This week: Salman Rushdie's reimagining of Don Quixote, plus the story of the woman who defied the Nazis in the world’s most dangerous horse race.
British sports journalist Askwith (Feet in the Clouds) traces the inspiring, heartbreaking story of Czech countess Lata Brandisová (1895–1981) in this rousing account. Born in 1895 into privilege on a family estate in what is now the Czech Republic, the shy, modest Brandisova grew into an expert horse rider as the Habsburg empire collapsed and Nazism spread throughout Europe. She battled chauvinism to become the first woman to participate in the grueling four-mile steeplechase horse race, the Grand Pardubice, displaying defiance and moral courage as she swept herself and her grieving country to victory over the Third Reich in 1937. Driven by pride as much as fearlessness, Brandisová demonstrated an unconquerable spirit, “the same brave, loyal spirit that animates the great heart of a horse.” Once WWII started, however, she endured repressive Nazi and Communist regimes that confiscated the family lands. In 1948, Brandisová moved with her two sisters to a tiny, tumbledown cottage, where she suffered hunger, poverty, and obscurity until her death. Askwith rescues her remarkable, forgotten story through dogged detective work and lyrical prose. This is an intense roller coaster from start to finish
Aw’s captivating novel (after Five Star Billionaire) revolves around a fateful moment of violence set against the backdrop of an ever-changing Malaysia. In an almost stream-of-consciousness work, readers become the proverbial fly on the wall as the main character, Ah Hock, a convicted murderer, tells his tale to a graduate student working on a book. In alternating chapters of Ah Hock’s rambling confession and brief personal exchanges between Hock and his interviewer, Hock’s story wanders through his poverty-ridden upbringing with a single mother, his unsuccessful marriage, his murder trial, his days in prison, and, finally, to the night he committed murder. A simple man, Hock has spent his life believing hard work would bring success; as the manager of a fish farm, he reaches that success, but when his workers develop cholera, he’s forced to find replacements. Desperate for a solution, Hock seeks help from a boyhood friend now trafficking illegal workers, and this fateful decision leads him to an act of violence he never thought himself capable of. As Hock and his interviewer seek to understand what brought him to kill, readers are drawn into a Malaysia overwhelmed with thousands of immigrants seeking refuge, employment, and survival. Aw’s potent work entraps readers in the slow, fateful descent of its main character, witnessing his life spiral to its inevitable conclusion.
This beautiful and moving anthology celebrates the legacy of the world’s wartime camerawomen. Based on an exhibition at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany, Beckman and Korn, both historians and curators, trace the careers of eight photographers, beginning with Gerda Taro, a trailblazing German photographer who died on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War at age 26. German photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus—an advocate for equality in the industry—wrote to her editor every day for six weeks to secure an assignment to cover the Bosnian War in 1992. The techniques used by the photographers mirrored the progression of contemporary art, the authors note, particularly with American Lee Miller’s surreal use of light in her photos of landing craft on Normandy Beach in 1944. French-born Christine Spengler focused on contrasting joy and dread, as with an image of Cambodian kids using shell casings as flotation devices while swimming in 1974. American photographer Susan Meiselas created a series of riveting images of masked Nicaraguan youth during that country’s 1978 insurrection. History buffs and photography connoisseurs will find this especially riveting, and the powerful images should resonate with any reader.
The demands and expectations of family are an overpowering force in this enthralling story about Dominican immigrants in the mid-1960s from Cruz (Let It Rain Coffee). Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion, living in the Dominican countryside, becomes Ana Ruiz when she bends to her mother’s pressure and marries the brutish 32-year-old Juan, who has recently emigrated to America and is scratching out a living in New York. Juan and his brothers intend to build a restaurant on the Cancion family land back in the Dominican Republic, and part of the plan is for the brothers to first raise money by working in New York. When Juan brings Ana to the city, she’s overwhelmed, learning hard lessons about the locals and her husband—who’s abusive until Ana becomes pregnant—and she grows closer to Juan’s younger brother, Cesar. Ana comes of age while the Vietnam War protests surge around her in New York, and when the brewing conflict in the Dominican Republic erupts, Ana becomes determined to earn her own money and bring her mother and siblings to the relative safety of the States. The intimate workings of Ana’s mind are sometimes childlike and sometimes tortured, and her growth and gradually blooming wisdom is described with a raw, expressive voice. Cruz’s winning novel will linger in the reader’s mind long after the close of the story.
