The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Hayley Scrivenor, Joanne Cannon, and Steven W. Thrasher.
Australian author Scrivenor’s stunning debut blends a taut psychological thriller with a suspenseful police procedural. During Christmas week 2001, amid a summer so hot that the “edges of the road crumbled,” Det. Sgt. Sarah Michaels and her partner, Det. Constable Wayne Smith, investigate the disappearance of 12-year-old Esther Bianchi in the gritty town of Durton. Esther’s BFF, Veronica Thompson, may have been the last one to see her after she left school but didn’t return home. Or maybe it was their 11-year-old friend, Lewis Kennard, who was bullied at school and telling lies to protect secrets. Progress is stymied with media attention and police support drawn to a high-profile case of missing twins “elsewhere in the state.” The cases may be linked and connected to a drug ring. Betrayals, domestic violence, festering family secrets, and fractured friendships delineate clashes among spouses, parents, children, and extended relatives. Scrivenor does a superb job laying out Sarah and Wayne’s backgrounds and their working relationship as the well-crafted plot builds to a powerful conclusion. Fans of Liane Moriarty and Jane Harper won’t want to miss this page-turner.
Linda Hammett, the unreliable narrator of this sublimely structured and darkly witty novel from British author Cannon (Three Things About Elsie), works in a charity shop and has recently moved with her husband, Terry, to an English housing estate. The flower beds are a tiny bit wider, and “Terry had more room to park his filthy van,” but they “still lived the same life.” That is, until the clothing catalog filled with elegant models and addressed to Rebecca Finch, the house’s former occupant, arrives. With Terry working odd hours when he’s not glued to the telly, Linda begins to daydream about the life she imagines for Rebecca. If only she could locate Rebecca, Linda is sure they could become friends. Then a young woman is found strangled, and the estate is abuzz with suspicion: someone local must be responsible. Linda’s search for her new potential friend runs parallel to the police investigation. The author does a superb job misdirecting the reader as Linda seems to misinterpret the motives of those around her. Through Linda’s voice, even a trip to the mall becomes fascinating and wryly amusing, and the multilayered plot offers genuine surprises up to the final revelation. Cannon has raised her game with this one.
Thrasher, a professor of journalism, public health, and queer studies at Northwestern University, debuts with a powerful look at “the relationship between viruses and marginalization.” Contending that “marginalized populations are subjected to increased harms of viral transmission, exposure, replication, and death,” Thrasher identifies 12 “social vectors”—including capitalism, racism, ableism, and “the liberal carceral state”—at the root of the problem. The story of Michael Johnson, “a gay, Black, sexually active wrestler with learning disabilities,” who was sentenced in 2015 to 30 years in prison for “recklessly transmitting” HIV to a white man and exposing four other sexual partners to the virus, provides a through line as Thrasher documents how minority groups are more susceptible to diseases and more likely to be stigmatized and punished for carrying them (in the late 19th century, he notes, fears of bubonic plague led to the quarantining of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act). Elsewhere, Thrasher profiles a transgender Latinx activist who died of Covid-19 in March 2020, examines the links between ableism and antivaccine rhetoric, and argues that “capitalism’s economic goals [are] at odds with human health.” Rigorous scholarship and intimate portraits of life and death on the margins make this a must-read.
French novelist Carrére follows his masterful The Kingdom with an unusual, winding work that straddles genres as he reflects on depression and love. The action begins in 2015 with the lead—a French writer in his early 60s who strikes an uncanny resemblance to Carrére, aside from certain invented aspects throughout—participating in a silent meditation retreat to write a book on yoga. After three days of breath and focus, the Charlie Hebdo attack occurs, and the narrator is summoned back to Paris to speak at the funeral of a friend who was killed in the shooting. From there, he suffers a psychotic breakdown, is hospitalized, and goes through ECT. As he recovers, he spends time teaching English to refugees on a small Greek island with a partially invented character as a companion, and has an unexpected final meeting with a mysterious woman with whom he’d once had an affair. Published as a novel in France, Carrére’s book was besieged by controversy in 2020 due to the condition of the author’s divorce that his ex-wife not be mentioned. Yet throughout, their separation is a shadowy presence. Regardless of what’s fact or fiction, Carrére remains a fascinating character on the page, and his lithe confessional writing will resonate with longtime fans. The result is another marvelous creation from Carrére’s boundless imagination.
University of Iowa sociologist Ray debuts with an illuminating primer on critical race theory. He details the field’s genesis in legal studies—specifically the insight that ostensibly race-neutral laws can perpetuate racist outcomes—and its incorporation of other social sciences. A brief overview of racism as “a basic organizing principle in America’s political history” (the three-fifths compromise, Jim Crow) is followed by lucid explanations of key concepts in critical race theory, including the idea that race is not an immutable biological attribute, but a malleable social and political construction used to justify exploitation. Elsewhere, Ray draws on the example of the civil rights movement, which achieved its greatest successes at a time when the Soviet Union was exploiting America’s racial hypocrisy to spread its influence around the world, to argue that racial progress has typically been made when it benefits a critical mass of white people. Ray also contends that “when it comes to political agenda–setting, White identity politics are the most successful identity politics in American history,” because they insist on a normative neutrality that allows other people’s political goals to be classed as “special interests.” Distinguished by its clarity of thought, purpose, and expression, this is a stirring defense of critical race theory as an “intellectual bulwark” against attempts to undermine multiracial democracy.
