This week: new books from Edwidge Danticat, Louise Penny, and more.
In a spooky sequel to Small Spaces, Arden alternates between the perspectives of friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian as they travel with Ollie’s father and Coco’s mother to a Vermont mountain cabin, where Ollie’s dad has won a stay. The three friends have been inseparable since autumn, when they encountered an alternate world populated by living scarecrows and governed by a terrifying figure called the Smiling Man, and they are eager to put the experience behind them. Soon, though, snowed in at the foreboding Mount Hemlock Resort, which once served as an orphanage, the friends find themselves trapped within a paranormal labyrinth haunted by the ghosts of Gretel, a child who died after becoming locked in a closet, and of the frightening woman who locked her there. With the assistance of a reporter investigating the resort’s hauntings, Ollie, Coco, and Brian set out to communicate with the restless spirits. Arden excels at creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension with memorably menacing details. Readers will again be invested in the ghoulish surprises in store for the resourceful, likably flawed protagonists. Ages 10–up.
Austin’s delightful second Bachelors and Babies contemporary (after Must Love Babies) is fast-paced and sensual. While driving through Misty Bottoms, Ga., single mom Elisa Danvers needs to get some work done on her car and stops in at the Wylder Brothers’ car-restoration business. When Elisa passes out, former Marine Tucker Wylder catches her and helps calm her three-year-old daughter, Daisy. The local doctor decides to run some tests on Elisa that will take days, so Tucker invites Elisa and Daisy to stay with him. The sensual attraction sizzles between Tucker and Elisa, though he remains haunted by the guilt he feels for the deaths of his fellow Marines. When Elisa decides to stay on in town, she moves in with an older wealthy woman who offers her a business opportunity; Tucker’s life seems empty without Elisa and Daisy in his house, but Elisa tries to keep her distance, fearing that secrets from her past will put him off. The ups and downs of Elisa and Tucker’s relationships are powerful and convincing. Old-fashioned Southern charm adds the perfect touch to this rich and emotional romance.
Families fracture and reform in Danticat’s outstanding and deeply memorable story collection. Set among the Haitian “dyaspora” including Miami, New York, and Haiti itself, the tales describe the complicated lives of people who live in one place but are drawn elsewhere. The American children of immigrants discover that their lives have been shaped by their parents’ Haitian pasts, as in the touching, funny “In the Old Days,” when a New York high school teacher learns that her absent father, who divorced her mother and returned to Haiti, is dying, and rushes to meet him. In the book’s standout story, “Sunrise, Sunset,” a woman with dementia struggles to impart the lessons of motherhood to her own daughter: “You are always saying hello to them while preparing them to say goodbye to you.” And the charming “Hot Air Balloons” follows two college freshmen—Neah, the child of academics, and Lucy, the daughter of migrant farm workers—as each comes to her own understanding of Haiti, a place of “idyllic beaches” and “dewy mountaintops,” as well as corruption and poverty, where girls are “recruited for orgies with international aid workers.” In plain, propulsive prose, and with great compassion, Danticat writes both of her characters’ losses and of their determination to continue: “There are loves that outlive lovers.”
In Millas’s first novel to hit the U.S., he takes readers on an absurdist ride into the psyche of a man who has lost his job and ended up living inside a massive antique wardrobe. Trapped inside it after running from a cop who caught him shoplifting, Damian Lobo is soon transported to the home of a young family, purchasers of the giant antique. As days, then weeks, then months slide by, Damian becomes a ghostlike butler for the family during their daytime absence: doing their laundry and dishes, cooking meals, and fixing things around the home, and then slipping back into the shadows of the wardrobe at night. The dark and humorous narrative is often told through the internal monologue of Damian, who obsessively imagines himself a celebrity being interviewed on TV, allowing the reader insights into his thoughts and slowly deteriorating mind. “He sometimes wondered how long the situation might last. He fantasized about it lasting forever. And about things progressing, too, in the sense of a day arriving when he would be able to step out of the wardrobe and move among them while remaining invisible.” Part surreal comedy, part dark parable, Millas’s wild work brings readers face to face with the mundane facets of middle-class suburban life, while also dragging them along on Damian’s slow descent into alienation, disassociation, and perhaps even madness. A page-turner of the strangest order, Millas’s debut stuns and entrances. It’s impossible to put down.
Bestseller Penny’s wrenching 15th novel featuring Chief Insp. Armand Gamache (after 2018’s Kingdom of the Blind) finds Gamache, former chief superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, returning to work after a nine-month suspension and demotion, and reporting to his own his son-in-law and one-time protégé, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. When the body of Vivienne Godin, 25 and pregnant, is found in a river near Three Pines, trapped in the debris of a violent spring flood, Gamache and Beauvoir are sure that she was killed by her drunken, abusive, supremely unlikable husband, Carl Tracey. But knowing who did it and proving it are two different things. After an exhaustive investigation, the detectives build a convincing circumstantial case against Tracey. But a shocking twist forces Gamache to look at the evidence anew. With an uncompromising eye, Penny explores the depths of human emotion, both horrifying and sublime. Her love for her characters and for the mystical village of Three Pines is apparent on every page.
