This week: new books from Ted Chiang, Julie Orringer, Elizabeth Acevedo, and more.
In this stunning sophomore novel from National Book Award and Printz winner Acevedo (The Poet X), Afro–Puerto Rican and African-American Emoni Santiago, a high school senior, lives in Philadelphia with her two-year-old daughter, Emma—nicknamed Babygirl—and paternal grandmother, ’Buela. A talented cook, Emoni balances school, work at a local burger joint, and motherhood—including shared custody with her ex-boyfriend, Tyrone—with moments in the kitchen, where her “magical hands” create dishes that allow the eater to access deep, surprising memories. But she’s not sure what to do with her passion, or after high school, until enrolling in a culinary arts elective helps her to hone her innate cooking skills in the classroom and during a hard-won weeklong apprenticeship in Spain. As she gains practice at leadership and fund-raising, she also cautiously develops a budding relationship with new student Malachi, a boy who respects Emoni’s boundaries. Acevedo expertly develops Emoni’s close female relationships, which are often conveyed through the sharing of food and recipes, and which shape and buoy Emoni’s sense of her own direction and strength. With evocative, rhythmic prose and realistically rendered relationships and tensions, Acevedo’s unvarnished depiction of young adulthood is at once universal and intensely specific. Ages 13–up.
Brandreth’s excellent sequel to 2018’s The Spy of Venice, which featured a young William Shakespeare, opens with a prologue set in 1585 Rome, where the newly anointed Pope Sixtus V plots to depose the “heretic Queen Elizabeth” through a network of spies he’s established in England. Sixtus orders four priests to track down three Englishmen in Italy believed to know the identities of the papal agents, one of whom is William, and use any means necessary to protect these agents from exposure. In the previous novel, William joined a diplomatic mission of his countrymen to Venice as a spy, posing as the English ambassador’s steward. While Brandreth keeps the intrigue at a high pitch, frequently placing his lead in harm’s way, he leavens the action with a moving subplot concerning William’s lover, poet Isabella Lisarro, whom the future playwright fears has been poisoned at the orders of the pope. Apt quotes from Shakespeare’s plays serve as chapter heads. Brandreth once again integrates vivid period detail into a well-crafted thriller plot.
Hugo- and Nebula-winner Chiang’s standout second collection (after 2002’s Stories of Your Life and Others) explores the effects that technology and knowledge have on consciousness, free will, and the human desire for meaning. These nine stories introduce life-changing inventions and new worlds with radically different physical laws. In each, Chiang produces deeply moving drama from fascinating first premises. The title story follows a scientist whose self-experimentation reveals both the origin and eventual fate of consciousness. In “What’s Expected of Us,” a small device horrifically alters human behavior. Chiang’s rigorous worldbuilding makes hard science fiction out of stories that would otherwise be fable, as in the Hugo and Nebula-winning novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a time travel story that employs both relativistic physics and an Arabian Nights–style structure. Others grapple with robots parenting humans, humans parenting AIs, the Fermi paradox, quantum mechanics, and what it means to be a sentient creature facing a potentially deterministic universe. As Chiang’s endnotes attest, these stories are brilliant experiments, and his commitment to exploring deep human questions elevates them to among the very best science fiction.
Courtois’s first novel to be translated into English, a haunting avant-garde thriller, begins like a fairy tale but winds up more like a Friday the 13th movie. Twelve six-year-old schoolchildren leave their parents for a weekend at camp with their teacher Frederic and two chaperones; readers know from the first page that none of them will return. Death and fear seem to stalk the children, not a natural fear but “all the fears that used to fill our days and our imaginations... in the dark, with the whispers of the trees and the invisible beasts.” The adults try to calm the students with fables and campfires, but violence erupts when the sociopathic—if not altogether evil—child Enzo bludgeons Frederic to death with a rock before turning his attention to his fellow students, whom he hunts one-by-one throughout the night that follows. Alone in an unforgiving nature and soon separated from any semblance of adult supervision, the brutality of the world is suddenly laid bare for children. Among them, the precociously mature Hugo dares to take a stand against Enzo in a desperate attempt at survival. Unflinching in its savagery, the nightmarish poetry of this modern Lord of the Flies is undeniable. Courtois writes that “a story without a point destroys civilization a little,” and far from being an exercise in idle cruelty, this wicked novel plumbs the darkest reaches of childhood fears and finds plenty to be afraid of.
