This week: cutthroat parents jockey to place their children in a new gifted magnet school, plus a new collection from Charles Simic.
Former cheerleader Vesper, 17, remembers her previous life: before she learned that she was an Oddity, before the fire that she inadvertently set took her home and nearly destroyed her family in Los Altos, and before she learned exactly what her powers as a Harbinger—discerning and conjuring a person’s worst fear—could do. On the run, she ends up in San Francisco overnight and falls in with a group of teens, many also Oddities with powers that manifested the same time as her own. This acquaintanceship leads her to an underground gladiatorial tournament and a chance at undoing the past and returning to her former life. The more time she spends with her new friends, including Sam, the Baseline (nonmagical) boy she partners with for the tournament but plans to betray, the more she realizes that something darker is afoot. There’s a shady past to the group who used to police Oddities but have since disappeared—and their secrets threaten to overwhelm the present. Interweaving excellent worldbuilding with the uncertainties of discipline, friendship, and taking ownership of one’s decisions, Blair’s debut will entrance and delight in equal measure. Ages 14–up.
Investigative journalist Callahan (Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the ’90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion) provides a chilling true-crime narrative in this detailed study of Israel Keyes, whom she describes as “a new kind of monster, likely responsible for the greatest string of unsolved disappearances and murders in modern American history.” In 2012, a multi-jurisdictional search for Keyes, believed responsible for abducting 18-year-old Samantha Koenig from the Anchorage, Alaska, coffee kiosk where she worked, led to him being stopped for speeding in Texas. In his wallet, the police found Samantha’s driver’s license. Keyes confessed to killing Samantha, but was less forthcoming about other murders he said he’d committed, and the exact number of his victims was unresolved at the time of his suicide in custody, though he is believed to have killed at least 11 people over 14 years. The text is replete with disturbing revelations such as Keyes having carefully studied books by the FBI’s top experts on profiling and serial killers. Through Callahan’s access to many of the key players in law enforcement, she has produced the definitive account of a terrifying psychopath.
The 29 stories in Clarke’s excellent annual span the SF spectrum, and though they vary significantly in their approaches and tones, many are built around the idea of humankind’s often uneasy relationship with advanced technologies. Elizabeth Bear includes both humor and grimness in “Okay, Glory,” an account of a smart house that becomes a prison when extortionists hack its AI to blackmail the owner. Alyssa Wong’s elegiac “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” concerns a fan who spends her life in the company of simulations of dead members of a band she obsessively follows. Both Simone Heller’s “When We Were Starless” and Sofia Samatar’s “Hard Mary” are set in provincial human enclaves to whom high tech is a near-mystical revelation. Clarke has also selected distinguished stories by Ken Liu, Ian McDonald, Linda Nagata, and other well-known talents whose topics include rogue robots, first contact, and human consciousness downloads. The care with which he has drawn from both print and online sources makes this a year’s-best that truly lives up to its title.
This brilliantly crafted, slow-burn crime novel from Australian Clifford (All These Perfect Strangers) slides with delicious subtlety from a story that begins in small-town reminiscences and regrets, moves into amateur investigation blended with personal history and deep secrets, and then takes a plunge into driving thriller territory. Lawyer Eliza Carmody knows she will get little sympathy in her hometown of Kinsale, Australia, because she’s there not only to visit her pregnant best friend, Amy Liu, and her father, Mick Carmody, who’s unresponsive in nursing care after a car accident, but also to develop her case on behalf of Colcart Electric in a class action suit by Kinsale’s residents over a devastating and fatal bushfire. Witnessing a violent fight involving Luke Tyrell, whom she remembers from childhood, leads her to revisit the events of New Year’s Eve 1996, during which her other best friend, Grace Hedland, disappeared. The author tugs hard at universal human emotions as she explores themes of grief and the unreliability of memory. Readers will view everyone Eliza encounters with a blend of suspicion and sympathy. Clifford is definitely a writer to watch.
The sly, deceptively simple and thoroughly seductive fourth novel by the author of The Red Car keeps a small cast of weirdly interrelated characters in constant motion. In the first few pages, as the academic year ends, clueless, dreamy college student Rachel seduces her passively willing creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, whose stint at her liberal arts college has just ended. He proceeds to hand off his standard poodle, Princess, to Rachel while he returns to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother, and Rachel takes Princess to her childhood home in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, where her mom, Becca—adrift after her own poodle has died and her husband, Jonathan, has left her for airline pilot Mandy—falls in love with the dog. When Zahid returns to pick up Princess, he falls for Becca and her poolside lifestyle, and drifts through the summer with her, while Rachel, ignorant of the affair, keeps trying to lure him into her bed. Intersecting their lives are twins Khloe, who works with Jonathan, and Kristi, a writer who offers a job at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the reluctant Zahid. When conflict between mother and daughter reaches a head, Zahid is caught in the middle and faces an eviction from the edenic existence he has been savoring. Bouncing between points of view, Dermansky confines herself to snappy, brisk paragraphs and short sentences, with much of the psychic action between the lines. Her sharp satire spares none of the characters and teeters brilliantly on the edge of comedy and tragedy.
