This week: Rachel Cusk's arresting first essay collection, plus a superb police procedural with supernatural overtones.
Birmingham’s gripping near-future novel launches readers into a genocidal interstellar war amid sudden violence and dark humor. A long-exiled radical human group bent on killing any “impure” humans with genetic or mechanical modifications has executed a massive strike against the rest of human culture’s defenses and elites. Standing in its way are one military ship with a new captain, a band of pirates, a bodiless criminal, a 12-year-old princess, and a legend. Birmingham alternates between gut punches and laugh-out-loud humor, with some gore and thought-provoking philosophy thrown in for good measure. Every character is a presence, including the villains, who are disturbingly convincing in believing their actions are for the good of all. Plenty of twists, sharp turns, and fateful encounters will keep readers guessing and turning pages. This jarring, engrossing story of a species-wide fight for survival is recommended for all science fiction readers.
The 10 stories in Bucak’s beguiling debut play with traditional narrative forms and explore the author’s Turkish roots. In “The History of Girls,” told in the plural “we,” a group of girls trapped in the rubble of a school explosion from a blown gas line are visited by the ghosts of their dead classmates. “An Ottoman Arabesque” tells the story of 19th-century Ottoman ambassador Khalil Bey via observations on his assortment of erotic artwork, while the collection’s title story spans centuries as Apollo wanders the Earth, visiting different Trojan War museums and ruminating on the traumas of battle. In “Mysteries of the Mountain South,” the story of a recent college grad caring for her dying grandmother is enhanced with the epistolary elements of blog posts. “A Cautionary Tale” breaks the fourth wall, telling the story of a Turkish wrestler and then using the story to interrogate an unnamed character on the story’s validity. “The Dead,” about a sponge magnate’s encounter with a survivor of the Armenian genocide, includes birth and death dates for each major character. The author astutely deploys a range of styles and techniques that create a cerebral, multifarious collection. Bucak’s remarkable, inventive, and humane debut marks her as a writer to watch.
Stonewall Award–winner Colbert (Little & Lion) does not disappoint with this coming-of-age story of a young black woman from Chicago. Dove “Birdie” Randolph, 16, is a model teen, until her mother’s sister, who has been in and out of rehab, arrives for a stay. Struggling with a need for autonomy and frustrated with her controlling mother, Birdie samples her first alcoholic beverage and hides the existence of her new boyfriend, sweet ex-juvie inmate Booker, for whom she’s fallen fast. Birdie forges a close relationship with her aunt while concealing her behavior from her mom, but when Birdie’s decisions catch up to her, revealing a hidden truth about her parents, Birdie’s world and newfound agency crumble. Despite occasionally predictable plotting, Colbert creates a unique cast of well-developed characters navigating responsibility, grief, racial profiling, and addiction. Providing a great deal of entertainment as Birdie’s inexperience lands her in awkward situations, this thrilling tale of first love explores what it means to be held to an impossible standard and still learn to live an authentic life. Ages 12–up.
In 1980, Vientiane, the Laotian capital city, is hosting a celebration of five years of Communist rule, despite the regime’s signal failure to achieve anything, in Cotterill’s exceptional 14th mystery featuring retired Laotian national coroner Siri Paiboun (after 2018’s Don’t Eat Me). Siri is enjoying the political theater until he receives a note attached to the tail of his dog, Ugly. The message’s anonymous writer states that “my desire to destroy you and your loved ones is a fire that has burned in my heart without end.” When further written threats follow, and as people connected to Siri start dying, he wracks his brains to figure out which of the many persons in his past who have vowed vengeance is behind the violence. Flashbacks to Siri’s younger days, including an episode in 1932 Paris, where he witnessed an assassination and identified the hit man, offer glimpses of possible suspects. The eccentric Siri, who some believe to be possessed by a thousand-year-old shaman, has rarely been funnier or more astute. Cotterill is writing at the top of his game.
Memoirist and novelist Cusk (Kudos) turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection. Broken into three sections, the volume takes its title from an English term for “the silent treatment,” which typified how Cusk’s parents disciplined her as a child. The opening chapters focus on memoir, but within the context of broader questions about society, families, women and work, and what makes a home. Cusk tackles, in addition to her fraught relationship with her parents, life after separating from her husband and with her daughters as they become teenagers (in the deliciously titled “Lions on Leashes”). In the second section, she examines art and its creation, in one piece grappling with “women’s writing” in terms of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir (“Shakespeare’s Sisters”). The final section ventures into literary criticism with analyses of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, D.H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning, and Edith Wharton. There is an element of stream of consciousness to Cusk’s prose, with its effortless transitions from one idea to another. However, the overriding thread binding her essays is the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives. It’s something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.
