This week, we highlight new books from Walter Scott, Paul Preston, and Sarah Stewart Johnson.

The Sirens of Mars: Searching For Life on Another World

Sarah Stewart Johnson. Crown, $28.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-101-90481-7

Planetary scientist Johnson delivers an enthusiastic and lyrical chronicle of the scientific quest to uncover Mars’s secrets. From Mars’s prominent place in the night sky, to the water-filled “canali” 19th-century Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli and 20th-century Mars enthusiast Percival Lowell imagined they perceived on its surface, the red planet has long provoked imagination and speculation. “Before it rusted over, Mars was much more like Earth,” Johnson writes by way of explaining why modern scientists, including herself, have searched for life on an apparently barren planet. Evincing a gift for vivid imagery, she shares memories from her own work, including of how computer software transforms images of the Martian surface into detail-packed, “psychedelic swathes of colors.” She also provides a general timeline of the four Mars rover missions, detailing the goals and findings of each one, always focusing on the discoveries’ implications for the search for alien life, as when a rover discovered traces of the elements required for life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Johnson’s skillful narrative will engage serious students of planetary science as well as armchair adventurers curious about “a wilderness stretching off into the horizon, vast and full of possibility.” (June)

Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism

Taylor G. Petrey. Univ. of North Carolina, $29.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-4696-5622-9

Petrey, a professor of religion at Kalamazoo College, combines meticulous research with illuminating insight in this landmark work on gender and sexuality in Mormon thought. Petrey shows how Latter-day Saint teachings about race, marriage, homosexuality, and gender roles have adapted to different social contexts between post-WWII America and today, and argues that opposition to same-sex marriage has replaced opposition to interracial marriage or egalitarian marriage as a lightning rod for LDS leaders. He also examines contradictions in LDS ideologies—such as church leaders explicitly teaching that gender roles are inherent, while also fretting about parents not properly teaching their children how to “perform” their gender role properly. Information-packed, with a forceful thesis and jargon-free prose, this is an important contribution to Mormon studies as well as a convincing consideration of the ways religions construct and maintain frameworks. Any academic studying the intersection of religious practice and progressive social change will want to pick this up. (Jun.)

Wendy, Master of Art

Walter Scott. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-1-77046-399-8

Scott (Wendy’s Revenge) continues the saga of his round-eyed, loose-limbed heroine with this delightful volume, the best of the bunch, which parodies the worlds of fine art and art education. Wendy is stuck in the tiny town of Hell, Ontario, working toward her MFA. There she meets a motley crew of fellow millennials, among them Yunji, who is obsessed with using string in her art; Maya, an overachieving, globe-trotting wunderkind; and Eric, a hypernervous type eager to prove his “woke” credentials. Wendy navigates fraught relationships with each of them, as well as a romance with an attractive young man who is also involved with another woman, while she battles alcohol dependence and creative blocks—and desperately attempts to create meaningful art. Scott’s drawing style is loopy and cartoony, to consistently funny effect. He’s also a skillfully economic storyteller with a sharp wit, especially sending up academic art-speak. (Eric introduces himself to the class: “My work seeks to propagate systemic qualities of erasure in non-human logic (inhale) IN speculative environments, HOWEVER.”) But Scott never loses sight of his characters’ humanity, conveying a genuine sweetness under the snark. The flaws and foibles of Wendy and crew prove hilarious, relatable, and highly entertaining. (June)

This Little Family

Inès Bayard, trans. from the French by Adriana Hunter. Other, $15.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-89274-687-0

Bayard’s stunning debut tracks the devastating impact of a woman’s rape on herself and her family. After Marie, a young financial consultant in Paris, is raped by the CEO at her bank, she tells no one about the attack. A few weeks later, on a picnic with her husband, Laurent, and her parents, sister, and baby nephew, the “pitiful ordinariness” of questions about her job “shoots through her head at the speed of sound,” and she imagines driving a knife into her belly. Still gripped in a spiral of misery, Marie discovers she is pregnant. Though she and Laurent have been trying to conceive, she’s certain the baby is her rapist’s. After giving birth to her son, Thomas, a desperate and suicidal Marie eventually returns to her job and leaves Thomas at day care for as long as possible. Bayard’s chronicle of Marie’s breakdown escalates with blistering depictions of Marie’s intense neglect of Thomas and of the household (“I’ve never been able to wash him because his penis disgusts me”; “I now think throwing things in the trash is just another modern pastime we should avoid”), with a defiant, feral energy that has echoes of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. As Laurent catches Marie in various lies and senses her distance, he becomes suspicious of the child’s paternity. Meanwhile, Marie decides to take action, leading to a tragic, harrowing conclusion. Marie’s indelible voice makes this a powerful study of sexual violence and its aftermath. (June)

A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain, 1876–2018

Paul Preston. Norton, $35 (768p) ISBN 978-0-87140-868-6

Fascist dictators, left-wing terrorists, and feckless democratic politicians all come off badly in this nuanced and evenhanded history of modern Spain. London School of Economics historian Preston (The Last Days of the Spanish Republic) roots Spain’s violent 20th century in deep sociopolitical dysfunctions, including exploitation of impoverished peasants and workers by a reactionary elite of landowners, industrialists, the Catholic Church, and the military, who cemented their power through electoral fraud; outrageous political corruption; and a left-wing opposition given to bomb throwing. These issues persisted through the 1936–1939 civil war—Preston blames the Loyalist government’s defeat in part on left-wing factionalism and Prime Minister Largo Caballero’s lethargy—and Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Things looked up, in Preston’s telling, during the mid–1970s, when political moderates and King Juan Carlos (who bravely faced down a 1981 coup attempt) engineered the transition to democracy. But Basque separatist terrorism and a perpetual whirlwind of corruption scandals, according to Preston, have tarnished even Juan Carlos. Preston brings this complex story alive with brisk, lucid prose and colorful character sketches, and treats Spain’s rancorous political antagonisms judiciously. This vigorous narrative history delivers sharp insight into Spain’s chaotic past. (June)

