This week: new books from Ruth Ware, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and more.
The Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks, N.Y., seemed a little odd, but the upstate town and then the entire country were shocked by the 2015 beating death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard by the congregation, including his own parents. In her excellent debut, journalist Ashline details what led to the murder, the church’s fanatical founder, his strange death, and the succession of his daughter, who inflicted bizarre emotional and verbal abuse on her congregation. One method of control was through threatening action for any sexual misconduct, which spiraled into allegations of child abuse against Leonard and his 17-year-old brother, Chris. When locked in the church and confronted by the pastor, the pastor’s family, and the boys’ parents, they were beaten and whipped until they “confessed” to their sins. Even then, the abuse went on for hours, until Lucas was left for dead. Ashline then follows the trials of nine members of the cult and details the mounds of evidence against them. Most were defiant, though after one defendant received a lengthy prison sentence, the rest agreed to pleas for shorter jail time. In the end, only Lucas’s father seems to realize the how and why of the tragedy and accepts his own guilt in a jailhouse letter written to the author. Meticulously researched, this is a gripping account, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Punctuated with close-ups of the details that fill a small boy’s life, Dandro’s debut memoir is an extended poetic gaze on intergenerational helplessness and the violence it begets. Dandro draws both his six-year-old and teenage self with empty circles for eyes, as if he is a vessel for receiving his surroundings—including the inconsistent presence of his father, Dave, a tough guy with dark sunglasses, a muscle car, and a drug problem. It doesn’t help that his mother, despite marrying Dandro's stepfather, alternates between fleeing Dave and rekindling their affair. This is the ’80s, and when Travis hears a story about the kidnapping of Adam Walsh, his anxieties bloom into nightmares. Dandro expertly balances a child’s-eye view with authorial empathy; Dave is drawn both larger-than-life and human and hurting; and Dandro's mother as loving, even as she fails her son. Though over 400 pages, the story flies by in often wordless, poignant sequences. At the end, Dandro watches a fish tank scuba diver repeatedly surge toward the surface, only to be pulled down by the weight of a sunken chest that undoubtedly contains both treasure and tragedy. This gloriously scribbled story doesn’t rest on easy morals, or even attempt to forgive the past—Dandro’s triumph is drawing the reader through both the pain and beauty of his upbringing, and then moving forward.
With wit and passion, Haben, a disability rights lawyer, public speaker, and the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law, takes readers through her often unaccommodating world. Born in the Bay Area in 1988, Haben spent summers in her family’s homeland of Eritrea, in the capital Asmara, where her deafblind older brother hadn’t been allowed to attend school. While living in the U.S. afforded her more opportunity, she missed out on assignments, jokes, and life’s nuances: “It’s a sighted hearing classroom, in a sighted hearing school, in a sighted hearing society. In this environment, I’m disabled.” At a young age, Haben vowed to change that environment and pushed beyond her own comfort zones: dancing salsa, helping build a school in Mali, and climbing an iceberg. At Lewis & Clark College she advocated for a braille cafeteria menu; at Harvard Law, she developed a text-to-braille system, which allowed a second party to communicate details to her during classes, in court, and at a White House Americans with Disabilities Act celebration, where as guest speaker she was “starstruck around all these heroes who paved the way for Generation ADA.” This is a heartwarming memoir of a woman who champions access and dignity for all.
On the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, sixth-grader Augusta begins a letter to her younger sister, Louisa, whose curiosity about middle school life usually receives an “it’s fine, whatever.” The missive tells Lou what to expect (“Lockers are not as exciting as everyone thinks they’ll be”), and subsequent chapters detail the people one meets in middle school via Gus’s experience during her first months. (Entries include “the huggers,” “the scary teacher,” and “the friend you don’t recognize because she turned into a whole new person over the summer.”) Gus’s best friend is loving life at a different school, but Gus struggles to find pals who truly get her, deal with a group of bullying girls, and adjust to her parents’ divorce. The narrative reveals Gus to be a sympathetically flawed character whose growth is realistically wrought as she seeks to find herself and her village, and secondary characters are fully fleshed out as well. Mahoney authentically captures the universal indignities of middle school, the challenges of self-discovery, and the joy of making true friends. Ages 8–12.
