The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Melissa Febos, Alex Segura, and John Scalzio.
Memoirist Febos (Girlhood) assembles four whip-smart essays on the power of personal writing, which mark her “attempts to describe the ways that writing is integrated into the fundamental movements of my life: political, corporeal, spiritual, psychological, and social.” “In Praise of Navel Gazing” is a defense of memoirs focused on trauma, which she suggests are often seen as “gauche”: “the resistance to memoirs about trauma is always in part... a resistance to movements of social justice.” In “Mind Fuck,” she details a series of “unrules” for writing about sex: “sex doesn’t have to be good” and “writing about sex doesn’t have to include sex at all.” “A Big Shitty Party” shares hard-learned insights on writing about real people in nonfiction (when people give Febos permission to include them, “what they actually mean is that I have their permission to write anything about them that they can imagine I might”), and “The Return” makes a case that personal writing can help one deal with painful experiences. Febos’s fellow scribes will appreciate her shrewd takes on the intersection of craft and life, and even nonwriters will enjoy the artistry on display throughout. This is a wonder.
Set in 1975, this outstanding novel from Anthony Award winner Segura (the Pete Fernandez series) stars Carmen Valdez, an obsessive comic book fan since her childhood in Miami, Fla., who now lives in New York City and works on the periphery of her dream as an assistant at Triumph Comics, an afterthought in the then flailing comics industry dominated by Marvel and DC. When Triumph junior editor Harvey Stern approaches the creatively gifted Carmen to help him pitch a new series, it’s the opportunity to finally see one of her ideas come to life. Carmen agrees to Harvey’s request that she ghostwrite until he can leverage her involvement. They create the company’s first female superhero, the Lethal Lynx, who’s an immediate hit, though Harvey’s erratic behavior and the sudden arrival of an old flame from Miami complicate matters. When Harvey is murdered before he publicly acknowledges Carmen’s role, she’s forced to look for answers as she seeks to prevent someone else from transforming the Lethal Lynx into something soulless. Carmen navigates the shifting loyalties within the industry with aplomb. Segura’s infectious passion for superheroes shines in this page-turning mix of murder mystery and coming-of-age story.
A more ethical Jurassic Park meets the camaraderie of Parks and Recreation in this wonderfully witty and refreshingly earnest adventure yarn from Hugo Award winner Scalzi (Redshirts). Atomic bomb tests in the 1950s revealed a parallel Earth inhabited by Godzillian kaiju, a fact Jamie Gray learns upon being hired by KPS, the eponymous secret organization, which monitors and protects the massive creatures. Jamie and several other new KPS employees are stationed at a base on this parallel Earth—and when an investor’s malfeasance threatens both Earths, the band of newbies fights back. The hyper-current story spans March 2020 through March 2021, touching on the Covid-19 pandemic and offering exactly the kind of playfulness and hope that were needed during that period (and are still more than welcome now). The parallel world Scalzi builds is understandably dangerous even as he carries on the science fiction tradition of questioning who the real monsters are, but those realistically dark elements help highlight the more optimistic themes of collective action and preservation. The resulting escape is equally lighthearted and grounded—and sure to delight.
Journalist Neuman debuts with a heartbreaking and deeply reported account of the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Depicting the country’s downward spiral since 2014—driven by a collapse in oil prices, U.S. sanctions, and hyperinflation—from the perspectives of political leaders and ordinary citizens, Neuman notes that one in six Venezuelans has fled the country during the crisis, an exodus “second only to the flight from Syria, which was in the midst of a civil war.” He begins the narrative with a vivid description of the 2019 blackouts that left the entire country in the dark, pinning the blame on decades of neglect by President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Neuman then explains how Chávez, who came to power in 1999 and died in 2013, created a cult of personality by stoking political polarization and invoking the country’s revolutionary past while funneling oil revenues into a national “slush fund” for development projects and borrowing heavily from foreign banks. Neuman excels at humanizing the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans who lack access to basic food, medicine, or shelter, and incisively analyzes how the country’s fractured and ineffective opposition has allowed Maduro to retain control. Through lyrical prose, in-depth interviews, and lucid discussions of political and economic matters, Neuman makes the scale of Venezuela’s tragedy clear. Readers will be riveted and appalled.
YA author Beckerlegge (the Darkside series, written as Tom Becker) jumps wholeheartedly into adult fantasy with this gorgeous, immersive triumph of Renaissance-flavored worldbuilding. Cadenza, the once flourishing City of Words, governed by poets and home to Italy’s rarest libraries, is in chaos after the sudden death of Artifex Tommaso Cellini and the appointment of an influential bureaucrat rather than the traditional master poet to his role. Beckerlegge structures the novel as a dozen cantos, each taking a different perspective on the city: a hopeful poet returns after his family’s politically driven departure two decades earlier; an ink maid writes bespoke letters indulging her patrons’ sexual fantasies; a pair of poets quarreling over a woman duel through mutually insulting poems; a scholar seeks to read hidden books of the dark arts; and an ink-induced plague spreads through the Printing Quarter. The tale becomes a finely woven tapestry as characters appear in one another’s stories, and readers are fully submerged in Cadenza’s social structures by the time the city’s inevitable fall comes. The plot is dark, punctuated by murder and occasional gore, but the opulence of 16th-century Italy shines through in descriptions of the poet-nobles’ salons and high society gatherings, making for a palpable sense of loss in the city’s demise. The result is sure to linger in readers’ minds.