In this sharply entertaining novel from Holsinger (The Invention of Fire), Crystal, Colo., is an affluent community where a new gifted magnet school for grades six through 12 will soon open. With limited spaces available, the competition among parents to get their offspring into the school, called the “Stuyvesant of the Rockies,” turns ruthless. Dr. Rose Holland, a pediatric neurologist, uses her position to gather inside information that could be vital for her daughter, Emma Q’s, admission. Queen bee Samantha Zeller and her moneyman husband, Kevin, are not above lying about the IQ test results of their daughter, Emma Z. Divorced Azra and Beck are forced to deal with the emotional fallout when the admission process causes friction between their twin sons. And single mother Lauren’s daughter, Tessa, recently out of rehab, keeps a video blog that sees through all the adult pretensions around her. As the application process spools out, it pits parent against parent, student against student, and spouse against spouse until relationships are frayed to the breaking point and betrayals build to a shattering climax during an open house at the new school. This depiction of the depths to which some parents will stoop to win social advantage for their offspring makes for a smart, piercing novel, and timely given recent headlines.
In McElwain’s outstanding fourth mystery set in Regency England (after 2018’s Caught in Time), the authorities ask FBI profiler and time traveler Kendra Donovan, the American ward of the Duke of Aldridge (one of only two people to know she’s from the future), to look into the strangling murder of English spymaster Sir Giles Holbrooke, who was found lying naked on the floor of an abandoned London church with his tongue cut out. During the autopsy, bizarre markings slowly appear all over Sir Giles’s body, possibly forming a message from the killer. Kendra and her detection team, which includes a Bow Street runner and an irreverent journalist, get on a trail that leads them deep into family jealousies and foreign espionage—and to more ritualistic murders. One of the series’ delights is how Kendra, who operates with a shocking degree of independence for a single woman in the era, must repeatedly find ways to use her forensic knowledge and instincts about homicide that don’t send polite society reaching for the smelling salts. With perfect pacing, McElwain holds the reader’s interest from the first page to the last.
Poet McCann (Thing Music) presents a riveting in-depth investigation into the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed right-wing protesters determined to wrest control of the land from the government. The setting, which McCann renders with a poet’s precision (“sun-crisped juniper [and] fecund muck”), is Harney County, Ore., where Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of rancher Cliven, assembled like-minded militia members to undertake an armed occupation of the refuge to protest the idea of federal management and conservation of public lands, rather than allowing them to be used for logging and cattle-grazing. The monthlong occupation reached a climax with the shooting death of Bundy follower LaVoy Finicum by FBI agents and the remaining protestors’ subsequent surrender. McCann then documents the carnival-like atmosphere at the protestors’ conspiracy trials. He portrays his characters vividly, Ammon in particular, describing his oratory style as “theo-legalistic” and casting a “spell of urgency.” He provides context on the underlying motivations of the protesters “bitterly hanging on to the last threads of privilege” in an increasingly diverse America, and the broader history: Manifest Destiny and the atrocities inflicted upon Native Americans, Joseph Smith’s writings (the Bundys are Mormon), and Thomas Jefferson’s often contradictory ideas about government and rebellion. McCann’s arresting and brilliant firsthand account is required reading for anyone interested in the ideological gap between the American Left and Right.
“I’m always interested in the way people edit the details of their lives, the way they compress all the years into sentences,” says the narrator of one of this collection’s 44 powerful tales, expressing Orner’s talent for crafting captivating character sketches that read like memoirs. Loosely linked by their shared settings (Chicago; Fall River, Mass.) and characters, the stories comprise a mosaic of lives remarkable primarily for an ordinariness—one character reflects that “his friends, his family, considered him a failure, he knew, not a spectacular failure, a mundane, run-of-the-mill failure”—that occasionally is thrown into sharp relief by a dramatic incident, such as a near car crash that reveals the narrator’s true nature in “My Dead,” or a young man’s taunting, in the title story, of a disaffected roommate whom he doesn’t know is carrying a gun. The final story, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella,” crystallizes the concerns of the stories that precede it in its account of a middle-aged Jewish businessman struggling to stay on top of what characters in another story think of as “a world with so little sense of order.” Readers will sympathize with Orner’s characters and identify with their all-too-human frailties.
