This week: new books from Adam Gopnik, Jeffrey Deaver, and more.
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775–1777: Volume One of the Revolution Trilogy
Pulitzer Prize winner Atkinson (The Liberation Trilogy) replicates his previous books’ success in this captivatingly granular look at the American Revolution from the increasing tension in the colonies in 1773 to the battles of Trenton and Princeton in 1777. Extensive research (including delving into the unpublished papers of King George III, only recently made available to scholars) allows Atkinson to recreate the past like few other popular historians. The result is a definitive survey of the first stage of the war, which would ultimately yield “two tectonic results”: the reduction of the British Empire by one-third, and the creation of the United States. By providing vivid portraits of even minor characters, Atkinson enables readers to feel the loss of individual lives on both sides of the conflict, and by providing memorable details—such as starving soldiers relishing a stew made out of a squirrel’s head and some candlewicks—he brings new life even to chapters of oft-told American history. Atkinson doesn’t shy away from noting the hypocrisy of the slave-owning founding fathers, and his mordant prose (the author of a letter advocating a belligerent attitude towards the colonials is described as having “the cocksure clarity of a man who slept in his own bed every night three thousand miles from trouble”) is another plus. This is a superlative treatment of the period.
Colter Shaw, the hero of this superb series launch from Thriller Award winner Deaver (the Lincoln Rhyme series), travels around the U.S. in an RV, earning rewards for finding missing persons, fugitives, and “suspects who have not yet been identified or located.” In the prologue, Colter attempts to rescue a kidnapped pregnant woman, Elizabeth Chabelle, from a sinking fishing vessel off the California coast. With Elizabeth’s fate in doubt, the action moves back two days, when Colter goes looking for 19-year-old Sophie Mulliner in Silicon Valley. Sophie vanished after an argument with her father, who was unable to get the authorities to take his fear that she was attacked and kidnapped seriously. Colter does, and manages to locate suggestive evidence—Sophie’s cell phone, a bloodied rock, and a plastic shard that may have come from the teen’s bike. That investigation proves to be just the tip of the iceberg after the person who abducted Sophie strikes again and Colter finds parallels between the crimes and a creepy video game called The Whispering Man. Fans of twisty suspense that pushes the envelope of plausibility without inviting disbelief will be enthralled.
The latest from Foulds (In the Wolf’s Mouth) is an outstanding and unyielding exploration of celebrity, fame, and all its attendant obsessions. Kristin is recently divorced and living alone in the Philadelphia home she once shared with her ex-husband, who’s since moved on to his third marriage. The one thing that gives her joy in “her new, ruined life” is the British TV show The Grange and its irrepressibly handsome star Henry Banks. In London, Henry has no idea Kristin exists and is eager to move on from the small screen. Between starving himself into the kind of ugliness necessary for the lead role in an acclaimed Spanish director’s new movie and partying with models and rich heirs in Qatar, Henry’s star is rising and he is about to launch into the highest stratosphere of fame. Kristin’s infatuation with Henry, meanwhile, becomes an obsession, and she boards a flight to London to try to get as close to him as she can. When Kristin and Henry’s paths cross, to devastating effect, Kristin must contend with the dissonance between the reality of Henry and her fantasies of him. Foulds’s novel is fun, smart, and tense, part psychological drama about media-driven obsession and part razor-sharp social critique.
According to this militantly nonfanatical treatise, liberalism is the self-doubting creed of cautious, compromising, incremental reform—and that’s why it’s great. New Yorker essayist Gopnik (Paris to the Moon) grounds liberalism not in arid individualism but in emotion and social connection, an animus against suffering and for freedom and equality, an understanding of human fallibility, a tolerance for debate, and a search for lasting improvements through democratic action. To conservatives who say liberal rationalism erodes communities, families, and sacred values, he replies that it allows diverse communities and religious beliefs to flourish without bitter divisions; to left-wingers who condemn it as a cover for capitalist exploitation, he champions liberalism’s record of progressivism without the totalitarian repressions of communism or the essentialist identity politics of today’s left. Gopnik hangs his discussion on vivid profiles of liberal dreamers and doers, from theorist-lovebirds Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill to civil rights pioneers Frederick Douglass and Bayard Rustin. He writes with a pithy, aphoristic charm—“what we have today, the insistent sneering insists, is a long, permanent bar fight, where you can’t trust a liberal to throw a bourbon bottle at the bad guys”—that overlies deep erudition and nuanced analysis. The result is a smart, exhilarating defense of the liberal tradition.
