This week, we highlight new books from Louise Penny, David Karashima, and Alyssa Cole.
In this fine-grained and alarming portrait of modern-day China, German journalist Strittmatter details how President Xi Jinping’s “thirst for power” and the tools of big data and artificial intelligence are paving the way for “the return of totalitarianism under digital garb.” After decades of economic and social reforms, the Chinese Communist Party was “stricken by a mood of crisis,” Strittmatter writes, until Xi was inaugurated as its leader in 2012 and began a campaign to reassert Party control over “every last corner of society.” Nowadays, sperm bank donors are required to have “excellent ideological qualities,” and the government’s “social credit system” aims to record “every action and transaction by each Chinese citizen in real time and to respond... with rewards and penalties.” Strittmatter documents the use of surveillance technologies to oppress Muslim Uighurs, explores how desire for access to the Chinese market “warps” Western businesses and politicians; notes the disappearance of three citizen journalists during the coronavirus crisis in Wuhan, and examines how Xi Jinping’s “New Silk Road” trade initiatives lay the groundwork for “a new world order determined by China.” Drawing on a wealth of experience in China, Strittmatter stuffs the book with telling details and incisive analysis. Even veteran China watchers will be impressed and enlightened. Agent: Markus Hoffmann, Regal Hoffmann & Associates.
Lemberg’s outstanding debut novel expands on the short stories of the Birdverse that they have been publishing for about a decade, most frequently in the lit mag Beneath Ceaseless Skies, drawing readers into a lush desert world and the two elders from different cultures navigating its wilds. Uiziya, a weaver of the desert snake-Surun’ people, has waited 40 years for her exiled aunt Benesret to return and teach her the Four Profound Weaves, which would enable her to create a carpet of wind, carpet of sand, a carpet of song, and a carpet of bones. Nen-sasaïr, a trans man from the more urban land of Iyar, only recently revealed his true gender and is now alienated from home and family. He comes to the desert hoping to re-ground himself by asking Benesret for a new name. When the two get tired of waiting, they set out together on a quest to find Benesret themselves and, through her, realize their dreams. Uiziya and nen-sasaïr’s journey is enthralling and frequently moving, as along the way they are repeatedly faced with the choice “to care or not, as all people do.” Lemberg writes deeply considered, evocative portraits of their characters, handling sexuality and gender especially well. This diverse, folkloric fantasy world is a delight to visit.
Essayist Weinberger (The Ghosts of Birds) delivers a charming meditation on the nature of angels and saints, illustrated with gorgeous reproductions of the works of ninth century German Benedictine monk Hrabanus Maurus. Weinberger contributes the bulk of the text, comprising his interpretation of angels, including consideration of how many there are, and their appearance, essential nature (“God and the angels speak without sound... and are heard by “inward” or “mental” ears”), physical abilities, and functions. Weinberger concludes his consideration with a beautifully laid out “angelology,” naming various angels and their powers, such as Mach, who can make one invisible. The rest of the volume is devoted to the stories of saints—some of which are quite lengthy, such as the biography of Saint Therese. Others are as brief as a sentence. (For John the Almsgiver, “He never spoke an idle word.”) The volume is concluded with an essay by Wellesley, a British Library researcher, on the nature and history of Maurus’s illustrations. The reproductions, scattered throughout the book, are full-color and invite the reader to contemplation. Academic and lay readers interested in Christian thought will enjoy Weinberger’s eclectic homage to angels and saints.
Karashima, a Japanese novelist, makes his English-language debut with this illuminating look at the “Murakami phenomenon,” which saw Haruki Murakami rise from being little-known outside Japan to global popularity. The book begins with Murakami’s first two novels to appear in English, Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing, as part of a series for English-language learners within Japan. It continues through Murakami becoming a “New Yorker author” in 1990 with the appearance of his story “TV People,” and climaxes with the breakout hit of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s English-language publication in 1997. Karashima profiles key players in this process, notably including Murakami’s first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, who took a circuitous path to working with the author, from an initial interest in Japanese art, to teaching pottery and calligraphy and studying tea ceremonies in Japan, to becoming entranced by Murakami’s flair for humor and the surreal. Using texts, faxes, letters, and interviews, Karashima clarifies the close working relationship between Birnbaum, Murakami, and editor Elmer Luke, as well as the falling-outs that occurred as Murakami’s career took off. Murakami fans will particularly revel in Karashima’s comprehensive coverage, but anyone curious about the alchemy and sheer amount of work that goes into making a single author’s success will be entranced by this fascinating work.
Bestseller Penny’s exceptional 16th series mystery (after 2019’s A Better Man) takes Chief Insp. Armand Gamache, the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, to Paris for the anticipated birth of a grandchild to his daughter, Annie, who moved to France with her husband, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s longtime number two, after they both got jobs there. The happy reunion includes Gamache’s son, Daniel, also lured to Paris by a job, and Gamache’s godfather, billionaire Stephen Horowitz, who supported Gamache after he was orphaned. Tragedy strikes when Stephen, who made a career of exposing corporate wrongdoing, is hit by a delivery van while crossing the street, leaving him at death’s door. Gamache, who witnessed the attack, tries to persuade the Prefect of Police, an old friend, that the hit-and-run should be treated as attempted murder, only succeeding after he finds the corpse of a stranger, who was shot twice, in Stephen’s ransacked apartment. The tension rises as Gamache tries to investigate both crimes in a jurisdiction where he has no authority, and vital secrets about his family come to light, changing relationships forever. Penny’s nuanced exploration of the human spirit continues to distinguish this brilliant series. Agent: David Gernert, Gernert Company.