Ryan (Dirty Little Secret) delivers an intoxicating blend of hair-raising suspense, betrayal, and true love with this gripping contemporary set in the rich vineyards of Napa Valley. Evangeline Austen served four years in prison for a theft she didn’t commit; her arresting officer, Lt. Chris Chambers, is now confident she’s innocent. Evangeline is released on parole as news comes of her father’s death, and she helps Chris set a trap for the true criminals (including her ex-boyfriend, Darren) in exchange for her prison time being expunged from her record. At home on her family’s ranch, Evangeline finds her relatives judge her harshly, but then they learn the disturbing truth about the crime and fret when they find out she’s cooperating with the police. During Evangeline’s fight to clear her name, she and Chris fall in love, but Darren’s machinations could cost them everything. The strong characters—particularly Evangeline—are so skillfully created that they leap off the page, and the spot-on pacing will keep readers’ hearts in their throats as the shocking climax approaches. Ryan’s fans will devour this outstanding tale, as will the many new readers she’s bound to win.
Jules Larsen, the 25-year-old heroine of this compulsively readable thriller from bestseller Sager (The Last Time I Lied), has hit rock bottom. Scarred by the deaths of her parents and the disappearance of her sister years before, she has recently lost her administrative assistant job and learned that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. With her finances perilously low, Jules responds to an ad for a house sitter at a Manhattan luxury apartment building, which turns out to be the Bartholomew, the setting for her favorite book, a bestselling novel published in the ’80s about a 20-year-old orphan who lives there. In order to earn $12,000 for living in one of the Bartholomew’s vacant apartments for three months, she must follow strict rules, which include absolutely no visitors and refraining from interacting with the other residents. Jules leaps at the opportunity, only to learn that the property is rumored to be haunted and that her acceptance of the job may be placing her in jeopardy. Fans of Ira Levin, to whom the book is dedicated, will be delighted by Sager’s clever variation on a typical Levin plot.
Pulitzer-winner Simic (The Lunatic) has mastered a deceptively simple and straightforward lyric style that has served him well over two dozen books of poetry. His latest is no different in this regard, noting (and plucking) “the cunning threads/ By which our lives are rigged.” Simic’s world is a quiet one, though its quietness is haunted with echoes of wars, scams, loves had and lost, and a wry smile that seems to know the score no matter how dark the world gets. “They say Death/ Hid his face in his hood/ So he could smile too,” Simic writes, “I like the black keys better/ I like the lights turned down low/ I like women who drink alone/ While I hunch over the piano/ Looking for all the pretty notes.” These poems are often slyly funny, emotionally generous, and wrapped up in the lives of the people they depict—children at play, men and women in private moments, mythical figures and deities outside their myths. Some of the new poems, such as “The American Dream,” arrive as premade classics, evoking times past in a stilted, twilit present and reminding readers of Simic’s keen eye for the restless, the absurd, and the enduringly human.
Looking to public schools, libraries, and post offices for inspiration, law professors Sitaraman (The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution) and Alstott (A New Deal for Old Age) make an enthusiastic, accessible, and convincing case that more “public option” government services would significantly improve the quality of life for average Americans. At present, they observe, employer-provided and market-based solutions for health care and retirement needs leave a large swath of people vulnerable. Providing universally accessible baseline options to coexist with private products for health care, retirement planning, child care, banking, and higher education would, they argue, promote equality of opportunity, and benefit small businesses and market competition, particularly in industries dominated by de facto monopolies. The authors explain that public options have benefits not conferred by subsidies and vouchers (which tend to push up prices rather than ensure universal accessibility) or regulation; analyze the relative successes of familiar public options such as the post office, public libraries, and Social Security; and argue that the more mixed results in public education are due to segregation and political calcification. They succeed in their goal of establishing the general merits of public options and offering a refreshingly “pragmatic look at what government can do well.” This eminently accessible work will engage budding policy wonks and civic-minded readers.
Wendig (the Miriam Black series) pulls no punches in this blockbuster apocalyptic novel, which confronts some of the darkest and most divisive aspects of present-day America with urgency, humanity, and hope. The day after a comet blazes over the west coast of North America, Benji Ray, a disgraced former CDC epidemiologist, is summoned to meet Black Swan, a superintelligent computer designed to predict and prevent disasters, which has determined that Benji must treat an upcoming pandemic. That same morning, Shana wakes up to find her little sister, Nessie, sleepwalking down the driveway and off toward an unknown goal, one of a growing number of similar travelers who are unable to stop or to wake. Shana in turn becomes one of many shepherds, protecting the travelers from a crumbling American society that’s ravaged by fear, dogma, disease, and the effects of climate change, while Benji grapples with his daunting assignment and questions about Black Swan’s nature and agenda. Wendig challenges readers with twists and revelations that probe issues of faith and free will while crafting a fast-paced narrative with deeply real characters. His politics are unabashed—characters include a populist president brought to power by neo-Nazis, as well as murderous religious zealots—but not simplistic, and he tackles many moral questions while eschewing easy answers. This career-defining epic deserves its inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand, easily rising above the many recent novels of pandemic and societal collapse.