This week, we highlight a powerful and unsettling debut by Ani Katz; a cleverly crafted memoir by Javier Cercas; a tangled, riveting parable of the modern surveillance state by Joanna Kavenna; and more


Megan Angelo. Graydon House, $26.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-525-83626-8

In her spectacular debut, Angelo masterfully explores the dark side of social media. In 2015, aspiring author and Manhattanite Orla Cadden is working as a reporter at celeb blog Lady-ish when she becomes roommates with Floss Natuzzi, who is desperate to become a star. Using her platform at Lady-ish, Orla succeeds in making Floss ultrafamous. They enjoy the perks—invites to swanky parties, free merchandise—until a technology cataclysm in 2016 changes everything. Fast forward 35 years, and a dystopian view of social media is revealed: there are now state-appointed celebrities who are on TV 24/7. Their lives are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, and their marriages, pregnancies (including designer babies), and relationships are merely story lines for a voracious public. A California woman named Marlow Clipp with 11.6 million followers is facing a pregnancy story line when she decides to research her past—and is astounded by what she finds. Reminiscent of The Truman Show and told in alternating voices of Orla in 2015–2016 and Marlow in 2051, the tale skillfully builds to a terrifyingly believable climax. There are also sly references to a few current pop-culture names—including Charlotte C. Mezvinsky (aka Hillary Clinton’s granddaughter) as the mayor of New York in 2051. Angelo delivers a strong, consistently fascinating debut. Agent: Stefanie Lieberman, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Jan.)

Lord of All the Dead: A Nonfiction Novel

Javier Cercas, trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean. Knopf, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-525-52091-7

In this cleverly crafted memoir, Cercas (The Imposter) investigates the life of his great-uncle Manuel Mena, a right-wing Falangist who died in the Spanish Civil War’s Battle of the Ebro in 1938. His mother compares Mena, her uncle, to the pure and noble Achilles, “lord of all the dead,” in The Iliad. The left-leaning Cercas, however, contemplates whether he should write about the “shameful story” of Mena’s political motivations as a supporter of Spanish dictator Franco. Cercas shares his dilemma with friend David Treuba, filmmaker and fellow Francoist descendant, who accompanies him to Ibahernando, Cercas’s ancestral village. There, the duo films conversations with the remaining elder relatives and family friends who knew Mena as they struggle to understand why this “industrious, reflective and responsible adolescent” died supporting ideologies that betrayed the Spanish people. “Can you be noble and pure and at the same time fight for a mistaken cause?” Cercas asks. He investigates how people living in tumultuous times develop unexpected political allegiances—and looks at the unintended consequences of those circumstances. Over time, he grows to appreciate the personal and philosophical conflicts Mena faced amid political upheaval, concluding, “I had no right whatsoever to consider myself morally superior to him.” While reflecting on his own life and family, Cercas vividly portrays a complex figure. (Jan.)

Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future

Richard Davies. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-1-250-17048-4

Davies, a former economics editor of The Economist, debuts with a well-curated, globe-spanning study of nine irregular financial systems to understand where the modern world is headed. In the book’s first section, Davies examines informal economies in Aceh, Indonesia, where tsunami survivors have transformed international aid into entrepreneurial success; the Syrian refugee camp Zaatari in northern Jordan, where smuggling fuels a thriving barter system; and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where inmates have developed innovative currency markets. The second section investigates resource-rich sites—the Darien Gap bridging South and Central America, Democratic Republic of Congo capital city Kinshasa, and Glasgow, Scotland—where successful economies have either failed to develop or collapsed. The third and perhaps most compelling section examines the leading edge of societal trends including aging populations (Akita, Japan), advanced technologies (Tailin, Estonia), and extreme inequality (Santiago, Chile). In each location, Davies keeps his perspective on broad, and often disturbing, historical trends while celebrating the resourcefulness of the individuals and communities he profiles. His analysis is straightforward enough for general readers to understand, while businesspeople, economic forecasters, and policymakers will find his insights imminently applicable to their own work. This ambitious and thought-provoking guide helps to make sense of the economic future. (Jan.)

The Vanished Birds

Simon Jimenez. Del Rey, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-0-593-12898-5

In a profound look at humankind’s spacefaring future, Jimenez’s debut tells of both anguish and love as the result of heart-wrenching decisions. A century from now, aerospace engineer Fumiko believes humans should leave the climate-ravaged Earth, and regretfully chooses her career designing space stations over her lover, Dana, who would rather advocate for trying to save the planet. But Dana’s efforts fail, and Earth is abandoned. Fumiko extends her life through periods of suspended animation as humans colonize the galaxy. Nearly 1,000 years later, Ahro, a boy who doesn’t speak, crash-lands on a distant farming world. Spaceship captain Nia agrees to take Ahro back to Pelican, a station Fumiko designed. As they travel through “pocket space,” where a few months pass for them while years go by in normal space, they grow close and Nia becomes protective of Ahro. When Fumiko learns Ahro has powers that could speed up space travel—abilities sought by Fumiko’s employer, the megacorporation Umbai, which is looking for more efficient ways to pillage planets—she offers Nia the opportunity to keep the boy hidden, which Nia accepts, leading to ripples of choices and consequences. This is a mostly progressive future, but classism, unchecked capitalism, and resource exhaustion loom large. This extraordinary science fiction epic, which delves deep into the perils of failing to learn from one’s mistakes, is perfect for fans of big ideas and intimate reflections. (Jan.)

