This week, we highlight a majestic novel from Isabel Allende, a collection of occult detective stories, a book of essays commemorating the ACLU’s centennial, and more.

The Long Petal of the Sea

Isabel Allende, trans. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson. Ballantine, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-9848-2015-0

Spanning from 1938 to 1994, this majestic novel from Allende (In the Midst of Winter) focuses on Victor Dalmau, a 23-year-old medical student fighting in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side when the novel opens. After Nationalist forces prevail, Victor and thousands of other Republican sympathizers flee Spain to avoid brutal reprisals. In France, he searches the packed refugee camps for Roser Bruguera, who is pregnant with his brother Guillem’s child. Once he finds Roser, he breaks the news that Guillem has died in battle and that he has won a place on the Winnipeg, a ship that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has organized to transport Spanish refugees from Europe, where WWII is breaking out, to safety in Chile. Allowed to bring only family with him, Victor persuades Roser to marry him in name only. Though Victor has a brief, secret affair with well-off Ofelia del Solar, he begins to fall in love with Roser; they raise Roser’s son, Marcel, together and build stable lives, he as a cardiologist and she as a widely respected musician. But when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s Marxist president in 1973, they find themselves once more endangered by their political views. Allende’s assured prose vividly evokes her fictional characters, historical figures like Neruda, and decades of complex international history; her imagery makes the suffering of war and displacement palpable yet also does justice to human strength, hope and rebirth. Seamlessly juxtaposing exile with homecoming, otherness with belonging, and tyranny with freedom, the novel feels both timeless and perfectly timed for today. (Jan.)

Fighters of Fear: Occult Detective Stories

Edited by Mike Ashley. Talos, $18.99 trade paper (614p) ISBN 978-1-945863-54-7

Anthologist Ashley (Menace of the Monster: Classic Tales of Creatures from Beyond) has never been better in conveying his genre expertise than in this impressive assembly of 31 short stories featuring psychic or occult detectives from the mid-19th century (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”) to the late 20th century (Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “Jeremiah”). While usual suspects Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson are deservedly included, the volume’s real value lies in its introducing fans of those writers to more obscure authors, such as Max Rittenberg, whose “The Sorcerer of Arjuzanx,” concerning a possible case of bewitchment at Lourdes, makes the case that his consulting psychologist, Xavier Wycherley, merits having all his stories republished. And few setups are more tantalizing than Victor Rousseau’s “The Woman with the Crooked Nose,” in which a man consults a doctor after seeing a ghost resembling a dead woman in every particular, except that it has a straight nose, unlike the deceased. Ashley’s choice to reprint several entries for the first time insures that even longtime horror devotees will find something new and intriguing. (Feb.)

Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases

Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Avid Reader, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9040-7

Husband and wife Chabon (Moonglow) and Waldman (A Really Good Day) gather dozens of prominent writers to commemorate the ACLU’s centennial with powerful, inspiring essays on the legal organization’s milestone cases. Addressing City of Chicago v. Morales (1999), novelist Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing) explores how the concept of loitering has been used to police black communities. Novelist Michael Cunningham (A Wild Swan) recalls that a 1995 decision upholding the right of Boston’s Irish Council to ban LGBTQ marchers from its St. Patrick’s Day parade led to his arrest in New York City’s procession. Journalist Héctor Tobar (Deep Down Dark) memorably credits Miranda v. Arizona (1966) for turning Fifth Amendment protections into “a civic poem in free verse,” and poet Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Sadness Is a White Bird) skillfully traces the repercussions of a KKK leader’s overturned conviction in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Fittingly, the book’s standout essay is also its most contrarian: novelist and lawyer Scott Turow (Testimony) delivers an impassioned takedown of the ACLU’s long-standing position that political spending is protected under the First Amendment. Vigorous, informative, and well-organized, this outstanding collection befits the ACLU’s substantial impact on American law and society. (Jan.)

The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Keith Cooper. Sigma, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4729-6042-9

Debut author Cooper, the editor of Astronomy Now and Astrobiology Magazine, lays out the possibilities, good and bad, humanity faces in contemplating alien contact in his intriguing study. He opens in 1967, with an epochal astronomical discovery. While searching for radio signals from quasars, PhD student Jocelyn Bell picked up a powerful pulse that repeated every 1.3 seconds. The signal turned out to be from a spinning neutron star—a pulsar—rather than “little green men,” but scientists began to think more seriously about the consequences of contacting extraterrestrials. For instance, to what degree might they share humans’ innate “proclivity for altruism toward individuals that we’re not related to,” as opposed to another widespread human trait—xenophobia? And even if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, would humans recognize it as such? Cooper observes that “if technology is not ubiquitous with intelligence,” then the dominant current model for detecting extraterrestrial sentience, via radio signals and other signs of technological activity, might all be in vain. Exploring these and many other concerns with concise and approachable writing, Cooper crafts a worthwhile popular science work about questions that, as scientists continually improve the human capacity for gathering information about the rest of the universe, are becoming increasingly important. (Jan.)

