This week: new books from Zadie Smith, Jason Reynolds, and more.
In Armfield’s unsettling, uncanny, and utterly delightful debut, wolves, mythological monsters, and seemingly ordinary girls and women abound. In “Formerly Feral,” a girl’s neighbor from across the street adopts a wolf and names her Helen. When the girl’s parents divorce, her father remarries the neighbor and she gains a new stepsister in Helen, and the two develop a deep bond. In “Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax,” Mona is on tour supporting a popular girl band making music that inspires violent desires in their young female fans. Black feathers in their dressing room hint at their more sinister true identity. In “Granite,” a woman on the cusp of 30 finds a lover—her first—whose body is slowly turning to stone as she looks at him. The best story in the collection is the most conceptually ambitious: “The Great Awake,” in which a person’s ability to sleep is anthropomorphized, becoming a separate shadow entity. Armfield occasionally deploys startling, stunning turns of phrase: “Two a.m., the dark throat of summer.” Razor-sharp, stylish, and imaginative, Armfield’s collection is a dazzling introduction to a talented writer.
Bardugo’s excellent first fantasy novel for adults (following her highly regarded Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone YA series) introduces an antihero who is just the right person to take on rising dangers in an elitist society. Galaxy “Alex” Stern’s early life was wrecked by her unusual ability to see “Grays”—earthbound ghosts—but that same ability gains her admission into one of the magic-based houses at Yale. As she struggles to adjust to college life, she’s forced to confront evil powers swirling under the thin veneers of tradition and ritual. When a young woman is killed, Alex becomes determined to find the murderer, even if it means dodging attempts on her life and striking eldritch bargains. Alex is the story’s gritty, rock-solid heart. While other characters refuse to admit what’s happening, too insulated by their own privilege or distracted by banal needs such as funding, Bardugo gives Alex a thoroughly engaging mix of rough edge, courage, and cynicism, all of which are required to get things done. Much of the book’s white-knuckled tension comes from the increasingly horrific flashbacks revealing Alex’s past, which is still very present in her mind. Fantasy readers, particularly those who love ghosts, will hungrily devour this novel.
Grimes (One Last Word) presents a gripping memoir in verse constructed from imperfect recollections of the hardship and abuse she endured as a child. Having lost chunks of her memory as a result of traumatic experiences, Grimes relies on her art to fill in the blanks. In recurring entries titled “The Mystery of Memory,” and “Notebook,” Grimes contextualizes her scattered remembrances to provide a sense of time and place for readers (“Where is the chronology of a life/ chaotic from the start?”). Grimes eloquently conveys the instability of a childhood lived in the unpredictable wake of a mentally ill mother and abusive stepfather alongside hopeful anecdotes about the safe haven provided by her beloved older sister, her growing faith, and the often absent yet doting father she lost too soon. Underlining the idea that “a memoir’s focus is on truth, not fact,” Grimes courageously invites readers to join her on a journey through the shadows of her past, bridging “the gaps/ with suspension cables/ forged of steely gratitude/ for having survived my past/at all.” Ages 12–up.
The lives of two brothers take radically different paths in Guven’s thoughtful and sometimes surprisingly witty debut. The brothers, in their 20s and dissatisfied with their lives, are the sons of a Syrian emigre taxi driver in Paris and a French mother who has died by the time the story begins. The older brother, who doesn’t reveal his name or his brother’s until the final pages of the novel, and who narrates the majority of the story, drives for Uber, serves as a police informant as an alternative to going to jail for dealing drugs, and smokes a lot of marijuana. His younger, more serious and idealistic brother gives up work as a nurse in a Paris hospital to go to Syria as part of a Muslim organization that turns out to be not strictly humanitarian. When he arrives back in France, attempting to hide his presence, his brother must decide how far family loyalty goes. Of the two narratives, the older brother’s complex and lively portion is the highlight. He’s a flawed but thoroughly irresistible guy, and his observations of life in immigrant France are vividly detailed and credible. The novel’s real accomplishment is in depicting the stresses of everyday life for Muslim immigrants in France. This is a winning debut.