Bluebeard’s First Wife

Ha Seong-nan, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong. Open Letter, $15.95 trade paperback (230p) ISBN 978-1-948830-17-1

Ha’s outstanding collection (after Flowers of Mold) delivers heavy doses of guilt, hope, and pain. The opener, “The Star-Shaped Stain,” follows a young mother a year after her kindergartner daughter died in a fire along with her 21 classmates while on a school trip. When the woman visits the site two months later with other grieving parents, their wounds are made raw by a drunk storekeeper who claims to have seen a child running away from the burning building. In straightforward prose, Ha’s simple, devastating tale sets the mood for what’s to come. The title story brilliantly explores the secrets and silence inside the microcosm of an opportunistic marriage, as Ha flips the switch from ordinary domestic descriptions to harrowing violence, the tone perfectly measured in Hong’s translation. Other highlights include “Joy to the World,” in which a mysterious pregnancy devastates a couple on the verge of marriage; “On That Green, Green Grass,” an exploration of obsession wrapped in the enigmatic theft of a family’s dog; and “A Quiet Night,” in which a couple deals with noisy upstairs neighbors until the woman starts suspecting her husband is behind the neighbors’ run of misfortune. Dark, strange, and simultaneously cohesive and diverse, these stories show a superb writer in full force. (June)


David Gerrold. Daw, $26 (448p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1657-7

Hugo and Nebula Award–winner Gerrold (The Martian Child) showcases his powerful storytelling skills with this outstanding tale of interstellar intrigue. Hella is a planet of extremes, so named because its oxygen-rich atmosphere causes everything from the trees to the leviathans that inhabit it to grow “hella big.” The barely self-sufficient human colonists who call Hella home flee its blistering summers and harsh arctic winters in a biannual migration. Among these colonists is Kyle, a neuroatypical 13-year-old with a chip implant meant to regulate his emotions. This brain chip, which he calls “the noise,” allows him direct access to the colony’s vast computer database of information. As the colony prepares for a new crop of colonists to arrive from the ravaged remnants of Earth, Kyle’s outsider status and special access to the database lands him in the middle of a political conflict that threatens the future of the struggling colony. The worldbuilding is masterful, with hard scientific explanations for Hella’s many abnormalities and rich descriptions sure to keep the attention of even the most casual reader. The effortlessly diverse cast, complex political machinations, and heartfelt coming-of-age themes combine to create a fleshed-out vision of the future that is intense, emotional, and immersive while still maintaining a sense of rollicking fun. Sci-fi readers should snap this up. (June)

Afraid of the Light

Cynthia Ruchti. Kregel, $15.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-82544-657-3

Ruchti (Miles from Where We Started) delivers an insightful portrait of a wounded psychologist trying to make amends for the mother with hoarding disorder that she couldn’t save. Camille Brooks, host of the Let in the Light podcast, aims to help hoarders. Eli Rand, a local trash hauler, wants to sponsor Camille’s podcast and help her clean out clients’ homes. Wary of the garbage collector but needing the cleaning help, she accepts his offer and is soon frustrated when Eli interferes with how she works with her clients. Eli interjects in an effort to find the root of their traumatic stories, and argues that his ideas may be a gift from God. Though Eli’s work becomes indispensable in cleaning houses, Camille worries he may be hiding his own hoarding disorder, a deal-breaker for any budding relationship. When a client, Allison, reminds Camille of her mother, she confronts her childhood memories of living with a hoarder and determines to help Allison reconcile with her own estranged children. As Camille and Eli discover each other’s secrets, they realize they share much in common, but it will take a leap of faith for Camille to begin to trust. This sensitive portrayal of mental illness and its generational impact is Ruchti’s best work yet. (June)

Animal Spirit

Francesca Marciano. Pantheon, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4815-9

Marciano’s sharp-eyed and effortlessly graceful collection (after Rules of the Wild), set largely in the author’s native Italy, explores the ways people’s animalistic instincts drive relationships. In “Terrible Things Could Happen to Us,” wealthy family man Sandro falls in love with his yoga teacher, and Marciano’s lack of sentimentality keeps things taut until a devastating denouement, which leaves Sandro speechless, “like an actor who has forgotten his lines.” In “The Girl,” a middle-aged Hungarian tries to convince a young Italian woman to join the circus and help in his snake-charming act. The title story follows two couples sharing an island vacation house as their varying degrees of uncertainty about their futures coalesce around a midnight encounter with a sheep—or is it a poodle?—that may or may not need to be rescued. In “There Might Be Blood,” Diana decamps to Rome to write her long-deferred novel. Rather than writing, she obsesses over seagulls, which plague the city and prevent her from enjoying her terrace near Piazza Navona. Diana decides to enlist Ivo, a falconer, whose birds, Queen and Darko, can hunt the gulls. In this story, and throughout the collection, Marciano skillfully uses her characters’ relationships with animals as metaphors to explore their humanity. Polished and compulsively readable, this is a real treat. (June)