This week: new books from Jeanette Winterson, Joe Hill, and more.
I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer
A Turkish political prisoner opposes his imagination to the grim reality of oppression in this sometimes harrowing, sometimes luminous memoir. After the failed 2016 coup attempt by members of the Turkish military, novelist Altan (Endgame) was arrested along with his brother Mehmet by President Recep Erdogan’s government and prosecuted for sending “subliminal messages” to coup plotters on a TV show, being a “religious putschist,” and being a “Marxist terrorist,” and was sentenced to life in prison. (His real offense was criticizing the government.) In these essays, Altan vividly evokes the Kafkaesque farce of court proceedings; prison squalor and claustrophobia; the dehumanizing routines of handcuffs, lineups, and confiscations that “carved us out of life like a rotten, maggot-laced chunk from a pear;” a future of heartbreaking constraint in which “I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard.” But he’s also buoyed by small kindnesses, the hope of seeing loved ones, a cellmate who refuses police demands to denounce others, and writerly reveries that let him “pass through your walls with ease.” Intertwining gritty detail with lyrical effusion, Altan’s narrative is a searing indictment of Turkey’s authoritarian regime and an inspiring testament to human resilience.
I Can Make This Promise
Debut author Day (who is Upper Skagit) drew from her own experience as the daughter of a Native American adoptee to create the character of Edie Green, a 12-year-old budding artist who lives in Seattle with her parents. Edie has always known that her Native American mother was adopted and raised by a white family; while digging around in the family’s attic, Edie stumbles upon a box of photos and letters written by Edith Graham, a Suquamish and Duwamish aspiring actor from the 1970s. When her friends notice the striking similarity between Edie and Edith and her parents don’t answer Edie’s broad questions about her, Edie becomes convinced that the stranger is her namesake. Beyond the mystery, important themes resonate throughout, including cultural identity and what makes a friendship worth keeping. Day’s affecting novel also considers historical truths about how Native Americans have been treated throughout U.S. history, particularly underlining family separations. Though Edie’s first-person voice occasionally sounds a bit young for a seventh grader, her urgent desire to know her family’s past propels this story forward. In illuminating notes that bookend the novel, Day further discusses the personal and historical roots of Edie’s moving tale. Ages 8–12.
The Problem of the Many
Impressive in its precise articulation and range of insights, Donnelly’s dazzling third collection extends the thematic reach of his 2010 Kingsley Tufts Award–winning The Cloud Corporation. Charting the underbelly of Western capitalism, the speakers in Donnelly’s poems locate the imperialist impulse in humanity’s distant origins. “First living cell, what have you to say for yourself/ now?” asks “Chemical Life,” embodying the battle against entropy while “the universe tends inexorably toward disorder.” In “Fascination,” the speaker considers the historical and geographical journey of sassafras while drinking root beer, until “I hear the fingertips of history// thrum on tabletops in Roanoke and when popcorn bursts as it/ spins in my microwave.” In these long, associative spirals, Alexander the Great, Elizabeth I, and Nebuchadnezzar are invoked as influences on the present moment and as stand-ins for humanity’s misplaced self-importance. In contrast to human monuments, natural phenomena (such as clouds) pose a problem to conceptual borders: “manifold stuff of reality recombining// itself in response to key events free of regard to what humans take/ to be necessary distinctions.” Donnelly’s eye traces satellite images and contortions of fire above a refinery, while using deadpan humor with equal vividness. From gut flora to galaxies, these poems offer glimpses “that waver like air above lit candles,” restoring meaning to the world in the process.
The Last True Poets of the Sea
In a strong debut loosely based on Twelfth Night, 16-year-old Violet’s family splinters after her brother Sam’s suicide attempt. Their parents enter counseling at home in New York City, Sam heads to Vermont for treatment, and party girl Violet is exiled to Lyric, Maine, where her family used to spend their summers. Living quietly with her uncle Toby and volunteering at the local aquarium, Violet reflects on her childhood with her brother, makes new friends through coworker Orion, and gains interest in the history of her great-great-great-grandparents, the town’s much-celebrated founders. Against the evocative backdrop of rugged coastal Maine, Drake’s suspenseful novel offers three strands of high drama: the impact of Sam’s mental illness on Violet, Violet’s family history (her grandmother, the lone survivor of a shipwreck, posed as a boy while working for her future husband), and a complicated love triangle between Violet, Orion, and Orion’s friend Liv, who has a special interest in Violet’s ancestors. The story of her grandmother’s transformation creates intriguing parallels with the internal changes Violet undergoes. If at times the novel seems crowded, Violet emerges as a genuine, sympathetic protagonist struggling to create something new from the wreckage of her life. Ages 14–up.
