This week: new books from Darcey Steinke, Catherine Chung, and more.
Still traumatized three years after being assaulted during her pregnancy near her South London home, the unnamed novelist who narrates this lyrical suspense novel from Baker (Longbourn) leaps at the offer of a university lectureship in rural Lancashire, even though it means she and her toddler son will be separated from her husband, who can’t leave his teaching job in London. The move will indeed change everything—but hardly the way she hopes. For starters, their rose-covered rented house redefines remote. And then there are the unanticipated challenges presented by her creative writing students—in particular, the most talented but also most troubling one, Nicholas Palmer, whose seemingly autobiographical work in progress centers on a young woman who dies under mysterious circumstances. Though Nicholas starts pushing for an inappropriate personal relationship with the narrator, his writing skill makes her loathe to establish firm boundaries—a decision that backfires catastrophically after a Christmas party. Soon she’s fighting to save her job, her marriage, and even her life. All too plausible, Baker’s powerful tale is at times heart-rending to read—and impossible to put down.
The unnamed artist who narrates this exceptional thriller from Bourland (I’ll Eat When I’m Dead) is finally enjoying success and financial freedom in her career. Then disaster strikes when a fire in her New York City loft/studio destroys Rich Ugly Old Maids, her newest series of seven paintings, which she considered her “crowning glory.” Out of desperation, she assures her gallerist that only one was destroyed. Now she has three months to recreate her large, intricate oil paintings for a Paris show. She secures space at a sprawling former upstate summer resort, the home of art collective Pine City and her idol, sculptor Carey Logan, whose suicide by drowning three years earlier served as a turning point in the artist’s work. She feverishly dives into painting and falls hard and fast for Carey’s paramour, Tyler Savage, soon becoming consumed by the mystery of Carey’s last days, her rumored final work, and what drove her to suicide. Bourland expertly shines a light on the nature of female ambition and desire and the often dark heart of inspiration. Readers fascinated with the blood, sweat, and tears of creating art will be especially rewarded.
Contributed by a multicultural group of authors, including Jay Coles, Sara Farizan, and Sandhya Menon, and representing a blending of genres and cultures, this #OwnVoices anthology considers the ways that food can feed both body and soul. Interconnected stories follow different inhabitants of Hungry Heart Row, where the residents are close and the myriad restaurants and bakeries feed more than just a hungry stomach. In Rebecca Roanhorse’s startling “The Missing Ingredient,” a biracial daughter just wants her mother to move on from her late Native American father’s failing restaurant. In Rin Chupeco’s vividly imagined “Sugar and Spite,” the magic whispered into Old Manila’s Soup No. 5 comes with a careful interview to make sure it’s used correctly. And Elsie Chapman’s “Kings and Queens” explores the burdens of serving dishes that can send a message of forgiveness or certain death. Emphasizing the importance of love, family, and culture, and written with delectable descriptions, each story is best savored like a favorite dish: slowly and with great relish. Ages 12–up.
Chung’s impressive, poignant second novel (after Forgotten Country) explores the intersections of intellectual and familial legacies. Nearing the end of her life but still on the verge of solving the elusive Riemann hypothesis, Katherine is a noted mathematician who did her graduate work in the mid-20th century, at a time when women scholars were still a rarity. As Katherine recounts the highs and lows of her academic and romantic pursuits, she reflects on the various discoveries she’s pursued—both in her field of study and into her family history—inquiries that became inextricable while Katherine was pursuing her doctorate at MIT and learning revelations about her parentage following her father’s heart attack. Having grown up believing herself the daughter of a white father and a Chinese mother, Katherine is stunned to learn the truth of her family history. The stories of betrayal and sacrifice also end up informing her professional work in surprising ways through a storyline involving stolen math proofs. Chung persuasively interweaves myths and legends with the real-world stories of lesser-known women mathematicians and of WWII on both the European and Asian fronts. The legacy that Katherine inherits may defy the kinds of elegant proofs to which mathematicians aspire, but Chung’s novel boldly illustrates that truth and beauty can reside even amid the messiest solutions.
