This week, we highlight new books from Graham Moore, Natasha Pulley, and more.

Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe

Brian Greene. Knopf, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3167-0

Greene (The Hidden Reality), director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics, translates sophisticated science topics into an accessible and illuminating survey. His achievement is particularly remarkable given the cerebral subject—the “fundamental transience of everything” in the universe, and of the universe itself. Greene digests the latest scientific thinking on how the universe began; on molecular Darwinism, the “chemical combat” believed to have triggered the transformation of inanimate collections of atoms into life; and on the nature of consciousness. Greene effectively illustrates his points with understandable examples, as when he uses pennies, all arranged heads-up, to explain entropy; shaking the coins will flip some of the coins to tails, thus increasing disorder, but is highly unlikely to return them all to the ordered state of all-heads. He concedes that some profound questions—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”—are currently unanswerable, though he is convinced that “there is no grand design,” and that people must construct their own meaning. Curious readers interested in some of the most fundamental questions of existence, and willing to invest some time and thought, will be richly rewarded by his fascinating exploration. (Feb.)

Second Sister

Chan Ho-Kei, trans. from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang. Black Cat, $17 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2947-5

Nga-Yee Au, the heroine of this clever, twisty novel set in Hong Kong from Chan (The Borrowed), who has devoted herself to taking care of her 15-year-old sister, Siu-Man, after the death of their widowed mother, is devastated to learn that Siu-Man has jumped to her death from their apartment window. After Siu-Man’s death, Nga-Yee learns that, over a period of months leading to the suicide, Siu-Man was the victim of a subway groper, Shiu Tak-Ping, who was convicted of sexual abuse and sent to prison. Siu-Man was subsequently subject to cyberbullying and harassment from someone claiming to be Tak-Ping’s nephew, who insisted that his uncle was framed. Nga-Yee is determined to hold the nephew accountable for Siu-Man’s death, and after the PI she hires learns that Tak-Ping has no nephew, he directs her to an eccentric investigator, who just calls himself N, to track down the impersonator. The reveals are both logical and surprising, and Chan populates the plot with realistic characterizations. Fans of hacker thrillers such as Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books will be amply rewarded. Agent: Markus Hoffmann, Regal Hoffmann & Assoc. (Feb.)

The Great Unknown

Peg Kingman. Norton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-324-00336-6

The anonymous 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a controversial text that anticipated the work of Darwin, serves as the linchpin for this beautifully wrought, panoramic historical from Kingman (Not Yet Drown’d). Events center on the Edinburgh household of the Chambers family and their wet nurse, Constantia MacAdam, all of whom become familiar with how the text challenges their Victorian culture’s prevailing religious and political beliefs. Through meticulously detailed descriptions of the Chambers family and their friends, Kingman shows how the work’s scientific speculations are reflected in innumerable facets of their day-to-day lives: the births and deaths of children, the distinguishing physiological peculiarities of several family members, the horticultural wisdom of the household’s gardener, the fossil hunting obsession of Constantia’s husband, Hugh, and even the couple’s Chartist working-class sympathies. While the plot never veers from the quiet of the English and French countryside, Kingman ably pulls together the many threads to paint the portrait of a time when humanity perched on the precipice of great change. Kingman’s evocation of a specific time and place, and her depiction of the role that chance, rather than deliberate design, plays both in the natural world and in her characters makes for gratifying storytelling. Kingman masterfully combines history with propulsive drama. (Feb.)

The Holdout

Graham Moore. Random House, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-399-59177-8

This stellar novel from bestseller Moore (The Last Days of Night) takes a searing look at the U.S. justice system, media scrutiny, and racism. A decade earlier, during a high-profile L.A. murder trial, idealist Maya Seale persuaded her fellow jurors to acquit African-American high school teacher Bobby Nock of killing Jessica Silver, his wealthy white 15-year-old student. The controversial trial had a powerful impact on all the jurors, most of whom regretted the verdict. Maya was vilified in the press, but the most stinging rebuke came from juror Rick Leonard, who published a book blaming the verdict on Maya’s bullying. Now the producers of Murder Town, a true crime documentary series, want to do a 10-year anniversary special with Maya, who’s since become a defense attorney, as the key participant. During a reunion of the jurors, one of them is murdered in Maya’s hotel room. The narrative builds tension as it shifts among the voices of the various jurors, including Maya. Moore has set a new standard for legal thrillers. Agent: Jennifer Joel, ICM. (Feb.)