In this intelligent thriller set in the opioid-ravaged town of Blackwater, Kans., from McHugh (Arrowood), Sadie Keller and her sister, Becca, are desperate to know why their normally healthy brother, Shane, suddenly died. They suspect Shane’s new wife, Crystle, and her relatives, the drug-dealing Pettits, are to blame. The Blackwater police have closed the case and are now preoccupied with a missing girl whose skull may have been found in the woods. Across town, 18-year-old Henley Pettit knows she will always be tainted by the “knotted threads of her family’s misdeeds” if she stays in Blackwater. She worries her clandestine relationship with the scion of Blackwater’s wealthiest man will further trap her. Henley desperately wants to start a new life anywhere else, away from her often-missing opioid-addicted mother and the crimes of her uncles. Elegant plotting, finely honed character studies, and lyrical prose draw the women’s lives closer as Sadie and Henley deal with their own small-town ennui. This emotionally resonant tale will also appeal to literary-fiction readers.
Moreno-Garcia (The Beautiful Ones) crafts a magical novel of duality, tradition, and change, set in the late 1920s as Mexico transitions from its post-Revolution period to the Jazz Age. Casiopea Tun leads a constrained life in her grandfather’s household in a small town, barely daring to dream of more. Such dreams are quickly snuffed by both her grandfather and her spoiled, narcissistic yet self-deprecating cousin, Martín Levya. A minor act of rebellion, opening her grandfather’s secret chest, releases the injured and imprisoned Mayan death god, Hun-Kamé, Supreme Lord of Xibalba, and inexorably binds her to his quest to regain his underworld throne. Hun-Kamé’s bond to Casiopea infects him in return with vestiges of mortality—a circumstance his ambitious twin, Vucub-Kamé, plots to use to his advantage, assisted by a somewhat reluctant Martín. Moreno-Garcia’s seamless blend of mythology and history provides a ripe setting for Casiopea’s stellar journey of self-discovery, which culminates in a dramatic denouement. Readers will gladly immerse themselves in Moreno-Garcia’s rich and complex tale of desperate hopes and complicated relationships.
Brilliant astrophysicist Lucas Page, the distinctive hero of this outstanding series launch from Pobi (American Woman), used to be an FBI agent who could survey a crime scene and automatically convert the topography to geometric forms and numbers. This ability would allow him, for example, to pinpoint the origin of a gunshot in the middle of a city. Then the loss of a leg, an arm, and an eye in a shoot-out put an end to his FBI career and his first marriage, but his mental acuity remained. Ten years later, Lucas teaches at Columbia University and writes books; he and his second wife are raising five foster children. When Lucas’s former FBI partner, Doug Hartke, is fatally shot by a sniper while driving in Midtown Manhattan, he reluctantly agrees to help FBI special agent Brett Kehoe track down the culprit. Lucas quickly determines the sniper’s rooftop location, but it was a close to impossible shot, “like trying to thread a needle while riding a mechanical bull set to Motörhead.” More shootings occur, and the victims’ only connections are law enforcement careers. The tense plot is balanced by the prickly Lucas’s cerebral investigating skills. This promises to be Pobi’s breakout thriller.
Rising romance star Rai (Hurts to Love You) brings a perfect relationship to life in this luscious contemporary series launch. Rhiannon “Rhi” Hunter is a successful dating app entrepreneur hell-bent on succeeding, though workaholism is detrimental to her dating life. Samson Lima is a former football star who’s drawn into the dating business by his aunt, who’s shy and needs her company, a rival to Rhi’s, to have a new public face. Rhi and Samson’s paths cross at a conference, and they’re both shocked to recognize each other: they hooked up several months prior, and Samson ghosted on the promised second date. As the onetime lovers are drawn into closer proximity, their chemistry sizzles on the page. Both Rhi and Samson are learning how to enjoy life and balance each other beautifully as they face realistic conflicts and tantalizing romance and sensuality. This winning novel will enhance any romance reader’s collection.