American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins. Flatiron, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-20976-4

With this devastating yet hopeful work, Cummins (The Crooked Branch) breathes life into the statistics of the thousands fleeing their homelands and seeking to cross the southern border of the United States. By mere chance, Lydia Quixano Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, survive the massacre of the rest of her family at her niece’s quinceañera by sicarios of the Los Jardineros cartel in Acapulco. Compounding the horror of the violence and loss is the fact that the cartel’s leader is a man that Lydia unwittingly befriended in her bookstore. Lydia and Luca flee north to the only refuge that she can imagine: her uncle’s family in Denver. North of Mexico City, all other sources of transportation become impossible, so mother and son must risk traveling atop La Bestia, the freight trains that are the only way to reach the border without being seen. They befriend two beautiful sisters—Soledad, 15, who is “a living miracle of splendor,” and Rebeca, 14—who have fled life-threatening circumstances in Honduras. As the quartet travel, they face terror on a constant basis, with danger possible from any encounter, but also compassion and occasionally even wonder. This extraordinary novel about unbreakable determination will move the reader to the core. (Jan.)

Heart of Junk

Luke Geddes. Simon & Schuster, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0666-9

Geddes’s rambunctious, oddly touching debut homes in on the denizens of a massive Kansas antique mall. The small-scale purveyors of what the less sensitive would call junk are pinning their hopes on the arrival of the production crew for the TV show Pickin’ Fortunes. Unfortunately, the hosts of the show are leery to come to a town where a little girl, beauty pageant star Lindy Bobo, has disappeared, possibly kidnapped. So mall owner Keith, on the brink of bankruptcy, enlists the rest of the troupe to find her, unaware that one of his sellers knows more than he’s saying about Lindy’s whereabouts. Geddes assembles an irresistible cast of self-deluded characters. This includes uptight Margaret, a stickler for the rules and desperate to repress her attraction to a fellow seller; hapless Ronald, too friendly for his own good; high-strung Delores, “dizzied by all the voices” of the Barbies who keep her company; and Seymour, a big-city vinyl album aficionado hauled to the sticks by his partner Lee. Geddes walks an edgy tightrope with some of the material, particularly the Lindy story, but his antic comic touch saves the novel from sinking into darkness, and he offers even his most misguided characters the opportunity to bumble towards redemption. This one’s a quirky treat for fans of flyover state humor. (Jan.)

Not So Pure and Simple

Lamar Giles. HarperTeen, $17.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-234919-4

High schooler Del Rainey has had a crush on Kiera Westing since kindergarten, but Kiera has “never been single. Nev. Er.” When she suddenly experiences a breakup, though, he’s determined to give things a go, inadvertently signing up for their church’s Purity Pledge group alongside her, an eight-week program offering “a thorough review of why Jesus wants me to abstain.” Though he’s a virgin, Del has a reputation for being a player at school, and Kiera won’t entertain his clumsy advances. Meanwhile, Del navigates being the guy who has to ask awkward questions in the sex ed class the other Purity Pledgers aren’t allowed to take amid rumors about the Baby-Getters Club—a supposed pact among some of the girls at school to get pregnant at the same time. With true-to-life characters and a straightforward handling of sex, including often ignored aspects of male sexuality, Giles’s thoughtful, hilarious read offers a timely viewpoint on religion, toxic masculinity, and teen sexuality. Ages 13–up. Agent: Jamie Weiss Chilton, Andrea Brown Literary. (Jan.)

What I Carry

Jennifer Longo. Random House, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-553-53771-0

Having grown up in foster care, Muiriel—“Muir”—is good at packing. Per writing by her namesake, John Muir, she carries the bare minimum, and following 20 placements, has folding down to a science. After one more year, she’ll be 18 and out of the system. In an effort to have some control over her life’s uncertainties, Muir has also mastered keeping people at arm’s length by being helpful, staying out of trouble, and keeping her grades up. She’s not so good at making friends, trusting people, and talking about her feelings. But her new placement, a ferry ride away from Seattle on Bainbridge Island, stands to play havoc with all of that. Her new foster mother is smart and kind, and Muir makes a real friend, gets a job that she loves, and meets a boy who really likes her. But Muir, used to packing emotionally lightly as well, will have to make changes to be able to let people in. Longo (Up to this Pointe), a foster and adoptive parent, wrote the book for her adopted daughter, who wanted a “hopeful, happy” tale; she provides it—and the book, well-written and heartfelt, is a pleasure. Ages 12–up. Agent: Melissa Sarver White, Folio Literary Management. (Jan.)