Coffin’s lyrical account of his eventful initiation into the world of amateur boxing takes readers to southeast Alaska. Unsettled after college, Coffin (A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants) sets out westward from Maine, finally landing in Sitka after a thousand-mile solo sea kayak trip. He tutors at-risk students and, feeling isolated, takes up boxing at the local gym, eventually signing up for a Roughhouse Friday, an event in which anyone can fight for three one-minute rounds. As Coffin measures himself against a motley assortment of local fighters—including a 57-year-old ivory carver and the “Hoonah Hooligan,” a high school legend from a Tlingit village—he confronts his own emotional displacement caused by the childhood divorce of his Thai mother and tough Vietnam vet father, who imparted ideals of manhood through “his versions of Arthurian legends.” In measured, lucid prose, Coffin writes of fight night scenes (“The fight ring stood in the middle of the barroom, over the dance floor, glowing beneath neon tubes of light”) and of the insecurity of angry young men. He finds that he is losing faith in his father’s heroic myths even as he struggles to embody them; nevertheless, it’s his father to whom he continually turns for answers up until the end. This is a powerful, wonderfully written exploration of one’s sense of manhood.
The first epic space opera from fantasist Gladstone (the Craft Sequence) incorporates wonder and wit to create a feminist, humanist playground of thought exercise. Viv Liao is a titan of industry, revered and feared in equal measure, and her enemies are coming for her, enraged by her acts of social consciousness. While making a last-ditch attempt to evade pursuit and save Earth from itself, she winds up in a Boston server farm from which she is transported on an Alice in Wonderland–esque trip through space. At once familiar and alien, this strange new setting terrifies Viv, but her powerful personality reasserts itself, and she’s soon in charge of a highly skilled, eclectic band of gods, monsters, and other strange beings who are pursuing their own agendas. All their stories revolve around the unofficial ruler of this universe, the Empress. Gladstone’s writing is delicate and precise, crafting a dense novel that introduces one mind-blowing concept after another, capitalizing on the concept of personal power while candidly addressing personal failure. This feast for the imagination intelligently captures the complexities of a variety of relationships in an adrenaline-fueled series of escapades and will leave readers both exhausted and elated.
In a searing and stylish debut, journalist Johnson delves into the consequences of America’s military presence in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, revealing a complicated web of sexual and racial politics. Two post-WWII treaties designed to prevent Japan from remilitarizing prompted the U.S. to establish a larger overseas military presence in Okinawa than anywhere else outside of the U.S. Johnson, who is Japanese-American, frames her investigation around the tale of the 2016 rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro by a former U.S. Marine working on Kadena Air Base. Over the course of 10 chapters, each focusing on a memorable woman she met in Okinawa, Johnson uses Shimabukuro’s death as a metaphor for the long-standing tensions between the Americans and Okinawans. The chapter on Sachiko Miyagi, who was a teenager put to work in a field hospital during the ferocious U.S. invasion of Okinawa, is chilling and heartbreaking; the story of Suzuyo Takazato, who cofounded Okinawa Women Against Military Violence in 1995, is interwoven with the history of rape by American servicemen in Okinawa. An accomplished storyteller, Johnson paints a nuanced portrait of Okinawa’s women as “players in the larger geopolitical game, influencing, challenging, and smoothing the way for the U.S.-Japan security alliance” who sometimes tell “truths others don’t want to hear.” This is a must-read look at the impact of the U.S.’s overseas military presence on the people who live near it, cultural collisions, and gendered violence.
Menasse’s witty but humane satire, his English-language fiction debut (after Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits), follows a sprawling, multinational cast grappling with the realities of European Union bureaucracy. Greek Fenia Xenapoulou detests her post as an executive of the budgetless, much-maligned culture department of the European Commission. She launches a desperate, determined effort for reassignment by proving herself with a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Commission. Austrian Martin Susman, in a feverish haze after a visit to Auschwitz, proposes centering the concentration camp as the birthplace of the European Union, while his brother who inherited the family’s pig farm pressures him to improve the negotiating power of pig farmers with China. Meanwhile, Brussels police inspector Émile Brunfaut tries to discover why his murder investigation is being officially squashed by his superiors, and Polish seminarian-turned-assassin Ryszard Oswiecki realizes his victim (and focus of Brunfaut’s murder investigation) was the wrong person. Other characters include Auschwitz survivor David de Vriend, who mourns the diminishing number of fellow survivors, and Austrian professor Alois Erhart, who grows frustrated with his new think tank colleagues and their conservative goals. All the characters bumble through bureaucratic meddling, language differences, and competing ambitions toward an open-ended yet rewarding conclusion. The massive cast never becomes unwieldy thanks to Menasse’s delightful prose. This epic, droll account of contemporary Europe will be catnip for fans of mosaic novels and comical political machinations.
