the show, someone throws a Molotov cocktail at Anitra, who escapes largely unscathed. The question remains which of her recent stories, including an exposé of gang infiltration of a touted midnight basketball league and a deep dig into real estate bought by Eastern Europeans to launder money, triggered the attempted hit. Robert B. Parker fans will appreciate Abramowitz’s depiction of the darker corners of Beantown.
Ahmed (Love, Hate & Other Filters) sets her chilling novel in the very near future: two-and-a-half years after an election that brought about a Muslim ban, Exclusion laws, and the internment of Muslims in a disturbing echo of the Japanese internments of the 1940s. Layla Amin, the rebellious 17-year-old Muslim narrator, is enraged by the changes that her small liberal California community accepts: curfews, book burnings, required viewing of the U.S. president’s weekly National Security Address. On a personal level, she was suspended from school for kissing her non-Muslim boyfriend in public, and her poet-professor father has lost his job. Still, her family’s abrupt nighttime “relocation” to a camp—during which each arrival is branded with ultraviolet identification encoding—is a shock. While her parents shrink into compliance, Layla quickly makes friends and allies who band together to bring public attention to internees’ treatment, close down the camps, and put an end to the country’s fascism and Islamophobia. Ahmed keeps the tension mounting as Layla faces increasingly violent consequences for her actions; the teenagers’ relationships are depicted authentically, and their strength and resistance are inspiring. An unsettling and important book for our times. Ages 12–up.
In this fascinating combination of memoir and ethical-legal manifesto, former U.S. attorney Bharara posits that "the model of the American trial has something to teach us... about debate and disagreement and truth and justice." He leads readers through the work of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, in sections dedicated to inquiry (asking questions, conducting fair interrogations), accusation (choosing if and when to levy charges), judgment (trials, verdicts), and punishment (sentencing, prison reform). His prose has the quality of a well-written speech, with philosophical pronouncements ("Doing justice sometimes requires... a spark of creativity or innovation") followed by supporting tales from both his legal career and his personal life, recounted in a superbly accessible and conversational, even humorous, tone (at one point contrasting media depictions of justice with "the real world... where testosterone doesn't flow like a river in the streets"). Bharara also reminds readers that, while the law is an incredible tool, it is people who create or corrupt justice. With its approachable human moments, tragic and triumphant cases, heroic investigators, and depictions of hardworking everyday people, this book is a rare thing: a page-turning work of practical moral philosophy.
Carty-Williams’s smart, fearless debut follows Queenie Jenkins, a Jamaican-British woman, after her longtime white boyfriend, Tom, asks for a “break.” Queenie’s impulsive behavior (promiscuity; distancing herself from friends) begins to unearth memories of childhood abuse, causing her to make more bad choices in an effort to alleviate her pain. When her career as a newspaper reporter begins to suffer and she’s issued her final warning before being fired, she decides to confront her demons head on. To emerge from her crisis, Queenie begins psychotherapy, much to the consternation of her grandmother, who sees Queenie’s mental health issues as a weakness she need only be strong to overcome. The result is a novel that stares directly into the pitfalls of being black in white spaces and (through flashbacks with Tom) the challenges of interracial relationships. Carty-Williams doesn’t shy from the messiness of sexual relationships, racial justice issues such as police brutality, or Queenie’s promiscuity, and the narrative is all the more effective for its boldness. This is an essential depiction of life as a black woman in the modern world, told in a way that makes Queenie dynamic and memorable.
In her powerful debut memoir, Cregan, a Barnard College English literature lecturer, reflects upon a lifetime of struggle with clinical depression. In 1984, Cregan, then 27, gave birth to a daughter who died within days due to a heart defect. She plummeted into despair, ending up in a psychiatric hospital, where she attempted suicide by slicing her neck with a shard of glass. The experiences took a toll on Cregan’s marriage, and five years after her baby’s death, she and her husband divorced. Cregan eventually realized that her depression had begun much earlier—possibly in adolescence—and was exacerbated by an Irish Catholic upbringing and religious beliefs based on shame and guilt. She weaves into her narrative the history of medical treatment for mental disorders: in her own case this involved electric shock therapy, various medications (Prozac and Lexapro among them), and psychotherapy. In explaining how her illness has “shaped her history,” Cregan uses medical records from her months in the hospital, as well as research on mental illness as she examines the difficult path that led her from hopelessness to wellness, a new marriage, and eventual motherhood. Cregan writes lucidly of her illness and offers hope as well as valuable insights for those living with depression.
Ignatz-winning cartoonist Deforge (Big Kids) succeeds in creating a weird, witty epic in this, the longest and yet most accessible of his graphic novels. Set in a Toronto where humans and animals (and other creatures, such as a heart shape with legs) have learned to communicate, Deforge follows the odyssey of four animals banished from the valley commune of titular cult leader Richard as they travel to the big city and back again. DeForge’s simple, curved figures are the foundation for a rambling narrative revolving around the lives of over two dozen characters. Reminiscent of other funny satirical animal comics such as Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Jon Lewis’s True Swamp, DeForge’s work pokes fun at celebrity culture, nihilistic musical movements, the arbitrary quality of utopian cults of personality, unfettered capitalism, and gentrification. It’s also about symbiotic relationships, what people owe to one another, the problematic qualities of love, and how various ethical systems play out. DeForge experiments with narrative and visual approaches, using the constraint of a four-panel grid. The art varies from stick figures to photorealism, and the story employs elements such as musical theater, documentary, and body horror. Incorporating the idiosyncratic visual elements and themes that have made DeForge an underground rising star, this fluid, funny narrative is poised to break out to a wider readership.
