The books we love coming out this week include new titles by María Amparo Escandón, Sophie Brickman, and Cadwell Turnbull.
Escandón (González & Daughter Trucking Co.) returns with a rollicking and hilarious family drama of telenovela-esque proportions that doubles as a fiery love letter to Los Angeles. The story follows the Alvarados, a wealthy Mexican-American family, and all the turmoil that exists beneath the sheen of their Instagram-perfect lives. Oscar, the patriarch, is a descendant of a once-influential California ranching family, and his wife, Keila, is an acclaimed artist who still has roots in the art scene of her hometown of Mexico City. Together, they have three lovely, successful daughters: Claudia, a celebrity chef; Olivia, an architect; and Patricia, a social media consultant for large brands. When Keila shares with her family that she intends on divorcing Oscar, the shock sends the entire cast on an emotional roller coaster as the daughters all begin to question how happy they are in their own marriages and Keila develops an attraction to a gallery owner. Beyond the juicy plot, Escandón is a pro at capturing the socioeconomic geography of L.A.; even scenes of mundane life such as a trip to get ice cream provide occasions for the characters to comment on the shifting fortunes of acquaintances after being priced out of up-and-came east side neighborhoods. This is by far one of the most endearing L.A. novels in recent memory.
Equal parts informative and entertaining, journalist Brickman’s debut explores parenting in these tech-drenched times. With a baby-tech market worth nearly $46 billion in 2019, new parents have plenty of ways to gather data on their child’s lives, leading Brickman to ask if parents should “run... toward the safe, analog space.” She covers a slew of child-related gadgets, among them breast pumps, sleep trackers, and monitoring devices that provide parents with “NASA-level” data. Along the way, she offers insight from people who develop and market such technology (“You don’t want to overwhelm people who are looking for simplicity,” the founder of a baby monitor company tells her), explores physicians’ opinions (sleep trackers, one pediatrician warns, “get right up to the line so they don’t have to be regulated by the FDA”), and candidly shares her own experiences (“like many women before me, I grew to despise my pump”). Things come back to how overwhelming parents’ options are, a situation Brickman considers with humor: though looking at tracking data has been shown to release dopamine, she writes, “you can control a child as much as you can force her to poop on command.” For parents wondering whether to bring gadgets into the nursery, this will be an invaluable tool.
In Granados’s amusingly mischievous debut, a young ingenue comes to New York City from London for a summer, seeking to bury her grief over her mother’s death. By night, Isa Epley and her friend Gala Novak rub shoulders with celebrities and intellectuals. By day, they make ends meet selling clothes on consignment. Gala’s gift for being in the right place at the right time opens up new vistas for the impressionable Isa, who records her nighttime adventures in her diary or in notes on her phone (“It’s inconspicuous; I look as though I am being aloof and texting, but I am noticing and observing all the time”). All of 21 (“an unserious age,” according to her), Isa contents herself with cocktails and the kind of men likely to pay for them, trying to tell the sincere patrons of the arts from the phonies as she pursues a quest for “Social Capital,” while Gala comes dangerously close to drifting into a cult. Isa’s keen perception lifts this comedy of manners above the surface she and Gala attempt to glide on for the summer’s duration (“If I were to describe typical New York conversation, it would be two people waiting for their turn to talk”). This perfectly sums up a new age of innocence.
Turnbull (The Lesson) delves into the complexities of injustice and identity in this powerhouse contemporary fantasy. Laina awakens to the devastating news of her brother’s death at the hands of the police, and the tragedy leads her—and the rest of the world—to discover that monsters exist and that her brother was a werewolf. From there, the novel spins out into multiple story lines, switching between the perspectives of many well-developed characters and encompassing underground organizations, powerful gods, and beings thought to have been simply country lore stepping out into the public eye. Werewolf Rebecca, who knew Laina’s brother, struggles to protect what’s left of her pack when society’s response to their existence threatens to bring them harm. Harry finds solace in online forums after his divorce, leading him to join a secret society. Calvin, grieving his brother, searches through time to find answers to what happened. As these characters’ paths slowly converge, Turnbull plunges readers into a layered world of monsters and secrets and uses his supernatural conceit to prompt them to examine the demons that already plague society and endanger the disenfranchised. The expert combination of immersive prose, strong characters, sharp social commentary, and well-woven speculative elements makes for an unforgettable experience. Fantasy fans won’t want to miss this.
YA author Vale (Small Town Hearts) makes a splash with her laugh-out-loud adult debut. Furniture restorer Rita Chitniss is dating Neil Deiwan, but they’re keeping their relationship a secret due to the bad blood between their families. When Neil, who finds it hard to say no to his pushy, matchmaking mother, insists they come clean, Rita devises a plan. She signs them both up for MyShaadi.com, a Desi matchmaking website famous for seeing couples down the aisle. When she and Neil are matched by the site’s foolproof algorithm, she reasons, their parents will have no choice but to accept them as a couple. Except the site doesn’t match Rita with Neil; it matches her with realtor Milan Rao, the man who broke her heart six years ago. Maternal meddling further pushes these exes back together when Rita’s mother offers Rita’s services as an interior designer on a property Milan is having trouble flipping. Rita agrees to the project, but only to prove to Milan how over him she is. This plan also backfires, as one house turns to two and their relationship evolves from business to pleasure. Vale evenly balances heart and heat, while imbuing her rom-com with cultural specificity and delicately exploring familial obligation and heartbreak. Hilarious and heartfelt, this second chance romance proves it’s never too late to start again.
