The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Sara Desai, Martin Limón, and Liu Xinwu.
Desai does it again in her latest San Francisco–set rom-com starring the lively, eccentric Patel family (after The Dating Plan). Zara Patel, an impulsive, celebrity-obsessed personal injury lawyer with a penchant for playing matchmaker, loves romance—for other people. Her parents’ devastating divorce has made her both crave intimacy and flee from it. So when she finds herself powerfully attracted to Jay Dayal, a rigid Air Force veteran, at a mutual friend’s joint bachelor-bachelorette paintball party, her response is to shoot him in the butt. As an apology, she offers to matchmake for Jay, who agrees, wanting to please his single mother, who’s urging him to date more—but the strong chemistry between Zara and Jay quickly leads them to abandon this plan in favor of sizzling-hot sex. However, when Zara’s first celebrity client demands she go after Jay’s security startup for failing to protect him from a threat, the clash of professional and personal ambitions threatens the relationship neither of them claim to want but both desperately need. Zara and Jay are a refreshingly self-aware pair, and it’s eminently satisfying to see them not just address their business conflicts but seek professional psychological help, Zara for her fear of abandonment and Jay for PTSD. Desai’s fans will be delighted.
In Limón’s superior 15th novel featuring U.S. Army investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom in 1970s South Korea (after 2019’s GI Confidential), the partners, who prioritize justice over protocol, have two major problems to resolve. When Sgt. First Class Cecil Harvey, the gatekeeper of classified information for 8th Army Headquarters near Seoul, goes AWOL, the detectives are concerned. They’ve had their differences with the missing man, but he has provided them with gossip and leads over the years. Their anxiety increases after learning Harvey was supposedly secretly listening to North Korean radio propaganda in the company of a defector from that country. The search for his whereabouts overlaps with a directive to help censor the reporting of Katie Byrd Worthington, a civilian tabloid journalist. Worthington has gotten some embarrassing photos of the 8th Army’s chief of staff, but Sueño and Bascom discover she’s really been focused on exposing the sexual abuse of members of a female army unit. The absence of a murder mystery doesn’t lessen the tension, and Limón evokes the setting with his usual skill. This long-running series remains as strong as ever.
Short story writer and essayist Liu's impressive U.S. debut centers on a day in December 1982 and the residents of a historical residence in Beijing. Superstitious Auntie Xue, who's obsessed with keeping up appearances, is throwing a wedding banquet with her husband for their youngest son, Jiyue, and his bride, Xiuya. Tensions rise as Jiyue's boorish friend Luo Baosang gets drunk and picks on the talented but low-birth chef Lu Xichun. Long-suffering but dutiful daughter-in-law Zhaoying tries to make things run smoothly, even as her husband is late to arrive. Visitors and wedding crashers stop by throughout the day, and the author does a fantastic job of unfurling each character's inner life, as well as the backstories and motivations of other residents. Some people, for instance, find it odd that Lu Xichun turns down a free teapot. (The heart-wrenching reason is revealed later.) Even minor characters elicit empathy when their decisions cause disaster. Reminders of the recent Gang of Four regime, during which people were publicly humiliated and punished for minor faults, are always present, and Liu seamlessly works this legacy into the narrative. This glimpse of the recent past is a treat.
NYTBR editor Jordan and editing fellow Qasim collect the Book Review’s hits from more than 6,000 issues in this meticulously crafted celebration of the written word. The newspaper’s foray into covering literary news began on Sept. 18, 1851, though it wasn’t until Adolph S. Ochs became publisher in 1896 that the NYTBR first appeared as a stand-alone, eight-page supplement, which included reviews, plus information on the lives, deaths, and marriages of famous authors. Essays, interviews, reviews, and letters to the editor dating back to that year feature here and make for a sweeping summary of a century of literary tastes and trends: in 1900, the Book Review “rail[ed] against heroines who smoke in novels,” and in 1922, Jordan and Qasim write, “T. S. Eliot publishes The Waste Land. The Book Review pays no attention.” There are essays on literary scandals (such as “The Brouhaha over Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth” from 1905) and old advertisements (one from 1927 features a man impressing his date with his poetry knowledge). Each chapter is full of entertaining reviews and book covers (“Californians are not going to like this angry novel,” one reviewer wrote of The Grapes of Wrath), plus delightful photos. Literature lovers are in for a treat.