The 25 stories that Datlow has selected as the best short horror fiction of 2018 are impressive in their thematic breadth and tone. At one extreme there are chillers by Kristi DeMeester, Gemma Files, and Eloise C.C. Shepherd that find grist for nightmares in the intimacy of parent/child relationships. At the other extreme are Michael Marshall Smith’s “Shit Happens” and Joe Hill’s “You Are Released,” tales of apocalyptic horror on the seas and in the air. An array of exceptional stories fall in between them, including John Langan’s “Haak” and Siobhan Carroll’s “Haunt,” which build on fantastical elements in the work of Conrad and Coleridge, respectively; Thana Niveau’s “White Mare,” about the survival of macabre primitive customs into modern times; Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s creepy urban legend thriller, “You Know How the Story Goes”; Dale Bailey’s anthropophagus alternate history, “The Donner Party”; and Anne Billson’s shape-shifter shocker, “I Remember Nothing.” Datlow has drawn her selections from a wide variety of sources that even the most dedicated fans may have overlooked, and her comprehensive introductory overview of the year in horror will uncover still more venues for great scares. This is an indispensable volume for horror readers.
Feehan expertly weaves an intoxicating blend of fantasy and sensuality in this exceptional and powerful 29th Carpathian paranormal (after Dark Sentinel). Honorable Carpathian warrior Isai Florea has searched for his lifemate for centuries, even locking himself in a monastery in the Carpathian Mountains to keep his heart pure until he could find her. Feisty mage Julija Brennan, on the run from her murderous family, is snuggled in a sleeping bag in the Sierra Mountains when Isai literally falls into her lap. Even as their crackling chemistry pulls them together, they realize they have a sacred mission to complete first: destroying an evil book of spells. Julija’s family raised her to doubt herself, but Isai’s steadfast love and support show Julija that she is powerful—and that together, they can save the world. Feehan’s gift for intricate worldbuilding is paired with pitch-perfect plotting to ensnare readers from the first page. Her many fans will devour this masterfully wrought tale, which is also an enticing entry point for new readers.
Rushdie’s rambunctious latest (following The Golden House) hurtles through surreal time and space with the author’s retooled Don Quixote on a quest for love and redemption in an unloving and irredeemable U.S.A. In this story within a story, Sam DuChamp, author of spy thrillers and father of a missing son, creates Quichotte, an elegant but deluded, TV-obsessed pharma salesman who strikes out cross-country with the son he’s dreamed into existence, to kneel at the feet of an actress by the name of Miss Salma R. Quichotte and son Sancho brave Rushdie’s tragicomic, terrifying version of America, a Trumpland full of bigots, opioids, and violence. They experience weird, end-of-time events—people turn into mastodons, rips appear in the atmosphere—but also talking crickets and blue fairies offering something like hope. Allowing the wild adventure to overwhelm oneself is half the fun. Rushdie’s extravagant fiction is the lie that tells the truth, and, hilariously, it’s not lost on the reader that he shares this Falstaffian and duplicitous notion with none other than Trump (who is never named). Rushdie’s uproarious comedy, which talks to itself while packing a good deal of historical and political freight, is a brilliant rendition of the cheesy, sleazy, scary pandemonium of life in modern times.
Spiegelhalter (Sex by Numbers), a University of Cambridge statistician, demonstrates in his intriguing, nontechnical primer how to reliably evaluate even the most extravagant claim. Spiegelhalter’s goal is to show readers that statistics is about more than just counting numbers. A question about what happened to children having heart surgery at a particular hospital becomes a lesson in the psychological effects of “framing” results: reporting the “mortality rate” might cause alarm, but providing a “survival rate” sounds more reassuring. From issues with pie charts and the “wisdom of crowds,” to using data distributions, modelling relationships, and the correlation/causation quandary, Spiegelhalter offers clear and surprisingly enlightening examples. Concepts including margins of error and statistical significance, he demonstrates, become vital when assessing a statistics-backed claim, such as one made by a mischievous journalist who published a paper “proving” chocolate consumption caused weight loss—the data was real, but any trained statistician could see it was statistically insignificant. Spiegelhalter’s book is both fully comprehensible and valuable in a digitally driven world in which data literacy has become newly important.
