This week: a delightful history of how Britain became modern, plus two outstanding thrillers.
This rich, heartbreaking novel from the late Uruguayan writer Benedetti (1920–2009) (The Truce), first published in 1982, describes the devastating effects on one family of Uruguay’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s. Santiago is a political prisoner in Uruguay, and he passes the time in prison by writing letters to his family. Although, to his surprise, he finds his five years of confinement “bearable,” he still yearns for the love of Graciela, his wife, and Beatriz, his young daughter, who’ve taken exile in Buenos Aires. Graciela, meanwhile, struggles with guilt over how well she’s coping (“too well,” she says) and how she “still [feels] a great affection for him, but as a fellow revolutionary, not as his wife.” More difficult still, she falls in love with Rolando, one of Santiago’s close friends. Meanwhile, Beatriz tries to understand the difference between her new life and the home country she can’t remember, whereas Don Rafael, Santiago’s aging father, knows them all too well. Alternating between these five characters as they await Santiago’s release, Benedetti’s tender yet unflinching portrait of a family in the crushing straits of history is a welcome addition to the small (and hopefully growing) catalogue of his work that has been translated into English.
In this brilliant sequel to his history of earlier-20th-century Europe (To Hell and Back), historian Kershaw profiles a Europe that has emerged into the 21st century calmer and more prosperous than in the century before, though with an uncertain future. He relates in detail at least five key stories: Western Europe’s remarkable postwar economic recovery; the division into NATO and Soviet satellite states; the slow but steady move toward economic integration and the European Union; the fall of the communist satellite states and then the U.S.S.R.; and the early-21st-century economic, migration, and Brexit-related crises. The work’s strengths include its evocation of changes in mentalities and economic conditions (recalling that in 1950, racism was strong, homosexuality and abortion were outlawed in many places, dwellings were “often lacking hot water, or indoor toilet facilities,” and “food was still widely rationed”); its keen understanding of economic history (for example, the postrecession politics of austerity); and avoiding neglect of more minor players, such as the Netherlands and Turkey. Writing a 67-year history of a continent with more than 40 countries is a monumental task, and Kershaw has done so with unflagging narrative drive and fine prose.
In this engrossing true crime account, McGough, the author of a memoir, Bat Boy, and a former legal consultant for TV’s Law & Order, exposes a horrifying Los Angeles murder that was not solved for decades—and an even more disturbing LAPD cover-up. In 1986, 29-year-old nurse Sherri Rasmussen was killed in her home by someone who battered her face and shot her multiple times, leaving the corpse to be found by her husband, John Ruetten. Though there was an obvious suspect—Ruetten’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Lazarus, who had threatened Rasmussen—the investigating officers pursued the theory that burglars killed Rasmussen. McGough proposes a possible explanation for that choice: since Lazarus was an LAPD officer, some of her colleagues were less than diligent in exploring any possibility that led to her. Eventually, a cold case investigator tracked down DNA evidence from a bite mark on the victim’s arm that implicated Lazarus. By then an LAPD detective, Lazarus was arrested in 2009 and convicted in 2012. Despite that verdict, readers will be left with a sense that justice has not been done, since no one at the LAPD was held accountable for the many mistakes that enabled Lazarus to get away with murder for more than 20 years. This memorable and powerful work deserves a wide readership.
In this powerful supernatural thriller from bestseller McMahon (Burntown), history teacher Helen Wetherell and her husband, Nate, buy 44 acres in rural Vermont on which to build their dream house, land the locals believe to be cursed by the spirit of Hattie Breckenridge, who was hanged there a century earlier as a witch. Days after the young do-it-yourselfers move into a trailer on the property, they find an ominous bundle containing an animal’s tooth on the doorstep—and that’s just the first of a series of events intended to scare them into leaving. Subsequently, Nate, a science teacher who scoffs at the supernatural, catches their 14-year-old neighbor, Olive Kissner, made up like a ghost, trespassing. But it quickly becomes clear the feisty teen isn’t responsible for everything. As Helen draws closer to Olive, she gleans more about the legends surrounding Hattie, which include the treasure the doomed woman supposedly buried on the property. Whether one believes in ghosts, McMahon’s consummately crafted chiller is guaranteed to haunt.
Mishima’s ethereal 1961 novel, published for the first time in English, showcases the strains of fame on a young movie star. Twenty-three-year-old Rikio Mizuno plays a hardened yakuza in a series of successful films. He has a large, devoted fan base among women egged on by the romantic, wholly fabricated stories from the studio’s public relationship department. In his short nights between long, grueling production days, he finds respite and sexual release with his assistant Kayo. She mocks everything, including their differences in age and beauty, the confessional letters of fans, and a desperate, unstable starlet who ambushes a set in an attempt to land a larger role. Rikio shuns all other trappings of a personal life and defends his choices as necessary to remain a star. Mishima is a master of the psychological: he blurs distinctions between Rikio’s identity and the characters he plays in disorienting but never jarring transitions between movie scenes and reality. Even decades after its original publication, this nimble novella about the costs and delusions of constant public attention will resonate with readers.
The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern
In this delightful history, literary scholar Morrison argues that England’s Regency period (1811–1820) was “perhaps the most extraordinary decade in all of British history,” and “marked the appearance of the modern world.” In support of this position, Morrison surveys the brief epoch from a variety of perspectives, asserting that it was characterized by many of the contradictions of the Prince Regent’s own personality. English society’s criminal underworld exploited vast economic and political inequities; many others, from the Luddites who smashed the machines that took their jobs, to the radical poet Percy Shelley, attempted to redress them. Pleasure-seekers savored new opportunities for shopping, dancing, gambling, drinking, and sports, and Lord Byron became both a revered literary artist and the icon of the nascent celebrity culture. As the libertinism of the 18th century gave way to the puritanism of the Victorian era, some English men and women experimented with new types of sexual identities, despite the social censure and even capital punishment they risked. At the decade’s end, England was a very different place than it had been at its beginning, and Morrison’s lively and engaging study not only illuminates these many and rapid changes, but convincingly argues that “its many legacies are still all around us.”
