This week: a luscious, unsettling Louisiana horror novel, plus, an island that is in the process of disappearing, item by item.
Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and this intense near-future legal thriller tries to find solace in that final tenth. A prequel to Brown’s 2017 dystopia, Tropic of Kansas, it features the same all-too-real political and cultural crackdowns on civil liberties, cheered on by a substantial fraction of the American people. Donny Kimoe, a former prosecutor and corporate attorney exiled to pro bono cases, is the public defender for accused terrorists whose crimes are trying to reform a broken America that has suffered the loss of Hawaii to a victorious China. While begging the White House for clemency for a death row client, Donny also works on uncovering the murderer of a popular Houston politician whose death is tied to mysterious corporate interests. Donny, smart and smart-mouthed, provides a glimmer of hope that the usurpers of the Constitution may be beaten at their own game, “one case at a time.” Interpersonal drama fuels the story as much as legal maneuvering, and Brown keeps tight control of his narrative even as this alternate America slips its gears. Fans of Tropic of Kansas will like this prequel even better, and it’s very accessible to new readers.
Gerrard, coauthor with Sean French of the thrillers published under the pseudonym Nicci French, takes on dementia in this vivid combination of memoir and investigative journalism. Moved to write about the condition by her father’s decline into dementia, she interweaves her memories of him with the stories of other affected people—family members and caregivers as well as patients, and insights from doctors and researchers. The book traces the arc of the condition, from early chapters on facing up to and diagnosing it in its many forms—Alzheimer’s being just the best-known—to a section on optimizing quality of life, to a discussion of care options in the advanced stages. Yes, she acknowledges, dementia is a terminal condition, the “sniper in the garden” and a “sneaky intruder in the house,” but there are ways to live with it, and even live well. The arts, in particular, “support longer lives better lived,” as Gerrard finds at the hospitals and homes now incorporating them. She, herself, after her father’s death, launched John’s Campaign to gain caregivers the right to stay with dementia patients in the hospital, just as parents do with their children. With dementia now afflicting one in six people over 80, Gerrard’s informative and thought-provoking book is pertinent to all.
Hassman’s charming and funny second novel (following Girlchild) takes place in Rosary, Calif., a contemporary town controlled by the religious right, who censor media and block internet access, fearing evil influences. Living there is 16-year-old Helen Dedleder, who spends her time working at her Aunt Bev’s frowned upon Psychic Encounter Shoppe and drinking beers with other rebellious teens at the local tire salvage. Her mother died from cancer six years ago, and her father, the town’s postman, begins dating the mother of Bird, a bad boy Helen has a crush on. Along with friends Winthrop and Rainbolene, Helen charges through a series of misadventures, clashing with “Bible Thumpers,” volunteering at a nursing home, testing her own psychic abilities, reading porno books, and tuning in to radio stations from the nearby free city of Sky. Using the first-person point of view and brief chapters, Hassman taps into Helen’s confused and maturing mind, and bounces between scenes to construct a loose plotline. This coming-of-age tale honestly and strikingly encapsulates the teenage experience.
An unlikely pair take on their pasts together in this endearing contemporary tale of love through emotional hardship. Andra Lawler is stuck on her family’s horse ranch, beset by constant sense memories of being assaulted in college. When the ranch hires LJ Delisle, a New Orleans–born cowboy, he makes his way into Andra’s kitchen and begins to teach her to cook, setting them up for a straightforward story of a kindhearted man helping a battered woman heal. Then LJ is called back to his family home, where Hurricane Katrina’s destruction is still very much in evidence, to help his ailing mother and confront his own memories of discrimination and loss. The two survivors are ready to fight for their future together, but they find that closing the wounds of the past is not as easy as falling in love. Hazen writes with grace and compassion about life after trauma, smoothly addressing racism, sexual assault, and large-scale disasters without pat answers or platitudes. This is a sure tear-jerker for any romance fan.
In 1890 Atlanta, Chinese-American Jo Kuan, 17, and her guardian, Old Gin, live secretly in abolitionists’ quarters underneath the family home of Mr. Bell, publisher of failing newspaper the Focus. When Jo loses her job as a milliner’s assistant, she reluctantly takes a job with her former employer, wealthy Mrs. Payne, as lady’s maid to her cantankerous daughter Caroline. Jo endures Caroline’s cruelty each day, but after overhearing the Bells’ wish for an “agony aunt,” she anonymously offers her services as a columnist. As “Miss Sweetie,” she voices her true feelings about society’s ills in a cleverly written column that addresses many forms of prejudice, sparking controversy while increasing the newspaper’s subscriptions—and raising questions about her identity. Lee (Under a Painted Sky) slowly unspools secrets about Jo’s past as she liaises with Atlanta’s notorious fixer, pieces together clues about the parents who abandoned her, and navigates self-realization and romance. Featuring historical signposts (streetcar segregation, suffragists on safety bicycles) and memorable, well-developed characters, this captivating novel explores intersectionality, conveys the effects of restrictions placed on women and people of color, and celebrates the strengths and talents of marginalized people struggling to break society’s barriers in any age. Ages 12–up.
