This week: a woman who gave birth to rabbits, plus a brilliant mystery set in 15th-century England.
Tufts University professor Greenidge debuts with a vital, deeply researched biography of William Monroe Trotter, founder, in 1901, of the Guardian, the “weekly newspaper of colored Boston.” Born in 1873 to a former slave turned Union Army lieutenant and a descendant of the Hemings clan once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Trotter graduated from Harvard in 1895 and launched a real estate career that, according to Greenidge, made him “one of the wealthiest black men in New England.” He founded the Guardian as an “arsenal” in the war for civil rights, using the paper’s editorial section to attack the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington and expose racial injustices in the Jim Crow South. As an activist, Trotter cofounded the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP, with W.E.B. Du Bois in 1905; confronted President Woodrow Wilson over his segregationist policies during a 1914 White House visit; and led protests against the pro–Klu Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation. But Trotter’s legal entanglements and poor business management skills, Greenidge writes, took a financial toll, and in April 1934 he jumped to his death from a rooftop. Greenidge writes with urgency and clarity while synthesizing a wealth of archival material. Her eye-opening account elegantly traces Trotter’s rise and fall and uncovers early 20th-century Boston as “the center of radical African American politics.”
In a voice rough as a chainsaw blade and Midwestern as green bean casserole, debut author Gritton chronicles the trip-to-hell-and-back life of the troubled Shelley Cooper. After a fire ravages the mountains in the vicinity of Montgrand, Colo., and most of the construction work dries up, Shelley steals an air compressor from his boss and loses his job. He needs money, same as his weed-growing older brother, Clayton, and his sister, May, who is married to Shelley’s best friend Mike. Clayton’s wife, Nancy, has the same shaking sickness her mother had, and May and Mike’s little daughter, Layla, has cancer: in short, these are folks “whose bad luck run longer than an interstate.” Something deep and unnameable bothers Shelley; he cares an awful lot about Mike, though his discontent mostly seems like a mean streak to others. When Clay starts coming up with mystery money, Shelley becomes suspicious; his brother already spent five years in prison for dealing weed, and Shelley blames this calamity for their mother’s death. Nevertheless, he agrees to deliver Clay’s latest batch of marijuana to Houston, and what happens on this trip is both violently tragic and a twisted sort of redemption. Pitch perfect cadences sing from the mouths of Gritton’s characters, and the author performs skilled loop-de-loops in and out of Shelley’s memories. This auspicious debut marks Gritton as a storyteller to watch.
Thriller Award–winner Harris (Munich) does a masterly job playing with readers’ expectations in this mystery set in 15th-century England. Fr. Christopher Fairfax has been dispatched by his bishop to Wessex to officiate at the funeral of Fr. Thomas Lacy, a parish priest who died in a fall. The assignment seems routine enough, but on reaching the town of Addicott St. George, he finds unexpected questions to answer. When he visits Lacy’s library, he learns that the man he’s about to inter in consecrated ground possessed numerous heretical volumes relating to an antiquarian society proscribed by the church. Eager to keep things uncomplicated, Fairfax proceeds with the funeral service as if he’d never seen the books, only to have the rites disrupted by an attendee who yells that Lacy’s death was not the result of “evil chance.” When foul weather delays Fairfax’s departure, he finds even more oddities, including the disappearance of the church register and an unsettling letter by a Cambridge professor found in a mass grave, which supports his suspicion that Lacy’s interest in the past was more than innocent scholarly curiosity. Few readers will pick up on the fairly planted clues. This is a clever complement to Harris’s debut mystery, Fatherland.