Little Gods

Meng Jin. Custom House, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-293595-3

Jin’s stunning debut follows 17-year-old Liya on her journey to China with the ashes of her recently deceased mother, a mysterious and mercurial woman whom Liya both loved and resented. Su Lan, her mother, was a former physicist from China who died in America, where she had lived and worked for nearly two decades. Intertwined with Liya’s grief-stricken quest is the voice of Zhu Wen, Su Lan’s former neighbor in Shanghai, whose memory of Su Lan as a beautiful, charismatic, and fiercely brilliant physics student in a happy marriage to a handsome doctor does not square with the woman Liya knows. The third narrative strand belongs to Yongzong, Su Lan’s husband and Liya’s father, who has long lost touch with Su Lan and has never known Liya. Liya arrives in China with only her mother’s last known address, in Shanghai, where Su Lan had once lived with Yongzong. On first meeting Zhu Wen there, Liya realizes just how little she knew about her mother. Liya then visits the small mountain village where her mother was raised, and goes to Beijing, where she finds out what happened during the night of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when she was born and Su Lan began to transform from a promising young student to a living ghost. Artfully composed and emotionally searing, Jin’s debut about lost girls, bottomless ambition, and the myriad ways family members can hurt and betray one another is gripping from beginning to end. This is a beautiful, intensely moving debut. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

A Good Man

Ani Katz. Penguin, $17 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-14-313498-5

“The billy club arrived with the first shipment of Christmas presents that year,” says Thomas Martin at the start of Katz’s powerful and unsettling debut. Thomas seems to have had it all—a loving wife and daughter, an upscale Long Island home, and a successful career in advertising—but he has sacrificed everything in a sudden, violent act of desperation. Thomas proceeds to tell his story in an effort to explain and perhaps find absolution. But the account of family life he provides, though enviable on the surface, contains disturbing revelations—his failure to protect his sister from sexual abuse, the ambiguous role he had in his father’s death, his attitude toward the billy club—produces in the reader a sense of foreboding that builds with ever-increasing intensity to the inevitable and brutal climax. Throughout, Thomas insists on believing himself to be a good man, “if deeply flawed.” Katz is in full control of mood and pacing. This masterly first novel is sure to attract an audience from outside the mystery/thriller genre. Agent: Julia Kenny, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Jan.)


Joanna Kavenna. Doubleday, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-3855-4547-1

In this tangled, riveting parable of the modern surveillance state, Kavenna leads readers through an eerie near-future England dominated by the Beetle corporation, whose increasingly invasive technology monitors everything: people’s health, transportation, and even the contents of one’s refrigerator. Beetle claims the BeetleInsight AI can predict all potential futures, but its engineers struggle to foresee events in Category Zed, which are influenced by unpredictable human irrationality. The story is told through multiple, interweaving points of view, including those of Beetle’s CEO, a high-ranking Beetle engineer, an anti-terrorism government employee, a grieving newspaper editor, and a mysterious person who lives on the fringe of society with others unwilling to adopt Beetle technology. When George Mann murders his entire family, Beetle sends a droid to apprehend him, but the droid mistakenly kills Lionel Bigman instead, triggering a cascade of BeetleInsight errors. Beetle’s engineers must grapple with the flaws in their technology, while people skeptical of Beetle begin to wonder whether they too are in danger. Kavenna delivers this gripping narrative with wit and dark humor, leaving readers both entertained and a little paranoid. Agent: Jessica Friedman, Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

The Rabbit Hunter: A Joone Linna Novel

Lars Kepler, trans. from the Swedish by Neil Smith. Knopf, $27.95 (528p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3228-8

Kepler (the pen name for a husband-and-wife writing team) manage a clever and intriguing variant on the serial killer theme in their outstanding sixth novel featuring Stockholm Det. Insp. Joona Linna (after 2019’s Stalker). Linna, who’s behind bars for helping a convict escape and assaulting a guard, gets a chance at redemption when he’s summoned to a meeting with his attorney, only to find the Swedish prime minister present. The previous night, Swedish foreign minister William Fock was murdered in his home by a masked man. Fock’s killer left a living witness—escort Sofia Stefansson, whose assignation went bad after Fock drugged her and tied her to his bed. Stefansson overheard the murderer tell Fock that “Ratjen opened the door.” The police believe Ratjen to be Salim Ratjen, a convicted drug dealer who was recorded making a phone call referencing “three big celebrations.” Since the date of the first one coincides with Fock’s killing, the PM fears that two more terror attacks are in the works. Linna agrees to help, but the investigation takes some highly unexpected directions. Kepler has never been better at hiding key clues in plain sight. Agent: Niclas Salomonsson, Salomonsson Agency (Sweden). (Jan.)

