This week: a swampy urban legend, plus Silicon Valley and the remaking of America.
The Substitution Order
Prominent Virginia attorney Kevin Moore, the narrator of this exceptional legal thriller from Clark (The Jezebel Remedy), is reduced to working in a fast-food sandwich shop after a drug and alcohol binge led to the suspension of his law license and the end of his marriage. He’s hoping to keep his head down and wait for reinstatement, but his life is upended when he’s approached at the sandwich shop by a stranger who calls himself Caleb. Caleb represents an organization that monitors the information received by “virtually every group with a disciplinary board” to identify people vulnerable to being coerced into participating in a fraud scheme. In Kevin’s case, Caleb asks him to agree to a lie—that he committed malpractice a few years earlier by failing to execute a purchase order for land that cost a client millions. When Kevin refuses, he’s set up for a probation violation and framed for even more serious charges. Clark does a masterly job combining Kevin’s plans to get himself out from under with a powerful portrayal of human frailty. John Grisham fans won’t want to miss this one.
Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem
In this moving memoir, Day (aka Dapper Dan) chronicles his rise from a poor black boy growing up in 1940s Harlem to becoming a notable designer of streetwear. With clients ranging from gangsters and pimps to Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Day saw each customer as “an actor auditioning to be in this big, generational movie I’m making.” Day was a talented poet and writer, as well as a hustler who beat street hoods in dice games and dropped out of high school at 15. In 1974, Day began making and selling clothes, and he opened his first store on 125th Street in 1982. He taught himself textile printing and, during New York’s crack epidemic in the 1980s, built a clothing business that inspired what boxers and rappers would wear for years to come; in 2018, he opened a store on Lenox Avenue, with Gucci as a partner. Day writes that he “never thought of [himself] as an artist, or in fashion industry terms... I was playing jazz with fashion.” In describing his life, Day also provides a fascinating portrait of the Harlem in his youth, “before the heroin game overtook the numbers game, before crack overtook heroin.” Day wonderfully captures the style of Harlem and its evolution throughout the decades.
Stay and Fight
Ffitch’s remarkable and gripping debut novel (after story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn) traces the journeys of a makeshift family in contemporary Appalachian Ohio. After Helen leaves Seattle with her boyfriend to live off the land and acquires 20 acres and a camper to sleep in, she is soon left by herself when he finds the life he imagined for them too daunting. She quickly adapts to fend for herself, learning how to forage and cook roadkill and working to help cut trees with Rudy, a lifelong local who spouts antigovernment paranoia and practical advice in equal measure. Soon, Karen and Lily, a neighboring couple, give birth to a son, Perley, and are no longer welcome at the radical Women’s Land Trust, so Helen offers them a new home with her, hoping they’ll all manage the land together. It becomes apparent, however, that it’s hard to mesh their personalities. As the years go by and Perley decides he wants to go to school and be a part of the world the others so despise, the life this family has built threatens to fully unravel. The story is told in the alternating voices of Helen, Karen, Lily, and Perley, and Ffitch navigates their personalities beautifully, creating complex, brilliantly realized characters. As the stakes rise, for both the family and the preservation of the region, the novel skewers stereotypes and offers only a messy, real depiction of people who fully embody the imperative of the novel’s title. This is a stellar novel.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World
Esquire food editor Gordinier enchants in this alluring account of his jet-setting between Denmark, Australia, and Mexico with Noma chef René Redzepi in search of the secrets to, among other things, a mole that tastes like “an epic poem about history and time” and perfect tortillas that are “thick, chewy, redolent of corn.” In the midst of marital collapse and initially skeptical of the New Nordic Noma-worship “spreading outward from Copenhagen like invasive scurvy grass,” Gordinier became enamored with Redzepi and his drive “to reinvent himself and his restaurant.” The author tagged along as Redzepi, a man “allergic to coasting,” shuttered his world-famous restaurant and opened hyper-local pop-ups in Sydney, Australia, and Tulum, Mexico, before breaking ground on a new restaurant in Copenhagen. Gordinier catches a “contact high” off Redzepi’s manic drive to use only the best ingredients from local sources (“avocado leaves that smell like liquorice” in Tulum; foraged “Neptune’s necklace” seaweed in Australia), building meals “that tasted simultaneously contemporary and ancient.” Along the way, Gordinier found love, learning from the charismatic chef to always “keep moving.” This succulent tale of a culinary genius in search of constant transformation will enrapture Noma acolytes and travel and food enthusiasts alike.
Ash Kickers (Smoke Eaters #2)
Grigsby’s pulse-pounding sequel to Smoke Eaters is a worthy successor that expands on the series’ already strong foundation of vivid action and meticulous worldbuilding. Tamerica Williams is a rare breed of human known as a smoke eater, able to withstand the smoke of the dragons that have recently emerged to wreak havoc on the world. Once dragon slayers, the smoke eaters have been forced to instead engage in dragon capture and harvesting: dragon blood has curative properties for humans. Then a phoenix shows up in Parthenon City, Ohio—one that kills the dragons but also sets everything in its path on fire. Complicating matters are cultlike self-immolations that take place in crowded areas, Tamerica’s dreams of a different career, and the arrival of a new military force. Current themes—refugees, political maneuvering, race and gender issues—thread their way through the lives of vibrantly imagined characters who ring with authenticity, and firefighter Grigsby knows just how to pull readers into scenes full of smoke and flame. Readers will delight in this fresh take on action fantasy.
