The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Keiler Roberts, Marjorie DeLuca, and May Cobb.
Roberts (Rat Time) returns with a thoroughly entertaining collection of autobiographical comics featuring her distinctive blend of deadpan humor and quirkily sincere flights of fancy. She observes life with husband Scott, pre-teen daughter Xia, and dog Crooky with equal parts appreciation and bemusement. “Xia and I played Barbies more intensely than ever before,” Roberts tells her mother, recalling Xia-as-Barbie improvising her way through a job interview, a scene followed by another in which the dolls awkwardly converse about art (imitating, one assumes, life). In another vignette, Roberts digs into her curious satisfaction at having spent weeks destroying her old sketchbooks and journals: “I’m being more productive whenever I’m not making anything.” Moments in which, for instance, a plate of Christmas cookies slips to the ground, to be picked up and placed in the trash one-by-one, are quiet examples of malaise creeping in. But Roberts remains exacting; when praised by a friend for being self-aware, Roberts quips she’s not a “better person” but only able to “see my flaws with absolute clarity.” The droll line drawings gently capture the oddity of quotidian activities, such as vacuuming the blades of a ceiling fan. Roberts’s slightly warped perspective hilariously and poignantly reflects back to readers the transient absurdity of domestic life.
An unstable nation deflected its seething tensions and anxieties into an aggressive expansionism, according to this trenchant history of the fledgling U.S. Pulitzer winner Taylor (American Revolutions) focuses on the growth of American territory and national power through diplomacy and wars aimed at clearing Native Americans from western land coveted by settlers, gaining new territory for slave states, and warding off Great Britain and Spain. The War of 1812, he argues, was actually part of a greater “War of the 1810s” that saw a decade of fighting from the Northwest Territory to Florida to consolidate and extend America’s borders. According to Taylor, this outward-directed program ended up exacerbating internal divisions, as unpopular wars and the prospect that new states might upset the slave state-free state balance stoked sectional antagonisms. The portrait of the U.S. that emerges is not flattering: Taylor foregrounds white supremacy, sexism, slavery, the miseries of industrial capitalism, the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in the Mexican War. This elegantly written and thoughtfully argued study shows how rickety and explosive the American project was from the start.
The real-life case of British serial killer Mary Ann Cotton, who was hanged in 1873 for murdering her stepson and was suspected of multiple other murders, provides the backdrop for this chilling psychological crime novel from DeLuca (Lilah). When Clara Blackstone gives birth to a stillborn and malformed child, Clara attacks the doctor after he tosses the small corpse into a slop bucket as if it were trash. She also partially blinds a nurse by stabbing her with a scalpel. Clara’s husband, Henry, has her confined to London’s Bethlem Hospital, where she’s force-fed and lives with other violent women. Following her release from a year’s confinement in 1872, Clara, who finds her reunion with Henry awkward, gets unexpected help after a charitable prison visit to Mary Ann, who’s imprisoned for allegedly killing 20 people over a dozen years. Mary Ann, who seems unscathed by whatever misdeeds she committed, becomes a mentor for Clara, who’s trying to figure out Henry’s intentions and an appropriate response to them. DeLuca keeps readers guessing, while cleverly using the Mary Ann Cotton case to advance her plot. Minette Walters fans will be pleased.
Lifestyle journalist Sophie O’Neill, the narrator of this nail-biting thriller from Cobb (Big Woods), leaves a successful job in bustling Evanston, Ill., wishing to “slow down” with her architect husband and preschooler son in small town Mapleton, Tex. Soon, a bored Sophie seeks the company of oil-rich Margot Banks, the force behind an exclusive conspiratorial clique of four wives, a group of dysfunctional friends heavily lubricated with a steady diet of martinis and mojitos. Friday nights light up with their private skeet shooting club, followed by barhopping. The flirting women have only two rules: first names only, and don’t go all the way. But rules are meant to be broken. Fueled by alcohol, rage, jealousy, unhappy marriages, and blind lust, the women indulge in adultery and raunchy sex. It’s Texas, so keep an eye out for hunky football players, and when a teenage cheerleader ends up dead, Sophie becomes the prime suspect. Wild plot twists keep the pages turning up to the unexpected ending. This romp is a guilty pleasure.
Malerman (Bird Box) tantalizes readers with this enigmatic linked collection of horror novellas, which interweaves six stories set in the unsettling city of Goblin, Mich. “Prologue: Welcome” admirably sets the eerie tone, as truck driver Tommy is tasked with delivering a box to a resident of Goblin. Though Tommy agrees to the lucrative assignment, he’s disturbed by the client’s odd instructions: the package is to be dropped off only between midnight and 12:30 a.m., and no attempt can be made to open it. Additionally, if Tommy misses the delivery window, or no one answers the door, he’s to destroy the package immediately. The tales that follow dive further into Goblin’s many secrets while keeping up this off-kilter atmosphere, exploring the fallout from a friendship with a troubled loner (”A Man in Slices”), a sybaritic birthday party for Goblin’s most notorious big game hunter (“Happy Birthday, Hunter”), a gifted magician who refuses to share his secrets (“Presto”), the solving of an elaborate puzzle-maze (“The Hedges”), and more. The dark, fantastic tone will put readers in mind of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. This is must-read horror.