At the start of this outstanding thriller from Cole (A Prince on Paper), Sydney Green decides, as a distraction from her elderly mother’s illness and other personal woes, to take a walking tour of Gifford Place, her historically Black Brooklyn neighborhood, which is becoming increasingly gentrified and considered as the home for a pharmaceutical firm’s massive new headquarters. Angered by the white tour guide’s detailing “the lives of the rich white people who’d lived there a hundred years ago,” but saying nothing about the area’s current African American residents, Sydney plans to set up her own neighborhood tour. As Sydney researches Gifford Place’s complicated history and racial background, she notices that longtime neighbors and friends are starting to disappear. Theo, a new white neighbor she met on the tour, lends some unwanted assistance in trying to figure out what’s going on. Sydney’s paranoia and fear, coupled with her guilt at placing her mother in a nursing home, fuel the tense plot, which builds to a credible finale. This stellar and unflinching look at racism and greed will have readers hooked til the end.
Abdoh (Tehran at Twilight) delivers a superb pressure cooker of a novel centered on Saleh, a middle-aged Iranian journalist with one bum eye who splits his time between Tehran and covering the war on ISIS. In Tehran, he pulls in cushy art review gigs while navigating the cutthroat, overtly patriotic TV industry, where his script ideas are often compromised or stolen; while on the front line in Iraq and Syria, he embeds with coalition soldiers and mourns those who die in battle. Saleh is surrounded by a web of characters in both halves of his life, among them a security handler, H, who tests Saleh’s loyalty and sends him on a clandestine mission involving a text by Marcel Proust, and Atia, a friend who tries to recruit Saleh for a new magazine. When fellow journalist Saeed finds him in Iraq, Saeed insists Saleh is sabotaging their careers by protecting a woman known as Zahra the Beheader, who took revenge on the men who killed her family, and whose story the British media wants to buy from them. Meanwhile, aging artist Miss Homa, tired of life, asks Saleh to assist in her suicide. In chapters that shuffle Saleh around Syria and Iraq, Abdoh vibrantly illustrates the futilities and dangers of proxy conflict. As Saleh juggles his various objectives and dilemmas, he confronts his own desire for meaning (“In this war, nothing—nothing at all—made sense”). Abdoh brilliantly fuses the confusions of combat and modern life to produce an unforgettable novel. This is one of the best works of literature on the war against ISIS to date.
Journalist Marchant (Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body) takes a thought-provoking look at how human fascination with the night sky has influenced beliefs throughout history. For example, tablets from the seventh century BCE unearthed near Mosul show that the Assyrians believed that lunar eclipses coincided with the death of their king, the earliest known occurrence of astrology. Marchant goes back even further, about 20 millennia ago, to explore the Lascaux cave paintings and the contentious theory that they represent constellations, and also surveys current cutting-edge research into how stargazing can trigger transcendental states. The book’s broad scope is made manageable by punchy storytelling; in explaining how cosmology influenced the American Revolution, Marchant begins by stating that Thomas Paine’s journey toward radicalism started “with a pirate ship, some astronomy lectures and a pair of globes.” Each section is informed by Marchant’s belief that technology that separates people from the actual world, such as using GPS to navigate, or computers to map the sky, comes at a cost. Integrating science, history, philosophy, and religion, Marchant’s epic account is one for readers to savor.
In the prologue to Carver’s outstanding second mystery featuring London Detective Sergeant Pace (after 2018’s Good Samaritans), a man’s corpse is discovered a year after he apparently committed suicide by handcuffing himself to a tree in a remote forest and throwing away the key. In the main narrative, nine nameless individuals who call themselves “The People of Choice,” each movingly describe their lives. Another unidentified narrator ruminates about the psychology of cults and the mistakes made by notorious serial killers. In due course, the nine all turn up at Chelsea Bridge and hang themselves in full view of horrified bystanders. Meanwhile, Pace is undergoing psychotherapy to be cleared for a return to duty, but he’s not sharing his belief that he’s the epicenter of “bad things.” When Pace learns of the group suicide, his professional curiosity moves him to investigate. The gut-punch ending explains the death in the prologue. Fans of classic downbeat noir from Cornell Woolrich and the like will find Carver has brilliantly translated their themes for the 21st century.
Sloan takes on the fraught topic of mental illness coupled with the pressure of fame in her sensational debut. As three members of a fading pop group are doing a London radio interview, they learn that their fourth member, Cassidy Holmes, who left the group in 2002 after they rose to international stardom, has committed suicide in Los Angeles. Sloan then flashes back to 1999, with Cassidy coming in second on a singing competition show. Cassidy is then tapped to audition for a Spice Girls-esque group called Gloss. She gets the gig and is christened “Sassy” Gloss, and she and her bandmates Yumi (aka Tasty), Rose (aka Rosy) and Merry (aka Cherry) sell out concert venues across the planet, getting press for their alleged infighting and party mishaps as much as for their #1 hits. But in 2002, after one of Cassidy’s friends suffers life-threatening injuries in a car accident that Cassidy blames herself for, Cassidy walks away from the group in despair. The dark side of fame is evident throughout this spirited and expertly plotted story, especially in characterizations of abusive musician Stephen St. James and Gloss’s ruthless manager, Peter. The author creates an unforgettable heroine in Cassidy and convincingly explores the depth of her depression. Sloan's debut will leave readers eagerly awaiting her next outing.