The books we love coming out this week include new titles from Susan Meissner, Tod Goldberg, and Amelia Pang.

The Nature of Fragile Things

Susan Meissner. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-451-49218-0

Meissner (The Last Year of the War) spins an exceptional story about an Irish immigrant who lands in San Francisco shortly before the 1906 earthquake. After spending two years in New York City, Sophie Whalen, 20, answers a newspaper ad from widower Martin Hocking of San Francisco, who is seeking a wife for him and a mother for his daughter. Sophie falls head over heels for Martin’s five-year-old daughter, Kat, having given up having a child of her own, and looks forward to developing a bond with her new husband. But Sophie learns that all is not as it seems when a pregnant woman named Belinda Bigelow shows up on her doorstep hours before the earthquake, looking for her husband, James, who told Belinda he had business with Martin. Upon seeing a picture of Martin, Belinda recognizes him as James. This leads the two women to go through Martin’s papers, and they deduce he’d married both of them under different names. Unexpected and masterfully crafted twists and turns abound after the earthquake, as a federal marshall questions Sophie about Martin’s disappearance. The plucky and principled Sophie (who is hiding a few secrets of her own) captivates from the first page, while naive Belinda and sensitive Kat are standouts. Ingeniously plotted and perfectly structured, this captivates from beginning to end.

A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible

Kristin Swenson. Oxford Univ., $24.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0-19-065173-2

Swenson (God of Earth), an associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and PW reviewer, unpacks “what’s so weird, difficult, and disconcerting” about the Bible in this rigorous, stimulating work. Swenson relays the Bible’s origin as a series of scriptures compiled by largely unknown editors who had collected texts composed over many centuries by mostly anonymous authors writing in a variety of languages. She challenges assumptions commonly held by American Christians, such as the notion of one singular Bible—when, in fact, there are substantive differences between the Hebrew, Protestant, and Catholic Bibles—and one version of the Ten Commandments (Swenson identifies three). Pointing to conflicting biblical accounts, such as two different creation stories within Genesis and the Bible’s complex portrayals of God, Swenson discourages simplistic interpretations about what the Bible says, and urges readers to embrace curiosity and to question: “as long as people keep engaging with the text, God keeps speaking.” Swenson concludes with her own “Ten Commandments for Reading the Bible,” including “Thou shalt not make the Bible God” and “Thou shalt not presume that any given translation is the text itself.” Both religious and secular readers will benefit from Swenson’s illuminating analysis of the Bible’s contradictions and oddities.

Speculative Los Angeles

Edited by Denise Hamilton. Akashic, $15.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-61775-856-0

Hamilton (Los Angeles Noir, ed.) brings together 14 outstanding stories of weird and uncanny happenings in the City of Angels. Francesca Lia Block showcases her expertise at infusing speculative fiction with strong L.A. flavor in the retro “Purple Panic,” about what it means to return home to the people and places one has left behind. S. Qiouyi Lu explores love and abandonment in “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve, Too,” set in a cyberpunk future where the Chinese Exclusion Act has been reinstated. Present-day atrocities are given a terrifying, supernatural spin in Alex Espinoza’s “Detainment,” an updated changeling tale about children being swapped with inhuman copies when rescued from immigration custody, and “Peak TV” by Ben H. Winters, in which a television producer is forced to reckon with the tragic results of his series. Each story presents a fresh take on the magic and strangeness of L.A. past, present, and future, and the characters are representative of the diverse region, caught in situations ranging from surreal to chilling. Readers should snap this up.