In this thoughtful near-future techno-thriller, a sentient AI that secretly runs an online community dedicated to animal pictures befriends a lonely young woman who’s spent her life fleeing her violent stalker father. Unable to make any lasting connections in meatspace, Steph, 16, has found a sense of community and acceptance on CatNet, unaware that the admin, CheshireCat, isn’t human. When she and her mother move again, this time to a tiny Wisconsin town, Steph doesn’t expect to be there long, and she definitely doesn’t expect to make friends, but ends up with kind and witty IRL companions, such as artsy Rachel. After attempting to help the solitary teen, CheshireCat reveals their true nature, then goes offline, propelling Steph and her friends to uncover the dark secret lurking in her family’s past. Alongside the uplifting message about inclusivity, diversity, and found family—characters of various ethnicities identify as gay, bisexual, nonbinary, asexual, and still exploring—Kritzer’s take on a benevolent AI is both whimsical and poignant. An entertaining, heart-filled exploration of today’s online existence and privacy concerns. Ages 12–up.
MacLaughlin, whose debut book was the carpentry memoir Hammerhead, heads in a vastly different direction with this collection of myths recast for the #MeToo era. In more than 30 short stories, nymphs and human women are allowed to tell their own stories, many of which depict gods and heroes as more dangerous than the lascivious and mischievous rogues they’ve often been portrayed as. These settings are largely unmoored from traditional chronology, borrowing freely from both classical tropes and contemporary popular culture, and some—such as one where incestuous Myrrha confesses everything to her therapist, or another in which the cyclops Polyphemus is Galatea’s cyberstalker—are inventive in form. There is nevertheless a certain sameness to many of the stories, perhaps unavoidable in such a project, but MacLaughlin largely succeeds in varying the recurrent themes of sexual violence and women’s subsequent rage and inevitable transformations, largely imposed by gods to ensure women’s silence. The emotional heart of the collection arrives when the horrific story of Proche and Philomela is immediately followed by Baucis’s sensually and emotionally satisfying tale of a long, love-filled marriage. In the latter story, the narrator states that “Not all stories are sad,” a much-needed reminder at this point in the collection. MacLaughlin skillfully elevates what could have been merely a writerly exercise, instead composing a chorus of women’s justifiable rage echoing down through the millennia.
The past and future intertwine in this spellbinding collection from Older (Infomocracy), which encompasses eight stories, three poems, and one fragmented serial piece that winds around them all. In “The Black Box,” memory storage devices implanted into the brain provide a public record of a person’s life. A young girl growing up with this technology grapples with the ramifications of having an omnipresent camera in her head. “The Rupture” follows an alien anthropologist who comes to an Earth university to study humanity’s final moments in the face of climate change, only to be shocked by the students’ flippancy and indifference. In “Perpetuation of the Species,” a group of midwives hurtles through space, birthing children that will grow into an army in preparation for a battle. Woven around all these tales is “The End of the Incarnation,” a retrospective look at the fall of America told in seven fragments. Each of these imagined futures are alive with unnerving plausibility. Fans of thoughtful speculative fiction will relish this lyrical, emotional collection.
In this follow-up to Version Control, Palmer brilliantly fictionalizes the true story of Mary Toft, who in 1726 perplexed England when she gave birth to dead rabbits. John Howard, the only surgeon in the small town of Godalming, and his 14-year-old apprentice, Zachary Walsh, find their relatively quaint medical consults disrupted by a call from farmer Joshua Toft, who says his wife, Mary, is ready to give birth, despite having had a miscarriage fewer than six months earlier. John and Zachary are further surprised when Mary gives birth to a dead rabbit—and then another, and then another. Soon, word spreads and surgeons are sent from London to study the case. As Mary continues to give birth to a rabbit every few days, she’s brought to London for additional inspection, accompanied by John and Zachary, where the answer to the mystery finally comes to light. Palmer evocatively captures the period, from the sleepy matters of Godalming to the noise and danger of London (a violent show in a back alley is particularly memorable). But more impressive are the novel’s inquiries into the human concerns of wonder, denial, and belief. “And so I am becoming, not myself, but a mixture of the dreams of others,” Mary thinks. Palmer skillfully and rewardingly delves into the humanity at the heart of this true historical oddity.