Lucky Caller

Emma Mills. Holt, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-17965-4

Wanting her final semester at Meridian North High to be as painless as possible, Indianapolis high school senior Nina signs up for a radio broadcasting class, “reportedly one of the most fun electives you could take.” Though her absent father hosts his own radio show in California, Nina has little knowledge of the field. Taking on the task of producing her group’s program proves disastrous, especially when she’s stuck working with a wooden-voiced host—and Jamie, a childhood friend, with whom she’s felt awkward ever since their potential romance soured in the eighth grade. Meanwhile, her mother’s upcoming marriage to dentist Dan is bringing unanticipated changes to Nina’s family. Proving once again that a teen’s life is anything but simple, veteran romance writer Mills (Famous in a Small Town) delivers a well-crafted, bittersweet comedy of errors filled with realistically flawed characters and taut, witty dialogue. The book’s frenzied climax and splashy resolution, showcasing an unexpected hero, sharply depicts the pain of betrayal and power of effective teamwork. Ages 14–up. (Jan.)

Normal: A Mother and Her Beautiful Son

Magda Newman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-328-59312-2

In this touching debut, Newman relays the story of her teenage son, Nathaniel, who was born with Treachers Collins syndrome—a craniofacial condition characterized by undeveloped cheekbones and ears and severe respiratory problems. After an uneventful pregnancy, Newman and her husband, Russell, were excited to meet their new baby, but when he was delivered, the room went silent and Newman saw “every single person’s face change to the same mask of pure shock.” From that moment, normal took on a new meaning: Would Nathaniel be able to eat without the aid of a gastrointestinal tube? Would he be able to hear without ears? Treachers Collins Syndrome meant constant medical care and multiple surgeries to allow Nathaniel to breathe, as well as a major surgery to expand his face that required him to wear a “halo” with 16 screws mounted to his head. Nathaniel endured 67 surgeries before age 15; during this time, Newman battled two different types of lymphoma. Newman writes tenderly about these often heartbreaking events as her family, medical professionals, and friends all worked to support Nathaniel on his road to “normal.” Readers looking for an inspiring story about the power of the human spirit will find one here. (Jan.)

Imaginary Museums

Nicolette Polek. Soft Skull, $15.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-59376-586-6

In Polek’s deliciously unnerving debut, the mundane is made very strange, as everyday objects or normal people are considered in new and unsettling ways. The collection is divided into four sections—Miniature Catastrophes, American Interiors, Slovak Sceneries, and Library of Lost Things. In the opening story, “The Rope Barrier,” a woman buys the title object and can’t seem to stop assembling it; it becomes a compulsion, as she does it while at work, while driving, and while feeding her child. It’s an excellent introduction to Polek’s ability to escalate normal-to-weird situations in a matter of paragraphs, as in “Winners,” where one misunderstanding about Ezra Pound mires the protagonist in an increasingly strange lie. In American Interiors, there’s “The Dance,” in which a couple whose inability to communicate or determine what the other truly wants leaves the reader fist-clenchingly anxious. “Flowers for Angelika” starts off with what appears to be a meet-cute between the narrator’s grandfather and a widow named Angelika at the fish market; a mere two pages later, he’s in her home, which holds all the grief he hasn’t yet been privy to. Polek’s collection is a surprising and potent catalogue of small, eerie discoveries. (Jan.)

Little Envelope of Earth Conditions

Cori Winrock. Alice James, $15.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-948579-06-3

The highly original second book from Winrock (This Coalition of Bones) erupts with sound and imagery that gives shape, color, and texture to grief. The book’s title draws from historian Douglas Lantry’s explanation that “a real space suit is a little envelope of earth conditions.” Broken into six parts, Winrock explores the knowledge gained through pain. There is the ambulance, “O little empire of emergency, O altar of resuscitation,” that brays throughout as grief embodied, and then there are the space suits—how to sew them, get into them, and get out of them. This motif reemerges until Winrock admits, “I can no longer tell the difference between Uhaul & ambulance, beekeeper & astronaut.” Bees and honey buzz around the spacesuits, and the stitches in the suits appear visually in the work as little plus signs that break up sections and punctuate some of her poems: “the sound of a heavy dress +/ dragging + particular + so particular + we are continuous + & appearing + not at all/ like a mirror + see-through & astoundingly + not at all.” This heartbreaking, unusual, and precise collection treats grief with all the complexity it deserves. (Jan.)