The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Joyce Carol Oates, Charlotte McConaghy, and Sandra Brown.
Shards of nightmarish grief coalesce in Oates’s powerful latest (after The (Other) You), a fever dream unleashed when a woman fails to come to terms with the death of her husband. As the story opens, memoir writer Michaela wills her older, very ill husband, Gerard McManus, a distinguished historian of science, to breathe. Midway through the book, he succumbs to his multiple maladies: pneumonia, lung cancer, and a urethral tumor. Michaela then finds his death impossible to believe, or to accept. Overwhelmed, she drifts and is jerked in and out of reality. Sometimes she is unsure if Gerard is really dead; she sees him in other men, and believes Gerard is compelling her to follow each one. She is terrified by statues of Pueblo gods that decorate the house they’d rented together, yet cannot bear to leave. These gods—and other myths, that of Eurydice and Orpheus for one—inhabit her dreams and obsess Michaela as she spirals into a surreal and open-ended denouement that will be hotly debated by readers. Fecund with fear and anguish, and driven by raw, breathless narration, this hallucinatory tale will not disappoint. Oates is on a roll.
Australian author McConaghy (Migrations) returns with a vividly realized story of trauma and the attempted “rewilding” of the Scottish Highlands. Empathetic biologist Inti Flynn, raised in part in Sydney, Australia, and in part in the woods of British Columbia, is on a project site in Scotland with a group of biologists, where she works to introduce North American wolves into the Scottish ecosystem. She has brought her mute identical twin sister, Aggie; Inti knows the source of Aggie’s trauma, but the details are kept from the reader until late in the narrative. When Inti discovers the body of a man she suspects was abusive to his wife (he said she fell off of a horse; she looked like she was beaten up), and who might have been killed either by a wolf or another person, she impulsively buries the body and sets out to solve the mystery of the death, a process complicated by her sexual relationship with the local police chief, as they have a hard time trusting each other, and by an unexpected pregnancy. In a story full of subtle surprises, revolving around Aggie’s painful past as well as the source of the violence on the project site, McConaghy brings precise descriptions to the wolves—“subtly powerful, endlessly patient”—and to Inti’s borderline-feral way of existing in the world. The bleak landscape is gorgeously rendered and made tense by its human and animal inhabitants, each capable of killing. Throughout, McConaghy avoids melodrama by maintaining a cool matter-of-factness. This is a stunner.
Set in 1920, this superior thriller from bestseller Brown (Thick as Thieves) firmly anchors all the action in the plot. Laurel Plummer, the mother of an infant, is stuck in a remote shack with her father-in-law near the little town of Foley, Tex., after the sudden death of her WWI vet husband. Thatcher Hutton, a discharged soldier who’s just leapt off a boxcar, turns up at the Plummer place, asking for water and directions to the nearest town. His first night in a Foley boarding house, Thatcher is awakened “by a gun barrel jammed against his cheekbone” and an accusation that he kidnapped and possibly murdered Mila Driscoll, the local doctor’s missing wife. After Thatcher is released from jail for lack of evidence, the sheriff makes him a part-time deputy and he sets out to find the truth behind Mila’s disappearance. Meanwhile, Laurel, who’s in dire financial straits, helps her father-in-law expand his moonshining business. Conflict ensues as the two wind up on opposite sides of the law. Laurel and Thatcher are strong and inventive characters, and their surprising decisions and evolving relationship will keep readers engaged. Brown shows why she remains in the top rank of her field.
Set on a bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Morioka (and soon to be a movie starring Brad Pitt), this impressive thriller from Japanese author Isaka (Remote Control) races along, like the eponymous train, at a frenetic pace. In the first of multiple story lines, Yuichi Kimura boards the train, armed with a revolver, in search of the person who pushed his six-year-old son, Wataru, off a roof, leaving the child comatose. When Kimura finds his quarry, the sadistic teen Satoshi Oji, Oji manages to incapacitate the grieving parent with a taser. Oji, who makes it clear he planted clues to lead Kimura to his location, ties his victim up and threatens to have Wataru killed if Kimura doesn’t follow his instructions. Kimura’s desperate attempts to save himself and his son alternate with other violent plots, one involving the kidnapping of a crime lord’s son, another a missing suitcase stuffed with cash, and a third a snake. Isaka keeps the suspense high throughout. Fans of intricate action fiction will be enthralled.
Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling), a Dublin Literary Award–winning Colombian novelist and journalist, delivers a bravura collection blending autofiction with stories of historical and personal trauma, each told by an unnamed Colombian novelist and journalist living in Barcelona. In “Double,” the narrator receives a letter from Antonio Wolf, father of his grade school classmate Ernesto, who died during military service 10 years earlier, in which Antonio confesses that he’d hated the writer for not being drafted instead of Ernesto. In “Bad News,” a Barcelona journalist recalls meeting U.S. expatriate John Regis in a Paris hotel while watching the 1998 World Cup. Regis had told him the story of his best friend, a pilot who was killed in a helicopter crash in Málaga. Several years later, during a visit to Málaga, the narrator tracks down the pilot’s widow at a nearby U.S. base, in search of a story. In the standout title story, prefaced with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the narrator’s research on the murders of two Colombian revolutionaries leads him to unravel a mystery, and Vásquez unearths the regrets and choices that define the narrator and those he engages with. Vásquez continues to distinguish himself among the finest writers from Latin America.