In this exhilarating debut, former Rolling Stone editor Bonner follows the riveting life of Bobby Gunn, “the most famous bare-knuckle fighter in the world.” Opening with a fight in 2015 in an auto-body shop—where one observer wryly comments, “This is exciting because it’s illegal”—Bonner ushers readers into the lurid and fascinating world of illegal underground bare-knuckle fighting. Anchored by his treatment of Gunn’s day-to-day life—including his relationship with his son, Bobby Jr., whom he hopes will become a boxer (“It’s in his breeding,” Gunn exclaims)—Bonner’s narrative presents the controversial sport in a manner that’s revealing, while maintaining a respectful sense of its roughshod nature. He contextualizes bare-knuckle boxing within history, following its popularity from the Roman Empire (“in the sand pits of the gladiators”) to 1600s England to its current iteration in the U.S., where it’s been deemed “barbaric... [and] in contravention of a multitude of federal, state, and tribal boxing laws” by boxing commissioners. Throughout, Gunn’s character—a gritty, endearingly avuncular figure—and his ambition to legalize the sport (“All this fighting can sound sick.... But if you go into our culture... winning a fight is what makes us proud”) lends pathos to the sensational subculture he exists within. Boxing fans won’t want to miss this.
A brutal reality underpinned the British Empire’s ideology of civic uplift, according to this sweeping historical study. Harvard historian Elkins (Imperial Reckoning) surveys 20th-century milestones in Britain’s bloody efforts to suppress unrest in its colonies and mandates, including the Boer War, Ireland’s War of Independence, the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India, revolts in Palestine by Arabs and Jews, the post-WWII clash with Communist guerrillas in Malaya, and the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. It’s a somber record: time and again imperial authorities imposed the “legalized lawlessness” of martial law and states of emergency and carried out imprisonments without trial, censorship, beatings, torture, demolitions of houses and villages, air raids, assassinations, and starvation of civilians in concentration camps. Elkins argues that the carnage was an inescapable part of Britain’s self-serving, hypocritical creed of “liberal imperialism,” which claimed to be nobly shepherding backward races toward civilization and self-rule—through an iron-fisted despotism. Elkins’s intricate but immersive account is a feat of scholarship that elucidates the bureaucratic and legal machinery of oppression, dissects the intellectual justifications for it, and explores in gripping, sometimes grisly detail the suffering that resulted. The result is a forceful challenge to recent historiographical and political defenses of British exceptionalism that punctures myths of paternalism and progress.
Poet Farmer (The Women) parses her complicated family history to create a heart-wrenching portrait of love, family, loss, and aging in this astounding collection. Two weeks after her grandmother slipped and broke her neck, Farmer’s grandfather arrived at the hospital with a gun, shooting her grandmother in a “mercy killing” and trying, though failing, to kill himself. What follows is a dizzying portrayal of Farmer’s grief, told in short, effective bursts from both before and after the shooting. In “Aftermath” she reflects on the way “grief makes you urgent and useless,” and in “Contradiction, 2014,” muses that “as much as I wish my grandfather hadn’t done what he did, I don’t know if I would undo it.” She builds the collection around her grandparents, sharing transcripts of their conversations about celebrities, hitchhikers, and marriage, and also experiments with form in “Selected Internet Comments, 2014–2015,” in which she shares replies to articles on the shooting. In “Mercy,” she writes, “while I’m skeptical of mining beauty from pain... or landing on a diamond takeaway or even claiming good can come from it, I’ve learned that time-freezing anguish makes for micro-moments of unexpected reverence.” Farmer exceeds her intention; the moments she depicts teem with power. This potent work introduces Farmer as a writer to watch.
In this immensely inspiring debut, Rowe recounts how he achieved his acting dreams “because of and not in spite of my autism.” He writes of his difficult childhood, having grown up with a neglectful mother, younger brothers who bullied him, and a school system that failed to make accommodations for his disability. When his grandmother introduced him to Seattle Children’s Theatre, a young Rowe found solace in watching the “human, wise, and flawed characters” before him. While this led him down an arduous path to finding a career on the stage—one riddled with prejudice from directors and “rejection after gaslit rejection”—he finally found success as the first openly autistic actor to play the autistic lead as Christopher Boone in a 2017 Indiana production of the Broadway hit, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In addition to relaying his incredible story of persistence, Rowe shares the challenges he faced raising his autistic son, celebrates the joys of finding love (“nonautistics should be jealous they don’t get to experience sex as an autistic person”), and launches a searing indictment of the horrific ways society casts aside those with disabilities: “at least one disabled person is killed per week by their parent or caregiver.” The result powerfully renders what it’s like to live life to the fullest.