This week: a scientist’s race to save her husband from a deadly superbug, plus a shiver-inducing Icelandic thriller.
The savory second book in Camp’s Crescent City series (following The City of Lost Fortunes) is that rare, welcome sequel that can be enjoyed just as easily as a standalone story. Renaissance “Renai” Raines has guided souls to the Underworld for the five years since her death and resurrection. When mysterious teenager Ramses St. Cyr escapes from destiny—and from Renai—she’s thrown into a tangled world of New Orleans gods, magic, and dangerous deals. Renai’s second outing is as raucous as her first, and the magic is just as double-edged and slippery. Camp crafts a journey through New Orleans’s spirit underworld that’s whimsical as well as grim and sometimes horrific. Renai is a real standout of a heroine, a powerful African-American woman cutting through bad or desperate situations in living and dead realms of increasing chaos, armed with snark, courage, and a storm of magic drawn from deep within her. This will be a feast for all lovers of urban and dark fantasy.
While fellow inmates at the Westbrook prison in upstate New York are rioting, an erudite unnamed Sri Lankan intellectual attempts to put into words his philosophy, personal history, and, eventually, the events that led up to the riot in Chapman’s funny and excellent debut. The narrator has barricaded himself in the Media Center, trying to finish what could be the final issue of his in-house magazine, The Holding Pen. The narrative gets its most solid comic charge from the ironic disparity between the rough circumstances of prison life and the incongruous need of humans to intellectualize. The narrator reports that just before another inmate was stabbed in the yard, “he said: ‘Time makes fools of us all.’” Later he recounts the tale of inept would-be suicide Fritz, who can’t “master the hangman’s noose, he kept falling to his cell floor in a blooper of self-abnegation.” While the narrator documents his uneasy adjustment to prison life and his complex relationship with a pen pal, he is most concerned with his legacy within the niche world of “post-penal literary magazines.” He confesses early on: “I am the architect of the Caligulan melee enveloping Westbrook’s galleries and flats.” The explanation for this claim is offered in spoonfuls; it’s mostly a MacGuffin for protracted yarn spinning and Chapman’s dazzling virtuosity. Supremely mischievous and sublimely written, this is a stellar work.
Collins’s debut is a powerful portrayal of the horrors of slavery and the injustices of British society’s treatment of former slaves in the early 1800s. Frannie Langton lives as John Langton’s slave in Jamaica from 1812 until 1825. When the harvest burns, ownership of the land reverts to Langton’s wife and her brother, and Langton returns to London with Frannie. Once in London, he gives Frannie as a servant to fellow scientist George Benham and his wife, Meg, a woman intrigued by Frannie and the breadth of her education. Benham asks Frannie to spy on Meg, whom he thinks might do something to embarrass him socially; meanwhile, Frannie and Meg become lovers. But when Benham and Meg are murdered, Frannie is arrested. She claims no memory of the crime, and a good defense seems unlikely both because of her race and her spotty memory. Frannie’s dislike of Benham, her jealousy of his relationship with Meg, and memory gaps caused by Frannie’s use of laudanum add to the reader’s uncertainty of her involvement. This is both a highly suspenseful murder mystery and a vivid historical novel, but best of all is the depiction of Frannie, a complex and unforgettable protagonist. This is a great book sure to find a wide—and deserved—audience.
Flowers’s exploration of black women’s relationships to their hair is rich with both sorrow and celebration as it champions black womanhood and family ties. In a series of comics vignettes, Flowers journeys through a first salon trip, a long-running case of trauma-generated trichotillomania (obsessive hair-pulling), and the collision of pain and piety that is a beloved matriarch’s funeral. How black hair is treated (literally and symbolically) becomes the lens to explore both oppression and community. In the title story, her mother frets over the loss of Flowers’s carefree innocence as she receives her first perm, while another installment shares her younger sister’s excruciating visibility as the only black girl on her softball team. Her portrayal of motherhood is particularly affecting: only in the company of other women, engaging in the intimate rituals of hair care, do mothers voice their joy, worry, and anger. The artwork is joyfully tangled, its densely looped lines creating panels that reflect the characters’ crowded environs (with witty reproductions of classic hair care ads interspersed); Lynda Barry is credited as Flowers’s mentor, and her style influence is apparent in this exuberance. Flowers’s vibrant and immersive coming-of-age tales are set in a world that may often be cruel, but is never without communion (and some funny moments)—even if she’s got to endure a few chemical burns along the way.