Freelance journalist Greene struggles with the 2015 death of his daughter in this heart-wrenching yet life-affirming memoir. After two-year-old Greta was killed when a brick fell from an eighth-story windowsill in New York City and hit her on the head (also injuring his mother-in-law), Greene and his wife Stacy descended into despair and realized they must pass “through some magnificent, terrible threshold together.” Grasping for solace, the couple attended a retreat at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, for people who have lost loved ones, which featured a medium and daily yoga sessions. Afterwards, back home, Greene, jogging through Central Park suddenly felt the world becoming “thin, translucent” and he sensed Greta’s presence. Then, on what would have been their daughter’s third birthday, they tried a New Age healing ceremony in New Mexico that took them on separate vision quests that allowed them to confront and be at peace with their grief. Their second child was born a year later, and Greene movingly writes of the joy he felt holding his newborn son along with the simultaneous metaphysical connection he experienced with Greta. The result is an amazing and inspirational exploration on the meaning of grief and the interconnectedness of love and loss.
Hanif, Booker-longlisted for A Case of Exploding Mangoes, dives headfirst into an unnamed desert in the present day and the disparate characters stuck in it. Ellie, an American bomber pilot who’s crash-landed, struggles through the desert half-hallucinating until he comes upon a dog. The dog, Mutt, is no stray, but rather the beloved and disgruntled pet of Momo, a shrewd and scheming 15-year-old. Momo lives in a nearby refugee camp with his family, who have been devastated by the disappearance of Momo’s older brother, Ali, who left the camp to work at a mysterious American army outpost that was recently nearby. As Ellie recovers in the camp he was intended to bomb, hoping for rescue and suppressing a major trauma he left back at home in the States, Momo develops a plan to use the American soldier as leverage to get his brother back. Narrated in turns by Ellie, Momo, aid workers, Momo’s mother, and rather beautifully by Mutt, Hanif’s portrait of the surrealism and commonplaceness of America’s wars in Muslim countries is nearly impossible to put down. The camp in particular crackles with humanity, bizarreness, and banality—at one point, Ellie thinks, “I was beginning to like this, people talking earnestly about sewage and cheating spouses, about the need for winter shelters and better ways of teaching math.” The novel manages to remain delightful and unpredictable even in its darkest moments, highlighting the hypocrisies and constant confusions of American intervention abroad.
This dazzling standalone contemporary from Lauren (My Favorite Half-Night Stand) is a hilarious comedy of coincidences. Olive Torres is a notoriously unlucky woman, but her luck seems to change after her twin sister Amelia’s wedding ends with almost everyone sick from food poisoning. The only ones who dodged it are Olive and Ethan Thomas, the brother of Amelia’s new husband. Olive and Ethan can’t stand each other, and when Amelia insists that the two of them enjoy the prebooked Hawaiian honeymoon, which would be wasted on the unwell newlyweds, Olive is sure this will be the worst vacation ever. Instead, she finds herself having fun and rethinking her enmity with Ethan, who slowly reveals himself to be a genuinely decent guy. Lauren brilliantly wields familiar rom-com tropes—enemies to lovers, fake marriage, even height differences—to craft a delightful romance that will have readers hanging on every word.