Riot Baby

Tochi Onyebuchi., $19.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-250-21475-1

Onyebuchi (War Girls) paints a grim, dystopian portrait of contemporary America shot through with elements of the supernatural in this urgent, brutal work. Ella Jackson and her baby brother, Kev, are both preternaturally gifted. The “Riot Baby,” Kev, is born in 1992 Los Angeles, just hours after the courts acquitted the cops that beat Rodney King and the city erupted in violence. As a teenager in New York, Kev is brutally assaulted by police and arrested for no crime but being black; he spends the next eight years incarcerated at Rikers. During this time, Ella visits him both in person and psychically, constantly using her powers to offer him glimpses of freedom and life outside the prison walls and lead him on a path toward a revolutionary future as, in the outside world, incidents of police brutality rise and their mother’s health fails. Onyebuchi’s unexpectedly hopeful ending is just as powerful as his unflinching, heartbreaking depictions of racism and cruelty. This staggering story is political speculative fiction at its finest. (Jan.)

The Seep

Chana Porter. Soho, $25 (216p) ISBN 978-1-64129-086-9

In Porter’s surreal, introspective debut, a benevolent alien invasion leads humanity into a utopia, exploring themes of grief and discontentment within a seemingly perfect world. The Seep, a well-meaning, symbiotic alien entity, causes hierarchies to breakdown, enhances technology beyond humankind’s wildest dreams, and functions as a mind-expanding drug that eliminates human mortality and grants people the power to transform their appearance at will. When Trina Goldberg-Oneka’s wife Deeba decides to reexperience her life from babyhood, Trina, a 50-year-old trans woman who remains suspicious of the changes wrought by the Seep, refuses to transition from the role of wife to mother, ending their relationship. Trina shakes her subsequent alcoholic depression just long enough to take on a “vengeful quest” to confront a former friend whom she fought with years before over identity politics, and to save a lost boy from the effects of the Seep. Porter employs profound compassion and gentle humor to convey Trina’s fear of change and distrust of complacency. Readers will delight in the eerie disquietude and optimism of this well-calibrated what-if. Agent: Sarah Bolling, The Gernert Company. (Jan.)


Danez Smith. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-64445-010-9

Smith (Don’t Call Us Dead) presents an electrifying, unabashedly queer ode to friendship and community in their exuberant and mournful second collection. Smith alternates colloquial and lofty language, often within the same poem, and eschews most punctuation and grammatical strictures. In “ode to gold teeth,” the poet writes of their grandfather, “gold gate of grandpa’s holler/ midas touch his blue hum/ honeymetal perfuming prayers,” later referring to him as the “OG of the gin sermon & front-porch pulpit.” These poems are a celebration of black culture and experience, and a condemnation of white supremacy and its effect; in “dogs!,” Smith excoriates racist dehumanization: “i too been called boy & expected/ to come, heel.” In “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects,” Smith explores conflicting feelings related to an HIV diagnosis—simultaneous devastation and relief (“it felt like i got it out the way, to finally know it”), acceptance, and shame (“i braved the stupidest ocean. a man. i waded in his stupid waters”). The collection’s final poem, “acknowledgments,” is a beautiful love poem to a best friend, one that is as heartfelt as it is quotable: “if luck calls your name, we split the pot/ & if you wither, surely i rot.” Smith is a visionary polyglot with a fearless voice. (Jan.)

The Wife and the Widow

Christian White. Minotaur, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-19437-4

A tragedy and longtime secrets bring together two women from different backgrounds in this stellar family drama from Australian author White (The Nowhere Child). Wealthy stay-at-home mom Kate Keddie is the widow of the title, a designation she receives shortly after waiting in vain at the airport with her 10-year-old daughter for her husband, John, to return to Melbourne following a business trip to London. Kate soon learns that John never made the trip, and that he quit his health-care job three months earlier without telling anyone; then his body washes up on Belport Island, where the Keddies have a vacation home. Supermarket clerk and amateur taxidermist Abby Gilpin is the wife of the title, who lives with her two sulky teenagers and her husband, Ray, a caretaker for the unoccupied holiday houses on Belport Island. Superior plotting buoyed by strong characters fuel the women’s separate investigations as Kate looks into John’s activities and Abby wonders why Ray is distant and sad. A clever twist near the end upends the plot’s trajectory. Readers will eagerly await White’s next. Agents: Jennifer Naughton and Candace Thorn, RGM (Australia). (Jan.)