In this searing essay collection, novelist Horn (Eternal Life) delves into the “many strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment.” Analyzing The Merchant of Venice, Holocaust memorials, and press coverage of a mass shooting at a Jersey City, N.J., kosher grocery store in 2019, among other topics, Horn comes to the conclusion that “the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering” does not signify respect for living Jews. She notes that it took months for leaders of the Anne Frank House to reverse their policy preventing an employee from wearing his yarmulke. (“Seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding,” Horn quips.) Documenting her visit to the Chinese city of Harbin, Horn recounts how Russian Jews built the town in the early 20th century, only to have their community decimated by Japanese occupiers in the 1930s. Recent efforts to refurbish Harbin’s Jewish heritage sites ignore that tragic history, however, in favor of fake artifacts and stereotypes about “rich and smart” Jews. Enlivened by Horn’s sharp sense of humor and fluid prose, this penetrating account will provoke soul-searching by Jews and non-Jews alike.
This gut-wrenching novel of psychological suspense with ghostly undertones from Edgar finalist Neville (Ratlines) opens early one morning with social worker Sara Keane scrubbing off the blood stains she often sees on the kitchen floor of the Ashes, the 120-year-old house her father-in-law bought for her and her angry architect husband, Damien, in Belfast, where the couple moved after “things went bad” in England. Damien, who’s not yet up, believes Sara is imagining the blood stains. Then Sara hears someone hammering on the front door. Outside is Mary Jackson, a disheveled old woman, who says the Ashes is her house and rants about missing children. Damien appears, recognizes Mary, and ushers her out of the house to take her back to the “care home.” Sara and Mary later develop a friendship tempered by shared emotional anguish. Alternating story lines show how Sara’s present-day woes intersect with Mary’s traumatic past and shed light on how women called Mummies and men called Daddies mistreated children in the house. This unforgettable tale of servitude and subservience, domestic abuse, and toxic masculinity builds to a resolution offering redemption and heartfelt solace. Neville has outdone himself.
The exhilarating opening of Benn’s outstanding 16th WWII mystery featuring U.S. Army investigator Billy Boyle (after 2020’s The Red Horse) finds Boyle aboard one of 75 Allied bombers under intense anti-aircraft fire as they approach their target, the oil refineries in Chemnitz, Germany, in September 1944. Shortly before the surviving bombers reach Poltava, a Soviet airbase in Ukraine, an attack by German fighters forces Boyle’s sergeant and fellow investigator, Mike Miecznikowski, to parachute from his damaged plane. At Poltava, Boyle is partnered with a Soviet secret police agent in a joint operation between the OSS and the NKVD to discover who murdered the unpopular NKVD agent lieutenant Ivan Kopelev and the good-natured American sergeant Boris Morris. Duplicity and mistrust make the assignment more demanding, requiring Boyle to carefully navigate personal hostilities and ideological beliefs in pursuit of the culprit. The hunt for Miecznikowski raises the tension. Bolstered by vivid, scintillating descriptions of air strikes and dogfights involving the legendary all-female Soviet air force unit known as the Night Witches, Benn’s high-intensity storytelling shines. This entry will leave fans eager for the next installment.
Journalist Renton (Stiff Upper Lip) tackles difficult questions about culpability and reparations in this mesmerizing and deeply personal account of his family’s legacy of slavery. Drawing on family papers, Renton describes his 18th-century ancestors’ short-lived plantation on Tobago’s Bloody Bay and a more successful Jamaican plantation known as Rozelle. Extensive research reveals the remarkable story of Augustus Thomson, an enslaved man who escaped Rozelle and traveled to London, where he met with his surprised owner to complain about his harsh treatment by an overseer, and compensation for his stolen and burned personal belongings. (The owner sent him back to Jamaica with the promise that his previous “misdemeanour” would be forgiven.) Renton also documents his own visits to the Caribbean, where he talks with descendants of the enslaved, who provide frank insight into the continuing legacy of colonialism and outline possible steps for progress, including an official apology from the British government for the injustices of the colonial era. Renton’s sincerity and dogged persistence in combing through the historical record inform this unflinching look at how the “history of Britain and slavery” provided the “foundation of [Renton’s] comfortable, liberal life.” This earnest investigation into what it means to take responsibility for racial inequality deserves a wide readership.
Philosopher Reich (Just Giving), computer scientist Sahami, and Stanford professor of political science Weinstein offer in this timely survey tips for how to “exercise our agency, reinvigorate our democracy, and direct the digital revolution to serve our best interests.” Opening with the January 6 Capitol riots, the authors showcase the tension that marks society’s relationship with technology—social media was used to foment distrust in election results, and the leaders of Facebook and Twitter later leveraged immense power when they banned Donald Trump from their platforms. The authors explore major issues that they posit society needs to grapple with: the rise in the outsourcing of decision-making to algorithms, the immense amount of user data collected by tech companies, increasing automation, and the proliferation of hate speech and disinformation online. Their suggestions for how the country might better balance democracy and technology are evenhanded and nuanced: “A far more aggressive commitment to a right to data protection, alongside government agencies capable of enforcing that right, should be the first critical check on corporate power.” Never falling into the trap of offering easy answers over deep analysis, this study is worth a look for readers worried about the outsize influence of technology on their lives and society.