Hall (Boyfriend Material) does it again with this scrumptious, quietly subversive rom-com set against a Great British Bake Off–style reality TV show. Bisexual 27-year-old Rosaline Palmer, single mother to a precocious eight-year-old, goes on Bake Expectations in a desperate attempt to turn her life around. On the way to the first filming, she winds up stranded with fellow contestant Alain Pope, an archly charming architect. Alain is everything Rosaline thinks she should want, and to impress him she tells him a heap of lies about her life. It’s a classic rom-com setup, but Hall upends expectations: the deception is swiftly and realistically revealed, and even as Rosaline enters a relationship with Alain, she finds herself bonding with contestant Harry Dobson. Harry, a gentle giant electrician whom Rosaline initially writes off as a “cockney fuckboy,” soon proves his quiet decency and subtle sense of humor. Hall balances the adorable love story and witty narration with incisive critiques of classism and the fetishization of bisexual women. As Rosaline learns to trust her instincts and stand up for herself, the tension of the competition keeps the plot flying, and the vibrant cast—including vivacious baker Anvita and Rosaline’s ex-girlfriend, Lauren—couches her journey toward self-actualization in encouraging community. Hilarious, heartwarming, and grounded, Rosaline’s story proves that happy endings look different from person to person.
Guinn (The Vagabonds) brings the U.S.-Mexico conflicts of the early 20th century to vibrant life in this superior history. At the heart of the story is Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader whose forces killed American soldiers and civilians during a cross-border raid in 1916. Villa had played a crucial role in the 1914 ousting of Mexican president Victoriano Huerta, only to become an adversary of Huerta’s successor, Venustiano Carranza. Guinn documents how Germany flirted with both Carranza and Villa, hoping that unrest near the U.S. border would make it more likely that President Wilson would stay out of WWI. The situation came to a head in March 1916, when Villa launched an attack on Columbus, N.Mex., in an attempt to provoke a military invasion of Mexico and create a political crisis for Carranza. U.S. troops under the command of Gen. John Pershing entered Mexico in pursuit of Villa, but the effort proved both financially costly and unsuccessful. Villa ultimately retired, only to be assassinated in 1923, soon after announcing that he might run for president. Guinn expertly mines primary and secondary sources and stocks his fluid narrative with racist vigilantes, botched assassination attempts, and risky military ventures. The result is a riveting introduction to a lesser-known chapter in American history.
In Giordano’s exceptional fourth Auntie Poldi mystery (after 2020’s Auntie Poldi and the Handsome Antonio), 60-year-old Isolde “Poldi” Oberreiter, a Bavarian who has settled in Torre Archirafi, Sicily, sets aside her plan “to drink herself to death in comfort with a view of the sea” to investigate another crime—the death of a nun who fell from the roof of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace following the exorcism of a woman named Rosaria. When the priest asked Rosaria to renounce her demon, she spoke Bavarian German in Poldi’s voice. While the plot, which involves the theft of a statue of a Black Madonna, is satisfyingly packed with danger and surprises, it’s the digressions on Sicilian history, the Italian mentality, and Poldi’s pronouncements on life and sex that provide readers with some laugh-out-loud moments as well as food for thought. Those who appreciate the intelligent silliness of S.J. Perelman will want to see more of the sexy, quick-witted Poldi, who won’t take guff from any man, including the pope.
African American studies and art history professor Lewis collects scholarly interviews and essays on the work of Carrie Mae Weems, with many reproductions of her photos and installations, in this outstanding “salute” to the myriad ways the boundary-pushing contemporary artist “irrevocably impacted the discipline of art history and the humanities.” Weems was the first African-American artist awarded a dedicated solo show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2014, which combined photography, video, and text that probed cultural identity, class, and hegemony and exposed her drive “to recover and bring to the foreground subjugated knowledge.” Weems’s arguably most famous work, “Kitchen Table Series” (1990), “interweaves... a narrative of black female subjectivity, black beauty, and the gaze,” writes MacArthur fellow Deborah Willis. Art historian Huey Copeland, meanwhile, characterizes a video installation, “Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me—A Story in Five Parts” (2012), as an immersion that treats “American history as a racialized theater of deadly repetition.” Several in-depth conversations with Weems, including a dialogue with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, hosted by Lewis, bring in the artist’s perspective directly. Thoughtful, thorough, and timely, this scholarly yet accessible survey reveals Weems as a foundational, influential, and prescient figure