This week: new books from Clive Cussler and Jennifer Weiner, plus a very creepy novel about a writing M.F.A. program.
Creepy yet benign, this leisurely graphic novel opens on the autumn equinox, when a community sends paper lanterns down a river. Five boys and a bullied tagalong science fanatic named Nathaniel make a pact to find out where the lanterns go. They pedal their bikes along a deserted road, but the vow proves daunting, and Nathaniel and the narrator, Ben, are soon alone on a bridge at the edge of town. They pledge to soldier on, unaware of a hulking shadow creature that rises from the river below. Ben approaches their subsequent adventures with trepidation, while Nathaniel greets every vertiginous cliff and bottomless lake with a gleeful grin. They take up with a fellow traveler, a stylish anthropomorphic bear who seeks to catch the floating lights, which are rumored to turn into fish en route to the stars. Andrews (Nothing Is Forgotten for adults) crafts a phantasmagoria of events that recall animation from Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon. Scenes unfold beneath the Milky Way in twilit dark-blue and charcoal-gray panels, while flashbacks and industrial interiors in glowing ember hues amplify a simmering sense of threat. Picaresque episodes and a dreamlike resolution conjure a giddy sensation, like staying up all night. Ages 10–14.
Growing old could be much more graceful if doctors would give it some attention, according to this penetrating meditation on geriatrics. UC San Francisco medical professor Aronson (A History of the Present Illness) mines her experience as a geriatrician for insights into the ways society excludes and fails old people. The book’s heart is her gripping insider’s critique of modern medicine and the invasive, agonizing, and often “futile or harmful” treatments with which it battles disease while ignoring overall well-being. Drawing on intimate, often harrowing case studies of patients and the mistakes made by their doctors (including, painfully, her own missteps), Aronson sleuths out how a callous, clueless medical-industrial complex makes things harder for oldsters in ways small—pill bottles that can’t be opened by arthritic hands—and large. (Aronson discovered that a patient seemingly dying of Parkinson’s disease was actually suffering from a “drug cascade” of medications prescribed to treat the side effects of other medications.) Less cogent in the sprawling text are her musings on the consolations of “elderhood,” which don’t convince when placed against the generally grim picture she paints. Still, Aronson’s deep empathy, hard-won knowledge, and vivid reportage makes for one of the best accounts around of the medical mistreatment of the old.
Awad’s outstanding novel follows the highly addictive, darkly comedic tale of sardonic Samantha Mackey, a fiction MFA student at a top-tier New England school. There, four of her fellow writers are a ghoulish clique of women who cryptically refer to each other as “Bunny.” To outsiders, the Bunnies come across as insipid with their colorful, patterned dresses and perfect hair. Samantha feels more grounded after her first year and after meeting Ava, who becomes her only friend, over the summer break. Samantha dreads the Bunnies’ return upon learning the four of them are the only other participants in her writing workshop; once in class, they dismiss her work while praising their own. The trajectory of Samantha’s life alters after she receives an unexpected invitation from the Bunnies to join them. Samantha’s desire for acceptance leads her down a dangerous path into the Bunnies’ rabbit hole, which begins with them drinking weird concoctions and reading erotic poetry together in sessions they call the “Smut Salon.” Soon, though, Samantha begins to believe in the Bunnies’ views, becomes unreliable as a narrator, and willingly participates in their increasingly twisted games. Awad (13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl) will have readers racing to find out how it all ends—and they won’t be disappointed once the story reaches its wild finale. This is an enchanting and stunningly bizarre novel.
Cutting-edge science drives this intelligent, mind-bending thriller from bestseller Crouch (Dark Matter). Neuroscientist Helena Smith, whose mother has dementia, has devoted herself to studying the biology of memory. She seeks “a way to save memories for deteriorating brains that can no longer retrieve them.” Her struggle to find grants for her work ends in 2007 when inventor and philanthropist Marcus Slade offers her carte blanche to pursue her work on his facility located on a repurposed oil rig in the Pacific Ocean—unlimited funding, whatever computing power she needs, and a team of highly skilled scientists. Helena’s research leads to some disturbing results. Meanwhile, in 2018 Manhattan, a woman jumps to her death from a tall building after telling the NYPD detective trying to save her that she has false memories of being married to a man whose first wife jumped from the same building 15 years earlier. Crouch effortlessly integrates sophisticated philosophical concepts—such as the relationship of human perceptions of what is real to actual reality—into a complex and engrossing plot. Michael Crichton’s fans won’t want to miss this one.
In the prologue of bestseller Cussler’s exceptional 11th Sam and Remi Fargo adventure (after 2018’s The Gray Ghost, also coauthored with Burcell), Gelimer, the king of the Vandals, consults an oracle in a North African town in 533 C.E. Gelimer must retrieve a stolen scroll and return it to its rightful owner if his kingdom is to survive. The kingdom falls before he can find the scroll, whose location remains a mystery until the present day, when some clues turn up in an archaeological dig sponsored by Sam and Remi’s foundation. Meanwhile, the theft of a shipment of supplies to the girls’ school the Fargos support in Nigeria prompts the couple to travel from California to Africa to deliver replacement supplies. The subsequent kidnapping of Remi and some of the school girls by robbers appears to be related to the missing scroll. Witty dialogue, loads of detail about the local culture and food, and plenty of red herrings will delight Cussler fans. This entry may be the best yet in the series.