In this rich and moving collection, Akbar (Calling a Wolf a Wolf) writes poems of contradiction and ambivalence centered on religious belief and ethnic and national identity. Evocative and polyphonic, surprising but never artificially shocking, Akbar’s poems flit from the divine to the corporeal in the same breath. In “Vines”: “when I saw God/ I trembled like a man”—and a few lines later, “I live like a widow// every day a heave of knitting patterns and sex toys.” In “The Miracle,” the poet confesses to himself: “Gabriel isn’t coming for you. If he did/ would you call him Jibril, or Gabriel like you/ are here? Who is this even for?” Within that question lies a tension between cultures, religions, loyalties, and ways of being in and looking at the world. As an Iranian-born American, Akbar does not feel that either of these nationalities can fully encompass his identity. “Some nights I force/ my brain to dream me/ Persian by listening/ to old home movies/ as I fall asleep,” he explains. This impressive, thoughtful work shimmers with inventive syntax and spiritual profundity.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler
Novelist Donner (Sunset Terrace) brings her heroic great-great-aunt Mildred Harnack (née Fish) to life in this stunning biography. Born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Mildred met her future husband, German native Arvid Harnack, while attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. The couple settled in Germany in 1929, where they viewed the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party with alarm. In 1933, they began holding secret meetings with a loose network of “like-minded people” and distributing anti-Nazi literature to workers and students. As Germany prepared for war, the couple and other members of “the Circle” took greater risks: Arvid funneled military secrets to the Soviets; Mildred used her job as a literary scout to meet with anti-fascists across Europe. In 1942, after Germany cracked the cipher code used by Soviet intelligence, revealing the names and addresses of group members, the Harnacks fled for Sweden but were captured, tortured, and tried for treason. Arvid was sentenced to death by hanging; Mildred’s six-year prison sentence was overruled by Hitler and she was executed by guillotine in February 1943. Donner’s research is impeccable, and her fluid prose and vivid character sketches keep the pages turning as the story moves toward its inevitable, tragic conclusion. This standout history isn’t to be missed.
Electric Literature editor Marcus collects reflections on the “horse girl” in this dynamic anthology. The “horse girl,” as Marcus describes in her introduction, is a stereotype for adolescent girls who like horses: she’s “friendly and enthusiastic and [has] no sense of irony,” and the 14 essays that follow use the horse-human bond as a starting place to examine gender, sexuality, race, class, and the tension between domestication and liberation. In “Horse Girl: An Inquiry,” Carmen Maria Machado outlines her childhood desire to own and ride horses despite the fact that, according to the trope, such girls are usually white, heterosexual, wealthy, and feminine. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, meanwhile, skillfully recounts in “Hungry and Carefree” trans and nonbinary riders of the past, along with their own personal reflections on girlhood, and “Unconquered” sees Braudie Blais-Billie musing on horses as a symbol of Indigenous resilience and survival. The essays are tender, critical, and deeply personal, and the universal themes of growth and belonging come through consistently but, refreshingly, never feel repetitive. Eminently thoughtful and fascinatingly intimate, this goes a long way toward shattering a stereotype.
In this sharp study, historian Hughes (Biography of a Mexican Crucifix) examines the devastating epidemic of 1576 in what is present-day Mexico and its effects on the expansion of Christianity. The epidemic, a still-unidentified hemorrhagic fever that devastated native populations, was a formative moment for the church in the Americas, Hughes argues, because the emotional, physical, and theological experience of mass death shaped the way Spanish missionaries ministered to and sought to control those who made up “Christ’s New World body.” Yet while Europeans were “succumbing to despair” and neglected to toll the bells for the dead they had ministered to, Indigenous people “took up the labor of tending and ringing the church bells themselves.” In the aftermath, those who survived—both Spanish and Indigenous—tried to assert dominance. Rather than returning to the precontact past, however, Indigenous Central Americans enacted a vision of Catholic practice divorced from the “global imperial church” Spanish colonists envisioned. Hughes draws on art, architecture, and landscapes to paint a consistently rich, accessible portrait of the era. This impressive work persuasively challenges ideas about the inevitability and nature of the “Christianizing” mission in the Americas.
“The world is a hell because we have made it so,” begins a story in Evenson’s towering collection of nightmarish horror, sci-fi parables, and weird tales (after Song for the Unraveling of the World). Indeed, devils abound while mortals plant the seeds of their own damnation. In “Leg,” an otherworldly creature disguises itself as the eponymous appendage; a man is blamed for his wife’s disappearance in “Come Up”; “The Coldness of His Eyes” features a man drawn back to the cave where he murdered his father; and in the novella “To Breathe the Air,” the son of a legendary scientist ventures into the unbreathable atmosphere of the “high city” and falls into the clutches of its inhuman denizens. Elsewhere the reader encounters plenty of psychic parasites, post-human ruins, and places that seem to exist between realities. Evenson’s direct, uncluttered style is perfectly suited to the creeping unease of “The Devil’s Hand,” featuring a card game with a sinister stranger who plays for unusual stakes; or the title story, about a woman enrolled in a cultish seminar. Narrators include an “eater of darkness,” who lives chained to members of a hooded sect, and a forest dweller working to keep the old ways of his people alive. “Once I take you there,” ends another story, “you’ll have a hard time dragging yourself away.” The same could be said of Evenson’s unforgettable work, drawn from the darkest corners of the imagination and nearly impossible to forget.