In this formally dexterous debut, Hwang interrogates language, identity, and cultural inheritance. Fittingly, the collection opens with a powerful gesture (a poem in Korean presented without translation) that sets the stage for a collection that proclaims form as not just an extension of narrative, but a narrative in and of itself. Hwang shifts from cleanly constructed tercets to prose blocks, couplets, lyric fragments, and dense strophes, complicating voice and narrative with each transition and formal shift. “Duality forms confluence: frenzy,” Hwang writes, as though describing the book’s own versatile poetics. “You: shape-shifter, agent of erasure, amateur magician,/ switcher of codes,” she says elsewhere in a moment that seems to echo the work’s own movements across the page. All along, the speaker seems to search for a linguistic vehicle that seems more real, and more true, than the “erasures” of culture and history she has witnessed. “Divide extraction to posit true values of coveting/ zero = the summation of erasures,” she warns. This work succeeds in using the nuances of poetic technique to amplify an already powerful message of cultural identity.
In this electric debut, Jackson, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, eschews presidents and generals to construct a mesmerizing story of people who committed themselves to a vision of the United States based on “collectivity, equality, and freedom,” who, she argues “built a tradition of radical resistance that would reshape American life.” Jackson focuses her attention on three areas—slavery and race, sex and gender, property and labor—bringing to life the activists who championed their causes. In the 1820s, Scottish aristocrat Frances Wright settled in the U.S. and established the Nashoba community to help enslaved people transition to freedom. At the same time, free black people in the North, led by men like James Forten, debated leaving the country to ensure their freedoms, and William Lloyd Garrison launched a decades-long abolition movement that provoked violent backlashes. A women’s rights movement emerged in the 1840s and 1850s, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Stephen Pearl Andrews and Mary Give Nichols promoted free-love doctrines that urged reevaluation of marriage and gender relations. Meanwhile, Albert Brisbane, a disciple of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, promoted a restructuring of industry that would benefit the working classes. Jackson’s perspective is both broad, encompassing lesser-known figures, and long, looking forward to these movements’ effects on later decades. This is essential reading for anyone interested in how the U.S. became what it is today.
Jemc’s electric, nimble collection (after The Grip of It) plumbs its characters’ most intimate relationships and unearths potent hidden truths. In “Delivery,” a father’s sudden spike in online shopping signifies a troubling development. In “Don’t Let’s,” a woman stays in the Georgia Lowcountry, trying to clear her mind after leaving an abusive relationship, but finds signs of a ghost’s presence in her house. “Pastoral,” about the work of a porn actress who has a husband and two sons, defies convention by having no conflict at all (“There are no wolves at the door.... There is no obstacle that requires overcoming”). A woman’s stay at a wellness retreat is impinged upon by an overbearing fellow retreater in “Maulawiyah.” In “Hunt and Catch,” a woman named Emily is ominously followed by a man in a garbage truck (“When he waved, Emily felt like someone had shoved the skin of her face in the direction of his hand”). In “Trivial Pursuit,” an unnamed couple is irritated by the eccentricities of a couple known as the Board Game Couple before dumping them for the Artist Couple, followed by a succession of other couples, each with their own problems. Many of these stories are only a few pages, allowing Jemc to deliver a range of payoffs, some unsettling, some poignant, all evocative. This constantly shifting collection will leave readers beguiled.
Poet Jones (Prelude to Bruise) explores sexual identity, race, and the bond between a mother and child in a powerful memoir filled with devastating moments. As a gay African-American boy growing up in Texas, Jones struggled to find his way. In 1998, at age 12, “I thought about being gay all the time,” he writes, but at home the subject was taboo. Here, Jones candidly discusses his coming of age, his sexual history, and his struggle to love himself. He describes engaging in destructive behavior in college, including repeated relations with a sadistic, racist man, and their encounters graphically illustrate how sex and race can be used as weapons of hate. Jones writes that, at that grim time in his life, he appeared to others to be a happy young man: “Standing in front of the mirror, my reflection and I were like rival animals, just moments away from tearing each other limb from limb.” Jones beautifully records his painful emergence into adulthood and, along the way, he honors his mother, a single parent who struggled to support him financially, sometimes emotionally, but who loved him unconditionally until her death in 2011. Jones is a remarkable, unflinching storyteller, and his book is a rewarding page-turner.