In the title tale of this collection, the main character identifies the mood of disorienting uncertainty that pervades all 22 unsettling stories when he ponders a world “that was always threatening to come unraveled around him.” In “Line of Sight,” one of three stories that juxtapose movie make-believe to everyday life, an actor on set is startled to glimpse something peering out at him through “a seam where reality had been imperfectly fused.” The viewpoint characters of “The Glistening World” and “Wanderlust” are disturbed by their paranoid perception that they are being followed by persons with inscrutable motives. “Sisters” is a ghoulish lark about a strange family whose exploration of ordinary Halloween traditions reveals their own Addams Family–like proclivities. Most of these stories are carefully calibrated exercises in ambiguity in which Evenson (Windeye) leaves it unclear how much of the off-kilterness exists outside of the deep-seated pathologies that motivate his characters. His work will hold great appeal for fans of subtly unnerving dark fantasy.
Ginder’s charming fourth novel (after The People We Hate at the Wedding) chronicles a trip that classics professor Sue Ellen Wright takes with her family to Greece, where they stay at a hotel run by Eleni Papadakis, the daughter of Sue Ellen’s former lover. Sue Ellen catches her husband, Dean, a famous writer, having an affair with a producer. In an effort to try to move forward together as a family, Dean proposes that he and their son, Will, accompany Sue Ellen on a gig to lecture to a group of cruise-goers at their stop in Aegina. Will’s about to graduate college and is feeling both aimless and overshadowed by his dad. He plagiarizes one of Dean’s unpublished pieces and later panics when he learns from his classmate Ginny that it’s going to be featured in the school’s lit journal. Ginny is pregnant and plans to confront Dean, who left her a month ago. Sue Ellen bonds with Eleni and reveals how she loved Eleni’s father, Christos, years ago. Eleni, meanwhile, is still smarting from Christos’s death and can’t wait to sell the hotel to Swiss developers. Matters come to a head when Ginny locates Dean, Eleni has second thoughts about the sale, and Will learns something shocking from Dean’s latest book. Ginder’s writing is funny and evocative; it skillfully touches on the passage of time in a family and in a marriage while effortlessly shifting points of view. Fans of clever, wistful stories will find much to love, and also appreciate the bonus classics tidbits.
Lim serves up love, loss, heritage, and hints of the supernatural on a silver platter in this magical and mouthwatering debut. Seven years after aspiring chef Natalie Tan’s relationship with her agoraphobic mother ends in a blazing fight, Natalie’s mother dies, and Natalie returns to the apartment they shared in San Francisco’s Chinatown to plan her mother’s funeral. She finds the lively neighborhood where she grew up on the verge of economic collapse and her childhood home full of secrets. Among them is the boarded-up ground-level space they lived above—Natalie’s grandmother’s famed Chinese restaurant, now her inheritance. Everyone who looks at Natalie sees her mother and grandmother, often before they see Natalie for herself, and she feels haunted by her ancestors’ successes as much as by her own failures. When a mystic predicts Natalie’s attempts to revive the eatery will succeed only if she uses her grandmother’s recipes, Natalie undertakes the mammoth task of resurrecting both her lost culinary dreams and her family legacy, and the neighborhood she abandoned soon feels like the one place she’s meant to be. This eminently filmable tale of finding one’s own path while honoring one’s history is delicious and spellbinding.
Mason, author of the YA novel The Last Synapsid, makes his adult debut with an audacious historical thriller. In 1860, Chief Det. Insp. Charles Field, the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in Dickens’s Bleak House, is part of the added security force for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert after several assassination attempts. One day, Field is guarding the route the royal couple’s carriage is taking through London when he spots 18-year-old pickpocket Stevie Patchen, who appears to be holding a weapon. Field tackles Patchen, only to realize that the youth was a decoy. The actual gunman, Philip Rendell, a former bookkeeper, is able to fire only a few stray shots at the carriage before he’s apprehended. In the ensuing confusion, someone cuts Patchen’s throat and removes one ear, leading Field to suspect a conspiracy. The intelligent plot features prominent figures of the time, including Karl Marx, who may have a link to Rendell, and Charles Darwin, whose heretical theory of evolution has unsettled some very powerful men. Wry prose and vivid period detail help make Mason’s speculations feel plausible.
