This week: new books from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ann Patchett, Patti Smith, Chris Ware, and more.
Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse’s third pastiche (after 2018’s Mycroft and Sherlock), their best yet, provides intriguing challenges for both Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes while continuing to present plausible backstories for the brothers. In 1873, Mycroft and his longtime friend and partner, Cyrus Douglas, agree to help Chinese businessman Deshi Hai Lin locate Bingwen Shi, the fiancé of Lin’s daughter, Ai, who happens to be an old flame of Mycroft’s. Shi, a land investor, disappeared in London en route to a meeting with a client. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Sherlock, who’s not yet an encyclopedia of knowledge relevant to detecting crime, gets himself tossed out of college so he can tackle a sensational serial murder case. Someone has killed eight people across Great Britain, leaving near each corpse a note bearing the message “The Fire 411!” That the victims appear to have nothing in common adds to the puzzle. The authors do a stellar job of illuminating the siblings’ developing relationship while concocting a clever and twisty plot. Sherlockians will be enthralled.
Coates (We Were Eight Years in Power) makes his ambitious fiction debut with this wonderful novel that follows Hiram Walker, a boy with an extraordinary memory. Born on a Virginia plantation, he realizes at five that he has a photographic recall—except where it concerns his mother, Rose, who was sold and whom he can only reconstruct through what others tell him. Born to Rose and Howell Walker, master and owner of Lockless, the land Hiram works, Hiram is called up at age 12 to the house to serve Maynard, his half-brother. When the novel opens, Hiram is 19, and he and Maynard are on their way back to Lockless when the bridge they’re traveling over collapses. Deep in the river, Hiram is barraged with visions of his ancestors, and finally a woman water-dancing, whom he recognizes as his mother. After he wakes up, mysteriously saved even as Maynard dies, Hiram yearns for a life beyond “the unending night of slavery.” But when his plans to escape with Sophia, the woman he loves, are dashed by betrayal and violence, Hiram is inducted into the Underground, the secret network of agents working to liberate slaves. Valued for his literacy and for the magical skill the Underground believes he possesses, Hiram comes to learn that the fight for freedom comes with its own sacrifices and restrictions. In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed.
This thoughtful companion to two-time Newbery Medal–winner DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale and Louisiana’s Way Home follows Beverly Tapinski, the third of the Three Rancheros, in August 1979—four years after the first book’s events. Grieving the death of her beloved dog Buddy and tired of her mother’s drinking, Beverly, 14, decides to skip town. After she hitches a ride to Tamaray Beach, a lie about her age garners her a job at Mr. C’s restaurant and room with elderly Iola, who offers the girl shelter in exchange for her driving Iola around. Beverly can be deeply unforthcoming about her feelings, making her gradual transition away from a solitary being determined not to rely on others feel deeply meaningful. Secondary characters—sensitive teen store clerk Elmer, who’s interested in art; bingo enthusiast Iola; and the staff of Mr. C’s—are well defined through concise narrative and dialogue, and DiCamillo builds them into a new community that matters a great deal to Beverly. But it’s Beverly’s private moments—thoughts of the other Rancheros, a message revealed, a love for the term lapis lazuli—that move her from being a person in flight to a present, whole participant in her world. Ages 10–up.
Krasznahorkai establishes his own rules and rides a wave of exhilarating energy in this sprawling, nonpareil novel, which harkens back to early works such as Satantango but with the benefit of the Man Booker International Prize winner’s mature powers. In a small Hungarian town, an eccentric and isolated genius known only as the Professor occupies a specially designed hut, ravaged by uncontrollable thoughts and trying to rid himself of “human imbecility” while keeping unsavory watch on his daughter. There will soon be more to watch: the ruined Baron Bela Wenckheim is returning home by train, in flight from his extensive gambling debts, only to fall in with a colorful collection of locals, all looking to take advantage of the Baron by one means or another. There’s the roughneck regulars of the local pub, the scheming town mayor looking to gin up excitement over the Baron’s return for his own visibility, and the con man Dante of Szolnok, whom the Baron encounters casually only to find he has his fingers in any pie from which he can extract a profit. The one bright spot in this Greek chorus of rogues is Marika, the Baron’s childhood sweetheart, whose romantic desires to reunite with the refined boy she remembers will be tested by corrosive new realities. This vortex of a novel compares neatly with Dostoevsky and shows Krasznahorkai at the absolute summit of his decades-long project. Apocalyptic, visionary, and mad, it flies off the page and stays lodged intractably wherever it lands.
Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) again brings heart and authenticity to a slice of Ethiopian history, this time focusing on the Italian invasion of her birth country in 1935. While Hirut, a servant girl, and her trajectory to becoming a fierce soldier defending her country are the nexus of the story, the author elucidates the landscape of war by focusing on individuals—offering the viewpoints (among others) of Carlo Fucelli, a sadistic colonel in Mussolini’s army; Ettore Navarra, a Jewish Venetian photographer/soldier tasked with documenting war atrocities; and Haile Selassie, the emperor bearing the weight of his country’s devastation at the hand of the Italians. In Hirut, Mengiste depicts both a servant girl’s low status and the ferocity of her spirit—inspired by the author’s great-grandmother who sued her father for his gun so she could enlist in the Ethiopian army—which allows her to survive betrayal by the married couple she serves and her eventual imprisonment by Fucelli, captured with horrifying detail by Navarra’s camera. Mengiste breaks new ground in this evocative, mesmerizing account of the role of women during wartime—not just as caregivers, but as bold warriors defending their country.
Newitz’s mind-rattling second novel (after Autonomous) is a multilayered tale of “editing” history, human rights, and the ripple effect. Geologist and time traveler Tess (2022 CE) is fighting a misogynist group set on subjugating women across the present and future, then destroying the time machines to lock in their dominance permanently. Punk rock–loving high schooler Beth (1992 CE) just wants her own life, and normalcy after witnessing a murder. Their lives intertwine in ways neither quite understands, and the effects of their connection extend for centuries in both directions. Newitz’s fascinating extrapolation is an intelligent, gut-wrenching glimpse of how tiny actions, both courageous and venal, can have large consequences. The sidelong looks at prejudice-born horrors are frequent but not overwhelming, and the examinations of how much darkness one might be willing to endure in order to stop a vaster terror are heartbreaking. Smart and profound on every level, this is a deeply satisfying novel.
In this thoughtful novel set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, Morgan Parker, 17, is a self-proclaimed “super-emo” kid living with anxiety and depression in Southern California. One of the only black kids at her conservative Christian school (a “high school inside a church inside a PacSun”), Morgan regularly experiences racist microaggressions from her teachers and peers, who comment on the music she listens to and the clothes she wears, and how “white” she acts. After a devastating event the previous summer landed her in therapy and on antidepressants, Morgan is determined to “get happy” and learn to love her “intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious” self and her blackness, whatever it takes. When the election and a project for history class show Morgan how much she doesn’t know about black history, she decides to educate herself and her classmates on what it means to be black in America. Drawing on her own teen experiences, Parker (There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé for adults) adroitly touches upon matters of respectability and “presentableness,” stigmas against discussing mental health issues in the black community and among young adults, and internalized and societal racism. Ages 12–up.
A 1920s mansion worms into the lives of the broken family that occupies it in another masterly novel from Patchett (Commonwealth). In 1945, Brooklyn-born real-estate entrepreneur Cyril Conroy purchases the Dutch House in Elkins Park, outside Philadelphia, and presents it, complete with Delft mantels, life-size portraits of the original owners, a ballroom, and staff, to his wife. She hates it. She runs away to serve the poor, abandoning her 10-year-old daughter, Maeve, and three-year-old son, Danny. Five years later, Maeve and Danny meet Conroy’s second wife. The second Mrs. Conroy adores the house. When Cyril dies, she keeps it, dispossessing Maeve and Danny of any inheritance except funds for Danny’s education, which they use to send Danny to Choate, Columbia, and medical school. Grown-up Danny narrates, remembering his sister as an unswerving friend and protector. For Patchett, family connection comes not from formal ties or ceremonies but from shared moments: Danny accompanying his father to work, Danny’s daughter painting her grandmother’s fingernails, Maeve and Danny together trying to decode the past. Despite the presence of a grasping stepmother, this is no fairy tale, and Patchett remarkably traces acts of cruelty and kindness through three generations of a family over 50 years. Patchett’s splendid novel is a thoughtful, compassionate exploration of obsession and forgiveness, what people acquire, keep, lose or give away, and what they leave behind.
Symbols and signs take on life-changing meanings in Serre’s three sharp, sophisticated, and inventive tales (following The Governesses). Examining a tarot deck given to her by a friend, the narrator of “The Fool” realizes she has already encountered the eponymous card in real life: “You think things appear only on playing cards.... In reality, they exist in life.” The Fool has already come to her in various guises, including Carl, her lover, and the nameless childhood dread that long ago inspired her to become a writer, “to make a pact with the thing that threatens you.” In the slyly funny anti-bildungsroman “The Narrator,” a man travels to a chalet to write, and as he engages in an affair with his landlady, he’s both delighted and inundated with material, feeling that “nothing remained of the world but... the ghostly apparitions of dreams,” which he will turn into a book. But his inability to connect with others occasions a crisis; he no longer wishes “to feel holier-than-thou with your precious images... to feel smug simply because you’re different.” Dreamy and deeply sexual, “The Wishing Table” revisits and revises the literature of debauchery; its narrator, now nearing 40, recounts a happily incestuous childhood. Drawing on fairy tales and psychoanalysis, pornography and poststructuralism, Serre constructs stunning and searing stories that will remain with readers.