Jónasson’s masterly sequel to 2018’s The Darkness opens with a cryptic prologue set in a town just south of Reykjavík in 1988. A seven-year-old girl puzzles her parents after they return home one night by saying that both of her babysitters were kind, though only one babysitter had been with her. Flash back to a year earlier, when an unnamed 20-year-old woman takes her boyfriend, Benedikt, to her family’s summer home on the island of Ellidaey down the coast from Reykjavík, where she tells him stories about Iceland’s history of witch-burning in the 17th century. That outing ends in murder, and corruption mars the subsequent police inquiry. A decade later, Insp. Hulda Hermannsdóttir, who was passed over for promotion at the time of that flawed investigation, takes charge when another dead body turns up on Ellidaey with a connection to the previous murder. The link between the babysitter’s mysterious companion and the murders gradually becomes clear as the plot builds to a shiver-inducing conclusion. Jónasson delivers a mind-bending look into human darkness that earns its twists.
Deception Cove, Wash., “a rainy-day kind of place” that’s the atmospheric setting of this superior standalone from Thriller Award finalist Laukkanen (Gale Force), is home to Jess Winslow, a Marine veteran whose service in Afghanistan left her with PTSD. Jess’s husband, Ty, drowned while drunk, and her only companion is Lucy, a therapy dog. Jess receives an unsettling late-night visit from a power-hungry local deputy, Kirby Harwood, who insists that Jess must know the location of a package belonging to him that Ty possessed. Harwood is unwilling to accept Jess’s protestations of ignorance, and his menacing posture prompts Lucy to attack him. When ex-convict Mason Burke, who just finished a prison sentence for homicide in Michigan, hears that Lucy has been designated for destruction after this incident, he’s sure that the dog he took pride in training behind bars wouldn’t have turned violent without good cause. Mason treks out to Deception Cove to save Lucy, a mission that inevitably puts him at odds with Harwood. A crackerjack plot enhances the moving portrayals of the leads’ inner lives. Laukkanen has never been better.
Pitoniak’s fantastic sophomore effort (after The Futures) concerns what happens when ambitious plain Jane Violet Trapp finds her social and professional territory impinged upon by her narcissistic and charming best friend Stella Bradley. After meeting in college, Stella and Violet fall into roles in which the former, a beautiful heiress, lives a life of excess from which the latter constantly has to save her. Once they graduate, Stella travels the world, while Violet works hard as an intern at the cable news network KCN, quickly rising through the ranks. Violet sees her job as a means to get as far away as she can from her childhood of poverty and abuse, and also a way to flourish in a world where unfocused Stella is always the brightest star. Resenting Violet’s ascendency, Stella uses her connections to get a foot in the door at KCN, where she promptly steals Violet’s thunder by getting promoted and receiving credit for a story that was Violet’s brainchild; she also starts dating Violet’s good pal Jamie. Stella’s about to ink a multimillion-dollar contract when Jamie dumps her, sending her off the deep end. The friends have a huge fight before a fateful incident, leading Violet to wonder if Stella will ruin her one way or another. This stirring character study and treatise on the dark sides of ambition, friendship, family, and privilege will hook readers from the get-go.