Set in 1361, Sykes’s excellent fourth whodunit featuring Oswald de Lacy (after 2017’s City of Masks) finds Oswald traveling with his family from Somershill Manor in Kent to the Isle of Eden, an island surrounded by marshes on England’s south coast, to avoid the bubonic plague. Their destination is Castle Eden, a place of refuge offered by Oswald’s friend Godfrey, Lord Eden. Once the castle portcullis lowers behind them, Oswald and his party are cut off from the outside world. Godfrey, who believes the pestilence to be a manifestation of divine punishment, has several other guests plus supplies to last for months. Soon after the nobleman asks Oswald to deliver two sealed envelopes in the event something happens to him, one addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Godfrey is found dead in a tool chest with a head wound. Oswald must ascertain which of the castle’s other occupants is responsible, while keeping his family protected from the deadly contagious disease. Sykes effectively uses her diligent research in the service of a memorable plot. This outing reinforces her place in the historical mystery genre’s top ranks.
In this informative volume, fashion journalist Thomas convincingly lays out multiple arguments against fast fashion (low-cost, mass-produced clothing) and the cycle of rapidly manufacturing, purchasing, and discarding clothes that is sweeping the globe. Thomas points out that American “shoppers snap up five times more clothing now than they did in 1980,” that fast fashion also preys on consumers’ insecurities, that synthetic dyes and fertilizers have harmful effects on the environment, that southern mill towns emptied when clothing manufacturers sent those jobs overseas, and that outsourcing grievously exploits laborers (as evinced by the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where many U.S. companies subcontracted work, which killed more than 1,000 garment workers). In the latter part of the book, Thomas delves into efforts to mitigate these effects through “slow fashion,” such as Levi’s using domestically produced organic indigo for some of its denim, and small, socially conscious companies bringing their manufacturing operations back to the U.S. Thomas interviews individuals such as Natalie Chanin, who grew up in Florence, Ala., “the Cotton T-shirt Capital of the World,” and, upon returning home, has reimagined how clothing can be produced locally in a manner that exploits neither its employees nor the environment. Thoroughly reported and persuasively written, Thomas’s clarion call for more responsible practices in fashion will speak to both industry professionals and socially conscious consumers.
Truong (The Book of Salt) gives voice to three women in the life of Lafcadio Hearn—the real-life 19th-century Greek-Irish writer who wrote about America, the West Indies, and most notably Japan—in her remarkable novel about love, the power of memory, and betrayal. On the island of Cythera in the late 1840s, Lafcadio’s mother, Rosa, meets Charles Hearn, an Irish military surgeon, and sees in him not only romance but a way to escape her oppressive father and loveless home. But when Rosa arrives in Ireland, family politics and homesickness drive her away, leaving a young Lafcadio with nothing but the memory of her scent of lavender. In 1872, Alethea Foley, a young woman born enslaved in the U.S. but now free, meets Lafcadio, also called Patrick, in Cincinnati, where he’s pursuing a career in journalism. Though they fall in love and marry, there are rifts in the marriage rooted in their racial and cultural differences that they cannot repair, and he leaves. In the last decade of the 19th century, Lafcadio arrives in Japan after reporting stints in New Orleans and the West Indies. Soon he meets Koizumi Setsu, who becomes his literary and cultural translator, wife, and mother of his children. Interwoven through these richly imagined narratives are excerpts from the first, actual biography of Lafcadio Hearn, published in 1906. Truong is dazzling on the sentence level, and she inhabits each of these three women brilliantly. Truong’s command of voice and historical knowledge brings the stories of these remarkable women to life.