Ramzipoor’s magnetic debut, based on the true story of an intricate WWII propaganda scheme, takes place in the fall of 1943 in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Anticipating an Allied invasion, Gruppenführer August Wolff, head of Germany’s new Ministry of Perception Management, plans an ambitious campaign to circulate information that’s alleged to come from the Resistance but is really the product of his office. He rounds up four members of the underground group the Front de l’Indépendance and orders them to publish an issue of its newspaper, La Libre Belgique, that looks and reads like other copies but portrays the Allies in an unflattering light. The leader of the quartet, Marc Aubrion, knows they will be executed at the end of the project, so he convinces them to die for the cause: they will secretly and concurrently create a black propaganda version of the collaborationist paper Le Soir, to poke fun at the Nazis and give Belgians a much-needed psychological boost. To assist his team—prostitute Lada Tarcovich, editor Theo Mullier, and professor Martin Victor—Aubrion recruits a local teenager called Gamin, an expert at newspaper distribution and arson. Over 18 jam-packed days that end with a big bang, the lives of all the members of the group will be changed. Sprawling and ambitious, with crisp pacing and fully realized characters, this will fascinate anyone looking for an unusual, enthralling war story.
Biographer Ribowsky (The Last Cowboy; Howard Cosell) provides a hard-nosed and decidedly unromantic biography of the NFL’s winningest coach, Don Shula, who led the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins to a Super Bowl victory. Ribowsky begins with Shula’s Depression-era, Hungarian-immigrant upbringing in Grand River, Ohio, telling of how Shula worked odd jobs as a teenager during WWII while excelling in high school football. Through Shula’s career, Ribowsky provides an excellent look into the early, gritty days of professional football, explaining how Shula, playing for the Baltimore Colts in the mid-1950s, “would throw an elbow into a receiver’s eye as soon as look at him.” In 1957, Shula retired from playing; three years later, he became the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions; in 1963, he returned to the Colts as head coach; and, in 1970, he was hired to helm the Dolphins. Throughout, Ribowsky highlights Shula’s brand of tough, old-school coaching, along with a solid history of the birth of the AFL and the evolution of the NFL, with anecdotes ranging from raunchy dorm-room parties at camp (which Shula did not appreciate) to Shula’s “flawless” game plan in Super Bowl VII, in which the Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins. Ribowsky’s excellent biography will thrill football fans of all allegiances.
Neuroscientist Rippon painstakingly refutes in this exhaustive study long-held beliefs about gender’s role in the development and functioning of the brain. Rippon demonstrates how researchers’ expectations can alter a study’s findings and how false statistics become lodged in the popular imagination and repeated as facts long after they are disproven, such as the popular belief that women “on average use 20,000 words a day and men use only 7,000.” The most illuminating aspect of her account is an explanation of the “plastic” nature of the brain, particularly among infants and children. The brain’s “trajectory may not be fixed but can be diverted by tiny differences in expectations and attitudes.” Consequently, children as young as 21 months can recognize genders, and by age 5 are adhering rigidly to gender roles (centered around choice of toys, for example) based on the perceived expectations of the adults around them. This is a powerful and well-constructed argument for gender as a social construct—nurture rather than nature. Some of the harder science in the book is not layperson-friendly; Rippon’s frequently accessible contradiction of sexist myths also contains massive amounts of neuroscience data. Nevertheless, those interested in gender-related brain differences (or lack thereof) will find this riveting.
For the last several years, high schoolers Deja and Josiah (Josie) have been best friends during autumn, working together at the Pumpkin Patch’s Succotash Hut. On Halloween, the last day of their final year working at the Patch, outgoing Deja, a plus-size black girl who has dated many of the Patch’s staffers—girls and boys alike—intends to make sure that responsible, quiet Josie, who is white, finally talks to his long-standing crush, a young woman who works at the Fudge Shoppe. A packed night at the Patch leads to the duo pursuing “Fudge Girl” through the grounds, reliving memories, averting catastrophes, eating all their favorite snacks, and savoring one last autumnal night together. Art by Hicks (Comics Will Break Your Heart) turns the sweetly witty dialogue by Rowell (Carry On) into a miniature autumn universe; precise, affectionate details (signage, costumes, endpaper maps) will coax readers to revel in the cozy atmosphere. The pacing is assured, driving along in short bursts that leave room for key scenes to stretch, but it’s the primary characters’ authentic friendship—built over several seasons working alongside one another—and the variously inclusive cast that really bring this funny last-day story home. Ages 14–up.
After a swindling Prohibition-era robber baron cheats Vita’s grandfather out of his crumbling family castle on the Hudson River, she and her mother sail from England to assist him. Vita, who developed keen throwing skills during a bout of polio, greets New York City “as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight.” Left to her own devices, she meets three talented children: Silk, a pickpocket, and two burgeoning circus performers who live in Carnegie Hall. Russian Arkady is deeply in tune with animals, and Samuel, a boy from Mashonaland, secretly trains as a trapeze artist. To help her grandfather, Vita persuades them to join her in a heist: break into the castle and find an emerald necklace (“large as a lion’s eye”) that belonged to her beloved late grandmother. Rundell hallmarks abound—clever animals and children, themes of autonomy and cruelty (here frequently conveyed via the era’s attitudes about ability and skin color). While the narrative build and heist occasionally succumb to unlikely moments, Rundell’s (The Explorer) subtle telling and her protagonists’ grit culminate in a dazzling tale of wild hope, lingering grief, admirable self-sufficiency, and intergenerational adoration. Ages 8–12.