Traversing time and space, the captivating latest from Drager (The Lost Daughter Collective) employs nonlinear structure and the cyclical, 75-year path of Halley’s Comet to link centuries of siblings and partners to the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” In 1835, storytellers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collect versions of the narrative, and in one, Hansel is banished to the forest for being gay. Wilhelm recognizes the impact this discovery has on his brother, whom he suspects is homosexual. In 1986, a computer programmer constructing an early form of the internet contracts AIDS and visits the Witch, who dedicates herself to comforting ailing gay men in their final days. A lesbian sent to an asylum in 1910 has an affair with one of her nurses, watches for the comet, and crafts a series of illustrations of “Hansel and Gretel,” while in 1456, Johannes Gutenberg shows his sister the magic of his new printing press by duplicating copies of the fairy tale. Stretching as far back as the comet’s pass in 1378, which incorporates interactions between a real Hansel and his sister, and forward to 2365, when the comet passes an Earth void of life, Drager’s plot is ambitious and emotionally resonant, making for a clever, beguiling novel.
Grames’s vivid and moving debut follows its heroine from a childhood in the early 20th century in a tiny Calabrian mountain village to her family’s immigration to America when she is 19 and then through a long life including a marriage about which she has decidedly mixed feelings, many jobs, and even more children. When the novel begins in the present, Stella is 100 years old and has been brain-damaged for the past 30 years following a fall that required an emergency lobotomy and that left her with a mysterious hatred for her lifelong best friend, her younger sister Tina. The novel’s unnamed narrator, one of Stella’s granddaughters, reconstructs her life history with the help of Tina and other family members. She shapes it around Stella’s numerous near-death experiences, which include being gored by a pig and choking on a chicken bone. Grames keeps the spotlight on stubborn, independent, and frequently unhappy Stella, while developing a large cast of believably complicated supporting characters and painting sensually intricate portraits of Calabria and Connecticut. With her story of an “ordinary” woman who is anything but, Grames explores not just the immigrant experience but the stages of a woman’s life. This is a sharp and richly satisfying novel.
New Yorker foreign correspondent Hessler (Oracle Bones) lived in Egypt during the months and years following the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, and his account of learning Arabic, befriending a diverse array of characters, and gingerly probing the sore spots of Egyptian society is at once engrossing and illuminating. While Hessler lives in Cairo and much of the early action centers there, he ventures more widely than most foreigners in the country, and his reporting from sleepy upper Egyptian villages and remote Chinese development projects add complexity. Most of Hessler’s contacts get roughed up and imprisoned by the security services at one point or another, often for inscrutable reasons: “There was no point to the brutality—it served no larger purpose.” He returns frequently to the theme of internal tension and contradiction—that Egyptians “combined rigid tradition with ideas that could be surprisingly open-minded or nonconformist”—to contrast the brittle institutions of the state, such as courts, with the deep-seated social patterns and relationships that provide structure when the state is dysfunctional or ineffectual. Adroitly combining the color and pacing of travel writing and investigative journalism with the tools and insight of anthropological fieldwork and political theory, this stakes a strong claim to being the definitive book to emerge from the Egyptian revolution.