American capitalism at its most successful and domineering is at the center of this sweeping history of a much-vilified company. Business journalist Leonard (The Meat Racket) recounts the 50-year growth of Koch Industries, a privately held, infamously secretive conglomerate—with interests in oil refineries, pipelines, lumber, commodities trading, fertilizer, and greeting cards—under CEO Charles Koch, whose libertarian ideology and political donations make him a godfather of the Republican right. Leonard paints Koch as a brilliant businessman whose fanatically entrepreneurial company—employees fervidly embrace his “market-based management” philosophy—thrives on turning underperforming assets into moneymakers. He also probes a very seamy underbelly: an oil-theft scandal and illegal dumping of toxins (the company has since cleaned up its act, Leonard notes), a penchant for gaming government regulations while denouncing the regulatory state, and heavy-handed lobbying and political organizing to stymie climate change legislation. The company’s ruthlessness is spotlighted in his accounts of Koch’s sometimes violent battles with unions; Leonard profiles workers whose wages and security dwindled while computerized regimentation and staffing cuts made their jobs grueling and unsafe. Leonard’s superb investigations and even-handed, clear-eyed reportage stand out.
Tess Clarke, the confused narrator of British author North’s emotionally harrowing debut, is in the hospital on the day after her son Jamie’s eighth birthday and less than two months after her husband Mark’s death in a plane crash. She has a stab wound in her stomach, and no one is listening to her requests to find her son. The main narrative covers the time between Mark’s death and Jamie’s birthday from the point of view of medication-avoidant Tess, who carries on imaginary dialogue with her late husband. Meanwhile, she begins to mistrust her two primary visitors: Mark’s brother Ian, who claims Mark owed him money, and Shelley Lange, a grief counselor turned overpossessive friend, who lost a son of about Jamie’s age. Present-day interludes depict interviews between Tess and a professional she identifies as a member of the police, and statements by Ian and Shelley that provide subtle clues to what’s really going one. North offers an intimate, unbalancing mix of grief, paranoia, gaslighting, maternal protectiveness, and profound compassion.
The unrelenting harshness of existence in the unsettled American West sharply focuses what Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife) refers to as “the uncertain and frightening textures of the world” in this mesmerizing historical novel spun from two primary narrative threads. In one, homesteader Nora Lark waits with her son and niece for the return of her newspaperman husband with a supply of badly needed water for their house in Amargo, in the Arizona Territory in 1893. In the other, outlaw Lurie Mattie flees a warrant for murder by taking refuge in the Camel Corps, an all-but-forgotten experiment in history to import camels as beasts of burden in the 19th-century American Southwest. As Nora’s and Lurie’s paths gradually converge, Obreht paints a colorful portrait of the Western landscape, populated by a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters and saturated with spirits of the countless dead who attain a tangible presence, if only through the conversations they conduct in the minds of the characters whom they haunt. The novel’s unforgettable finale, evocative and grimly symbolic, crystallizes its underlying themes of how inconsolable grief and unforgivable betrayal shape the circumstances that bind its characters to their fates. Obreht knocks it out of the park in her second novel.
Ogawa (Revenge) returns with a dark and ambitious novel exploring memory and power—both individual and institutional—through a dystopian tale about state surveillance. The unnamed female narrator is an orphaned novelist living on an unnamed island that is in the process of disappearing, item by item. The disappearances, of objects such as ribbons, perfume, birds, and calendars, are manifested in a physical purge of the object as well as a psychological absence in the island’s residents’ memories. The mysterious and brutal Memory Police are in charge of enforcing these disappearances, randomly searching homes and arresting anyone with the ability to retain memory of the disappeared, including the narrator’s mother. When the narrator discovers her editor, R, is someone who does not have the ability to forget, she builds a secret room in her house to hide him, with the help of her former nurse’s husband, an old man who once lived on the ferry, which has also disappeared. Though R may not leave the room for fear of discovery, he, the narrator, and the old man are able to create a sense of home and family. However, the disappearances and the Memory Police both grow more aggressive, with more crucial things disappearing at a faster rate, and it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them—their family unit, and the island as a whole—to continue. The classic Ogawa hallmarks are here, a dark eroticism and idiosyncratic characters, but it’s also clear she’s expanded her range into something even deeper. This is a searing, vividly imagined novel by a wildly talented writer.
Parsons’s debut crackles with the frenetic energy of the women who stalk its pages. In opening story “Guts,” Sheila has just started dating “almost-doctor” Tim, whose particular brand of condescending masculine practicality destabilizes her already-erratic lifestyle. In “Foxes,” a recently divorced mother recounts her courtship and marriage to her ex-husband, whom she calls “the fool,” as she listens to her young daughter spin a story featuring knights and inky enemies, and the two stories begin to intertwine and mimic the cadences of each other. “Foxes” kicks off a dazzling run of stories, including “The Soft No,” in which a pair of siblings must navigate neighborhood politics as well as their unpredictable mother, to “We Don’t Come Natural to It,” in which two women’s pursuit of beauty becomes a vortex of self-inflicted violence, control, and mistrust. In the title story, a young woman watches as her former lover evolves into someone she realizes she never knew, while she must navigate the breakup in a way that doesn’t out her sexuality. Parsons’s characters are sharp and uncannily observed, bound up in elastic and electrifying prose. This is a first-rate debut.