The Friend Zone
Harnessing sass, heartfelt struggle, and unapologetic sexuality, Jimenez’s debut is as hysterical as it is tear-jerking. Kristen Peterson is a woman who knows what she wants and is not afraid to speak her mind. She meets every situation with sarcastic humor—except the devastating news that she’ll never be able to get pregnant. While Kristen is planning her friend Sloan’s wedding, she meets the groom’s best friend, Josh Copeland. He’s sexy, funny, and always on board for her shenanigans, but he is hoping for a large family. Despite her best efforts to keep Josh at arm’s length, Kristen can only fight their attraction (and her unresolved feelings around her infertility) for so long, but questions about their future loom large. Jimenez manages to fulfill all expectations for a romantic comedy while refusing to sacrifice nuance. Biting wit and laugh-out-loud moments take priority, but the novel remains subtle in its sentimentality and sneaks up on the reader with unanticipated depth. Readers who have wrestled with infertility will find Kristen’s anxieties and sorrows deeply relatable.
An original premise, relentless pacing, and strong female characters lift this nail-biter from Edgar winner McKinty (the Sean Duffy series), which takes a no-holds-barred look at how far a parent will go to protect her child. Divorced teacher Rachel Klein, a cancer survivor, lives on Massachusetts’s Plum Island with her 13-year-old daughter, Kylie. She’s driving to Boston one day to see her doctor when she gets a call from an unidentified woman who sounds upset. The woman tells Rachel that she has kidnapped Kylie, and the only way to get Kylie back is for Rachel to kidnap another child. The woman, whose own child has been kidnapped, and Rachel are now links in a chain of abductions. If Rachel doesn’t follow the program, Kylie will die. In desperation, Rachel and her retired military brother-in-law, Pete O’Neill, eventually kidnap a random child to win her daughter’s release. At that point, an angry Rachel and Pete, ignoring warnings to continue to remain silent and do nothing, go on the offensive to track down the people responsible for the kidnapping chain, culminating in a violent confrontation in a marshy area south of Plum Island. Readers won’t be able to put this thriller down.
The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
This “only-in-America story” from O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor, puts a gloriously human face on the history of computing in the U.S. Her weighty but gripping account tracks Silicon Valley through four stages: 1949’s Palo Alto, a soporific town distinguished only by the presence of Stanford University; the 1960s transition from an industry focused on electronics to one dominated by information; the anti-establishment upstart entrepreneurs of the ’70s; and the breathless present, when the Valley is filled with people of unprecedented influence and wealth. Introducing pioneering players such as early venture capitalist David Morgenthaler, programmer Ann Hardy (who resisted pressure at IBM to accept the customary female role of “systems service girl”), and, inevitably, Steve Jobs, alongside such lesser-known figures as developer Trish Millines, O’Mara paints a picture of a world into which tech exploded unexpectedly, with far-reaching political and cultural results. Particularly fascinating sections include discussions of how and why the U.S. government invested in tech, the intersection of software and the military, the rise and impact of hackers, and Silicon Valley’s financial impact on a vastly transformed—and increasingly impossible to afford—Bay Area. O’Mara’s extraordinarily comprehensive history is a must-read for anyone interested in how a one-horse town birthed a revolution that has shifted the course of modern civilization.
Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) delivers an unforgettable tour de force that melds nonstop suspense, intriguing speculation, and perfectly crafted prose. While excavating a fossil quarry, paleobotanist Molly Nye and her colleagues find plant fossils unconnected to all previously identified species and random objects—a Bible describing God as “she,” a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail, a Coke bottle with a backwards-tilting logo—with odd, seemingly pointless differences from their everyday counterparts. She feels uneasy when news of the Bible draws gawkers to the site, but anxiety is no stranger to Molly; balancing work with her nursing baby and feisty four-year-old, she struggles with “apocalyptic exhaustion” and a constant fear that disaster is about to strike her kids. While her musician husband, David, is performing abroad, real danger arrives in the form of a black-clad intruder, who wears the gold deer mask David gave Molly for her birthday and knows intimate details of Molly’s life. As the stranger’s mask comes literally and figuratively off en route to a startling conclusion to their confrontation, Molly veers between panic, appeasement, and empathy for an “other” whose story is uncannily like her own except in its tragedies. Structured in brief, sharply focused segments that shift back and forth in time, the novel interrogates the nature of the self, the powers and terrors of parenting, and the illusions of chronology. Yet it’s also chock-full of small moments—some scary, some tender, some darkly witty—that ground its cerebral themes in a sharply observed evocation of motherhood. With its crossover appeal to lovers of thriller, science fiction, and literary fiction, this story showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best.