This stellar posthumous collection of stories from Howland (1937–2017) brings together works that span her career. Largely autobiographical and incredibly self-aware, Howland’s stories conjure vivid portraits of her home city of Chicago and bring to life the hypnotic thoughts of her narrators among their wide casts of vividly drawn characters. In “Blue in Chicago,” the narrator attends a wedding with her eccentric extended family, which is juxtaposed in the story against moments of peace on her own as a single mother living on the city’s South Side. “To the Country” follows the same character to a summer rental house, but its charms are marred by the neighbors—including a family of farmers she has known since her own childhood. Within these straightforward setups, Howland creates stark and strange works of genius, portraying the complexities of family relationships as beautifully as she portrays her narrators’ insecurities, judgments, and anxieties. Her descriptions are darkly funny and delightful (“Up went my mother’s head, straight as a barrel rifle. Loaded, of course”). The collection’s masterpiece title novella is written from its heartbroken narrator to a “you,” a recently deceased love, following his last days living as an academic legend, famed lover of women, and devastating alcoholic. This character, Victor Lazarus—“your long arms, your long legs, your rigid upright drunken dignity”—comes alive through his death in this potent, heartbreaking, often hilarious showstopper of a story. This is a collection to savor, and Howland is an author to celebrate.
Exiled Chinese writer Ma’s satirical novel (after The Dark Road) is a bold, searing indictment of present-day China and a lyrical exposé of the false utopia created by the Communist Party and its current leader-for-life, Xi Jinping. Written “out of rage” according to Ma’s foreword, the fable subverts the propaganda of Xi’s Chinese Dream and chronicles the descent into madness of the louche, corrupt government functionary Ma Daode. Having played his part in the nasty factional violence of the Cultural Revolution, Ma has risen to become director of the China Dream Bureau, charged with replacing all private dreams with the collective, great China Dream. But he is increasingly unable to control his own dreams: dreams of fallen comrades, a martyred girlfriend, and the pitiful demise of his parents after he himself denounced them. After a disastrous appearance at an antigovernment demonstration during which his neighbors throw chicken bones and condoms to protest the razing of their neighborhood, and having made a fool of himself in a speech at a Golden Anniversary Dream ceremony in which his dreams overcome him, Ma is suspended from his position. He goes on a desperate search for a cure, extracting the recipe for the miraculous Old Lady Dream’s Broth, a hare-brained concoction of blood and tears he hopes will eradicate not only his, but all undesirable dreams. The book will surely be banned in China, as has Ma’s other works. This is an inventive yet powerful confrontation of China’s past and present.
In coastal New Jersey, 11-year-old Fig and her father have been on their own since her mother abandoned them following Fig’s birth. Fig’s father, a once-successful pianist and composer with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, has good days and bad; when he interrupts the girl’s class with a desperate plea to see her, her teacher grows concerned and calls child services. Afraid of being taken from her father and intensely private about his struggles, Fig must enlist the help of their new neighbor Mark when her dad wanders off in the middle of a hurricane—not for the first time. Hoping to better understand her father, STEM-inclined Fig starts a project about Vincent van Gogh and becomes drawn to similarities between her family and his. Mark’s steadfast presence and growing relationship with her dad first infuriates Fig, then allows her to relinquish her fierce protection of her father; as hurricane season advances, she becomes less anxious and more comfortable in her life. Melleby’s debut offers a tender, earnest portrait of a daughter searching for constancy while negotiating her father’s sickness and the social challenges of tween girlhood, including her first crush on a girl. Ages 9–12.
Orringer’s magnificent novel is centered around American journalist Varian Fry’s work helping imperiled refugees out of Nazi-occupied France. In 1940, Fry leaves his wife and job behind in New York and travels to Marseille for the Emergency Rescue Committee, formed to get prominent intellectuals and creative artists safely to America. Faced with meager resources, an enormous task, and suspicion from both the Vichy and U.S. governments, Fry makes anguished decisions about which “clients” to help and which to leave in danger. Then he is contacted by his one-time Harvard classmate Elliott Schiffman Grant, with whom he shared an intense mutual attraction. “Skiff,” who vanished from Fry’s life without explanation 12 years before, wants helps getting his German-born Jewish lover, Gregor Katznelson, and Katznelson’s son out of Europe. Fry falls in love with Grant again as he makes increasingly high-stakes decisions about who, and what, to save. As in 2010’s superb The Invisible Bridge, Orringer seamlessly combines compelling inventions with complex fact: figures including Marc Chagall and Andre Breton make vivid appearances, while Skiff and his relationship with Fry are unforgettable fictional creations. Brilliantly conceived, impeccably crafted, and showcasing Orringer’s extraordinary gifts, this is destined to become a classic.
