The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Karen Tucker, Paul Howarth, and Margalit Fox.
Howarth’s sequel to Only Killers and Thieves is as searing and savage as the Australian frontier setting that both novels share. After a brief recap of the massacre of the aboriginal Kurrong tribe that ended the first novel—set in motion by 16-year-old Billy McBride and his reluctant 14-year-old brother, Tommy, seeking vengeance for the killing of their parents, which they believed was done by an aboriginal man—the story moves ahead five years to 1890. Billy has married the wealthy widow of a cattle rancher near his family’s homestead in Queensland, and Tommy is on the run after accidentally killing his boss during a dispute at a sheep station in the southern territories. Their lives are again upended in 1897 when a witness to the Kurrong killings hires an attorney to investigate the massacre, thus incurring the wrath of Edmund Noone, the Native Police Inspector who perpetrated the slaughter and threatened both brothers were they to ever say anything. Noone is a thoroughly terrifying creation, a violent psychopath whose long shadow casts a chilling pall over the McBrides’ and their loved ones. This masterly tale of trauma and retribution is more than worthy of the original.
Tucker astonishes in her devastating debut, a harrowing account of addiction, friendship, and loss. Irene, an isolated 19-year-old in rural North Carolina, meets Luce, a fellow server at a grimy pool hall. They form an intimate friendship that becomes nearly addictive: within hours of their meeting, Irene believes Luce “understood me better than anyone, maybe even my own mother.” Both also battle an opiate addiction. They look at the moon and see an OxyContin pill, “a giant 30 just waiting for someone to reach up and snatch it.” Throughout, they find themselves in scenarios that are equal parts devastating and funny, as they scam and grift to fund their pill habit by committing return fraud at Walmart and selling placebos from their birth control packs to college kids. But their bond begins to break after Luce meets Wilky, a sergeant at the nearby military base who is set on getting clean from a pill addiction of his own and moving with Luce to Florida for a fresh start. Tucker does a wonderful job locating Irene’s and Luce’s desire to live a better life beneath their tough exteriors, as when, while buying pills from an old woman, Irene offhandedly remarks, “Bodies are such fragile things.” This keen awareness consistently adds depth and devastation. No matter the characters’ genuine longing to change, they are bound to their cyclical, unrelenting patterns. This is a stunning accomplishment.
Fox (Conan Doyle for the Defense), a former obituary writer for the New York Times, recounts in this marvelous history how two British army officers in WWI orchestrated “the most singular prison break ever recorded.” Seeking to alleviate the monotony of life at the remote Yozgad prison camp in Turkey, British POWs built a Ouija board from salvaged materials. After numerous failed attempts to raise a spirit, Elias Henry Jones, “the Oxford-educated son of a British lord,” began manipulating the board, convincing his compatriots that they were conversing with the dead. Intended merely as a lark, Jones’s game became a more serious affair when a Turkish officer asked if the board could help him find a buried treasure. Jones partnered with Cedric Waters Hill, an Australian pilot and “master magician,” to devise a complex scheme to trick the camp commandant into sending them to Constantinople, where they spent six months feigning madness in an insane asylum before being repatriated. Fox enriches her account with intriguing deep dives into the psychology of “coercive persuasion,” the mechanics of confidence games, and the history of spiritualism in the U.S. and England. Readers will be mesmerized by this rich and rewarding tale.
Business and pleasure collide in various tantalizing ways in this touching and steamy rom-com from Stetz-Waters (Worth the Wait). Selena Mathis feels defeated after a traumatic experience in art school, until Ruth Elgin, the generous but flighty owner of a Portland, Ore., sex-toy shop focused on female pleasure, hires her and gives her a newfound sense of purpose. Meanwhile, Ruth’s niece, the steadfast, practical Cade Elgin, manages her free-spirited family’s famous New York art gallery. When Ruth dies, the two wildly different women meet at her funeral. Despite their instant attraction, the pair get off on the wrong foot—especially once they learn that Ruth left her struggling shop to both of them, giving them a month to save it from liquidation. Stetz-Waters puts a fresh, clear-eyed spin on familiar tropes with careful attention to detail in everything from grant applications to the anatomy of the clitoris, grounding readers firmly in reality even as they’re swept away by the delightfully cozy fantasy of Cade and Selena’s burgeoning relationship. Their romance is precious, with well-balanced conflict, hot sex, and a swoon-worthy conclusion. This proves an enchanting must-read for any fan of queer romance.