Psychoanalyst Alsadir (More Shadow Than Bird) investigates the power of laughter in this thoughtful tour of humans’ unconscious. True laughter, Alsadir suggests, rouses “wakefulness,” expresses one’s “True Self” and betrays the “False Self” constructed for social conformity and protection. The author offers resonant insight on the uses of laughter to redistribute power (liking to laugh or make others laugh are ways “of signaling a preferred position”), and finds an apt comparison for it in the musical term appoggiatura, a note that disrupts an anticipated melody and taps a deeper state of emotion. Alsadir moves confidently through the intellectual terrain of Freud, Donald Winnicott, and neurophysiologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, invoking Heidegger’s term aletheia, or “truth as unconcealment” as easily as she calls up pop cultural jokes about trauma or Anna Karenina. Most memorable are her personal asides, such as her account of attending clown school (she tried to drop out but “by staying, was provoked, unsettled, changed”) and the piquant remarks by her daughters—when asked “What does beautiful mean?”—that “beautiful means most self.” Gorgeously written and by turns hilarious and crushing, Alsadir’s examination of humanity’s “savage complexity” is not to be missed.
Yoshimoto’s resonant collection centers on women struggling through challenging events. Though the characters in each of the five stories have been struck by bad luck and duplicity, they are intrinsically good-natured and are also greatly influenced by the generational traditions of their forebears, as evidenced in the heartwarming opener, “House of Ghosts,” in which the college-student daughter of restaurant owners observes a pair of ghosts in a classmate’s apartment, thus setting the mood for the young couple’s unexpected and lifelong romance. After the book editor in “Mama!” consumes poisoned curry in the publishing company’s cafeteria, the ordeal is followed by an emotionally disturbing revelation. Yoshimoto’s characters share a staunch, unfailing allegiance to the idea of love, and they work toward closure amid heartbreak, as in the title story in which a betrayal recalibrates a young girl’s understanding of contentment. Similarly, in “Tomo-chan’s Happiness,” a sexual assault victim discovers hope, catharsis, and new love after years of internal torment. Yoshimoto embellishes these gorgeously written entries with sensual descriptions of food and sex, and makes them memorable by showing how the women set themselves free from misfortune via friendship and resilience. This is a gem.
In this sublime collaboration, Frankenstein (Tears of the Leather-Bound Saints) and Aussie cartoonist Pearce manifest into comics an excoriating, bleakly poetic memoir of Frankenstein’s hard-knock life in early 1980s South Side Chicago. “The 1980/1981 school year started with a dismantling of childhood and got steadily worse,” begins Frankenstein, as he vividly conjures fearful school days, fighting off relentless bullying, and a walking-on-eggshells home life with his unsympathetic mother and volatile, hard-drinking cop father. He conveys living in constant fear of reprisals for being inept at sports, raising his hand too much in class, or any number of perceived nerdisms. It all takes its toll: “anticipation of pain, itself is pain.” Largely without agency, Frankenstein makes small stabs at rebellion, such as playing hooky. Happily, there are also hints of future salvation, as when he accidentally discovers a movie about the punk rock scene, describing it as “life changing.” Throughout, Pearce’s wonderfully fluid, ever-morphing underground comics art captures the nuance of Frankenstein’s plight (including drawing Frankenstein’s bullies as bat-like monsters, delighting in their malice). It’s a harsh but compulsively readable story, intensely wrought, and will hold appeal for readers of Emil Ferris and Ulli Lust.
Dean’s unputdownable debut gives the phrase “voracious reader” a new, very literal meaning. Devon isn’t human. She and others like her live off eating books, and they retain all the knowledge they consume. Book eaters are rare, and book eater girls are even rarer. Raised by the isolated, cultish Family, Devon is treated like a breakable princess and fed a steady diet of fairy tales in which the girls are always the damsels in distress. Devon’s duty is to grow up and produce two children by two different husbands to ensure the survival of their species. Willful and stubborn in nature, Devon has always chafed under the Family’s control—and when her first son is born not a book eater but a far more dangerous mind eater, she goes on the run to save the boy from the Family, who no longer want him. But to survive, she’ll have to find a way to sate the hunger that plagues him, a hunger far more sinister and alien than her own. The fascinating magic system, impeccable and unusual worldbuilding, and well-shaded characters will keep readers riveted through every twist of this wild ride. Gothic fantasy fans will want to snap up this thrilling tale.