Novelist and former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Korda (Clouds of Glory) delivers a heartfelt look at his wife, Margaret, who was diagnosed with brain cancer a year before she died at age 79. This intimate memoir is both a tribute to their 45-year marriage—during which they had been “each other’s lover, companion, and best friend”—and an account of how looking “after someone who is dying gradually fills one’s life to the exclusion of everything else” with “no manual that tells you what to do, what to expect, what to tell the person who’s dying.” Korda’s account of Margaret’s medical treatments—surgery, radiation, and rehabilitation—is made all the more striking as he details her lifetime of physical fitness, including riding horses competitively (and winning five national championships). He sensitively describes how Margaret’s “present was becoming unbearable at a quickening rate” though he concludes that in the end her eyes showed not resignation but “perhaps even gratitude” that “the struggle was coming to an end.” Lovingly told, Korda’s memoir movingly captures the complexities of dealing with the death of a loved one.
Marantz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, makes a timely and excellent debut with his chronicle of how a “motley cadre of edgelords” gleefully embraced social media to spread their “puerile” brand of white nationalism. In examining how “the unthinkable became thinkable” in American politics, he narrates that tech entrepreneurs disrupted the old ways of vetting and spreading information—including the traditional media of which Marantz identifies himself as a part—but refused to take up a role as gatekeepers, and the white nationalists seeped in like poison. Marantz profiles alt-right figures and tech titans alike: vlogger Cassandra Fairbanks, Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes, antifeminist Mike Cernovich, Reddit founder Steve Huffman (who experimented with gatekeeping by deleting the site’s forum dedicated to the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory), The Filter Bubble author and tech entrepreneur Eli Pariser, and clickbait startup CEO Emerson Spartz, who opines, “If it gets shared, it’s quality.” A running theme is how journalists should cover “a racist movement full of hypocrites and liars,” and, indeed, Marantz doesn’t shy away from asking pointed questions or noting his subjects’ inconsistencies. This insightful and well-crafted book is a must-read account of how quickly the ideas of what’s acceptable public discourse can shift.
Rarely does a novel so suffused with death radiate as much life as this spirited—in every sense of the word—genre-bending adventure from Racculia (Bellweather Rhapsody). The games begin for volunteer Tuesday Mooney at Boston General Hospital’s annual fund-raising gala when, uncharacteristically, the self-possessed loner finds herself flirting with a handsome guest who introduces himself as Nathaniel Arches, of the Brahmin megabucks clan. Then Vincent Pryce—not the Vincent Price but an eccentric, cape-draped elderly billionaire famed for his love of the macabre—collapses. In his subsequently published self-penned obituary, he invites the city to play an elaborate treasure hunt with clues inspired by his hero, Edgar Allan Poe, for a chunk of his fortune. The challenge galvanizes a host of contestants, including Tuesday, for whom the dark side has held a fascination ever since her childhood in Salem, Mass., and the never-solved disappearance of her best friend, Abby Hobbes. As suspenseful as the adrenaline-pumping race will prove, testing competitors in ways they never anticipated, the author, like Vincent, has a deeper design in mind, which only becomes apparent with the book’s immensely satisfying final bombshells. Racculia should win many new fans with this inspired effort.