The Low Desert: Stories

Tod Goldberg. Counterpoint, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-64009-336-2

By turn surreal, tragic, and darkly funny, the 12 stories in this exquisite collection from Goldberg (Gangster Nation) hold up a mirror to the unique landscape of Southern California’s Inland Empire. In the astonishing title story, set in 1962, the body of a child is found on the shore of the Salton Sea. The Korean War vet hired to run security for the oil company that’s developing a resort community along the body of water is forced to confront the Chicago-based mobsters who are backing it. In the slyly amusing “Professor Rainmaker,” a professor of hydrology at Cal State Fullerton invents a new kind of sprinkler system, and starts a profitable side hustle cultivating marijuana, while “The Spare” fills in the memorable backstory of how Vegas hit man–turned–rabbi Sal Cupertine’s parents fled west from Chicago. A waitress whose adopted daughter has gone missing dutifully drives several hours to visit her incarcerated husband in the unforgettable character study, “Pilgrims.” With a cast of low-rent mobsters, drifters, and hardscrabble working stiffs, Goldberg does a brilliant job of revealing the underbelly of the area, past and present. These spare slices of literary noir are the work of a master storyteller.

Why Wakanda Matters: What Black Panther Reveals About Psychology, Identity, and Communication

Edited by Sheena C. Howard. BenBella, $14.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-950665-41-9

Filmmaker Howard (Encyclopedia of Black Comics) brings together 14 essays that consider the “cultural-historical impact” of the 2018 film Black Panther in this well-crafted anthology. Howard organizes the essays into four sections covering collective identity, racial identity, intergenerational trauma, and “cognition and identification.” In “Wakanda, Pan Afrikanism, and the Afrikana Worldview,” Olísa Yaa Tolókun and Aynda Mariama Kanyama-Jackson write: “When we watch Black Panther, we see our spirituality, our sense of style, and our symbolism,” and detail how Black Panther reflects a common aspect of “Afrikana spiritual traditions” and ancestral reverence. “N’Jadaka and Intergenerational Trauma” by Olísa Yaa Tolókun explains that the film’s antagonist “identifies with the trauma that his ancestors have suffered.” Though most of the essays praise the film, Howard also includes critics— Charles Athanasopoulos argues, in “Black Radical Thought as Pathology in Black Panther,” that it “promotes political ideas that ultimately reinforce white supremacist and anti-Black logics that are at the root of our youth’s experience of racial battle fatigue.” The essays, a well-balanced combination of contemporary thought and historical analysis, will leave readers eager for another viewing.

Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia

Elizabeth Catte. Belt, $26 (176p) ISBN 978-1-948742-73-3

Historian Catte (What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) delivers a concise and deeply unsettling study of the eugenics movement in Virginia. According to Catte, Virginia elites in the early 20th-century strove to maintain old racial and class hierarchies under the veneer of scientific and humanitarian progress. She contends that the state’s 1924 Sterilization Act, which allowed doctors to sterilize institutionalized patients without their consent, was intended to protect white racial purity from internal contamination by culling those deemed “unfit,” and that the 1924 Racial Integrity Act buttressed whiteness by preventing interracial marriage and redefining those with more than one-sixteenth Native American heritage as “colored.” Catte also delves into the history of Western State Hospital in Staunton, Va., where 1,700 individuals were sterilized between 1927 and 1964, and the displacement of 500 “mountain families” to create Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s. In a lacerating analysis of the links between economic policies and eugenicist thought, Catte examines coerced labor at Virginia’s psychiatric institutions, the destruction of a historically-Black neighborhood in Charlottesville under the guise of urban renewal, and the transformation of Western State into an upscale hotel and condominiums. This provocative and impeccably argued history reveals how traumas of the past inform the inequalities of today.

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods

Amelia Pang. Algonquin, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-917-9

Journalist Pang debuts with a vivid and powerful report on Chinese forced labor camps and their connections to the American marketplace. She spotlights the story of political prisoner Sun Yi, a follower of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, who inserted handwritten notes into the boxes of Halloween decorations he packaged at a camp in northeastern China. In 2012, two years after Sun’s release, an Oregon woman found one of his notes in a box of foam gravestones. The resulting media coverage led to widespread condemnation of China’s labor practices, Pang writes, but only superficial changes. Her cinematic narrative alternates between Sun’s traumatic experiences and an overview of the political history, cultural prejudices, and economic factors behind China’s system of “reeducation through labor.” She also explores loopholes in U.S. laws that might otherwise prevent imports from the camps, and how American consumers searching for cheap products and the latest trends create an incentive for China to continue its brutal labor practices. Noting that China responds to “financial pushback,” she urges consumers to hold their favorite brands to account for the conditions under which their goods are produced. Engrossing and deeply reported, this impressive exposé will make readers think twice about their next purchase.