In his sublime first novel (following the story collection Inherited Disorders), which recalls the nested monologues of Thomas Bernhard and the cerebral farces of Donald Antrim, Sachs demonstrates the difficulty of getting inside other people’s heads (literally and figuratively) and out of one’s own. In 1666, a young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—the philosopher who invented calculus—treks to the Bohemian mountains to “rigorously but surreptitiously assess” the sanity of an eyeless, unnamed astronomer who is predicting an impending eclipse. Should the blind recluse’s prediction come to pass, Leibniz reasons, it would leave “the laws of optics in a shambles... and the human eye in a state of disgrace.” In the hours leading up to the expected eclipse, the astronomer, whose father was Emperor Maximilian’s Imperial Sculptor (and the fabricator of an ingenious mechanical head), tells Leibniz his story. As a young man still in possession of his sight, he became Emperor Rudolf’s Imperial Astronomer in Prague, commissioning ever longer telescopes, an “astral tube” whose exorbitant cost “seemed to spell the end of the Holy Roman Empire.” The astronomer also recounts his entanglements with the Hapsburgs, “a dead and damned family,” all of whom were mad or feigning madness. These transfixing, mordantly funny encounters with violent sons and hypochondriacal daughters stage the same dramas of revelation and concealment, reason and lunacy, doubt and faith, and influence and skepticism playing out between the astronomer and Leibniz. How it all comes together gives the book the feel of an intellectual thriller. Sachs’s talent is on full display in this brilliant work of visionary absurdism.
Music journalist and Record Collector contributor Scott creates a high-energy, interplanetary pop song of a book devoted to the six-week project led by Carl Sagan and astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1977 to create a playlist of music and sounds to accompany NASA’s Voyager probe into space. Scott, who acknowledges he is more of an expert on mixtapes than astronomy, proves an enthusiastic and upbeat guide through the universe of bureaucratic red tape, tight deadlines, and romantic entanglements that revolved around the compilation effort. His thoroughly researched account draws on interviews with and unpublished writings by Voyager Record team members to explain the decision-making process behind various inclusions, including Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll standard “Johnny B. Goode”—picked when the other pop song in contention, the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” proved unconscionably expensive —and legendary bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Is the Night,” “arguably the most haunting sound on the record,” for which team member and famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax lobbied. Scott summarizes the story best as being “about an awesome band of ordinary yet exceptional individuals who created a wonderful yet genuinely weird monument.” Delivered with effortless grace, this buoyant look at one of NASA’s most unusual but oft-overlooked efforts will appeal to music fans and astronomy buffs alike.
Stanley (Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon), an NYU science history professor, places Einstein’s theory of relativity in valuable historical context in this impressive work of popular science. A century after its formulation, the theory stands as “one of the essential pillars” of modern scientific knowledge; but initially, Stanley explains, it went largely unnoticed. Thanks to the closed borders and national hatreds of WWI, it was blocked from wide dissemination outside Germany, particularly in Britain, where all things German were regarded with suspicion. Stanley dramatically relates how, by chance, in 1916, a summary of Einstein’s examination of time and space was received by one of the few British scientists both capable of and open to weighing the theory on its own merits, astronomer Arthur Eddington, who, like Einstein, was a pacifist and internationalist convinced that scientific discovery had no borders. He became the theory’s champion, and in 1919 performed an experiment during a solar eclipse to verify that, as Einstein thought, light has weight. Stanley’s well-told and impressively readable chronicle delivers a wider, and still relevant, message that how science is performed is inextricable from other aspects of people’s lives.
Epidemiologist Strathdee and psychiatrist Patterson are vacationing in Egypt in 2015 at the onset of this gripping and intriguing medical thriller. After crawling into a pyramid, Patterson falls violently ill. Strathdee, his wife, initially attributes his sickness to food poisoning, but doctors in an Egyptian clinic soon diagnose acute pancreatitis, later found to be complicated by a football-sized pseudocyst infected with an antibiotic-resistant superbug. Eventually medivaced home to San Diego, Patterson is hospitalized while Strathdee balances her role as a loving caregiver with a “pit bull scientist’s” determination to save her 69-year-old husband. He suffers several bouts of septic shock, goes into coma, and is placed on a ventilator. With the support of a global team of doctors and researchers, Strathdee pursues a nearly forgotten century-old treatment called phage therapy, which employs a virus administered through drains and IV, “the perfect predator,” to wage battle against the menacing bacteria. After eight weeks of phage therapy and a total of nine months in the hospital, Patterson is discharged to his home, where he continues to improve. Along with the chronicle of Patterson’s struggle is the authors’ incisive commentary on the alarming superbug problem worldwide, which they assert is perhaps even more concerning to the human race than climate change. This page-turner of a couple’s determination to survive also serves as a dire warning regarding the consequences of the overuse of antibiotics.