Reynolds (the Track series) packs the 10 blocks surrounding multiple schools with 10 relatable slice-of-life stories that start after school ends, each beginning with a black-and-white drawing by Nabaum. An overlapping cast of black characters populates the tales as they experience the tribulations of familial love (“Ookabooka Land”), fears (“Satchmo’s Master Plan”), first crushes (“How a Boy Becomes a Grease Fire”), near-death experiences (“The Broom Dog”), and more. Among the most memorable of these stories are “The Low Cuts Strike Again,” about a group of free-lunch students who are all children of cancer survivors (and rock low-cut haircuts in solidarity); “Skitter Hitter,” about Pia Foster, skateboarder extraordinaire, her deceased expert skateboarder sister Santi, and the boys who bully them about their skill; and “Call of Duty,” which portrays one hopeful, compassionate outcome of standing up against homophobic bullying. In Reynolds’s signature style, each story rings with emotional authenticity and empathy, and not a small amount of rib-tickling humor offsets the sometimes bittersweet realities of the characters’ lives. Ages 10–14.
In Smith’s smart and bewitching story collection, the novelist’s first (after the essay collection Feel Free), the modern world is refracted in ways that are both playful and rigorous, formally experimental and socially aware. A drag queen struggles with aging in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” as she misses the “fabled city of the past” now that “every soul on these streets was a stranger.” A child’s school worksheet spurs a humorous reassessment of storytelling itself in the postmodern “Parents’ Morning Epiphany.” “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” in which a violent duo invades a settlement, aspires to “perfection of parable.” Some stories, including “Just Right,” about a family in prewar Greenwich Village, and the sci-fi “Meet the President!,” in which a privileged boy meets a lower-class English girl, read more like exercises. But more surprising and rewarding are stories constructed of urban impressions and personal conversations, like “For the King,” in which the narrator meets an old friend for dinner in Paris. And the standout “The Canker” uses speculative tropes to reflect on the current political situation: people live harmoniously in storyteller Esorik’s island society, until the new mainland leader, the Usurper, inspires “rage” and the “breaking of all the cycles [Esorik] had ever known.” Smith exercises her range without losing her wry, slightly cynical humor. Readers of all tastes will find something memorable in this collection.
Templer (the Glow series) breaks out in her first solo title, a gorgeous and timely space adventure saga. Pan, a young and rebellious mechanic, helps her planet’s princess (who happens to be her best friend) escape a forced marriage. Five years later, this has rendered Pan persona non grata in a quasifeudalistic society obsessed with royalty. But when Bee and Cass, a pair of charismatic “cosmoknights”—mech-suited fighters who compete in gladiatorial jousts to “win” princesses for their sponsors—show up wounded at her door, Pan discovers that she’s not the only person in the galaxy who hates the system. Pan stows away on the knights’ ship, and convinces them to let her join in their quest to liberate as many princesses as possible, by winning their hand and then setting them free; but will the newly formed trio survive their first bout? And who is the mysterious woman following them? Every panel hums and crackles with glowingly lush, well-realized worldbuilding. The dynamic action sequences, which merge tech and renaissance tropes, seem to leap off the page. But as lovely as Templer’s art is, it’s her political commentary that shines brightest: blunt yet incisive, Templer skewers patriarchal “go along to get along” mindsets and offers a dazzling vision of radical direct action—with rocket boots.
Williams (The Big Fat Activity Book for Pregnant People) chronicles the everyday humiliation she feels as a female in this frankly illustrated war cry. The events she recounts are simple: Williams wakes, dresses, takes the train, works, comes home, and cares for her infant daughter. Throughout, she delves into flashbacks of trauma, frustrated fury, experiences with substance abuse and sobriety, self-criticism, and, ultimately, triumphant discovery through friendship and the love of other women and their creativity. In loose-but-evocative, spare lines, often depicting only the barest contours of the body, Williams identifies the persistent harm done to women, through everything from ogling to rape, how that harm is internalized, and how women cope. There is blackout alcoholism for “oblivion junkies,” men to lose one’s self in, and the renewal of self that motherhood can bring. Williams does not shy away from her shame. She is also angry, and she knows she is not alone, and that brilliant anger is where the book becomes truly great. Her confidence—and literal straight gaze at the reader, full of vulnerability and challenge—makes this volume a critique, a lament, and a sigh. As Williams elegantly argues, many women need all three. This sharp and splendidly drawn memoir will strike a strong chord in the current moment.