Newbery Medalist MacLachlan again concisely and authentically conveys character and emotion in this novel about two siblings spending the summer on their grandparents’ Deer Island farm. When redheaded Louisa, almost 12 and a “secret writer,” resolutely tells her grandmother, Boots, “I hate change,” the wise woman replies that change can help “you find out who you are.” And change does, in fact, expand Louisa’s sense of self and connection with others. Her innate bond with her grandfather Jake strengthens as he loses his eyesight, and when Jake introduces her to brown-skinned George, a young friend and neighbor whom he’s teaching to drive, Louisa recognizes the perceptive and eloquent boy as a kindred spirit who “makes change sound more interesting to me.” MacLachlan tenderly captures their instantaneous friendship, burgeoning attraction, and uncanny ability to communicate nonverbally—a skill endearingly shared by Boots and Jake. Louisa’s younger brother Theo, a sensitive bookworm who longs to live on the island full-time, instigates another pivotal change that rewardingly caps this resonant story of community, love new and old, and embracing the unknown. Ages 8–12.
Set in 1922, Edgar finalist Massey’s second whodunit featuring Bombay attorney Perveen Mistry is even better than the series’ impressive debut, 2018’s The Widows of Malabar Hill. Sir David Hobson-Jones, a top adviser to the governor of India, approaches Perveen, who has bucked gender prejudices to become one of India’s only female lawyers, on behalf of the Kolhapur Agency, a British civil service entity in need of a legal investigator to handle a delicate situation in the small state of Satapur. The state’s two maharanis are involved in a bitter debate over where the current maharajah, 10-year-old Jiva Reo, should be educated. Because the maharanis avoid contact with men, the authorities view Perveen as the ideal person to talk with them and issue an educational recommendation. Despite her misgivings at working for her country’s occupiers, Perveen accepts the assignment, only to learn that the two previous rulers of Satapur died within the last two years, leading her to fear that Reo is also at risk. The winning, self-sufficient Perveen should be able to sustain a long series.
In his fantastic first novel (after the graphic novel Butcher Paper), Mills provides a clever twist on the high school bildungsroman. Set in an alternate 1990s, Darryl and Kanga Livery are twin brothers dealing with the typical angst of freshman year, except that they are also robots. After their parents (also robots) disappeared five years ago, Darryl took over as caregiver for the more reckless Kanga. Unfortunately, the brothers live in the robophobic city of Hectorville, Mich., and thus must conceal their true identities or risk destruction at the hands of their neighbors. Staying safe means acting as human as possible while hiding that they sweat oil and grease, plug into electrical outlets to recharge, and can’t digest food. But when Kanga develops a preternatural talent for basketball, the brothers’ lives come under dangerous scrutiny. Kanga begins to rely less on his brother and puts both their lives on the line by hanging out with robot-killing teammate James Botty. In turn, Darryl becomes less cautious while pursuing the affections of Brooke Noon, the oddball basketball team manager. Mills creates a world where what it means to be a teenager is deliciously complicated, and Darryl, a consummate yet dissatisfied robot struggling to figure out his own programming, ends up being a wonderful guide to it. While the ending doesn’t tie up all the story’s myriad implications, this intelligent comedy will captivate readers.
In his bold second novel, Porter (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers) combines pastoral, satire, and fable in the entrancing tale of a boy who vanishes from an idyllic British village in the present day. Lanny is an elfin, perpetually singing child “more obviously made of the same atoms as the earth than most people these days seem to be.” He is a mystery to his parents, recent transplants to the picturesque, increasingly fashionable (and expensive) town: the mother is a former actress working on a gruesome novel, and the father’s a yuppie commuting to London. Lanny’s somewhat cloying eccentricity (“Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”) captivates a reclusive artist, “Mad Pete,” who gives him drawing lessons, and enchants Dead Papa Toothwort, the town’s ancient and resilient presiding spirit: “[The villagers] build new homes, cutting into his belt, and he pops up adapted, to scare and define.” Toothwort is a mischievous, Green Man–esque deity who prowls the village “chew[ing] the noise of the place” and especially enjoys feasting on Lanny’s song. When Lanny goes missing, the suspicion falls on Mad Pete, and the resulting media blitz turns the village into a “hideous ecosystem of voyeurism,” exposing its rifts and class resentments. In the novel’s satisfying conclusion, Toothwort stages a hallucinatory play that reveals Lanny’s fate. This is a dark and thrilling excavation into a community’s legend-packed soil.