In this captivating story, journalist DeParle (American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare) follows three generations of a Filipino family whose lives have been profoundly shaped by migration. The book begins in a shantytown in Manila in the 1980s, where the reader meets Tita and Emet Comodas, who spent nearly 20 years of their married life apart as Emet “tried his luck” in the Middle East to lift them out of poverty and send their daughter Rosalie (born in 1971) to nursing school. Rosalie, in turn, became an overseas worker—in the Middle East and then Texas—and married one; their three children were initially raised mostly by the family in Manila. As the family is reunited in Texas in 2012, when the children are 5, 7, and 9, the narrative shifts to encompass their adjustment to a new country and to living with their parents. DeParle excels in both intimate details and sweeping scale, showing how the Comodases’ experiences illuminate broader phenomena, such as the feminization of migration, technology’s impact on assimilation and the maintenance of far-flung networks, and the role that overseas remittance plays in quality of life in former colonies. The book also ably relates the politics of immigration starting in the 1960s. This well-crafted story personalizes the questions and trends surrounding global migration in moving and thought-provoking fashion.
A sardonic, procrastinating PhD candidate gets close to a classmate and questions his own sexuality in Gregor’s excellent debut. Twenty-nine-year-old Richard Turner, a doctoral student studying medieval Italian literature at a New York City university, must show progress on his thesis to maintain his fellowship and living stipend. But his attention is on OkCupid, Grindr, and the “bookstore employees, painters, urban gardeners” he meets online—dates he takes pleasure in relaying to his best friend, the “socially brilliant” Patrick. After being warned his funding will be revoked if he doesn’t show progress, Richard turns to classmate Anne for help. Anne’s “luminous intelligence” is evident (and intimidating) to everyone, including Richard. After working together and presenting their paper-in-progress at a conference, their halting academic partnership turns romantic. When a nearly forgotten online date resurfaces, Richard must think deeply about what he wants. Filled with pithy secondary characters—such as Richard’s haughty supervisor, Patrick’s mischievous friends, and Anne’s lazy activist roommates—Gregor’s on-the-nose depiction of New York liberal intelligentsia makes for wonderful satire: “That line from Dante came to him. There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery. There is no greater sorrow than to feel like a horny loser in Brooklyn.” This marvelously witty take on dating in New York City and the blurry nature of desire announces Gregor as a fresh, electric new voice.
Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) deviates from her usual focus on historical figures to shine a light on the plight of common women in 1640s England in the dynamic first book of her new Fairmile series. Alinor, a midwife with knowledge of herbal remedies, is in difficult circumstances. Her fisherman husband has been gone for months, and she must care for herself and her two growing children during a precarious time in England’s history. King Charles, forced off his throne by Parliament, has been banished to the Isle of Wight following his defeat in civil war. It’s also a period when a strong woman on her own, like the beautiful Alinor who has skills that others can’t understand, can easily be accused of being a witch; the author cleverly plants such seeds of suspicion throughout. At the open, Alinor meets a handsome, young Catholic priest, a royals champion with the means to help the king escape. She helps the priest find a haven, and their ensuing romance has devastating consequences for both. Against the backdrop of political turmoil, Gregory’s narrative displays the harrowing mores of the time, showcasing the vulnerability of women who speak their mind and introducing a family struggling out of poverty who will provide plenty of grist for the mill of a continuing saga. History buffs and Gregory’s fans alike will be anticipating the next installment.
What if the totalitarian regime controlling people’s lives was a mega-corporation rather than a fascist government? That’s the conceit of this intelligent Orwellian thriller by Hart (the Ash McKenna series), who imagines an all-too-plausible near-future in which an Amazon-on-steroids company called Cloud dominates retail sales and the labor market. The story is told from three perspectives: multibillionaire Gibson Wells, the founder of Cloud; Paxton, a newly hired security employee at a MotherCloud facility, where he also lives; and Zinnia, a shipping worker and resident of the same facility. Wells, who’s dying of cancer, presents Cloud’s history, which includes taking over the FAA from the federal government to help expedite Cloud’s drone deliveries. Paxton, whose business was bankrupted by Cloud’s monopolistic practices, hopes for a meaningful relationship with Zinnia, who’s actually on a corporate espionage assignment for an unidentified employer and looks to use Paxton to further her mission. Hart’s detail-oriented worldbuilding, which credibly extrapolates from the Trump administration’s antiregulatory agenda, makes this cautionary tale memorable and powerful. This promises to be Hart’s breakout book.
With snapshots of futures that haunt, obsess, or tantalize, this collection from Hugo-winner Hurley (The Light Brigade) offers 16 hard-edged pieces that gleam like gems in a mosaic. Undermining the admiration for military adventure that pervades much science fiction, “The Red Secretary” presents a world that indulges in war and then purges all its practitioners, cyclically. In “The War of Heroes,” underdogs who rise up to defeat the oppressor discover that “[a] Hero is one who not only slays monsters, but creates monsters to slay.” The stories that celebrate fighting monsters acknowledge that losing is no shame (in “Our Faces, Radiant Sisters, Our Faces Full of Light!”, a callback to the work of SF legend James Tiptree Jr.) and that identity is a matter of choice more than genetics (in “The Fisherman and the Pig”). Hurley works at the edges of genres, mixing SF with detective noir (“The Sinners and the Sea,” “Garda”), military adventure (“The Light Brigade,” “The Improbable War”), and fantasy quest (“The Plague Givers”) in ways that refresh the motifs of the mixed fictions. In “Tumbledown,” the benefit of making hard choices is getting to tell the stories “about the world we’ll make together,” and readers will eagerly follow Hurley into these possible worlds and many more.