Anglophone readers will cherish the opportunity to experience Chen’s sweeping, complex, and deeply emotional near-future dystopian vision via this thoughtful rendition by Hugo-winning translator and author Liu that maintains the story’s essential Chinese character. Guangdong Province’s environmentally devastated Silicon Isle, ruled by three powerful clans, is the destination for the electronic garbage created by a world addicted to body enhancements. The rubbish is processed in hellish conditions by the migrant workers considered by the rich natives to be subhuman “waste people.” Chen Kaizong, a Silicon Isle–born but America-trained translator, reconnects to his heritage and clan family while accompanying Scott Brandle, a visiting representative of TerraGreen Recycling, which wants to automate the process. Meanwhile, waste girl Mimi, on the run from the henchmen of the Luo clan after having been connected to the mysterious illness of the clan leader’s grandson, becomes the central figure in a rising rebellion. Liu’s careful handling of multiple Sinitic languages, as well as naming conventions that connect to class, education, and geographical origin, maintains the flavor of the setting and preserves the integrity of Chen’s focus on interacting subcultures and the social opportunities available to those capable of linguistic code switching. Chen’s story is extremely relevant to the current moment of throwaway culture, increasing income disparity, and technological advances progressing at such a rate that morality and ethics have trouble keeping up. Readers who crave gorgeous imagery and a thrilling narrative that also explicitly wrestles with big questions will be overjoyed.
Despite the misleading subtitle, Smith (How to Think like Sherlock: Improve Your Powers of Observation, Memory and Deduction) provides the definitive look at a sensational homicide case. In 1893, six years after Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story was published, three men went out for a morning hunt on the Ardlamont Estate in Argyll, Scotland, and only two returned. Cecil Hambrough, a 20-year-old Army lieutenant, was killed by a shot in the back of the head, and one of his companions, Alfred Monson, who was retained by Hambrough’s family to tutor him, asserted that Cecil had shot himself. Suspicions quickly developed that Monson murdered his charge; he and his wife owned two policies insuring Cecil’s life, and just the evening before, Cecil almost died when the boat he was in, along with Monson, almost sank. The prosecution’s witnesses included “two pioneers of forensic science,” Dr. Joseph Bell and Dr. Henry Littlejohn, who were both significant influences on Conan Doyle’s fictional detective. Making use of extensive archival research, Smith presents the inquiry, trial, and its aftermath with just the right amount of detail. Sherlockians and true crime buffs alike will be intrigued.
As the director of a nationally renowned trauma therapy unit, London psychotherapist Ruth Hartland, the narrator of Thomas’s exceptional debut, most definitely knows better. But from her first glimpse in the waiting room of new patient Dan Griffin, when she momentarily mistakes him for her own troubled son, Tom (who disappeared a year and a half earlier at 17), she feels an instant emotional connection that will threaten her ability to maintain professional boundaries. Thomas, herself a former clinical psychologist with Britain’s National Health Service, hooks the reader with Ruth’s unblinking dual narratives. The first traces her doomed treatment of Dan, during which the pull to see him as a surrogate for Tom blinds her to the depth of his dysfunction and his potential for violence; the second focuses on the guilt-strewn shambles she has allowed her own life to become, including the breakdown of her marriage and estrangement from Tom’s twin sister, Carolyn. Thomas melds astute psychological insight with powerful storytelling in this moving thriller.
Wroten (Crimes) skillfully explores youth, ego, and the doomed pursuit of artistic purity in her ambitious first full-length graphic novel. After graduating from college and moving out of her emotionally abusive parents’ house, Caroline Bertram is going nowhere fast: her hopes of being a professional fiction writer have stalled, her binge drinking is getting out of hand, and, despite flings and unrequited crushes, she’s still not over the girl who broke her heart in high school. Caroline’s self-destructive tendencies worsen as she retreats into herself and becomes fixated on a pro wrestler named Cannonball—a heroic female character hailed for her strength and ability. As Caroline feverishly completes her young adult fantasy novel, Wroten stylistically blends ethereal dream sequences starring Cannonball with scenes from Caroline’s novel, culminating in a final confrontation that’s as unexpected as it is heartbreaking. Each page’s vivid pastels and expressive cartooning lend emotional vibrancy to the characters’ intellectual banter. Wroten’s playful yet brutal meditation on the meaning of success, millennial anxiety about linking artistic profits to self-worth, and the vagaries of a creative spirit is bound to cement her place as a rising comics talent to watch.
The horror and heroism of 9/11 are brought to life in this panoramic history. Boston University journalism professor Zuckoff, who covered the attacks for the Boston Globe, traces the day’s events through the stories of dozens of people who experienced them: the hijackers as they put the finishing touches on their plot and set it in motion; the hijacked aircrew and passengers stunned by the unfolding nightmare; the air-traffic controllers, FAA officials, and military officers who struggled to piece together what was happening in the skies (Zuckoff shows how miscommunication delayed crucial measures that might have saved lives); workers in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as they scrambled to escape from the growing infernos; and the firefighters who risked their lives to rescue them. Zuckoff draws skillfully on interviews with survivors, family reminiscences, audio documents (including farewell phone calls from doomed victims), tapes from the cockpit of United Flight 93 where passengers fought to take the plane back from the hijackers, and forlorn notes—one reading “84th floor. West office. 12 people trapped” drifted down from a tower—to flesh out the violence, chaos, and occasional moments of grace. The result is a superb, harrowing retelling of this most dramatic of stories.