The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Kate Bowler, Kristin Henning, and Thor Hanson.
In heartbreaking essays, Bowler (Everything Happens for a Reason) recounts lessons learned after being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at the age of 35. An associate professor at Duke Divinity School, she thought that everyone had limitless choices before receiving the grim diagnosis that pegged her survival odds at 14%: “Hope for the future feels like a kind of arsenic that needs to be carefully administered, or it can poison the sacred work of living in the present.” While mourning the loss of a future with her husband and two-year-old son, Bowler enrolled in a clinical trial for a new immunotherapy drug, and, miraculously, was one of 3% of patients to successfully respond to it. After searching her whole life for a “formula for how to live,” she writes, “cancer treatment had provided the clearest one of all.” Bowler’s strong faith is present throughout, though the writing, refreshingly, never feels overtly religious. More than anything, her convictions underscore the importance of living life on one’s own terms. “Someday... God will draw us into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering,” she writes. “In the meantime, we are stuck with our beautiful, terrible finitude.” Those in need of a wake-up call will find it in this breathtaking narrative.
Black youth in the U.S. are subjected to unwarranted scrutiny by police and an overly punitive and biased justice system, according to this sobering and richly documented study. Georgetown law professor Henning draws on high-profile cases, sociological research, and her experiences representing defendants in D.C.’s juvenile courts to document the institutional mechanisms that criminalize the normal adolescent behavior of Black youth. She notes, for example, that some communities have banned sagging pants, a symbol of hip-hop culture; that Black adolescents meeting in groups are routinely branded as gang members, while white teenagers are not; and that Black youth are more likely to be prosecuted for drug crimes, despite evidence that white youth use illicit drugs at the same rates or higher. Henning also contrasts the case of an 18-year-old Black high school football player sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old classmate with that of Stanford University freshman Brock Turner, who received a six-month sentence for felony sexual assault. Henning’s suggested reforms include fostering resilience by teaching Black history, de-escalation training for police officers in schools, and “the elimination of unconstitutional and racially targeted stops, searches, and arrests.” Copiously documented and passionately argued, this is a powerful and persuasive call for change.
Biologist Hanson (Buzz) takes readers under the wings of birds, into the shade of spruce trees, and underground to learn about 55-million-year-old fossils in this exciting exploration of nature’s response to climate change. “Understanding biological responses to climate change can help us find our place within it,” Hanson writes. “Simply put, if bush crickets, bumblebees, and butterflies can learn to modify their behaviors, then it stands to reason that we can too.” As he moves across time and habitats, he visits Walden Pond, where temperatures have risen an average 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit since Thoreau’s time; watches Alaskan grizzly bears take a pass on salmon in favor of elderberries; and observes saplings along the Des Moines River migrating to safer terrain than that populated by old growth. Hanson introduces readers to an array of scientists documenting these changes and conducts his own often humorous experiments: during a failed fossil hunt in a childhood stomping ground, he’s “a middle-aged stranger in a pandemic mask, carrying a backpack and a hammer,” and decides “it was time to leave.” With contagious curiosity, Hanson nimbly avoids pedantic, moralistic admonishments. Nature-lovers will be thrilled to see science so vividly described, and will marvel at the incredible ingenuity of creatures across the globe.
In this gripping debut, former Stanford University sailing coach Vandemoer makes a strong case for his innocence in the notorious “Operation Varsity Blues” pay-for-play college admissions scandal. While coaches at other schools accepted large payments for designating unqualified students as athletic recruits, Vandemoer claims he didn’t take one penny for himself—instead, he believed the checks flowing into Stanford’s coffers from Varsity Blues plot mastermind Rick Singer were legitimate donations to the university, allegedly confirmed by Stanford’s athletic director Bernard Muir. Despite that, when Vandemoer’s name came up in connection with the FBI’s investigation of Varsity Blues, Stanford fired him and evicted him, his wife, and their two small children from Stanford housing and childcare. While the author notes that his lawyer advised him that the court would go easier on him if he pleaded guilty (“This was how the system worked: innocence didn’t matter”), he proclaims his guiltlessness in powerful prose—which the judge appeared to have believed by his sentencing of Vandemoer to only probation after he took a plea deal. Vandemoer’s earnestness is apparent throughout his tale of intrigue and ruination, making it easy to empathize with his predicament and root for him to successfully rebuild his life. Expertly told, this powerful story will have readers riveted.
