This week, we highlight new books from Max Gross, Craig Brown, and Sarah Smith.
Journalist Souder (On a Farther Shore) presents a comprehensive, eloquent exploration of the life and career of John Steinbeck (1902–1968). Souder begins with Steinbeck’s childhood, frequently miserable college years at Stanford (he was known to fire a gun at the wall when frustrated with his writing), and time living in a cabin on Lake Tahoe, where he toiled tirelessly on his first book, Cup of Gold, and met his first wife, Carol Henning. The novel’s unsuccessful 1929 publication was quickly followed by the stock market crash, and five years later, by his mother’s death after a protracted illness. However, out of the ashes of this difficult time came his tremendously successful novel Tortilla Flat, in 1935, and then in 1937, Of Mice and Men. Meanwhile, Steinbeck started interviewing impoverished farmers from the Dust Bowl, research that went into the arduous writing of The Grapes of Wrath. In the years that followed, Steinbeck struggled with newfound celebrity, left Carol for his second wife, Gwyn Conger, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Souder neither deifies nor condemns his subject, remarking candidly on Steinbeck’s misogyny and propensity for mythmaking, while making clear the author’s ardent devotion to his craft. Steinbeck fans could not ask for a more nuanced account of this troubled giant of American literature.
Music critic Popoff delivers an excellent follow-up to his recent Anthem: Rush in the ’70s, the first volume in a three-part history of the progressive rock band Rush. Popoff extensively analyzes the LPs made from 1980’s Permanent Waves through 1989’s Presto, when Rush “took to messing about with all the decade had to offer, enthusiastically so,” including an increased use of synthesizers and keyboards. Popoff expertly details the ways Rush expanded its sound, including the use of reggae and electronic music in Permanent Waves, as well as a focus on shorter, tighter compositions on the band’s hugely popular Moving Pictures, and the decade-closing pair Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, which showcased “an astringent, high-strung pop band, trendy keys and synths in excess.” Throughout, Popoff extracts insightful quotes from band members, such as the late Neil Peart’s explaining that he was “a huge fan when I first started to hear Talking Heads, and when I first started to hear the Police and Ultravox and all these new English bands,” and doesn’t shy from being critical of the band (“Pretty objectively, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire sound extremely dated, wholly of the ’80s, where Rush’s ’70s material has become unassailably hip”). Die-hard Rush fans will devour this fascinating deep-dive into the band’s musically controversial decade.
In this masterful anthology, Nieto and Michel bring together 42 chilling works of flash fiction that capture terrors both supernatural and mundane. In Samantha Hunt’s “Rearview,” a single mother attempts to distance herself from her former drug abuse, even as her past self comes back to haunt her. Hilary Leichter’s “Doggy-Dog World” offers an unsettling portrait of a witch working a spell on an unassuming yuppie couple. “Lone” by Jac Jemc is a realistic and hair-raising exploration of a woman’s anxieties while camping alone. The choose-your-own-adventure-style “Marriage Variations” by Monique Laban spins scares from marital discontents. Helen McClory’s “Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter c. 1664–66” follows an eerie encounter between an art gallery docent and the “presence” within a 17th-century painting. “Downpour” by Joseph Salvatore is a truly terrifying tale about a rat on the New York City Subway, made all the more disturbing for its very real possibility. In fewer than 1,500 words, each of these vivid, visceral tales engages with horrors with striking immediacy. This carefully crafted and genuinely scary collection is sure to impress.
Gross’s lively and imaginative debut novel (after the memoir The Mensch Handbook) portrays a Jewish village in eastern Poland that’s been isolated throughout the 20th century. The residents of Kreskol survive pogroms and the hateful superstitions of Christian neighbors (“For generations the priests had said that we poisoned drinking wells.... Or, alternatively, that we used the blood of Christian children in our matzahs, depending on which priest you consulted”), and remain unaware of modern technology and culture. Outside contact is limited to occasional visits from a Roma caravan until a recently divorced Kreskol woman runs away, her ex-husband follows, and baker’s apprentice Yankel Lewinkopf is sent by the rabbi to find them. Traveling with the Roma, Yankel reaches the city of Smolskie, where his confusion and strange behavior land him in a mental ward. Doctors think Yankel may be delusional when he talks about his village, while Yankel has an equally hard time believing the doctors who tell him about the Holocaust. Finally, Yankel is helicoptered back home, accompanied by officials and reporters, and Kreskol must contend with its new fame and all the attendant complications. The narrator, a present-day villager, is well versed in Jewish traditions and human foibles, alternately reminiscent of early Isaac Bashevis Singer and a Catskills comedian. Gross’s entertaining, sometimes disquieting tale delivers laugh-out-loud moments and deep insight on human foolishness, resilience, and faith.