Priest (The Family Plot) spins a small, swampy urban legend into a riveting, swelteringly atmospheric story that questions just how far the residents of a Southern town will go to forget, or appease, a past they cannot bear to confront. Cameron Spratford has lived with his elderly cousins Claire and Daisy in Staywater, Ga., since his parents abandoned him there as a toddler. Although everyone in Staywater encourages Cam to leave, he is content to remain—until Titus Bell arrives. Titus and his wife, Melanie, are traveling through the Okefenokee Swamp when they arrive at a strange, one-lane bridge. Sometime later, Titus wakes up in the middle of the road, alone. He makes his way to Staywater and, while awaiting news of Melanie, begins to shake the secrets of the town loose. Cameron gradually discovers the truth about the bridge outside Staywater, the role Claire and Daisy played in bringing peace there once, and what they are willing to do to keep Cameron safe. Priest keeps the supernatural elements grounded by developing nuanced characters who feel as though they could walk off the page. Moody and mysterious, this gothic tale touches the heart even as it wraps chilly fingers around the spine.
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
In this magnificent debut, essayist Renkl interweaves the natural world of her backyard in Nashville with memories of her childhood and family members. A poetic storyteller, Renkl captures the essence of the moments that shape and haunt her (“The seasons... tell me to wake up, to remember that every passing moment of every careening day is... the only instant I will ever take that precise breath”). She writes of her bungled attempts to stay focused on college amid desperate homesickness, and, later in life, dealing with the illnesses of grandparents as they got older, raising her children and watching them grow, and going through the heart-wrenching farewells to her parents at their deaths. These vignettes are interspersed with her close inspection of and affinity with the birds, bugs, and butterflies in her garden (she contemplates “the full-body embrace of bumblebees in the milkweed flowers, the first dance of the newlyweds”). Renkl instructs that even amid life’s most devastating moments, there are reasons for hope and celebration (“darkness almost always harbors some bit of goodness tucked out of sight, waiting for an unexpected light to shine”). Readers will savor each page and the many gems of wisdom they contain.
George Marshall: Defender of the Republic
Lawyer Roll (The Hopkins Touch) continues profiling members of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations with this authoritative and engaging biography of George C. Marshall, the five-star general who served as FDR’s chief of staff during WWII and both secretary of state and secretary of defense for President Truman. Roll convincingly argues that Marshall’s character made him “the most revered and trusted figure in Washington” and delves deeply into Marshall’s humility, judgment, and preference for delivering constructive criticism directly to his superiors. Marshall’s deserved reputation for integrity, Roll posits, proved key to his ability to dictate Allied military strategy and build bipartisan consensus for the relief bill for postwar Europe that would later be known as the Marshall Plan. Roll enlivens the narrative by including some previously unpublished correspondence and excerpts from the memoirs of Marshall’s second wife, Katherine Marshall, and family friend Rosa Page Wilson, which portray a doting husband and devoted family man with a dry sense of humor. While Roll’s admiration for Marshall is obvious, he is unafraid to point out Marshall’s mistakes and failures (including his refusal to integrate the army and the failure of his 1946 mission to unite China’s nationalist and communist governments). This well-written and captivating book will stand as the definitive biography of Marshall.
Say Say Say
Savage’s startling, tender debut follows Ella, a young caregiver hired to help a woman of rapidly diminishing mental capability, and the relationship Ella develops with her and her husband. At the novel’s start, Ella is on the cusp of 30 and living in Minneapolis with her girlfriend, Alix, whom she loves deeply and uncomplicatedly. After dropping out of graduate school, Ella makes a modest living as a caregiver, though she harbors vague artistic inclinations. Her newest client is Jill, who, at 60, is younger than her usual clientele; her mental state has deteriorated ever since she was in a car accident over a decade ago. Unable to hold coherent conversations or wash herself, Jill has been taken care of by her husband, Bryn, a retired carpenter. Initially hired to provide Bryn with a reprieve, Ella finds herself gradually immersed in Bryn and Jill’s lives, and soon her role as Jill’s companion evolves into something more intimate and complex. Over the next year, Jill’s condition worsens and Bryn becomes more visibly strained even as the force of his love for Jill stays steady, and what Ella witnesses between the two of them challenges her ideas of love, spirituality, and empathy. Quietly forceful, Savage’s luminous debut is beautifully written, and will stay with readers long after the final page.
Williams’s first novel (after the collection A Selfie As Big As the Ritz) is the engrossing, rollicking tale of Roberta, an overweight British woman in her late 20s with low self-esteem and a penchant for cooking. Roberta’s reticence among her peers makes her university time lonely and depressing. She later finds a mundane job at a fashion website where she meets Stevie, a young artist. The women become inseparable and dream up the idea of an underground supper club in which women indulge in appetites they had previously repressed or extinguished. Each dinner has a different theme (literary heroines, princesses) and different food that Roberta prepares; there are also drugs and the night usually ends with the women eating and drinking so much they throw up. The club becomes increasingly rebellious and locates new spaces for the meals, breaking into a department store and Roberta’s alma mater. As Roberta bonds with her clubmembers, she becomes involved with a former school acquaintance and her commitment to the club changes. Williams’s humorous and candid exploration of a woman on the verge of finding herself makes for an enthralling novel.