A Tall History of Sugar
In her immersive modern fairy tale, Forbes (A Permanent Freedom) unspools an unlikely love story as well as a haunting, hypnotic piece of postcolonial Jamaican history. A strange newborn baby is found in a basket in 1958 and adopted. Ghostly pale and fragile, with hair that is part blond, part black, Moshe Fisher is deemed an outsider by his peers until, on his first day of elementary school, he meets Arrienne Christie, a slightly older girl who shares his intellectual aptitude and aversion to speech. Arrienne is also the novel’s narrator, interjecting and opining with verve as she and Moshe come of age—she a burgeoning political mind, he a talented visual artist. Their slow-burning love story is tested when Moshe’s desire to learn more about his biological father takes him to Britain. Arrienne’s recount moves in hopscotch fashion, but it’s driven forward by her enchanting voice, to which Forbes brings an electric lyricism. Her dialogue beautifully captures the lilt and variety of Jamaican patois: “If yu lef outa dis house tonight, don’t come back, stay by yu fadda.” Forbes’s ambitious, fantastic tale will appeal to fans of multigenerational sagas.
The Shape of Night
This supernatural thriller from bestseller Gerritsen (the Rizzoli and Isles series) ranks with the best of her crime fiction. Boston food writer Ava Colette travels to Tucker Cove, Maine, where she rents Brodie’s Watch, an old house on the coast once owned by a 19th-century sea captain, Jeremiah Brodie. Ava’s goal is to finish writing her latest cookbook there, but she’s also trying to escape a tragic past. Soon her nights are interrupted by visions of Jeremiah’s ghost, who appears to be as real as if he were a flesh and blood man. Meanwhile, she begins to wonder about a series of mysterious if apparently natural deaths in the town—and why the last renter left the house so abruptly. After learning more about the house’s history and its previous inhabitants, she consults a ghost hunter, whose team discovers some disturbing things about paranormal presences at Brodie’s Watch. The stakes rise when Ava figures out that a killer is on the loose who must be stopped. This magnetic haunted house story will keep readers riveted from the very first page.
The Library of the Unwritten
This excellent debut sends Claire Hadley, the Librarian of the Unwritten Wing in Hell, on a quest across realms to find a book of power. Claire, along with her apprentice librarian, former muse Brevity, and a young demon, Leto, have gone to Seattle, where they hope to recover a character who has escaped from one of the unwritten volumes in their charge. While there, Claire and Leto are accosted by the angel Ramiel, who demands that they return an unnamed book. Once they get back to the Library, they discover that the book in question is the Codex Gigas, a repository for Lucifer’s power—and no one knows where it is. But if they don’t find it, Hell and Heaven will go to war. Claire gathers allies, including the escaped character, now called “Hero,” and a duke of Hell who is the Librarian from the Arcane Wing. Their hunt for the Codex takes them to Valhalla, Earth, and beyond. Hackwith builds her world and characters with loving detail, creating a delightful addition to the corpus of library-based and heaven vs. hell fantasies. This novel and its promised sequels will find a wide audience.
Qualification: A Graphic Memoir in Twelve Steps
Heatley (My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down) recounts in squirmy, funny detail a chaotic childhood that leads to an ironic “addiction” to recovery programs in this ultra-candid memoir. His self-absorbed parents love God, Overeaters Anonymous, and AA, leaving little time for their three sons, all of whom stumble into adulthood seeking parental figures in the form of convenient metanarratives. David struggles—with money, porn, and his loyal but frustrated girlfriend-then-wife Rebecca—but it’s not clear he’s an addict to anything in particular. He revels in the “God burst” (drawn as a halo-like bubble around his head) he experiences every time he gets to share at a meeting, especially when chosen for “qualification,” 12-step lingo for a featured confessional moment. He chases inner peace so hard that he nearly ruins his life, an experience to which any searcher with an ego will relate. With scrunchy faces and lumpy bodies, the characters he meets along the way—the Debtors Anonymous treasurer who makes off with the group’s cash, the guy who brings a blow-up doll to a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting—form a tragicomic backdrop. Eventually, David begins listening to his own doubts about “working the programs,” and starts seeing a Jungian analyst who helps him in a subtler but more profound way. Heatley’s hefty inventory proves both sobering and spirit-lifting.
Hill’s haunting second collection of short fiction (after 2005’s 20th Century Ghosts) contains 11 reprints and two new tales, many in homage to films and other stories that have inspired him. Echoes of Richard Matheson’s “Duel” ricochet from the terrifying “Throttle” (cowritten with Stephen King), which features a biker gang at the mercy of a relentless big rig driver with a deadly agenda. Shades of Narnia color “Faun,” in which a small door in a ramshackle farmhouse leads to a hunting ground. In “Thumbprint,” a veteran realizes that her disturbing actions in Iraq might not have been so out of character after all. In the visceral, horrifying “Dark Carousel,” a group of teens runs afoul of magic that animates the ragtag, bloodthirsty animals of a boardwalk carousel. The ghostly, achingly poignant “Late Returns” is a love letter to librarians and a haunting exploration of the transformative power of grief. Hill tackles his dark subjects with humanity and empathy, and his complex, fully realized characters leap into the imagination. This collection cements Hill’s reputation as a versatile master of scares both subtle and shocking.