In the pseudonymous North’s superb thriller, a police procedural with supernatural overtones, Det. Insp. Amanda Beck heads the search for six-year-old Neil Spencer, who has gone missing from the English village of Featherbank. Neil may have been lured from his home by someone who whispered at his window at night, the same m.o. as incarcerated serial child killer Frank Carter (aka the Whisper Man), who was apprehended 20 years earlier by Det. Insp. Pete Willis. Beck brings in Willis to assist, specifically because he’s the only person Carter will talk to. Meanwhile, author Tom Kennedy, still reeling from his wife’s death, seeks a fresh start in Featherbank with his seven-year-old son, Jake. The sensitive Jake talks to a little girl who isn’t there and fears “the boy under the floor” in their odd new house. A strange man snooping at the Kennedy house and an attempt to lure Jake away during the night become connected to Beck’s investigation as she and Willis struggle to make a connection to Carter. Readers will have a tough time putting down this truly unnerving tale, with its seemingly unexplainable elements and glimpses of broken and dangerous minds.
In 11 stories and a novella, Scott returns to the setting of his debut collection, Insurrections: fictional Cross River, Md., which, in an alternate history, is the location of the only successful slave revolt in America. Most stories are set in the present day; the prose is energetic and at times humorous—often uncomfortably so—as stories interrogate racist tropes. “The Electric Joy of Service” and “Mercury in Retrograde” recast the history of master, slave, and revolt in stories about intelligent robots designed with the facial features of lawn jockeys that fail to behave as programmed. In “David Sherman, the Last Son of God,” David, the last (and least exalted) son of God, tries to redeem himself by leading a gospel band at his elder brother’s church. And in the concluding novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” set at Cross River’s historically black Freedman’s University, the narrator plots the downfall of his departmental colleague, whose course syllabus and writing assignments grow increasingly entangled with his personal life. Throughout, the characters’ experiences contrast the relative safety of Cross River with the more hostile ground of the once-segregated towns that surround it. It’s clear, however, that threats—whether they’re siren-like water-women, academic saboteurs, or brutal family traditions—can arise anywhere. Scott’s bold and often outlandish imagination makes for stories that may be difficult to define, but whose emotional authenticity is never once in doubt.
This singular first novel from Steinberg (Spectacle) has the elements of crime fiction: a seaside setting with a dark underbelly, a family torn apart by infidelity, the tragic death of a beautiful young girl. But Steinberg makes the familiar story new, in part, by deconstructing her elements: “I’ll say the setting is the boathouse; the setting is a washroom; the setting: night and summer.” The book begins with an unnamed narrator, the rebellious young daughter of a successful businessman, standing near the water at the shore: “we all knew of the girl who drowned,” she relates, “she sank like a stone, they said; she was showing off that night, they said; the guys all said.” Though the girl’s death has little direct bearing on the narrator’s main story, it’s emblematic of the uneasy tone Steinberg establishes and becomes a dark motif for the events that follow. With the summer drawing to a close, the narrator recounts her wild vacation: the tenuous connection she had to the dead girl, desires she doesn’t understand, her disturbed brother’s increasingly reckless behavior, her father’s flagrant affair and insistence that she keep it a secret, her rage at the other woman, building finally to her family coming apart. What makes this tale so thrilling is Steinberg’s artistry with form; she fractures narrative into its fundamental parts. Steinberg writes prose with a poet’s sense of meter and line, and a velocity recalling the novels of Joan Didion. The result is a dizzying work that perfectly evokes the feeling of spinning out of control.
In French author Vargas’s brilliantly twisty ninth whodunit featuring eccentric Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg (after 2016’s A Climate of Fear), Adamsberg, who leads the Paris Serious Crimes Squad, makes quick work of a brutal vehicular homicide case to focus on his hunch that foul play was involved in the deaths of three elderly men, each of whom was bitten by a recluse spider. As its name suggests, this type of spider is not aggressive, and its venom is not usually lethal. But an uptick in such fatalities in France have led to panic that the spiders may have mutated or had their toxin’s strength affected by global warming. The expert Adamsberg consults at the Natural History Museum shoots those theories down, and his colleagues are convinced that the age of the victims made them particularly susceptible to venom. The sleuth’s doggedness identifies a link among the dead men, which he pursues. That the members of Adamsberg’s investigative team are distinct individuals adds depth to the sophisticated and rewarding plot. Vargas deserves a wide American readership.