In this definitive oral history, Paul (One Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band) and musician and teacher Aledort trace the life and music of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954–1990). Drawing on hundreds of interviews with Vaughan’s friends, family, and fellow musicians, the authors detail the guitarist’s rise from a working-class background in Dallas; his formative experiences in countless bands in Dallas and Austin; his national breakthrough success in 1983 with his first LP Texas Flood and subsequent years of touring, which led to an increase in his drug and alcohol abuse; and his final years of sobriety before his death in a helicopter crash in 1990. The authors excellently capture how Vaughan, in the words of bassist Tommy Shannon, “always played as if there was no tomorrow.” The interviews with fellow musicians and engineers provide insightful takes on Vaughan’s work, especially Texas Flood, which was recorded live after Jackson Browne loaned the band his studio and before Vaughan even had a record contract. (“There was no finagling on anything,” says engineer and producer Richard Mullen. “It was about as live and true to a performance as it could possibly be.”) Fans will be thrilled with this intelligent, informative, and enlightening biography of the guitar great. (Aug.)
Anthropologist Paxson (Solovyovo) considers what it means to be good in this lyrical, complex, genre-melding exploration of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in Southern France, a region with a long tradition of offering refuge to those in need. She relates the parallel stories of her own contemporary experiences on the Plateau with the 17 months during WWII when idealistic teacher Daniel Trocmé helped displaced children until he was captured by the Nazis. On the plateau now is one of France’s 300 centers where asylum seekers are housed while they wait for their cases to be considered. As Paxson becomes enmeshed in the community of the plateau, where asylum seekers come from Albania, Congo, Russia, and other countries, what begins as anthropological study evolves into something far more personal; she writes movingly about the refugees she meets, including fiercely protective yet affectionate mother Dzhamal, who showers children with kisses, and about Trocmé, whose trail she physically follows to the site of his death at the Majdanek concentration camp. History, memoir, profound soul-searching about peace, and meditations on the moral limitations of observation (rather than action) are woven together with dreamlike sequences imagining the lives of victims whose fates aren’t on historical record. The beautifully written, often heartrending narrative is as unforgettable as the region and individuals it brings to life.
This captivating thriller from Smith (Follow Me Down) finds former child star Katie Manning, whose long-running hit TV series ended when she was 15, now 27, “the age when celebrities died from their bad habits.” She shares her New York townhouse with her brother and his herbal tea–drinking, yoga practicing fiancée, Ellie Rose, whose lifestyle is an anathema to the hard-drinking party animal that Katie has become. In order to appease her brother, while still hoping to wreck his engagement, Katie agrees to attend a wellness retreat with Ellie, but insists on taking her two old college friends along. When a guest at the retreat vanishes, and Katie wakes up next to a bloody knife, the novel blossoms with layers of subterfuge, murky motives and contiguous crimes. Who will make it through the wellness retreat alive? With each new tantalizing detail that Smith surreptitiously reveals about the characters, the reader’s perception of them changes. Prose that zings with amusing metaphors and wry wit drives this exhilarating roller-coaster ride.
Tokarczuk follows her Man Booker International winner Flights with an astounding mystical detective novel. Narrator Janina Duszejko, an English teacher and winter caretaker for a few summer houses in an isolated Polish hamlet near the Czech border, is awakened one night by her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who informs her that their neighbor, nicknamed Big Foot, is dead in his house. Before the police arrive, Janina and Oddball find a deer bone in Big Foot’s mouth. Soon another body turns up, and Janina, an avid creator of horoscopes and, more generally, prone to theorizing and ascribing incidents to larger systems, develops a theory that animals are killing the locals. As the body count rises, readers are treated to Janina’s beliefs (“Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world”), descriptions (a body is “a troublesome piece of luggage”), and observations (flowers in a garden “are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”). Tokarczuk’s novel succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it. Novels this thrilling don’t come along very often.
This luscious, unsettling Louisiana horror novella from Wise (Kissing Booth Girl) boasts a contemporary, living-folklore aesthetic and a powerful message to marginalized people that “Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.” The racist, homophobic bullies who harass Caleb, a young black boy in the small town of Lewis, La., also try to scare him with stories of Catfish John, a murderous devil that lives in the swamp. Caleb’s sheriff father takes him to investigate a fire on the property of secretive Archie Royce and rescues Archie’s strange, pale daughter Cere, “born to end the world”; she becomes Caleb’s ally against the bullies while invading his dreams and pulling him into her supernatural battles against the rest of her family. Wise’s visceral language conveys an experience of eerie magic that simultaneously lures and repels, placed in close juxtaposition to the mundane monstrousness of prejudice, cancer, and loneliness. This story can be appreciated simply for its ghost story shivers and rich imagery, but its full power comes with the author’s choice to center the misunderstood and marginalized as beloved family to one another, even when the outside world sees them as monstrous.