Serpentine: An Alex Delaware Novel

Jonathan Kellerman. Ballantine, $28.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-61855-3

In Edgar winner Kellerman’s top-notch 36th Alex Delaware novel (after 2020’s The Museum of Desire), a cold case preoccupies the L.A. consulting psychologist and his friend and colleague, Lt. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD: the death of Dorothy Swoboda, whose burned body was found in a car below Mulholland Drive 36 years earlier. Dorothy’s 39-year-old daughter, Ellie Barker, who recently sold her lucrative exercise wear business for millions, remains haunted by the loss of her mother, who abandoned her when she was three. Now Ellie wants an explanation for what one report at the time called a murder and another a one-vehicle accident. Armed with the thinnest of case files, Milo and Alex uncover a disturbing number of murders that seem related to Dorothy, and they realize that the killing spree might not yet be over. Kellerman maintains pace and suspense through the interactions of the characters—witnesses, detectives, relatives of the victims—all of whom are rendered in striking and precise detail. This entry is pure pleasure, intelligently delivered.

The Best of R.A. Lafferty

R.A. Lafferty. Tor Essentials, $18.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-77853-6

World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner Lafferty (1914–2002) wrote the 22 stories of this distinguished collection in the 1960s and ’70s. Offbeat, usually joyful, and always a few steps beyond reality, these tales showcase Lafferty’s humanism and linguistic mastery. Lafferty lived most of his life in Oklahoma and drew on the U.S. Western and Native American tall-tale traditions for stories like “Narrow Valley,” which celebrates human decency and resilience. In Hugo winner “Eurema’s Dam,” Lafferty’s schlemiel inventor Albert hilariously and eerily forecasts today’s computer-centric world. “The Primary Education of the Camiroi,” presented as a report to a PTA, skewers self-serving and illogical leaps in education, like speed reading and curriculum overhauls; it even suggests that “a little constructive book burning, especially in the field of education” may be necessary for human progress. Each story is accompanied by an introduction by a noted contemporary science fiction author, among them Samuel R. Delany, Neil Gaiman, and Nancy Kress. In clever prose, Lafferty invites readers both to deplore human frailties and learn to laugh at them, resulting in a collection to reread and savor.

Eleven Sooty Dreams

Manuela Draeger. Open Letter, $14.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-9488-3026-3

French writer Antoine Voldine (Bardo or Not Bardo), writing as Draeger, punctuates this bleak yarn of a leftist militia group’s misadventures in an unspecified post-Soviet country with fantastical stories and black humor. The author’s wry, uncanny writing reveals the central theme of the book: memory is the key to survival for those oppressed by state censorship and economic despair. The annual Bolshevik Pride festival is the only bright spot in the dreary setting—a landscape marked by “the musk of war’s bombs, barbed-wire fences, chemical dustings, still-smoking ruins”—but this year the event goes awry when a group of young leftists breaks into an arsenal to steal weapons and becomes trapped by a fire. There, they remember the outlandish stories of Marta Ashkarot, a talking elephant, told by Granny Holgolde, a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of reintegrating assassins and mercenaries into society. Characters such as Holgolde’s invention, Marta, who eats firecrackers and uses the Party’s agenda as toilet paper, and Holgolde herself, the steely maternal figure whom the leftists remember visiting as children, are drawn with wonderful specificity, and Draeger writes brilliantly of the leftists’ collective spirit. Stylistically inventive, heartfelt, and vivid, this shows a beguiling, talented author running on all cylinders.