The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Melissa Chadburn, Lisa Hsiao Chen, and Séamas O’Reilly.
In Chadburn’s astonishing debut, the story of a Filipino woman’s short life is told by an aswang spirit. In 1994, after 18-year-old Marina Salles is murdered by serial killer Willie Pickton, the folkloric and omniscient aswang enters her body and recounts Marina’s harrowing coming-of-age. As a little girl, she moves with her mother, Mutya, to Westwood after Mutya is accepted at UCLA. While at a party thrown by Mutya’s boyfriend, Marina is raped at 13, then placed by child services in a group home in the San Fernando Valley. The environment hardens Marina, though she develops a loving relationship with her new girlfriend, Alex, who is also a victim of child abuse. Marina is emancipated at 16 and moves to a rough South Los Angeles apartment complex where she gets hooked on heroin. Strung out, she goes to Vancouver to help Alex find her mother. She ends up doing sex work to pay for drugs and meets Willie, who preys on young women with drug problems. The author’s poetic language enthralls, whether in relating the hardships of past generations of Salles women (“we broadcast them—each conversation a carnival of agonies”), or describing the bleak land of death (“There’s no numbing dope, no dick wows, no kitty kitty yum yum, just a floodlight on all the world’s needs”). This is electrifying.
Chen wows in this tender debut novel (after the poetry collection Mouth) about an Asian American woman caring for her ailing white stepfather while working on a study of Tehching Hsieh, the Taiwanese performance artist best known for his durational performances. Alice, a 39-year-old video editor, pushes pause on the Hsieh project after her unnamed stepfather—a retired carpenter and Vietnam vet with a passion for Chinese furniture—begins to exhibit signs of dementia. She and her sister Amy prepare to put his house up for sale so he can afford a care facility near Amy’s home in San Jose, Calif., which involves selling off and hauling away his treasured belongings and enduring heartbreaking bouts of his illness-fueled rage. To cope, Alice returns to Hsieh’s transgressive work, such as the Rope Piece (1983–1984), a collaboration with Linda Montano in which the artists spent a year tied together by an eight-foot rope. She reads his interviews and the philosophical texts that inspired him until the project becomes as much about her stepfather as it is about Hsieh. While switching between Alice’s stepfather’s decline in the late 2010s and Hsieh’s works in the 1980s, Chen develops an intelligent and deeply empathic portrayal of Alice witnessing her stepfather disappearing inside himself, and in doing so offers careful and illuminating observations on issues of cultural difference, productivity, family, and freedom. Chen’s own project is masterly and memorable.
In this rollicking debut, O’Reilly, a columnist for the London Observer, weaves a hilarious look at his Irish Catholic childhood with a touching tribute to his mother. When his “Mammy,” Sheila, died of breast cancer in 1991, O’Reilly writes, “my father drove back to Derry as the sole parent of eleven children.” At five years old, O’Reilly was a “newly minted half-orphan” struggling to hold onto memories of his mother. To keep them from fading as he grew older, he sought out stories of Sheila, wringing a “scant few negative” tales out of drunken family members as a kid, and scouring her old correspondences and visiting her birthplace in his adulthood—and renders them in deeply affectionate prose: “she was the sing-song cadence of the grace we said before meals... [and] the daffodils in the garden.” He also paints an archly loving portrait of his kindhearted single father, who steadfastly believed that one sheet of toilet paper “judiciously used, was sufficient for most movements”; and dispenses mordantly funny takes on his adolescence growing up in the waning years of the Troubles (“banal” fare compared to what his grandparents saw) with his 10 siblings—“to be one of eleven was singularly, fizzily demented. At best, you were the child of sex maniacs.” Chock-full of wit and compassion, this amusingly dispels “perception[s] of [Northern Irish people] as either humourless... or violent psychopaths.”
An Italian man schemes up a phony film production to save his tiny town in Simon’s sparkling, hilarious debut. Vacuum repairman and hotelier Giovannino Speranza needs €70,000 to fix Prometto’s municipal pipes or face relocation along with the other 212 inhabitants. Especially distraught over the prospect of moving away from his daughter and granddaughter, Speranza starts a wild rumor that famous actor Dante Rinaldi is coming to town to film his next project. The locals believe him and get involved, with Speranza’s employee Smilzo writing a script and starting production, led on by Speranza’s implausible explanations. Problems compound when the butcher financing the film insists his son, who has stage fright, have a role; and when Speranza’s uncle siphons off funds to build a theater for the premiere. The rumor moves beyond the town, attracting tourists for the first time in years and straining Speranza’s ability to keep things in check, especially when Dante’s agent starts making threatening calls. The ramshackle film shapes up, but every day brings a new mini catastrophe as the deadline to stop the water shutoff rapidly approaches and Speranza keeps the truth from everyone but a select few. Simon’s wit pervades every page, with colorful portrayals of Speranza and the town’s quirky inhabitants. This triumphant farce is a gem.