Smith follows his Printz Honor book Grasshopper Jungle with this rewarding novel that takes place 16 years later, when Arek Szerba, 16, goes in search of his missing fathers, Austin and Robby. Arek, along with Robby’s 15-year-old sister, Amelia (“Mel”) Sing Brees, has lived his whole life in “the hole,” an extensive underground bunker where they are safe from the nine-foot-tall Unstoppable Soldiers roaming above. The mutant mantises have eaten most of humankind, so when Austin and Robby fail to return from one of their habitual forays outside, Arek takes to the road to find them, secretly accompanied by Mel. Episodes of Arek’s earlier years in the hole are interwoven with the pair’s journey across the U.S. and the travelogue of 12-year-old Breakfast and his silent companion, Olive. Philosophical passages and reflections on the paintings of Max Beckmann mix with Arek’s longings for Mel and concerns about masturbation and the threat of circumcision by his hyper-religious grandmother. The combination of the base and off-the-wall with the deeply thoughtful gives this singular offering the air of a classic bildungsroman with a modern twist. Ages 14–up.
As she wanders between waking and dreaming in a year filled with the death of a close friend and the political turmoil of the 2016 election, musician and National Book Award–winner Smith (Just Kids) contemplates dreams and reality in this luminous collection of anecdotes and photos. In light of her 70th birthday, Smith writes lyrically on various subjects: she describes Allen Ginsberg’s poetry—which she carries along her travels—as an “expansive hydrogen bomb, containing all the nuances of his voice.” On the “terrible soap opera called the American election,” she declares that “the bully bellowed. Silence ruled... All hail our American apathy, all hail the twisted wisdom of the Electoral College.” Watching a Belinda Carlisle video, she’s caught up in Carlisle’s infectious beat, and she imagines a “nonviolent hubris spreading across the land.” At one point, Smith learns from a stranger that, in dreams, “equations are solved in an entirely unique way, laundry stiffens in the wind, and our dead mothers appear with their backs turned.” Smith discovers that her most meaningful insights come from her vivid dreams, and she feels a palpable melancholia over having to wake up from them. Smith casts a mesmerizing spell with exquisite prose.
This contemporary graphic novel from Wang (The Prince and the Dressmaker) thrums with the quiet dramas of friendship and family, and showcases the diversity of the Chinese-American experience. When single mother YuWen Lin and her brash daughter Moon move into the Hongs’ extra unit, Christine Hong isn’t sure what to make of the new girl, a Buddhist vegetarian who loves to dance to K-pop, settles conflicts with her fists, and even confides that she belongs among the stars. Despite initially dismissing Moon as “not Asian,” Christine swiftly discovers a best friend in the girl, who expands her horizons beyond violin, Chinese lessons, American pop, and her more traditional Chinese household. When calamity hurtles into their lives, Christine must scrutinize her conflicted feelings about navigating tensions friendly and familial. Wang’s art is as expressive and fluid as ever, ripe with playful detail—from a Jeremy Lin simulacrum named Joseph Chu to generation-bridging references such as Sailor Moon and Pokémon—and the muted color palette, contributed by colorist Lark Pien, casts the book in a nostalgic glow. Plumbing the depths of Wang’s childhood for inspiration, this rich, heart-filled narrative will resonate with any reader who has ever felt different within their community. Final art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12.
Ware (Building Stories) delivers an astounding graphic novel about nothing less than the nature of life and time as it charts the intersecting lives of characters that revolve around an Omaha, Neb., parochial school in the 1970s. Third-grader Chalky White and his high schooler sister, Alice, are new students. Chalky finds his outcast status concretized when he tries to make friends with the bullied Rusty Brown and gets embroiled in recess humiliation. Alice attracts both friendly attention and leers, including from stoner Jordan Lint and (secretly) from her English teacher, Woody Brown (Rusty’s father), and her art teacher, Chris Ware. The narrative then shifts to Woody, dropping into the world of a sci-fi story he publishes in a pulp magazine, about an astronaut who becomes unhinged on Mars, before revealing Woody’s own youthful heartbreak. Next, the birth-to-death trajectory of toxic Jordan is intimately portrayed, including profound childhood loss, youthful rebellions, brief redemption, and restless middle age. Finally, Ware focuses on teacher Joanne Cole, a black woman who grows up in poverty, then stoically perseveres as an educator despite racism at the wealthy, predominantly white academy—and loves to play the banjo. Ware’s dazzling geometric art—pointillism for Woody’s eyesight sans glasses; close-ups of Joanne’s face through the decades—has never been better. Through this winding narrative, resonant echoes are drawn between characters inside their loneliness, adversity, and frustrations (such as two different characters, decades apart, placing a flower in a bowl of water). Ware again displays his virtuosic ability to locate the extraordinary within the ordinary, elevating seemingly normal lives into something profound, unforgettable, and true.