The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Kiki Petrosino, Emi Yagi, and Megan Giddings.
Poet and essayist Petrosino (White Blood) presents a stunning exploration of her “brightness,” a term that refers to a light-skinned person with Black and white ancestry. Born to a Black mother and white father in 1979, Petrosino struggled to find a sense of belonging as one of only a few Black children, including her sister, at her Catholic school in Shrewsbury, Pa.: “Always, just at the edge of my vision, the white world burst into ecstatic blossom: girls sharing snacks & going to birthday parties, girls talking all night on the phone.” In poetic vignettes that flit back and forth through time, Petrosino unpacks her “brightness,” describing it alternately as “a house,” “a friend,” and a “pain”, and excavates the word’s history to comment on the many ways Black bodies have been perceived and policed: “What I don’t like about my Brightness: how it gets to be a surface where others feel invited to view themselves. In others’ gazes, I lose my privacy, just as the moon does, reflecting.” While brief, her work packs a hefty punch, offering a luminous descent into the complicated racial history of the United States and a nuanced path to a more expansive future. This challenging and soulful work shines with intellect.
Yagi, in her riveting and surreal debut, offers a close inspection of the demands of motherhood. Shibata, 34, works at a paper core manufacturer. Though it appears an improvement from her previous position, where she was sexually harassed, the new workplace has its own sexist culture. Shibata soon learns that as the only woman in her section, her responsibilities also include undertaking the traditionally feminine chores of cleaning up after everyone, making coffee, and serving snacks. Sick of it, Shibata invents a lie: she’s pregnant. Instantly, the menial tasks go away and people around her begin to treat her with more caution and consideration. She gets to leave early, and treats herself to relaxing baths and dinners by herself. Soon, though, she realizes the lie, though easily created, will need work to uphold. As the weeks progress, Shibata tracks fetus development with an app, eats for two and enrolls in maternity aerobics. The more she works to keep up the fake pregnancy, the more it begins to seem real to her. Absurdist, amusing and clever, the story brings subtlety and tact to its depiction of workplace discrimination—as well as a touch of magic. Readers will eagerly turn the pages all the way to the bold conclusion.
Giddings (Lakewood) pulls off a dynamite story of a Black woman’s resistance in an oppressive dystopia. Jo Thomas’s mother, Tiana, has been declared dead after having been missing for 14 years. At 28, the age at which all women must marry or register with the Bureau of Witchcraft, Jo works at the Museum of Cursed Art and is in love with her white best friend, Angie. Tiana taught Jo as a girl that magic wasn’t real, but rather a myth to enable oppressions of women and non-cisgender people. Jo is set to inherit a large sum from Tiana on the condition that she agrees to visit an island in Lake Superior, which, according to a story Tiana once told her, only appears once every seven years. The instructions remind her of a story her mother told her as a child, about an island with a treasure. Though Jo doesn’t want to leave her sometimes-boyfriend Preston, or her job and Angie, she complies, and upon returning is promptly imprisoned for suspected witchcraft. When Preston promises to take custody of Jo, as required by law, the two enter a tender phase of their relationship. But after the island’s secrets leak into the real world, Jo is imprisoned again. Giddings ingeniously blends her harrowing parable of an all-powerful patriarchy with insights into racial imbalances, such as a scene in which Jo and Angie are pulled over by the cops (“I wanted the ease of feeling protected and beautiful enough to try to make a joke, to not have my hands on the dashboard, to not text someone pulled over by cops, please call in 15 minutes if you don’t hear from me again”). This is brilliant.
In this rollicking posthumous memoir, composer and writer Rodgers (1931–2014) revisits the highs and lows of her life and career. Enriched with droll commentary from Green, chief theater critic for the New York Times, Rodgers’s narrative takes readers from her affluent yet stifling childhood—as the daughter of American composer Richard Rodgers and a mother whose “idea of a daughter,” Rodgers writes, “was a chambermaid crossed with a lapdog”—to her years of wild success in the ’50s and ’60s on Broadway and beyond. While her challenging relationship with her mother runs as a constant thread throughout, Rodgers looks back, more fondly, on her six pregnancies (“I loved being pregnant.... More than I loved writing music, if I’m honest”) and her accomplishments, including her first musical, Once Upon a Mattress (1959), starring Carol Burnett—“If you don’t know who Carol Burnett... is,” hectors Green, “you’re definitely not reading this book”—and her 1972 runaway hit novel, Freaky Friday. Of the decades-long success of Once Upon a Mattress, Rodgers cheekily proclaims, “Some people have a medley of their hits; I have a medley of one.” It’s this playful, self-deprecating humor that makes Rodgers’s stories sing, and fans are sure to delight in every witty detail. This has major star power.
From the gripping opening line, “The woman on the train asked me to kill someone,” Edgar winner Beinhart never takes his foot off the gas in the outstanding fourth outing for Tony Cassella (after 1991’s Foreign Exchange). Now 70 and still devastated by the deaths of his wife and son from years before, former PI Cassella has retired to the Catskills. En route to yet another funeral of an old friend, he’s approached in the Amtrak café car by a woman he barely knows, Maddie McMunchun, who casually mentions that she wants her wealthy husband dead and offers Cassella $100,000 to murder him. Casella, whose house is 36 hours away from being foreclosed, surprises himself by agreeing. But when the time comes for the down payment for the hit to be handed off, Maddie shows up with a partner, Liz Carter, an attorney who states that she’s backing the killing as part of a new venture. Instead of financing litigation that promises profits for Liz, Maddie is launching a business financing homicides. Filled with thoughtfully developed characters, the plot takes further unexpected but entertaining detours. Fans of darkly funny crime dramas such as Fargo will be hooked.
Set on the eve of England’s entry into WWII, Upson’s superior 10th mystery featuring author Josephine Tey (after 2020’s The Secrets of Winter) finds Tey and her lover, Marta Fox, spending some precious time together at a cottage Tey has inherited in the quiet Suffolk village of Polstead. The community is hosting children transported from London in anticipation of German bombing raids. The tumult of dealing with many more evacuees than expected is exacerbated when a child disappears. Upson effectively keeps the reader in suspense about the child’s fate, even as Tey’s policeman friend, Det. Chief Insp. Archie Penrose, works to solve the stabbing death of a London rent-collector. While the reveals of both plotlines are fully satisfying, the book’s strength lies in a vivid and moving portrait of a small community torn apart by fear and suspicion. Even secondary characters are imbued with sufficient depth to make the ending for one of them a gut-punch. As always, Upson plays scrupulously fair with her clue-planting. P.D. James fans who haven’t read Upson yet are in for a treat.
Schellman’s excellent third Regency mystery featuring widow Lily Adler (after 2021’s Silence in the Library) takes Lily from London to Hampshire for an extended stay with an aunt, Eliza Pierce. Eliza’s village is buzzing about the gray-garbed female ghost said to haunt Belleford, the derelict manor owned by the Wright family. Thomas Wright, a restless bachelor who lives with his sister, Selina, under their widowed mother’s thumb, relishes the attention the veiled specter commands. While Thomas gives Lily a tour of the ghost’s usual haunts, Selina discovers their mother dead in her bedroom. Mrs. Wright’s bruised chest and agonized expression indicate foul play, but her room was locked from the inside with the only existing key. Unlike the Wrights and the villagers, rational Lily doesn’t hold the “gray lady” responsible for the death. Attractive widower Matthew Spencer helps her probe the family and the few servants who haven’t fled Belleford in fear. Schellman ably interweaves appealing developments in Lily’s personal life, a classic locked-room puzzle, and a nuanced look at period society. Regency lovers will be enthralled.