Friedlander debuts with a dynamic story collection set in Israel that probes the challenges faced by Israeli Jews—national security, relations with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, religious-secular schisms—with sensitivity and compassion. “Checkpoint” is told from the perspective of a grieving mother who monitors potential human rights abuses at a checkpoint between Israel and the occupied territories. She ruminates about sending her son off “to be killed in a war I don’t believe in, fighting for a government I hate.” In “The Sephardi Survivor,” two siblings, envious of their classmates who have family Holocaust stories, try to convince an old man to pose as their grandfather for their school’s Shoah Memorial Day. “Jaffa Oranges” explores a Jewish man’s guilt over betraying a Palestinian friend, and the title story unpacks the fraught relationship between a father and his daughter, who helps him sell “holy” bottled air. Friedlander imbues his characters with a deeply felt humanity, and his finely tuned command of emotional tenor will evoke tears and laughter in equal measure (“I couldn’t study because I was listening to my grandfather’s Shoah story was a common reason for failing a math test”). These superior character portraits make for an auspicious start.
Set in 1893, Thomas’s superb 13th whodunit featuring private inquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn (after 2021’s Dance with Death) centers on multiple poisonings while riffing on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The PIs are shocked when a stranger appears at their London office, requests water, and then dies after having difficulty breathing. A business card on the body identifies the man as Roland Fitzhugh, a Liberal MP. After the death is reported to Scotland Yard, Barker and Llewelyn learn that Fitzhugh visited there half an hour before his demise to report that he suspected someone had tried to poison him on two occasions. Barker insists on justice for Fitzhugh and gains a paying client in the form of former prime minister William Gladstone, who funds the search for the killer. Another poisoning follows soon after, this time claiming the lives of almost an entire East End family. The leads’ friendship enriches a gripping plot that builds to a clever and satisfying resolution. Pastiche-averse Sherlockians looking for a baffling puzzle set in their favorite period will be rewarded.
Scharnhorst (Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews), an English professor at the University of New Mexico, concludes his three-volume biography of Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), aka Mark Twain, with a fantastic account of the last two decades of the author’s life. Scharnhorst picks up in June 1891 as Twain and his family traveled to Europe, a time when even the author didn’t know “how deeply he was in debt” after an unsuccessful publishing venture. During his time abroad, Twain wrote a sequel to Tom Sawyer and met with Kaiser Wilhelm II and Oscar Wilde. But his international celebrity was no shield to devastating personal losses: his eldest daughter Susy died in 1896 from spinal meningitis, the “most traumatic event” in his life, and his wife, Livy, died a few years later. Scharnhorst conveys Twain’s grief in sharp detail, and captures Twain’s political engagement near the end of his life, too: in 1904, he campaigned against Belgium’s King Leopold II’s exploitation of the people of Congo, efforts consistent with his prior support of women’s suffrage and his outspokenness against racism. Scharnhorst uses exhaustive research and granular detail to great effect, creating a fantastic portrait of his subject. This coda to a well-lived life is a stunner.
A prescient premise drives this stunning weird tale from Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall from, Unexpected Places to Land): a disease renders the infected vulnerable to perceptions of relative realities, making them susceptible to “the fiction between the real and the perceived,” or what they refer to as “the narrative.” Two years prior to the start of the novella, the narrator, Lewis “Spence” Spencer, was infected, and, believing that patrons at the restaurant where he worked had turned into a pack of cannibalistic monsters, he and fellow believer Macey killed more than 30 people. Macey’s death helped to break Spence from his delusions, leaving him “cured” but still living in the Ironside medical facility. Now, he meets new patient Leila and together they escape from Ironside. On the outside, Spence seeks redemption for the atrocities he committed as he tries to determine which narrative is true. Devlin does a superb job showing how his afflicted characters are compelled to accept outrageous beliefs that contradict the objective realities before them. The result is an unsettling cautionary tale for the age of alternative facts.