A brilliant, abrasive diplomat struggles to resolve foreign conflicts while fighting bureaucratic wars at home in this scintillating biography. New Yorker writer Packer (The Unwinding) follows Holbrooke’s State Department career from his start in the American “pacification” program during the Vietnam War, through his star turn negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, to his fruitless efforts under the Obama administration to start peace talks in Afghanistan. As nerve-wracking as his negotiations, in Packer’s telling, was Holbrooke’s struggle to rise in America’s foreign-policy establishment: he stalked and schmoozed everyone who could further his career, sometimes ambushing them in the men’s room, while waging cutthroat turf battles against rivals. Drawing on Holbrooke’s fascinating diaries and his own memories of the man, Packer makes him a Shakespearean character—egomaniacal, devious, sloppy enough to make presidents deny him the prize of becoming secretary of state, yet charismatic and inspiring—in a larger-than-life portrait brimming with vivid novelistic impressions. (Holbrooke’s voice was “always doing something to you, cajoling, flattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you—applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current.”) In Holbrooke’s thwarted ambitions, Packer finds both a riveting tale of diplomatic adventure—part high drama, part low pettiness—and a captivating metaphor for America’s waning power.
First-time author Prior-Palmer transforms from hopeless 19-year-old underdog into surprising champion of the grueling 2013 Mongol Derby in this exhilarating, visceral account of her attempt to win a 1,000-kilometer horse race across the Mongolian countryside. Driven by her own restlessness, Prior-Palmer, an English woman who had been working as an au pair in Austria, decided to enter the 10-day contest on a lark, unprepared for the arduous competition involving dozens of riders each racing a series of 25 wild ponies across Mongolia to recreate the horse-messenger system established by Genghis Khan. Struggling with an uncooperative pony at the beginning, the headstrong author battles GPS troubles (the devices show the participants straight line routes, rather than following the intended trails), minor nuisances (a group of boys chase and throw stones at her), and intense competition (she eagerly referred to logs at checkpoints to see who was ahead of her and by how long) as she discovers the race is as much an existential journey as it is a sports competition (“The race reclaims me as an animal—my original form, my rawest self, my favorite way to be”). Filled with soulful self-reflection and race detail, this fast-paced page-turner is a thrill ride from start to finish.
In her fifth book, Rekdal (Imaginary Vessels) reenvisions Ovid’s Metamorphoses to offer a haunting meditation on the vulnerability of the body and an exploration of how one goes on living after literal or metaphorical loss. In one poem, a woman experiences her child’s gender transition while undergoing treatment for cancer, losing a daughter but gaining a more fully realized, authentic son. In “Pasiphaë,” a woman clings to her dog after the death of the man they both loved, their grief symbolized by their shared flea infestation. At the book’s core are two related poems, “Philomela” and “Nightingale: A Gloss.” In the former, Rekdal pens a tale of receiving a sewing machine from her grandmother, while the latter deconstructs all that was left unsaid in that story. Philomela’s rape by Tireseus is used to disclose the speaker’s own experience with sexual assault, juxtaposing this narrative against passages of literary theory and poetry by Shelley, Keats, and Czeslaw Milosz. This, too, leads to metamorphosis: “Perhaps it is sentimental to suggest violence has given me meaning, that the heart of poetry was ever and only silence. Madness to say, yes, there’s pain, but would I have changed without it?” Here, Rekdal translates pain into redemption, so that a loss is not an ending but a transformation, in this riveting poetic alchemy.