Hernández (A Cup of Water Under My Bed), a creative writing professor at Miami University of Ohio, blends family memoir, scientific inquiry, and journalistic exposé in this poignant study of Chagas disease, an insect-borne tropical parasitic infection that can cause lifelong heart and intestinal problems if left untreated. After the death of her aunt Dora, who came to the U.S. from Colombia to seek treatment for her intestinal issues, Hernández poured her grief into exploring the history of Chagas disease. She lucidly describes the parasitological research that brought it to light in the early 20th century, and documents the chronic presence of insects, including the “kissing bugs” that spread the disease, in poor households in Latin America and the U.S. Profiles of other immigrant families who struggle to access adequate health care, and discussions of experiments on Black asylum patients in the 1940s and price-gouging by pharmaceutical executives add weight to Hernández’s searing indictment of the U.S. medical system, which fails to routinely screen for the infection, despite knowing that it is widespread and that presymptomatic treatment is the only cure. This vivid, multidimensional account brings an ongoing medical injustice to light.
As Harris (The Thirty-One Kings) explains in the preface, the Sherlock Holmes films made and set in the 1940s starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce inspired him to transplant Holmes and Watson to the same period in this superior pastiche. In 1942, with London under nighttime blackout restrictions, a serial murderer modeling himself on Jack the Ripper has struck twice. Holmes is called in by Inspector Lestrade after the second killing, which, like the first, happened on an anniversary of a Ripper murder. The current killer leaves his chosen nickname, Crimson Jack, emblazoned in red chalk near the bodies. Efforts to keep the savage murders a secret fail, and the ensuing panic has broader consequences, including a clamor to lift the blackout so that Londoners can travel at night safely. With less than a month until the expected date of the next killing, Holmes pursues every reasonable theory, including the possibility that Crimson Jack is a descendant of the Ripper. Besides providing the duo with a worthy challenge, Harris makes his Watson an intelligent and competent sidekick. Both the strong characterization and plot bode well for a sequel.
Bradatan, religion editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Simon, a staff writer for The Millions, collect 26 superior recent essays representative of “a New Religion Journalism emerging to cover issues of faith with the same literary panache as a Didion or a Talese.” The featured writers don’t shy away from personalizing thoughts, asking questions about faith and meaning in the context of current events, or displaying “the full ambiguity and ambivalence of belief.” In “Why I Love Mormonism,” philosopher Simon Critchley explores the persistence of anti-Mormon prejudice among those who decry intolerance of followers of other religions. Emma Green’s powerful “Will Anyone Remember Eleven Dead Jews?” explains why preserving artifacts from tragedies such as the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre matters. Other standouts are Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s probing essay on the legacy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and a piece by Joel Looper on the problematic opining of political commentators who assert which contemporary political positions a deceased theologian might support. The high quality of the selections suggests that an annual volume would be welcome.
Neuroscientist Schwarzlose debuts with a fascinating deep-dive into the “remarkable maps” in the human brain. “I am not being metaphorical or using artistic license; there are actual maps in your brain,” she writes, and explains how those maps, made of interconnected neurons, function. Schwarzlose examines how each of the five senses is translated into perception via brain maps: the maps feature “gross distortions,” she writes, in how the brain perceives and makes sense of the world. These maps also play a role in movement, enabling memory and allowing humans to comprehend emotions. She also describes breakthroughs that enable individuals in apparent vegetative states to communicate through mental imagery and allow paralyzed individuals to control prosthetic devices simply by thinking of motions. She also warns of the double-edged nature of “brain-based” technologies often brushed off as science fiction: they may “empower the powerless, but they might also threaten our privacy and lessen our personal sovereignty.” Schwarzlose’s presentation of cutting-edge science is consistently accessible and concise, as is her historical perspective on early brain research (she describes work on mental imagery used by the founder of eugenics in 1870, noting that his sample only featured aristocratic European men). This is deeply enjoyable and thoroughly researched—science-minded readers should take note.
Branch (The Last Cowboys) showcases his keen ability to find unusual human interest angles in sports and culture journalism in this expansive collection. The opening section, “Climbing and Falling,” starts off with a restrained, inquisitive consideration of the aftermath of an avalanche in the Pulitzer-winning “Snow Fall,” which is contrasted by “The Dawn Wall,”a triumphant portrait of climbers scaling El Capitan on Yosemite unassisted. Branch’s pitch-perfect “On League Night, A 300 Game Lives” spotlights a man who, after bowling his first perfect game, drops dead of a heart attack, reminding readers that “life is not a blurb.” In “The Lady Jaguars,” he brings readers into the locker room with a losing girl’s reform school basketball team, with bracing insights on poverty and class in rural Tennessee. Other selections veer into obscure scenes, such as the Intergroom dog grooming show (“Where Creativity Wags Its Tail”), bidding wars to the right to hunt bighorn rams (“The Ultimate Pursuit”), or exhibitions of world-class Rubik’s Cube aficionados (“Children of the Cube”). The final section, “Dying and Living,” gathers somber pieces, including an interview with the pastor of a church within view of where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others crashed. Branch delivers consistently smart, startling observations—and offers something for every reader, whether or not they’d consider themselves “sports fans.”