Bestseller Mayor expertly juggles four plotlines, which may or may not be related, in his superb 32nd mystery featuring Vermont Bureau of Investigation agent Joe Gunther (after 2020’s The Orphan’s Guilt). A year after the death of affluent food supplier Nathan Lyon from natural causes while under hospice care, a medical student dissecting his corpse determines that Lyon was strangled, prompting Gunther to launch a murder inquiry. The eccentric Lyon had most of his family, and thus most of those with an obvious motive to kill him, living together in a huge home that also housed several stores. As Gunther tries to find clues so long after the murder, a second member of the Lyon clan dies, this time from an apparently accidental fall. Meanwhile, PI Sally Kravitz is retained by the wife of one of Lyon’s sons, who suspects an employee is stealing from her fancy food business. Finally, two Mafia hit men are trying to identify who ordered the killing that one of them admitted committing and did time for, but now claims not to have committed, in an attempt to find out who he took the fall for. Mayor matches vivid characters with clever plot twists. This is a perfect jumping-on point for newcomers.
This poignant and kaleidoscopic debut collection from Kalamujić conveys a young woman’s adolescence—also named Lejla—in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Lejla loses her mother when she is two, and is raised by her grandparents while her father drinks to drown his sorrow. When the war begins, Lejla leaves Sarajevo for the country, but then returns to the city to live with her father’s parents. Lejla describes the mingled pleasures and pains of a motherless, war-scarred childhood, like working at a bakery in “White Desert” and watching the birds her father raised in “Waiting for the Pigeons.” Clever devices such as an imagined exchange with Franz Kafka at age 14 about the whims of the “bad guys” explore the absurdity of the war, and an older Lejla struggles with mental health and her queerness. Kalamujić offers memorable images (an owl has “dense, black eyes where, instead of pupils, there floated yellowish dots, like stars cast out of a constellation”) and creates sympathetic characters in a few strokes. Meanwhile, her narrator’s emotional landscape and the landscape of the country are intimately connected and vividly described. Stylish and brisk, these stories refuse to wallow in tragedy, becoming instead a convincing testament to the consolations of art.
In Queally’s outstanding sequel to 2020’s Line of Sight, PI Russell Avery, a former reporter who once covered the police beat for a Newark, N.J., newspaper, agrees to look into a cold case for police lieutenant Bill Henniman. In 1996, four teens—sisters Shayna and Adriana Bell, and two male cousins of theirs—vanished on the same night in Newark. In the weeks and months that followed, Shayna and Adriana’s older sister, Cynthia, was able to stir up some press attention, but the case went nowhere. Not until 2012 did a snitch tell Henniman that Cynthia’s ex-boyfriend, Abel Musa, admitted to trapping the teenagers in a building that he then torched. Shayna was threatening to tell her parents Musa was sleeping with her, and the other three were collateral damage in Musa’s effort to silence Shayna. Musa was convicted of murder, but now, with Musa dying of cancer, Henniman suspects he’s innocent and wants Avery to investigate. Queally gets all the details right while populating the plot with believable characters. Fans of Bruce DeSilva’s Liam Mulligan will clamor for more.
At the start of Alsterdal’s taut, fraught U.S. debut, Olof Hagström returns to his family’s house in Kramfors, Sweden, which he hasn’t visited since he was convicted 23 years earlier at 14 for raping and killing a girl, though no body was found. Too young to be sentenced, the learning-disabled Olof was sent to a youth home. Inside, Olof releases a dog that’s been shut in the kitchen, and finds the dead body of his reclusive father, Sven, in the shower. Olof drives away, but the dog blocks the road, where he stops long enough to be approached by Patrik Nydalen, a neighbor who soon realizes who Olof is. Olof tells Patrik his father is dead. Police detective Eira Sjödin, who was nine at the time of Olof’s conviction, investigates what turns into a murder case, in which the locals suspect Olof. In her compulsive hunt for the truth, Eira must deal with pernicious changes in Swedish policing and grapple with her mother’s descent into dementia. Strong local color, convincing characters, and a twisty plot make this a standout. This is Swedish noir at its murky best.
Lyga (I Hunt Killers) grips readers at every turn in this layered and provoking mystery that tackles sexual assault, mental illness, bullying, homophobia, and racism. When Elayah (who is Black and known as El), Liam, Marcie, and Jorja (who default to white) open their parents’ 1986 high school time capsule, they find analog-age relics along with a note wrapped around a bloodied knife that reads, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill anyone.” Convinced that the knife may be connected to her uncle Antoine, who disappeared just after homecoming that year, El is determined to investigate, even after being wounded by an unknown attacker. As they enter new relationships and engage in dangerous acts of kidnapping and subterfuge, the Maryland foursome come to question everything they know about their parents. Switching perspectives between the present-day and 1986, Lyga’s novel is packed with unexpected twists and red herrings. Though the introduction of a podcaster brings unrealistic advantages to the case, razor-sharp descriptions engage throughout as Lyga demonstrates the tragic way that past actions can affect future generations.