Michel, codirector of Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, provides an unsettling but balanced look at technological advances in aerial surveillance. He provides helpful background to the issue, by explaining that the devastation wreaked by IEDs in early 2000s Iraq impelled the Pentagon to search for new ways of detecting concealed bombs and tracking the insurgents responsible for them. The result was the invention of powerful aerial surveillance systems, bearing such ominous names as Angel Fire, Constant Hawk, and Gorgon Stare, and in one case, as Michel vividly describes, capable of spotting “an object six inches wide from an altitude of 25,000 feet in a frame twice the width of Manhattan.” Avoiding the pitfall of coming across as anti-technology, Michel points out the potential benefits of these inventions beyond their original applications, such as in fighting forest fires and finding hurricane survivors. Despite such positives, he issues a trenchant warning about the opportunities for abuse. Alarming but not alarmist, this study leaves readers with an informative and persuasive look at how society might regulate cutting-edge technology to assure both individual privacy rights and the government’s ability to guard public safety.
Anna McDonald, the heroine of this spellbinding thriller from Edgar finalist Mina (The Long Drop), fled her personal problems in London and started over in Glasgow nine years earlier. She’s now engrossed in true-crime podcasts such as Death and the Dana, about a murdered family, a sunken yacht named the Dana, and a wrongful conviction. After Anna’s partner, Hamish, runs away with her best friend, Estelle, she and Estelle’s despondent husband, anorexic former rock star Fin Cohen, embark on a road trip, bingeing Death and the Dana while investigating its claims. Anna soon discovers that she has multiple ties to the tale. When a picture of her and Fin goes viral on social media, dangerous figures from Anna’s past get on their trail. The mysteries of Anna’s tragic history and the Dana’s true fate unfold in tandem, with podcast transcripts peppering the colorful narrative. Anna and Fin alternately bolster and antagonize one another, balancing introspections on modern life and human nature with laugh-out-loud humor. Mina delivers a metafictional marvel that both endorses and exemplifies the power of storytelling.
This searing small-town thriller from bestseller Miranda (The Perfect Stranger) explores the complexities of female friendship and the picturesque fictions that money can buy. Avery Greer, a native of Littleport, Maine, is at a house party with the town’s other 20-somethings awaiting her best friend, wealthy summer resident Sadie Loman, when the police arrive: Sadie’s body washed up on the rocks near her parents’ estate, and they want alibis from those in attendance. The discovery of a suicide note ends all talk of foul play, but Avery can’t fathom Sadie taking her own life. A year later, Avery uncovers new evidence that underscores her suspicions and inspires her to investigate. The deeper Avery digs, the more secrets she unearths that are worth killing to keep. Flashbacks to the night of Sadie’s death reveal fissures in the girls’ relationship, casting doubt on Avery’s honesty as a narrator. Sharply drawn characters both ground and elevate the bombshell-laden plot, while evocative prose heightens tension and conjures place. Miranda delivers a clever, stylish mystery that will seize readers like a riptide.
Passionately and fearlessly, Ribay (After the Shot Drops) delves into matters of justice, grief, and identity in this glimpse into the life and death of a fictional victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines. In Michigan, Filipino-American high school senior Jay Reguero is struggling to decide what to do with his life when the sudden death of his cousin Jun raises painful questions about the violent drug war, and an unknown Instagram user convinces Jay that his cousin was wrongly executed. Sick of his relatives’ refusal to discuss Jun’s death and guilty that he let their once-close pen pal friendship lapse, Jay convinces his parents to send him to the Philippines to reconnect with his extended family and—unbeknownst to them—look into the mystery surrounding Jun’s death. There, Jay connects with a culture he barely remembers from childhood visits and uncovers secrets that his cousin kept and his relatives are determined to forget. Ribay employs a delicate touch in portraying the tension inherent in growing up the child of two cultures, Filipino and American. Jay is a compelling character whose journey from sheltered and self-centered to mature, though clearly a work in progress, is well earned. Ages 14–up.
Simultaneously contemplative and messily visceral, this extraordinary fugue on menopause, a book “situated at the crossroads between the metaphysical and the biological,” centers on the experience of the aging woman. Finding a kinship with killer whales, the only other species that experiences menopause and lives long past the reproductive years, novelist Steinke (Sister Golden Hair) begins with Lolita, the female whale who has been kept in a tiny pool at the Miami Seaquarium since the 1970s, and ends with a trip to Seattle to see Granny, a 104-year-old pod matriarch. In between, Steinke describes the discomfort, panic and isolation that can be caused by hot flashes, sleeplessness, and emotional and cognitive shifts; explores both the frustration and appeal of the cultural invisibility of older women; and considers what it means to develop a sexuality that does not focus on intercourse. She affirms menopause as part of what it means to be female and human, in contrast to the medical view of menopause as a pathology to be treated with hormone replacements and vaginal rejuvenation. Her ability to translate physical and emotional experiences into words will make menopausal readers feel profoundly seen and move others. (June)