Literary biographer Gordon (Lives Like Loaded Guns) brilliantly ties together the biographies of five women writers who bravely embraced outsider status and “summoned the will to explore oddity in ways that speak to us about our unseen selves.” Gordon assigns each woman a primary role: Emily Brontë (visionary), George Eliot (outlaw), Mary Shelley (prodigy), Olive Schreiner (orator), and Virginia Woolf (explorer). Painstakingly examining her subjects’ diaries, letters, speeches, and novels, as well as their lives and times, Gordon draws close connections between them. All of them were passionate readers—Shelley, Eliot, and Woolf being particularly drawn to classical learning, which “epitomized the education closed to women”—and all five lost their mothers very early in life. Gordon also draws intriguing connections between individual figures, noting that Shelley and Eliot both scandalized sexual mores with their affairs with married men, and that Woolf and Schreiner both defied the political establishment by campaigning as pacifists during times of war. By addressing an almost inconceivably wide range of themes through the book’s conceit—health, mores, politics, pregnancy, economics, sex, sexism, secrets, and silence—Gordon seduces readers interested in all that these fascinating women had to offer.
Griffith (Invisible Ink) crafts an affectionate graphic biography of Schlitzie Surtees (possibly born Simon Metz, though this is uncertain), the real-life inspiration for Griffith’s long-running Zippy The Pinhead strip. Set in American carnivals, Griffith’s story depicts the history of freak show culture as well as an outline of Schlitzie’s life (1901–1971) out on the circuit based on interviews and other source material, starting with the painful scene of him leaving his mother. Schlitzie, billed as everything from “Tik Tak the Aztec Girl” to “Julius, the Missing Link,” would be ogled at by the audience for his deformities, prompted with simple questions by a carnival barker, and sometimes become furious when taunted. Unlike most of the adult performers in his shows (such as the “bearded lady”), he was mentally low-functioning, which required a variety of nurses, parent figures, and handlers to take care of him. Griffith details Schlitzie’s involvement in the cult-classic film Freaks, which inspired Griffith to create the philosophical Zippy character. With dense cross-hatching and lively, expressive character design, Griffith’s art straddles the line between absurdity and realism. Griffith gets at the central paradox at the heart of freak shows: while exploitative and demeaning, the shows created a loving, tight-knit community. The performers close to Schlitzie were fiercely protective and loving toward him. Much like in Freaks, the revelation found in this illuminating work is that the true monsters are the “normal” people who line up to laugh at or abuse Schlitzie.
Hugo winner Hurley’s second futuristic novel (after The Stars Are Legion) is a smart, brutal, and structurally sophisticated military science fiction tale with a time travel twist. Infantry recruit Dietz is a “ghoul,” someone who’s denied access to basic social benefits provided by the squabbling megacorporations that dominate the solar system. After Martian separatists destroy her city, she enlists as a corporate military grunt. Dietz is broken down into light particles and beamed into combat zone after combat zone. But unlike her squadmates, she begins experiencing her combat drops—and the entire war—out of order. Hurley’s time travel mechanics are intricate but never alienating, and they perfectly serve this story of “poor ageless grunts” caught in war’s unending loop. Much of the drama comes from Dietz’s growing disillusionment with the war, and her heartbreaking camaraderie with squadmates whose deaths she has already experienced. Like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this book is both a gripping story of future warfare and an incisive antiwar fable. Readers will savor this striking novel’s ambitious structure and critique of rapacious, militarized capitalism.
This provocative, experimental novel from Hustvedt (The Blazing World) joins several narratives to illustrate the roles of memory and perspective in making sense of a life. A version of the author, called S.H. and nicknamed Minnesota by her friends for her state of origin, stumbles through her first year in New York, which begins in August, 1978. Having saved up her money and postponed graduate school, she has given herself a year to write a novel in a “grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building.” Passages from that dryly humorous, meandering novel, which follows a misfit pair of teenage detectives, are interspersed with the memories of the now 61-year-old narrator, selections from her journals in 1978 and ’79, and slices of the life of “proto-punk” Dada poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who serves as a sort of muse. Dominating S.H.’s memories of her year in New York is her fascination with the disturbed older woman in the next apartment, Lucy Brite, to whose rants she listens regularly with a stethoscope pressed to the wall, and for whom she becomes an unexpected savior when Lucy is assaulted. The many moods and flavors of this brash “portrait of the artist as a young woman” constantly reframe and complicate the story, making for a fascinating shape-shifter of a novel.