The career of the Fab Four is seen from odd angles and reflections in others’ eyes in this off-beat, vibrant group biography. Satirist and critic Brown (1966 and All That) eschews a linear chronicle of the Beatles’ oft-told narrative in favor of loosely connected meditations, reminiscences by associates, found literature, and shaggy-dog anecdotes. These include fan letters (“Dear Beatles, Please call me on the telephone.... If my mother answers, hang up”); the author’s reportage on guided tours of Beatles’ boyhood homes; recollections of the luckless entertainers who had to follow the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show; acid trips and drug busts; Charles Manson’s exegesis of The White Album; a recap of the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theory; and the story of how the then-unknown Beatles left a puddle of George’s vomit to fester in their Hamburg digs. These well-chosen vignettes aptly illuminate the Beatles’ personalities along with the cultural chord they struck, and Brown knits them into an interpretation that’s both perceptive and hilariously pithy (“Some have related Yoko’s pursuit of John in terms of a Hammer horror, with her little black-clad figure rearing up out of the fog at any time, day or night”). The result is a fresh and captivating pointillist portrait of the band and its indelible vibe.
Slayton makes a splash with this urban fantasy debut starring a broke, gay wizard living in an Oklahoma trailer park. Twenty-year old Adam Lee Binder uses what modest powers he has to hunt for his absentee father, who he suspects to be a warlock. Meanwhile, Adam’s brother, the decade-older Bobby, who has never believed in magic and had Adam committed to a psychiatric hospital as a teen, is terrified to realize that his wife, Annie, has been possessed by a demon—and turns to Adam for help. When Adam arrives at their home in Denver, he discovers a massive, cloudlike malignancy, with Annie and many others under its thrall. While investigating a hospital that he believes to be the source of the evil, Adam impetuously binds a piece of his magic to cop Vic Martinez to save him from a fatal wound. The binding sparks confusing romantic feelings between commitment-phobe Adam and inexperienced Vic, leading to a sweet subplot that balances the tense supernatural story line as Adam allies himself with elves, gnomes, and leprechauns to fight the demon. The complex worldbuilding, well-shaded depictions of poverty, emotional nuance, and thrilling action sequences make this stand out. Slayton is sure to win plenty of fans.
A young woman recruits a fake fiancé to avoid an arranged marriage in Bennett’s splendid Regency-set debut, the first in the Misfits of Mayfair series. Lady Charlotte “Lottie” Wentworth, a former debutante whose reputation has been stained with gossip, has little recourse but to marry the man chosen by her father—unless she can convince him she’s already engaged to someone else. The ingenious 26-year-old turns to reformed rogue Lord Ethan “Mac” Amesbury, the man responsible for inciting the rumors about her seven years ago and who is eager to make up for his past mistake—but his increasing desire for her complicates their arrangement. Lottie, meanwhile, is torn between her fear that Mac will again betray her trust and her growing reliance on his kindness and intense attraction to him. Bennett turns a spotlight on the class distinctions and gender restrictions of 1819 England, with a formidable leading lady and a swoon-worthy hero with lower-class roots. Mac is a credible and sympathetic rogue-turned-gentleman whose tumultuous past is neatly woven into the narrative, revealing the reasons for his prior bad behavior. Filled with gripping drama, strong characters, and steamy seduction, this tantalizing story is sure to win the hearts of Regency fans.
Feuding food truck owners make a sizzling connection in this enthralling romance from Smith (Faker). Nikki DiMarco spent the last year and a half learning to run her family’s Maui food truck, Tiva’s Filipina Kusina, to fulfill a promise she made to her late father. Then a competitive new business, Hungry Chaps, breaks food truck etiquette by parking right next to Nikki’s spot and luring away her customers. The livid Nikki enters into a petty battle with Hungry Chaps’ handsome owner, Callum James—and their daily drama “becomes a top-selling menu item,” as viral videos of their shouting matches draw tourists from across the island. Nikki and Callum agree to settle their dispute once and for all by competing in the Maui Food Festival: whoever scores higher keeps the spot. But underpinning the rivalry is a burning chemistry neither can deny, leading to a casual affair that deepens into something more—but their connection could get them disqualified from the food festival if the organizers think they’re collaborating. Nikki desperately needs the prize money to keep her business afloat and continue her father’s legacy, forcing her to make a difficult choice. While the enemies-to-lovers romance is irresistible, it’s the sincere, well-developed characters and heart-tugging family dynamics that make this fulfilling love story stand out. This is a winner.
Peruvian writer Cueto’s staggering U.S. debut completes his Redención trilogy, which explores the years following Peru’s civil war. After a harrowing stint in the army, where he guarded and was ordered to execute prisoners and torture victims who were held for suspicion of involvement in the communist insurgent group the Shining Path, Ángel retires and refuses his pension out of guilt. Now, Ángel lives a lonely, monotonous life in Lima, working as a salesman at a housewares store during the day and wrestling in illegal weekly fights for a promoter named El Gordo, and keeps few friendships aside from an old army pal, Cholo Palacios. One day, a woman named Eliana shows up in the store to buy glasses, and Angel is shocked to recognize her as someone he’d been ordered to execute in Ayacucha. Ángel descends into a frantic downward spiral of guilt and calls on Cholo for help with information about Eliana’s past, then begins following her in hopes of gaining her forgiveness. Ángel is confronted by Señor Huarón, a man claiming to be Eliana’s father, despite Cholo’s report that said her parents were both dead. Later, Ángel gains an opportunity to redeem himself after being caught in a conflict between Eliana and Señor Huarón, who it turns out had enslaved Eliana. Cueto imbues every page and character with the brutal consequences of war in his compulsively readable story of a man’s reckoning with a history of violence. Wynne and Mendez’s splendid translation brings readers an essential work of Peruvian literature.