This week: has the human game begun to play itself out?

The Line Tender

Kate Allen. Dutton, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7352-3160-3

In Rockport, Mass., budding artist and narrator Lucy, 12, does everything with her best friend Fred, a keen scientist, including writing an extra credit field guide to local wildlife (he researches, she illustrates). When family friend and fisherman Sookie accidentally catches a great white shark, TV stations broadcast old footage of Lucy’s marine biologist mother, a shark expert who died suddenly when Lucy was seven, dredging up old feelings for the girl. Romantic tension begins to crackle between Lucy and Fred, but a tragic swimming accident at the local quarry plunges the entire town into grief, and Lucy and her depressed detective father must recover once again. Firmly rooted with a strong sense of place and sketched with powerful sensory details, the narrative offers a colorful multigenerational cast that comes together to help Lucy learn more about her mother’s work and begin to heal her own heart. Allen tackles the complexities of grief with subtly wry humor and insight in this richly layered middle grade debut about the power of science and love. Ages 10–up.

Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

Colin Asher. Norton, $39.95 (544p) ISBN 978-0-393-24451-9

Aiming to place Nelson Algren in the literary canon, Asher, a literature instructor at CUNY, offers a thorough, admiring, and, most likely, definitive biography. Asher attributes this once-acclaimed author’s truncated career to a decades-long FBI investigation into his Communist Party ties and to changing literary fashions that overshadowed Algren’s achievements—foremost among them, alchemizing his observations of the mid-20th-century Chicago underclass into masterful novels such as the National Book Award–winning The Man with the Golden Arm. With vigorous, poetic detail, Asher reconstructs Algren’s formative experiences of poverty during the Depression and Army service during WWII, his burst of fame during the Cold War and subsequent struggles, and his twilight years as a mentor to writers such as Don DeLillo. Along with examining important relationships in Algren’s life, including his troubled marriages, friendship with Richard Wright, and long affair with Simone de Beauvoir, Asher reads Algren’s work carefully and well, from his early short stories to his last project, a biography of boxer Rubin Carter. Asher relies on the primary material assembled by previous biographers, filling in the blanks with a nearly unredacted version of Algren’s FBI file. The result is a generous, stylish portrait of an impulsive, directionless outsider who nonetheless established a place among the lions of mid-20th century American literature.

The Next Great Paulie Fink

Ali Benjamin. Little, Brown, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-316-38088-1

A wildly imaginative but never mean-spirited prankster, Paulie Fink was the life of Mitchell School. When he doesn’t appear on the first day of seventh grade, his classmates (called the “Originals,” since they are the school’s inaugural class) are bereft and largely ignore new-girl Caitlyn. Missing her old friends, play-by-the-rules Caitlyn scoffs at her classmates’ eccentricities and those of the easygoing school, located in an old Vermont mansion whose lawn boasts dilapidated statues of gods and where goats trim the overgrown soccer field. To “pull Paulie back to us,” the Originals stage a reality TV–style competition to “find someone to play the role of Paulie. Someone whose official job it is to make school... memorable,” and they recruit Caitlyn to concoct challenges that reflect Paulie’s spirit. Benjamin (The Thing About Jellyfish) adroitly fleshes out her witty premise—and Paulie’s charismatic personality—through Caitlyn’s narration, interviews with Originals and administrators, and reflections on the ancient Greek beliefs taught in class. Genuinely original, the novel offers thoughtful perspectives on friendship, accepting change, and the many rewarding guises of storytelling, as well as a fully gratifying ending that the characters don’t see coming. Ages 8–12.

Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells

Pico Iyer. Knopf, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-451-49393-4

Aging, death, and family fracturing are seen through the lens of Japanese culture in this luminous memoir. Iyer (The Lady and the Monk), a British-Indian-American novelist and Time journalist who lives in Japan with his Japanese wife, Hiroko, recounts their efforts to cope with her father’s death, her mother’s entry into a nursing home, and her estrangement from her brother. He revisits Hiroko’s family stories, explores Japan’s mourning rituals as she tends relatives’ graves and offers cups of tea to her father’s spirit, and probes the feelings of guilt and betrayal—especially when her mother wants to live in their home—that rites can’t assuage. Iyer weaves in sharp observations of a graying Japan, particularly of the vigorous but gradually faltering oldsters in his ping-pong club, and visits to the Dalai Lama, a family friend, who dispenses brisk wisdom on life’s impermanence (“Only body gone,” the Dalai Lama says reflecting on death. “Spirit still there”). The book is partly a love letter to the vibrant Hiroko, whose clipped English—“I have only one speed. Always fastball. But my brother not so straight. Only curveball”—unfolds like haiku, and it’s partly an homage to the Japanese culture of delicate manners, self-restraint, and acceptance that “sadness lasts longer than mere pleasure.” The result is an engrossing narrative, a moving meditation on loss, and an evocative, lyrical portrait of Japanese society.