The Aosawa Murders

Riku Onda, trans. from the Japanese by Alison Watts. Bitter Lemon, $14.95 trade paper (346p) ISBN 978-1-912242-24-5

Japanese author Onda makes her English-language debut with an enigmatic and haunting crime novel. In 1973, 17 people die at the Aosawa villa on the Sea of Japan in the city of K—, including members of three generations of the Aosawa family, after drinking spirits and soft drinks that were delivered to the house as a gift. The massive police inquiry settles on the delivery man as the culprit. He later hangs himself and leaves behind a note confessing to the mass poisoning, which he carried out after he got a “notice that he had to kill the Aosawa family.” In 2003, Makiko Saiga, who was a neighbor of the Aosawas and the author of a book about the murders, talks to an unidentified interviewer. That’s followed by testimony from other people with a link to the case, including the police detective obsessed with it. Onda’s unusual narrative technique, which presents differing perspectives by giving only the responses to the interviewer’s questions, enhances the nesting-doll plot. American readers will appreciate why this puzzle mystery won the annual Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Fiction. (Feb.)

The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War

Serge Pey, trans. from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Archipelago, $18 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-939810-54-0

Pey’s haunting, inspired collection (after Flamenco) captures the lives of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War. Set mostly in France, where fleeing Spanish anarchists and their families were put in internment camps by the French government, the stories feature characters who demonstrate resilience and resistance. In the harrowing “The Piece of Wood,” a refugee camp director tortures children for information and punishes prisoners by locking them in oil drums, which “often became coffins.” Friends Floridor and Chucho of “Morse Code” tap out chess moves to one another on the pipes in their cells, “a kind of tom-tom of hope from invisible and occult constellations.” In “The Movies,” a refugee family is “the poorest of the poor,” but the children “learn to read French” by watching subtitled American movies projected outdoors. And in the standout title story, set in 1958 Toulouse, exiles and their families are brought together in celebration by a quixotic hunt for buried gold. Throughout this remarkable collection, Pey’s startling and memorable images have a poetic logic, building complexity and nuance into the characters’ cries for freedom. This masterful collection stands with the best fiction about war refugees. (Mar.)

Living Weapon

Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-19199-3

In his dazzling third collection, Phillips (Heaven) explores social ills while celebrating poetry’s ability to provide solace and sense during times of upheaval. Two prose poems anchor the book: the first, the standout of the collection, is “1776,” in which Phillips imagines himself as a winged angel standing atop the Freedom Tower in New York City, observing the city below: “Lit streets run from it, electric arteries and veins. Manhattan’s never seemed so empty, so narrow, a pupil of a cat’s eye.” Phillips imbues the book with the divisiveness and violence of the present moment: “We are all in prison./ This is the brutal lesson of the slouching century,// Swilled like a sour stone/ Through the vein of the beast.” In “Mortality Ode,” he narrates a scene in which several police officers enter a cellphone store and browse casually. Nothing dramatic occurs, but the simple presence of the officers conveys a tension born from the speaker’s subtle understanding that the police are a threat to his safety. In “Thoughts and Prayers,” Phillips addresses the subject of gun violence directly, declaring that the refusal to take action to stop the epidemic is the real evil: “the end of endings; the death/ Of change.” Phillips’s latest is lyrical, imaginative, and steeped in a keen understanding of current events. (Feb.)

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury, $27 (512p) ISBN 978-1-63557-330-5

The phenomenal sequel to Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street moves the series from Victorian-era London to a haunted, steampunk version of 19th-century Tokyo. Thaniel Steepleton is offered a translator position at the British legation in Tokyo on the same night his lover, clairvoyant Japanese clock maker Keita Mori, returns to their London home after months abroad. The pair travel together to Japan along with Thaniel’s adopted, autistic daughter. There, Thaniel meet’s Takiko Pepperhow, Mori’s wife, a woman Thaniel hadn’t known existed. As Thaniel questions his relationship with Mori, Mori uses his clairvoyance to manipulate the affairs of the people around him. After Mori goes missing, it’s up to Thaniel to find him as a massive electrical storm strikes Tokyo and ghosts wander the streets. Pulley’s intricate plot, vibrant setting, entrancing magic, and dynamic ensemble of characters make for an un-put-downable historical fantasy. New readers will be pulled in and series fans will be delighted by this tour de force. Agent: Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Associates. (Feb.)