In this often wrenching story about Manuel, a 12-year-old boy from Oaxaca, Mexico, the authors convey what motivates him to leave his poverty-stricken life to ride “the Beast” (a train heading to the U.S. border) and the hardships he faces during the journey and upon arrival. Told in short, action-packed chapters and in Manuel’s distinctive first-person, present-tense voice, the compact tale covers long miles and several years. The brutal narration details constant movement and determined forward motion, despite daunting setbacks: “Here I am on this terror train thundering to The North. I am hungry. I am thirsty. I am tired.... Though crushed against many other people, I am lonely to the bone.” Manuel encounters dishonesty, theft, cruelty, gang brutality, and mercenaries, as well as kind strangers, healers, protectors, and friends. Upon his reunion in Los Angeles with his beloved brother, Manuel’s traumatic experiences haunt and hinder his ability to adapt to his new home. Johnston (Bone by Bone by Bone) and de Rhoads (a psychotherapist and debut author) offer a sympathetic, illuminating portrait of the challenges faced by one undocumented immigrant. Ages 12–up.
Oller (The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution), a retired partner from the New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, makes the history of such firms surprisingly fascinating in this nuanced look at how their formation and development during the Progressive Era (1890–1916) “led to the creation of a new organizational society” in the United States. Relying on a variety of sources, including oral histories, judicial decisions, and congressional hearings, Oller traces the origins of the “white shoe” law firm back to the 1890s, when law firms shifted from employing clerks with no legal training to hiring skilled graduates from the nation’s top law schools. With the increase in the number, complexity, and size of corporations, lawyers were needed less as courtroom advocates than as practical businessmen able to negotiate disputes with rivals or the government. Oller shows how lawyers’ influence extended well beyond corporate boardrooms; the book’s most interesting section delineates the pivotal role that attorney William Cromwell played in the building of the Panama Canal, which may have included inciting Panama’s revolt against Colombia. Oller doesn’t shy away from detailing early corporate lawyers’ role as tools of monopolistic robber barons, or the endemic prejudice against Jewish lawyers. That balance makes this a valuable addition to the literature on America’s transformation during the Gilded Age.
This beautiful, complex debut collection assembles some of Nebula winner Pinsker’s best stories into a twisting journey that is by turns wild, melancholic, and unsettling. In the opening story, an injured farmer adjusts to living with a cybernetic arm that thinks it is a stretch of road in Colorado. “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” tells the story of a woman piecing together her husband’s enigmatic past after a stroke leaves him speechless. “No Lonely Seafarer” pits a stablehand against a pair of sirens as he attempts to save his town from its restless sailors. In all of Pinsker’s tales, humans grapple with their relationships to technology, the supernatural, and one another. Some, such as Ms. Clay in “Wind Will Rove,” are trying to navigate the space between technology as preservation and technology as destruction. Others, such as Kima in “Remembery Day,” rely on technology to live their lives. The stories are enhanced by a diverse cast of LGBTQ and nonwhite characters. Pinsker’s captivating compendium reveals stories that are as delightful and surprising to pore through as they are introspective and elegiac.
In undertaking an epic trek from the Pacific Northwest to the Alaskan Arctic, Van Hemert, a wildlife biologist, and her husband encountered both the grandeur and danger of some of the planet’s wildest locations. She vividly renders the experience, including being stalked by a black bear in the Brooks Range, initially visible only as “deep-set eyes, a pointed nose, and cinnamon-colored fur”; fighting the elements in a homemade rowboat off Vancouver Island; capsizing a raft in the Arctic Ocean; and coming under relentless attack for days by thousands of mosquitos in the Mackenzie Delta. Similarly, descriptions of witnessing a huge herd of caribou crossing Alaska’s Noatak River and of being followed in the Arctic Ocean by two huge moose, “large, brown noses stirring the surface of the water as they stare blankly ahead,” capture the magnificence of untamed nature. Van Hemert proves equally adept at exploring the inner dialogue that accompanied the harrowing physical feats, touching on love and loss, new parenthood, and the struggle to combine her passions for scientific inquiry and adventure. She leaves nature lovers with a story—of adventure, of environmental awareness, and of personal discovery—worth savoring.
Washington debuts with a stellar collection in which he turns his gaze onto Houston, mapping the sprawl of both the city and the relationships within it, especially those between young black and brown boys. About half of the stories share a narrator, whose transition into manhood is complicated by an adulterous and absent father, a hypermasculine brother, a sister who leaves their neighborhood the first chance she gets, and a mother who learns that she and her restaurant may no longer be welcome in a gentrifying Houston. All this is on top of his grappling with the revelation that he might be attracted to men. Washington is exact and empathetic, and the character that emerges is refreshingly unapologetic about his sexuality, even as it creates rifts in his family. In general, there is a vein of queerness in these stories that runs deep and rich. Washington excels when he gets playful with his narration, like the Greek chorus of “Alief,” in which the residents of an apartment complex acknowledge their role in an affair and its disastrous ending. And in the best stories, such as “South Congress,” “Waugh,” and “Elgin,” Washington captures the dual severity and tenderness of the world for young people. Washington is a dynamic writer with a sharp eye for character, voice, and setting. This is a remarkable collection from a writer to watch.