Set in rural Arkansas, this unapologetically bleak noir from Hinkson (Hell on Church Street) explores the effects of existential and spiritual despair in an economically depressed town where the influence of religious fundamentalism is stifling. For the last 10 years, Richard Weatherford has been the pastor of a church in Stock—a place “with the lingering stink of Ozark backwater to it”—and has presided over much of the community as its spiritual leader. He and his wife are raising their five children there. But when a person with whom Weatherford once had a sexual encounter attempts to blackmail the preacher, just days before Easter, Weatherford is forced to make some hard decisions that will jeopardize himself, his family, and his marriage. With the 2016 presidential election looming, politics plays a significant background role. The unexpected ending will either enrage readers or have them applauding. Powered by raw emotional intensity and a disturbingly realistic portrayal of small-town America, this story is unforgettable.
Whispers of Shadow & Flame
Penelope ambitiously expands on the story of warring kingdoms Elsira and Lagrimar in this magnetic, spellbinding second Earthsinger Chronicles fantasy (after Song of Blood & Stone). Kyara ul-Lagrimar is a cursed royal assassin known as the Poison Flame who possesses Nethersong, the power to bring about death. Lagrimar’s king tasks her with identifying and capturing the Shadowfox, the powerful leader of a rebel band of life-giving Earthsingers. Kyara goes undercover, and during an operation to free kidnapped children, she meets a handsome fellow by the name of Darvyn ul-Tahlyro. Their connection is instant, powerful, and terribly inconvenient, because Darvyn is the Shadowfox and Kyara is magically bound to turn him over to her king or die. Penelope crafts highly developed characters who are distinct and sympathetic, giving them exciting and varied relationship dynamics including deep, intimate friendships and found family that are given equal weight to the central romance. Clean prose encapsulates a sound, well-constructed plot. Despite an enticing cliff-hanger, this taut, suspenseful fantasy stands alone, and readers new to the series can comfortably start here. This is a wonderful integration of high-stakes epic fantasy intrigue with intimate personal connections.
Sarah Jane Pullman, the narrator of this hypnotic, meticulously crafted crime novel from Sallis (Drive), has become the acting sheriff of Farr, a rural southwestern town, following the disappearance of her predecessor and mentor, Sheriff Cal Phillips. Sarah’s combat experience in the Gulf War and her heightened perception of human nature have made her a natural for law enforcement, but her life up until this point has followed anything but a linear route. Amid her search for the missing Phillips, Sarah fills in her past. After fleeing from her small Southern town at 17, Sarah hit the road, and a bit of trouble led to her court-ordered stint in the military. After her discharge, Sarah spent years adrift, finding work as an itinerant cook in faceless diners and shelters, moving through a string of relationships (including one with a violent cop), getting a college degree, losing a child, improvising a life, moving on when things got complicated. An insightful character study of one woman’s reckoning with her own demons, this is also a powerful look at contemporary America. Sallis is writing at the top of his game.
Roll with It
Headstrong 12-year-old Lily “Ellie” Cowan loves to bake. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, Ellie heads to the kitchen when she gets frustrated with her overprotective mom, her hovering full-time aide, and her absent father. After Ellie’s grandfather, who has dementia, drives his car into the local supermarket, Ellie and her mom pack up their Nashville home and move into her grandparents’ tiny trailer in Eufaula, Okla. Soon, Ellie meets free-spirited neighbor Coralee and eccentric schoolmate Bert; their acceptance helps her to cope with her new school, which is far from wheelchair-friendly. Drawing on her own experiences with her son, who has cerebral palsy, debut author Sumner doesn’t sugarcoat Ellie’s daily challenges—social, emotional, and physical—including navigating showers and crowded classrooms. Sumner also makes it clear that Ellie is a regular kid who dreams of becoming a chef, which is conveyed partly through letters that Ellie writes to various culinary experts throughout the book. In addition, Sumner deftly explores universal difficulties of fitting in and following one’s passions. Ellie is easy to champion, and her story reminds readers that life’s burdens are always lighter with friends and family—and a good piece of pie—at the ready. Ages 10–up.
Winterson (The Gap of Time) reimagines literary classic Frankenstein—both the story and the genesis of it—in her magnificent latest. The book shuttles back and forth between 1816, when a challenge leads Mary Shelley to write her indelible character and the monster he creates, and the present day, when a transgender man named Ry Shelley delves deeper into the burgeoning world and industry surrounding robotics and AI. A medical doctor, Ry supplies body parts to the professor Victor Stein, a brilliant if elusive man whose vision of the future is one in which human intelligence can transcend the limitations of needing a physical body. Victor’s interest in Ry is multifold: there is what Ry can procure for him through hospitals, and there is attraction—both romantic and platonic interest in the physical manifestation of Ry’s gender identity, which Victor calls “future-early” and Ry calls “doubleness.” Winterson’s recreation of the story of Mary Shelley’s creative process and later life and work is splendid, but it’s the modern analogue of the famous Lake Geneva party that is truly inspired. There is the hilariously crass sexbot entrepreneur Ron Lord, the evangelical capitalist Claire, and the nosy nuisance of Vanity Fair reporter Polly D, who’s constantly convinced she’s on to something. This vividly imagined and gorgeously constructed novel will have readers laughing out loud—and then pondering their personhood and mortality on the next page.