Big Black: Stand at Attica

Frank “Big Black” Smith, Jared Reinmuth, and Améziane. Archaia, $19.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-68415-479-1

Smith (1933–2004) was a prisoner who took a leadership role within the 1971 Attica prison uprising, and this immersive graphic memoir (coauthored by the stepson of his longtime lawyer) illuminates the plantationlike environment that precipitated the hostage crisis—and the bloody siege that followed. The son of a South Carolina sharecropper, Smith was sentenced to 10–15 years in prison in 1965 for holding up a dice game. At Attica, he becomes the yard football coach and bonds with an older prisoner obsessed with da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, an illustration repeated throughout the book to depict Smith’s later torture by guards in retribution for the uprising. The beating of two inmates triggers the prisoner revolt, in which guards and other employees are taken captive, and Smith is named by fellow inmates as head of security. He attempts to ensure hostage safety and manage tensions among inmates as they present their manifesto and appeals to then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. The account also details the 25-year legal battle that resulted in a 1997 settlement to Smith and others for their maltreatment. The stellar artwork by Améziane (Muhammad Ali) includes tabloidlike chapter openers rendered with bold fonts and exaggerated letterboxes. His expressive realism and muted colors invoke a nostalgic 1970s pulp effect reminiscent of Ed Piskor’s work. This penetrating portrait of a broken correctional system and a flawed man focuses on his legacy of courage, which towers over the forces stacked against him. (Feb.)

Senseless Women

Sarah Harris Wallman. University of Massachusetts, $19.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-62534-518-9


In Wallman’s bewitching and macabre debut collection, women intent on changing their realities contend with violence and manipulation. In “The Dead Girls Show,” overweight Carly attends a showcase of undead girls and hopes to one day look like the Arabella, “a starved mermaid” in the “greeny spotlight” who died from anorexia. After a reckless driver outside the theater kills Carly, she is added to the show, forever unable to escape her body. In “One Car Hooks into the Next and Pulls,” a woman meets a married man on a sentient commuter train, which appreciates her initial resistance to the man’s charms (“The train realized she had only pretended sleep. This delighted the train”). After the woman agrees to begin an affair, the disapproving train causes a deadly accident. In wry, spare prose, the title story follows an unnamed woman living in a long-term care hospital after surviving a poisoning. Miriam, her nurse, becomes enraptured by the woman’s story of an ill-fated love affair with her brother-in-law, believing that the woman was poisoned by her family. After Miriam catches a doctor molesting the defenseless patient, she takes on the role of her protector. Wallman’s incisive writing and bold choices make this memorable and worthwhile. (Mar.)

Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America

Jon Wilkman. Bloomsbury, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-1-6355-7103-5

Filmmaker Wilkman (Floodpath) brings his love of documentary film and enthusiasm for its potential to this enthralling survey of the genre’s history in America. To the book’s great benefit, Wilkman does not adopt a doctrinaire definition of his subject, but includes both semistaged films such as Robert Flaherty’s 1922 look at Inuit life, Nanook of the North, and pure works of cinema verité such as brothers Albert and David Maysles’s 1969 film Salesman. Wilkman is also careful to recognize significant female contributions to a male-dominated field, such as from Flaherty’s wife and story consultant, Frances, or from the Maysles’ editor, Charlotte Zwerin (who eventually won recognition from them as a codirector, as well). Accessible and immersive, Wilkman’s text is peppered with numerous unexpected revelations, including Henry Ford’s role as producer of some of the earliest newsreels and educational and industrial films, and the documentary roots of such feature film directors as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Throughout, he skillfully weaves in historical context, such as how opposition to fascism and Nazism imparted additional urgency to documentary filmmaking, and how the 1951 introduction of videotape presaged the democratization of the field. A valuable resource for cinephiles, this sweeping history will ignite a new enthusiasm for the form among readers less well-versed in the genre. (Feb.)