An autobiographical speaker (a mother and first-generation American) catalogues the flotsam and jetsam of late-stage capitalism in the stunning sixth collection from Smith (Milk and Filth). With a prophetic voice rooted in awareness of a dying planet, 20 poems and a middle lyric sequence are impressively served by Smith’s ear for pithy encapsulation: “why am I the locus of your discontent/ and not your president.” Smith’s speakers frequently turn to dark humor: “you can shape/ my toil into a robot with nearly real skin,/ but you can’t touch the feeble efforts I make to retaliate;” “should I mother or write/ serve art or the state.” Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Smith’s writing is its refusal to downplay the speaker’s complicity in a Darwinian system of profit, in which shopping at Amazon equates to “baring my economic thorax.” The lyrical prose piece “Ars Poetica” turns ambivalence over the purchase of a video game into a meditation on impersonal cosmic forces, ending in a dystopian, speculative chronicle in which an airplane is described by future humanity as “a ship powered by bones that flew in the air without moving a single feather.” Smith’s image-driven metaphors circle the “molten core of the real,” articulating shared dilemmas while jolting the reader out of complacence.
This nostalgic cross-class romance will hook readers from start to finish. When wealthy 16-year-old Piper Calloway arrives at Camp Wawa in upstate New York, she immediately falls for counselor Kyle, who’s tattooed, mischievous, and gorgeous. Thirteen years later, Piper is preparing to assume leadership of her father’s massive real estate development company. She’s elated to discover that Kyle is her building’s new security guard—and devastated that he doesn’t even remember her name. Tucker (The Simple Wild) builds a gripping emotional arc in both time periods, capturing all the heartwarming pleasure of first love while hinting at a tragic event that eventually separates the young lovers. Reunited, Piper and Kyle try to figure out whether their early bond can be renewed and overcome their different social strata, facing roadblocks from work, family, and friends. Tucker skillfully builds both romantic tension and suspense, and delivers an immensely satisfying conclusion in this stellar page-turner.
Ware’s excellent psychological thriller, as the title suggests, references Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It includes a nanny alone, a house that appears to be haunted, and children who aren’t quite what they seem. But Ware hauls the story into the 21st century by making the technology of today as menacing as the story’s isolated location, a Scottish estate. The final section not only pulls together the plot’s many threads but also leaves readers with one final, haunting question, one that will stay with them long after they turn the last page.
Zerán’s lyrical, surrealistic debut, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, explores the long shadows of Chile’s brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Chapters in the voice of the sensible Iquela alternate with those from the manic yet often insightful viewpoint of her longtime friend Felipe Arrabal. As the novel opens, the two Santiago residents are about 30. Translator Iquela copes with the clinginess of her widowed mother, Consuelo, a former anti-Pinochet activist, while Felipe believes he sees dead bodies everywhere and obsesses over calculations attempting to match their numbers against recorded births. Consuelo’s friend Ingrid dies, leaving a request that her body be repatriated from Germany, her longtime residence, to her Chilean homeland. Ingrid’s daughter, Paloma, arrives safely in Santiago to begin the process, but when an ash storm blanketing Chile diverts the plane carrying the corpse to Argentina, Paloma, Iquela, and Felipe decide to rent a hearse and cross the cordillera to fetch the coffin. Zerán’s indirect treatment of Pinochet and his impact may challenge those unfamiliar with Chilean history, but this allusive quality suits a novel focused on those who experience atrocity secondhand. This novel is vividly rooted in Chile, yet the quests at its heart—to witness and survive suffering, to put an intractable past to rest—are universally resonant.