Insecurities, misunderstandings, and pride lead to a feud that ignites into passion in this sweet YA romance by Safi (Not the Girls You’re Looking For). In Los Angeles, Jewish-Mexican Rachel Recht is both poor and brilliant. She’s determined to make a name for herself as a director, and her next big steps all depend on her senior project, which is coming apart at the seams. Then her film teacher forces her to cast her archnemesis, perpetually perfect cheerleader Sana Khan, in a film to showcase by the end of the month. Mean-while, Persian–South Asian Sana is chafing under living up to her family’s expectations that she attend Princeton and become a surgeon. When Sana begins to work closely with her crush-turned-enemy, she is forced out of predictable patterns and in turn helps Rachel resolve some of her aggression. As the two of them embrace their feelings for each other, they find the confidence to step into the futures each hopes to create. A beautifully diverse cast, a hopeful look at growing up, and a blossoming spring romance between well-developed characters are sure to spark joy in teen readers. Ages 13–up.
History professor Stein (Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement) presents a comprehensive collection of 200 transcribed documents from the early stages of the LGBTQ rights movement, centered around the riots at the Stonewall Inn. The book’s first section traces the causes of the riots through, among other documents, legal rulings attesting to an increase in harassment by police, who arrested gay bar patrons on trumped-up charges of “disorderly conduct.” The second section collects eyewitness perspectives on the riots themselves, highlighting fascinating discrepancies in rhetoric; for example, while the New York Times reported that “hundreds of young men went on a rampage,” LGBTQ organization the Mattachine Society compared a patrolling policeman to “a slave-owner surveying the plantation.” The third section focuses on the four years post-riots, as activists of vastly different political persuasions and identities attempted to form a united front featuring “influences of anticolonial politics, antiwar protest, black radicalism, countercultural activism, and women’s liberation.” Stein is a capable curator ; his insightful opening essay and brief introductions to the chapters provide needed context, but he refrains from editorializing, leaving the documents to speak for themselves. This worthwhile dive into LGBTQ history unearths many little-known documents and presents them in a manner accessible to scholars and ordinary readers alike.
Striking imagery and sharp, distinctive language shimmer in Wieland’s haunting fifth novel (following Land of Enchantment), which imagines American poet Elizabeth Bishop as a young woman. It opens in 1930 as the Vassar student struggles with her attraction to women, alcohol’s seductive comfort, and her literary gifts. In 1934, she graduates from college and learns that her mother, who fantasized about killing Elizabeth and was permanently committed to a psychiatric institution when Bishop was five, has died. Grappling with loss, loneliness, and longing for the mothering she never received, in 1936, Bishop travels with her friend Louise Crane to Paris despite news of Hitler’s rising threat. They rent the apartment of American expat Clara de Chambrun, whose only daughter died at 19. Bishop is ambivalent about Clara’s need for a daughter figure, but when the older woman enlists her help in rescuing two Jewish infants being smuggled out of Germany, she can’t refuse. Wieland makes scrupulous use of known fact in crafting her fictional narrative, but neither rehashes familiar biography nor attempts literal interpretations of Bishop’s poems or life. Instead, her dreamlike juxtapositions of the searing and the sensual probe the artistic process, the power of the mother-daughter bond, and the creative coming-of-age of one of America’s greatest poets.
Bestseller Weiner brilliantly crafts this heartwrenching multigenerational tale of love, loss, and family, which is partly inspired by Little Women. As sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman move into a new home in Detroit in 1951, they are excited by all of the possibilities it offers—then their beloved father dies. Bethie, the “perfect” child, is repeatedly molested by her father’s younger brother, which drives her into an eating disorder and later into drug use. Jo, a daddy’s girl who epically clashes with her mother, realizes early on that she prefers to date women, but after her girlfriend marries a man, Jo likewise finds a husband and bears three daughters. Eventually, both sisters follow their hearts, even when it’s tremendously difficult. Weiner’s talent for characterization, tight pacing, and detail will thrill her fans and easily draw new ones into her orbit. Her expert handling of difficult subjects—abortion, rape, and racism among them—will force readers to examine their own beliefs and consider unexpected nuances. Weiner tugs every heartstring with this vivid tale.
The search for an eternal life potion weaves through raw emotion, scientific curiosity, and heartbreak in Wolff’s intoxicating debut. On the first day of his senior year of high school in Maine in 2010, 16-year-old Conrad learns his chemistry teacher and secret lover Sammy Tampari has died in an apparent suicide. Conrad comes home from school dazed, only to find a package from Sammy that contains journals and a key to storage unit. He discovers that Sammy has long been testing an immortality elixir on himself. Conrad enlists best friend RJ to duplicate the substance in hopes of healing his father’s fatal liver disease and RJ’s sister’s muscular dystrophy. Conrad reads, in Sammy’s journals, about Sammy’s depressed childhood and globetrotting search for ingredients first with his overly forgiving girlfriend Catherine and then with boyfriend Sadiq. Wolff blends the journal entries and other flashbacks with ease, incorporating vignettes of historical figures who were drawn to the search for eternal life, as well as the future, and of Conrad’s 40th birthday and his husband’s brain cancer diagnosis. The epic sweep and sly humor in the midst of enormous anguish will remind readers of Michael Chabon’s work as they relish this heady exploration of grief, alchemy, and love.