Journalist Worth debuts with a striking look at how climate change is taught in American primary and secondary schools. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is “real, it’s us, it’s bad, and there’s hope,” she writes, the country has developed a system in which “children in some places are required by law to learn about the phenomenon... while in others, students may not hear the words ‘climate change’ in class at all.” Worth traces the history of the tensions between science and religious fundamentalism back to the controversy engendered by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the present, textbook publishers eager to avoid upsetting school boards elide or omit climate change, and state standards rarely require coverage. Meanwhile, she notes, wealthy energy companies borrow from the tobacco industry playbook by funding “educational” materials that downplay or equivocate on the scope of the threat. Worth makes powerful use of anecdotes, as with one student who lost his home to a forest fire, but doesn’t believe climate change is real. There are no easy solutions here (though she does briefly outline the bare minimum that scientists say children should learn), but the author’s illumination of the issue digs deep. Policymakers and educators alike will find much to consider.
Kaye (You Call It Madness), longtime guitarist of the Patti Smith Group, delivers his magnum opus, a rollicking tour through rock and roll history. He traces rock’s “geographic and temporal journey” by looking at key moments in different locations—from Memphis to Liverpool and London—where, he writes, “elements of chance, cunning, inspired personalities... and bystanders” transformed the genre. He whisks readers back to Alan Freed’s “raucous” 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland, which pumped out “original r&b hits before they [were] made over by white artists”; highlights the many British Beat groups spawned by the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1962; drifts through San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967, when the Grateful Dead played to a sea of spectators hopped up on “cotton candy, corn dogs, [and] LSD”; and explores the evolution of sounds in the 1990s in the “bucolic fishing town” of Bergen, Norway, “the nexus of black metal’s most notorious incidents.” Touching on a dizzying array of famous and obscure musicians, bars, and clubs—and injecting the narrative with his own vivid memories of playing in such legendary places as Manhattan’s CBGB—Kaye brilliantly captures the ecstasy of what it was like to be there, or, as he puts it, “the had-to-be of there.” This memorable history is electrifying.
Eriksson’s excellent ninth series mystery to be published in the U.S. takes Ann Lindell, who retired from the police force in 2020’s Night of the Fire, to the Swedish island of Gräsö, along with her “great love,” Edvard Risberg, for a vacation. Lindell’s investigative instincts click in when Gräsö native Cecilia Karlsson resurfaces after disappearing four years earlier—just after Cecilia’s boss, Casper Stefansson, went missing and is presumed dead. Cecilia, attractive, intelligent, and successful, provoked strong reactions from Casper and others, including her controlling father. She “saw herself as a victim... of the men who explained the world to her.” An indelible picture emerges of Cecilia’s world, her understandable anger, and her desire for change. Eriksson effectively portrays Sweden in the throes of change, being eroded from the inside out like the destructive insect of the title, while exploring social class, family, and, above all else, how men treat women. The plot slowly and steadily builds to a genuinely shocking denouement. Fans of literary fiction will be equally rewarded.
Journalist Laurie shines in his debut, a heartstring-tugging and beautifully written account of farming in his ancestral home of Galloway, an obscure region in Scotland that had once been an independent kingdom. Blending arch humor (“Tourism operators say we are ‘Scotland’s best-kept secret,’ and tourists support that claim by ignoring us”) with evocative prose, Laurie shares stories of his experience raising a rare breed of cattle native to the region on his family’s farm, in an attempt to commune with the land his forefathers worked, a place that’s “been overlooked so long that we have fallen off the map.” To give a better, if disheartening, sense of the ways in which the region’s rich history has changed, he looks at the fate of Galloway’s curlews: birds that belong to the sandpiper family that nest in the local fields. The curlews had been an integral part of Laurie’s childhood, their call, a “grasping, bellyroll of belonging in the space between rough grass and tall skies.” Though they had once been ubiquitous, he writes, their population has declined dramatically, due to the recent destruction of their habitat by policymakers’ push for commercial forests in the area. Like the bittersweet cry of the curlew, Laurie’s lyrical tribute will be hard to forget.