Nest of the Monarch

Kay Kenyon. Saga, $24.99 (448p) ISBN 978-1-5344-2973-4

Kenyon’s riveting third Dark Talents novel (after At the Table of Wolves and Serpent in the Heather) takes 33-year-old psychic spy Kim Tavistock undercover into febrile and menacing Nazi-dominated 1936 Berlin, her first European mission as an agent of British intelligence service SIS. While the British government, concentrating on bond payments, apparently fears the Soviets more than the Nazis, Kim’s father and handler Julian Tavistock hopes that her “spill” talent, which makes people want to tell her things, will provide information about Germany’s suspected new secret weaponry. Kim, ever favoring the underdog, witnesses Nazi anti-Semitic atrocities and decides to help Hannah Linz, a fervent Jewish saboteur. Together they penetrate a Nazi scheme to infiltrate Europe with vampiric augmented psychics. Kenyon successfully builds Kim’s insistence on defying authority on the foundations of her caring heart, her intuition, and her ethical judgment. Kim’s dicey espionage mission thus presents a universal dilemma: the choice between following questionable authority or becoming a rogue moralist. A rich cast of diverse characters and near-catastrophic escapes amid searing prewar tensions keep the pages of this outstanding historical fantasy turning.

Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Bill McKibben. Holt, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250178-26-8

Three decades after bringing news of climate change to a broad audience with the book The End of Nature, environmental scholar McKibben once again examines the impact of global warming in unsettling look at the prospects for human survival. He notes at the outset that, as a writer, he owes his readers honesty, not hope, of which there’s little to be found. McKibben does find cause for optimism in two human “technologies” or innovations—nonviolent protests and solar panels—“that could prove decisive if fully employed.” But he suspects that humanity won’t do so. He also examines how Ayn Rand’s outsize influence prevented American government from effectively responding to global warming and how Exxon concealed its own researchers’ findings about the threat. His analysis factors in two other developments, in addition to global warming, as causes for worry. Unregulated artificial intelligence could lead to self-improving AI which would “soon outstrip our ability to control it,” and which might eventually deem human life unnecessary. Meanwhile, advances in bioengineering have brought new plausibility to seemingly fantastic concepts such as designer children and even immortality; McKibben makes clear that such “progress” would radically change what it means to be human. Readers open to inconvenient and sobering truths will find much to digest in McKibben’s eloquently unsparing treatise.

Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents

Joseph M. Reagle Jr. MIT, $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-262-03815-7

In this insightful, evenhanded book, Northeastern University communications professor Reagle delves into the motivations and mindset of “life hackers,” people who work to improve their lives by trading tips and tricks gleaned through experimentation. This study’s other purpose is to consider what the popularity of life hacking suggests about the challenges of living well in an increasingly busy, market-centered age that rewards efficiency, competition, and self-disciplined productivity. Reagle devotes chapters to six domains of life often targeted for systematic self-improvement—time, motivation, physical objects, health, relationships, and meaning—contextualizing life hacking inclinations within a broader scope of American history and culture. The excellent chapter on hacking “stuff,” for instance, explores the commitment to “cool tools” and personal minimalism typical among life hackers, and then draws connections to a wide range of cultural artifacts including Thoreau’s Walden, the tech-hippie bible The Whole Earth Catalog, midcentury disability advocate newsletters, and Marie Kondo’s KonMari method. Reagle argues that life hacking culture has two contrasting strains: one shaped by the manipulative grandiosity of “gurus” selling extreme methods to outcompete others, and one shaped by collaborative amateur “geeks.” Throughout, Reagle reiterates the importance of moderation, encouraging readers to understand both the potentials and limitations of the life hacking approach. Readers seeking to understand this “individualistic, rational, experimental, systematizing”—and increasingly influential—mindset will enjoy this lively, well-written take.

Alice’s Island

Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, trans. from the Spanish by the author. Atria, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5011-7195-6

Spanish author Arévalo makes his English-language debut with this moving, fairy-dusted novel. Elementary school teacher Alice Williams is devastated when her young husband, Chris, dies from a brain aneurysm while driving back from a business trip, but she can’t help but wonder what Chris was doing 40 miles east of their Providence, R.I., home instead of west, where he would have been if he were really returning from New Haven, Conn., as he’d told her. In many mysteries, the heroine’s subsequent sleuthing would lead somewhere dark and dangerous. But Alice’s quest eventually brings her and her two daughters—precocious six-year-old Olivia and infant Ruby—to Robin Island, a whimsical invention off Cape Cod, where she becomes involved in a string of increasingly madcap covert ops to find out what her husband was doing on the island and with whom. As the widow gradually inches closer to Chris’s secrets, she starts to realize the new neighbors she’s been spying on have become friends—and that her true discovery is the road to the rest of her life. Like its endearingly quirky protagonist, readers won’t want to leave Robin Island.

Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe

Ella Frances Sanders. Penguin, $17 (160p) ISBN 978-0-14-313316-2

In this small volume, Sanders (Lost in Translation) beautifully personifies the universe with lyrical prose and whimsical color illustrations. Brief chapters discuss numerous natural phenomena or theoretical concepts in poetic yet scientifically illuminating ways, ranging from the life cycles of suns through Darwinian evolution to geosmin, the smell of damp earth, which “leaves a person feeling as clean as if they had been dragged backwards through a cloud.” Readers learn how blue skies exist because “blue has shorter, smaller wavelengths, and is therefore scattered more”; how the modern understanding of time “is built on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which time is just a coordinate”; and a little about various other science concepts too numerous to list. Sanders further outlines why scientific language is so often foreign and frustrating to nonscientists: “it takes familiar words and puts them in entirely different contexts” while also introducing “a whole other vocabulary that a person would never normally have reason to encounter.” But in her fluidly conversational style, Sanders renders that language both accessible and appealing to her audience. Even more importantly, she consistently captures a sense of awe and wonder at the universe, and ignites (or reignites) that same sense in the reader.

Clyde Fans

Seth. Drawn & Quarterly, $59.95 (488p) ISBN 978-1-77046-357-8

Readers will be dazzled by this impressive graphic novel, 20 years in the making, of the Matchcard brothers and the business that bound them together. After their father deserts their family in 1945, Abe and Simon Matchcard take over Clyde Fans, his oscillating fans business, only for it to fall prey, over the course of many decades, to the advent of air conditioning and the Matchcards’ own human frailties. This is an operatic story, as rich in intimacy as it is breathtaking in scope. Splendor and tragedy lurk in the visual details: Simon and his mother linger over consumerist plenty in a magazine, memories of a lover’s fond confession looms ghoulishly out of the shadows of Abe’s mind, Simon rambles to a shelf of disused toys. Seth (It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken) employs 1950s-style cartooning, with its pools of black and clean lines, to undercut even the most pleasant scenes with cool blue tones and deep-set facial features. There are, perhaps, moments of overindulgence—this is a book a little too given to monologues—but they are dwarfed by the immensity of Seth’s achievement. This isn’t just a story, or even, as it terms itself, a “picture novel”—it is a brilliant journey into the heart of midcentury darkness.

Flowers over the Inferno

Ilaria Tuti, trans. from the Italian by Ekin Oklap. Soho Crime, $25.95 (360p) ISBN 978-1-64129-068-5

Set in Northern Italy, Tuti’s exhilarating debut and series launch introduces Supt. Teresa Battaglia, a tough, solitary woman in her 60s who has earned her place as the head of an all-male homicide team and is keeping her battle with declining health secret from her colleagues. When a middle-aged man’s naked body with its eyes gouged out is found in the densely wooded Dolomite Mountains near the Austrian border, Teresa takes charge of the investigation. An effigy made out of the victim’s bloodied clothing close to the body prompts Teresa to observe, “The effigy is a representation of the killer. He stood here contemplating his work, and wanted us to know...” Other victims follow who are left alive but mutilated. The kidnapping of a baby raises the stakes. Interspersed with the present-day action are horrific chapters set in an Austrian orphanage in 1978 that shed light on the killer’s psychology. Teresa, who must deal with casual and constant sexism in her position of authority, is an unforgettable character readers will want to see a lot more of.

The Polyglot Lovers

Lina Wolff, trans. from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. And Other Stories, $16.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-911508-44-1

The edifice of male genius is annihilated in this galvanizing novel from Wolff (Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs). An online date brings Ellinor, whose lone passion is her village’s fight club, to the home of a Stockholm literary critic named Ruben. He shows her a manuscript that a novelist acquaintance, Max, asked him to read (there is only a single copy). Shortly afterward, they have sex, which turns violent, and Ellinor burns the manuscript as revenge. As a toxic symbiosis sets in between the unlikely pair, Wolff delves into the sordid affair that precipitated the manuscript’s creation. After sleeping with a suicidal receptionist, Max dismisses her as “too old, too inhibited, and too boring.” The woman curses him, prompting Max to seek redemption by authoring a new book. For inspiration, he heads to Italy and seduces the matriarch of a declining aristocratic family. His work is only interrupted by the arrival of the woman’s daughter, Claudia, who puts an end to the manipulative romance in exhilarating fashion. Wolff orchestrates her divergent plots into riveting harmony, but more striking is the audacity with which she reveals Max and Ruben’s reckless egoism. “I’m an autodidact in male devastation,” Claudia declares before sticking the final pin in Max’s inflated persona. Wolff’s novel proves the necessity of cultivating such a specialty. Firing on all cylinders from beginning to end, this story pulses with intellect and vitality unmatched by the literary barons it deposes.