Through a range of forms—tercets, prose hybrids, lyric strophes, and more—the poems in Scenters-Zapico’s second collection (after The Verging Cities) incisively interrogate the aesthetics of cultural difference. “I want you/ to say my name like the word: lemon./Say it like the word: limón. Undress me/in strands of rind,” remarks the speaker in the opening poem. Scenters-Zapico, who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border, examines this cross-cultural overlap, positing her speaker as being at once self and other, and suggesting the internalized gaze of the predominant culture. She provocatively reveals her speakers as being complicit in their own exotification and objectification, as she implores, “I want to be lemons in the bowl/ on the cover of the magazine.” Scenters-Zapico’s formal dexterity serves the book’s subject, as the instability of the language mirrors and complicates the speaker’s self-aware performances of cultural difference. In “My Macho Takes Good Care of Me,” she writes: “because he’s a citizen de los united estates./ I got a stove this big, a refri this full, a mirror/ just to see my pretty face.” Here, the speaker performs gendered tropes of femininity to serve her own material gain. Yet the neat tercets evoke her containment, problematizing the narrative itself. Throughout the collection, Scenters-Zapico inhabits an interstitial space between languages, forms, and traditions, evoking the fluidity of the self.
In this powerful investigation into intimate partner abuse, journalist and professor Snyder (Fugitive Denim) makes the case that “domestic violence, rather than being a private problem, is a most urgent matter of public health.” She humanizes the price tag—victims in the U.S. collectively miss more than eight million days of work per year, and health-care costs borne by taxpayers exceed $8 billion annually—with closely observed, compassionate portraits of victims, advocates, abusers, and police. She also examines the interplay of culture, circumstance, and shame that keeps women with abusive partners, displaying a thorough understanding of systemic problems, including the lethal combination of common contributing factors, among them poverty, addiction, narcissism, and easy access to guns (in the U.S., 50 women a month are shot and killed by their partners). Balancing the gut-wrenching stories are hopeful explorations of resources that could prevent domestic homicides, including the Danger Assessment instrument used by medical professionals to assess an abuse partner’s risk; programs that try to rehabilitate offenders; and comprehensive approaches to victim protection, such as that of DASH in Washington, D.C., which offers shelter to victims without disrupting their access to their homes, jobs, or communities. Penetrating and wise, and written in sometimes novelistic prose, Synder’s sobering analysis will reward readers’ attention.
The 22 elegant short stories in this posthumous collection highlight the international perspective, melancholy tone, humor, and compassion of Italian author Tabucchi (1943–2012). A scholar of Portuguese literature, Tabucchi writes about Portugal with wistful familiarity. In “The Reversal Game,” the narrator—a scholar of Portuguese literature—visits Lisbon after the death of a woman he secretly conspired with to help exiled Portuguese writers communicate with their families. Other narrators include a female impersonator in “Letter from Casablanca” and an eel fisherman turned murderer turned fado singer in “The Woman of Porto Pim.” In “Riddle,” an antique auto restorer drives a countess to Biarritz in her Bugatti. Settings include rural and urban Italy, Argentina, France, Greece, India, Portugal, and Spain. Reality and fiction, lies and illusions, overlap. In “The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico,” fantastic beasts from another dimension model for the Renaissance painter. The dark ambiance of political repression infuses “Night, Sea, or Distance,” set in the last days of the Salazar regime, and “Islands,” where a prisoner asks a favor of a prison guard. The postscript describes mankind from the point of view of a whale. Despite multiple translators and works spanning three decades, Tabucchi’s intelligence and humane perspective shine throughout this thoughtful, noteworthy volume.