The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Eric Orner, James Lee Burke, and Caio Fernando Abreu.

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank

Eric Orner. Metropolitan, $25.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-250-19158-8

Orner (The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green) makes his graphic novel debut with an astute, richly detailed profile of political and gay rights icon Barney Frank. Frank emerged from humble beginnings to become a long-serving Democratic Massachusetts congressman. Though often gruff and impatient—adviser Jimmy Segel once said, “You gotta love Barney Frank to like him”—Frank was a passionate advocate for working-class people throughout his career, and popular enough to weather a sex scandal in 1989, during which he finally came out publicly as gay. Orner was Frank’s former press secretary, and he leverages this insider access to paint a witty, empathic portrait of a brilliant but lonely and conflicted politician who finally learns to reconcile his professional and personal lives, achieving something of a state of grace through coauthoring the landmark Dodd-Frank Act of 2010—and marrying his partner, Jim. Orner has a gift for capturing a sense of place, be it the halls of Congress, Boston streets on a sultry summer’s evening, or a depressed whaling town, all rendered in archly funny, colorful cartooning. He also clearly takes pleasure in caricaturing political villains, as in his deconstruction of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Orner achieves an exceptional balance of poignant biography, warts-and-all character study, and salty political satire. Political bios don’t get much better than this.

Every Cloak Rolled in Blood

James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-9821-9659-2

At the start of this stunning supernaturally tinged entry in MWA Grand Master Burke’s long-running Holland family saga (after 2021’s Another Kind of Eden), a teenage boy spray paints a swastika on the barn of octogenarian author Aaron Holland Broussard in rural Montana. Broussard’s interactions with the teen lead him into conflict with a host of villains, including evangelical bikers and a meth dealer who has been known to bury people alive. On the side of the angels is Ruby Spotted Horse, the state trooper who responds to his call about the graffiti and who, it turns out, is also entrusted with keeping the malevolent Old People from escaping their confinement beneath her house. Broussard’s other ally is his dead daughter, Fannie Mae, who appears from time to time to just converse or to bring him warnings. Setting aside the ghosts, this is one of those extraordinary crime novels that feels more like real life, with incidents and people that aren’t obviously connected piling up in the protagonist’s life, rather than a neat set of clues pointing to a culprit. Once again, Burke uses genre fiction to plumb weighty issues, both social and emotional. Agent: Anne-Lise Spitzer, Philip G. Spitzer Literary.

Moldy Strawberries

Caio Fernando Abreu, trans. from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Archipelago, $20 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-953861-20-7

The surprising and provocative works of Brazilian cult favorite Abreu (1948–1996) appear in English for the first time in this vivid translation from Lobato. Chronicling the counterculture scenes of the 1970s and ’80s as the AIDS crisis ravaged Brazil, the stories follow characters through nightclubs, office jobs, and lazy days of pillow talk. Some read as chronicles of the powers of physical intimacy, such as the short and exceptional “Fat Tuesday,” in which queer people seek, accept, and “glow” together on the dancefloor and beyond, until they must separate on account of societal taboos. Physicality also dominates “Sergeant Garcia,” in which a privileged and flat-footed soldier is exempted from service only to seek further liberation through sex with a stranger, leaving him “so full of a cursed joy.” Others are based largely or entirely on conversations. “Dialogue,” which reads like a riff on the “who’s on first” joke, details a speaker’s struggle to articulate their feelings to their interlocutor (“I said you’re my friend”; “What are you trying to say?” “I’m just saying you’re my friend”); “Music Box” explores the powerful images of dreams; and “The Survivors” examines the affections and longings that both bind and divide a queer woman and a queer man. Abreu’s prose shimmers and always surprises—each story is a small, bright gem. The fearless writing in this beautiful collection deserves a vast English-language readership. 

Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle

Jody Rosen. Crown, $28.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-804141-49-9

This high-flying debut history by New York Times Magazine contributor Rosen captures the allure of riding a bike. Through vivid anecdotes, such as how the design of the bicycle led the Wright brothers to invent the airplane, Rosen makes clear how impactful the invention has been for humankind. Baron Karl von Drais, a minor German nobleman, produced the first bike in 1817, and the design was repeatedly improved upon in subsequent decades. For example, in 1888, Belfast-based veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop replaced the solid rubber tires on his son’s tricycle with “inflated rubber tubes, sheathed in canvas and an additional outer layer of sheet rubber,” leading to the widespread adoption of pneumatic tires. Rosen is equally fascinating in describing the bicycle’s changing status in countries like China, which produces more bikes per year than the world builds cars; the “Great Covid-19 Bicycle Boom” that saw people “converging on bike lanes and patronizing cycle-share systems in unprecedented numbers”; and the archetype of “bright-eyed children, bicycling through idyllic suburbs” seen in movies and TV shows like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Stranger Things. Witty prose, exhaustive research, and Rosen’s contagious enthusiasm ensure that this standout history will appeal to cyclists and non-cyclists alike.

Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay

Merilyn Simonds. ECW, $29.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-77041-659-8

Simonds (The Convict Lover) excels in this beautifully written and moving biography of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence (1894–1992), a nature writer and distinguished Canadian ornithologist. Through a diligent analysis of Lawrence’s correspondence, scrapbooks, research notes, and book drafts, Simonds recreates both her subject’s inner life and considerable achievements. Lawrence was born in Sweden and served as a nurse for the Red Cross during WWI. She and her first husband, Gleb Kirilin, were imprisoned by the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war—Kirilin, a Russian military officer, didn’t survive, and when Lawrence was released, she immigrated to Canada, where she remarried and began keeping “meticulous records” of the birds she saw at her Ontario cabin. By the end of her first year she’d identified 73 species and had begun to write prolifically; she was eventually invited to join the prestigious (and male-dominated) American Ornithologists Union. Her nature writing received multiple awards, and she made crucial discoveries in the field of ornithology, setting a still-standing record for counting bird song and “pars[ing] the meaning of bird behaviour that scientists are only now proving to be true.” Simonds’s prose shines and brings the reader into the remarkable moments bird-watchers live for. This brilliant account does justice to a pioneering figure who merits wider recognition.

Hairless: Breaking the Vicious Circle of Hair Removal, Submission, and Self-Hatred

Bel Olid, trans. from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin. Polity, $12.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-5095-5019-7

This excellent, snappy treatise by Olid (Wilder Winds), a professor of philology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, explores the politics of female body hair and hair removal. Expectations of hairlessness compel women into relationships with their bodies that they neither choose nor control, Olid contends as they reflect on living with body hair as someone assigned female at birth. They recall years of “absolute failure when it came to keeping my hair in line” and note that this contributed to a perceived “failure of my femininity.” Maintaining the illusion that hair has never existed on the body has become a vital part of modern femininity, Olid suggests, remembering that they felt “ugly and ashamed” when they first stopped shaving. They also posit that expecting women to be hairless sexualizes young girls—Olid mentions swimsuits with padded breast cups for preteens—and infantilizes adult women “by requiring them to remove one of the unequivocal signs that they are no longer pre-pubescent: pubic hair.” Olid pulls off a masterful balance of academic erudition and accessible, crisp prose. Persuasive and thought-provoking, this brisk volume deserves a broad audience.

Cold as Hell

Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle. Blackstone, $28.99 (388p) ISBN 979-8-200710-67-6

Bruno and Castle, coauthors of the Buried Goddess Saga series, kick off a new collaboration in impressive style; their fantasy western series debut blends its two genres perfectly and offers enough worldbuilding to sustain many sequels. Former outlaw and thief James Crowley has reformed his ways, but only under duress—and only now that he’s undead. He’s not entirely sure what happened: “I’m hazy on the exact details besides having been shot up, left for the worms, and brought back years later to find myself stuck on this side of eternity, serving the whims and fancies of angels.” To stay out of Hell, Crowley must serve Heaven’s White Throne as a newly minted Black Badge combating the supernatural. His latest assignment sets him on the trail of a bank robber wielding ice powers that enable the thief to freeze and crack open vaults, abilities which must have been granted by a demon. Now Crowley must race to prevent further crimes and thwart the demon’s plans. The result is a gritty romp sure to please fans of Jim Butcher and Mike Carey.

Dance Among the Flames

Tori Eldridge. Running Wild, $19.99 trade paper (350p) ISBN 978-1-955062-08-4

Eldridge (the Lily Wong series) wows with this astonishing and challenging tale of religion, magic, and trauma. In 1974, Serafina Olegario is raising her newborn son, Carlinhos, in the slums of Salvadore, Brazil, when she is momentarily possessed by the goddess Yansã and compelled to pursue the religion of Umbanda under the guidance of the Mãe de Santos. After a perceived betrayal, however, she splits from Umbanda for Quimbanda, becoming a powerful Quimbandeira and wielding dark and sensual magic to pursue power and seek revenge against those who have wronged her. In a parallel narrative set in the early 2000s, Serafina’s granddaughter, Adriana, experiences tragedy after tragedy before falling in love with an American artist amid an abusive marriage. Eldridge masterfully navigates the nuances of Brazilian religious syncretism and takes a deep and daring look into the issues of colorism, class, generational trauma, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Spanning decades and generations, this is both a page-turner and an emotional powerhouse.