The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Susan Mallery, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Jeremiah Moss.
Interweaving two heartfelt love stories, Mallery expertly captures a festive yuletide spirit in her sparkling second Wishing Tree novel (after The Christmas Wedding Guest). Camryn Neff left her life in Chicago to return to small-town Wishing Tree, Wash., and take care of her teenage sisters after their mother’s death. While running her family’s custom gift-wrapping business, Camryn is selected by local matron Helen Crane as one of the candidates for “Project: Jake’s Bride,” a mission Helen’s embarked on to marry off her son. Camryn quickly rejects the idea of being involved—and spills the beans to Jake about his mother’s scheming. As their friendship blossoms into love, Camryn must question her life plans, having never intended to settle in Wishing Tree for good. Meanwhile, River Best, a transplant from Southern California who’s turned her computer hacking skills into a legitimate business, is chosen at an annual festival to be the town’s Snow Queen, and is drawn out of her shell by Dylan Tucker, the newly crowned Snow King. Love soon follows, but a secret Dylan’s keeping may threaten their happiness. Mallery highlights the charm and community of her inviting small-town setting while still exploring grounded real-life issues. Add in undeniable Christmas cheer, and this feel-good holiday romance proves irresistible.
Memoirist Belcourt (A History of My Brief Body) delivers an achingly gorgeous debut novel of Indigenous survival. The unnamed narrator, a 24-year-old queer Cree graduate student living in Edmonton, Alberta, has stalled on his dissertation in critical theory. He decides to leave the program and return home to northern Alberta to write a novel. For research, he interviews locals, including a great-aunt whose grandson has been arrested and a newspaper editor who never came out as gay after losing his first love to suicide. Even the narrator’s depiction of a hookup with a visiting white man veers into a precise, insightful excavating of trauma. A trip to the nearby residential school sparks an unpleasant encounter with an entitled white woman before the narrator returns to Edmonton for one last interview. Belcourt weaves in a steady stream of references to work by Judith Butler, Roland Barthes, and Maggie Nelson without losing narrative momentum, and he delivers incendiary reflections on the costs, scars, and power of history and community. This is a breathtaking and hypnotic achievement.
Pushcart Prize winner Moss (Vanishing New York) reflects in these razor-sharp essays on how life in New York City changed when the “New People” (“young and funded... utterly unblemished, physically fit and clean-cut, as bland as skim milk and unsalted Saltines”) fled during the Covid-19 pandemic. Moss, who moved to the East Village in the 1990s as a “young, queer, transsexual poet,” opens with a lacerating account of how his building has changed in recent decades, describing neighbors who presume their “total security and comfort” and fill restaurants with overbearing noise “charged with social status.” Though he savored the “velvet drape of silence” that descended when these New People abandoned the city in March 2020, he also had to reckon with fear and isolation. “Buddy, if this goes on much longer,” a pizza vendor tells him, “you should buy a gun. We’re all gonna need guns.” Nevertheless, “the weird magic of pandemic time” allowed Moss to rediscover the “subterranean feeling” he used to experience in New York and to meet the “radicals, skateboarders, artists, and eccentrics” who stayed behind. Shot through with pinpoint character sketches, incisive reportage on the Occupy City Hall protest movement, and lucid discussions of queer theory, this is a vital contribution to New York City history.
Science journalist Quammen (Spillover) recounts in page-turning detail the scientific response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many scientists, the author writes, have seen a covid-like pandemic coming for years, thanks in part to the 2003 SARS outbreak that ended up being something of “a rehearsal,” though one that made “the significance of super-spreaders... painfully clear.” But SARS-CoV-2, aka the virus that causes Covid-19, is different in its makeup, and parts of its genome made “the virus more capable of infecting humans.” As well, Quammen breaks down how viruses jump from animals to humans, explains that “this virus is going to be with us forever” as it continues to adapt, and makes a convincing case that “we should stop thinking about the ‘origin’ of SARS-CoV-2, and proceed by thinking about its origins, plural.” Terms, such as RNA, “variant,” and “herd immunity” are accessibly explained, and the narrative is punctuated with vivid portraits of such scientists as Anthony Fauci; Zhengli Shi, a senior scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and molecular virologist Michael Worobey, who tracked the virus’s evolution. This is a must-read for anyone looking to get a better handle on the pandemic so far.
Set in 1935, “smack in the crosshairs of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl,” Loewenstein’s excellent sequel to 2018’s Death of a Rainmaker continues the saga of life in the small town of Vermillion, Okla. Sheriff Temple Jennings is used to dealing with balky stray cows and occasional moonshiners. Then his comfortable routine is shattered by a passenger train derailment that turns out to have been caused by sabotage. Eccentric but shrewd railroad detective Claude Steele is soon on the scene to figure out who could have been angry and mean enough to do such a thing. Meanwhile, Temple has to solve the murder of Ruthie-Jo Mitchem, “who made it her business to know everything possible about everyone else.” Ruthie-Jo’s death may be related to the train wreck—or to her snooping into her neighbors’ business. He also frets about his wife, Etha, who was severely injured when the train crashed, and about his responsibilities to the vulnerable people who depend on him. Loewenstein gives a rich sense of the period and place, and dramatically shows how hard times can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. Historical regional mysteries don’t get much better than this.
Journalist Bernick (The Family Sabbatical Handbook) delivers a poignant, witty, and often painful chronicle of growing up in a Jewish family in a predominantly Christian suburb of Minneapolis in the 1960s. She and her family were tolerated but certainly not accepted, being treated to a “different perspective of Minnesota’s brand of ‘nice.’ ” Bernick draws in the reader with humor and pathos as she recalls running away at age five and riding the bus for hours without really being noticed (until she returned home to a beating and then apology from her apoplectic mother). Her attempts at assimilation, she writes, left her feeling invisible: “Jews. They’re a little... different,” is how she sums up the midwestern “nuanced antisemitism.” Anecdotes follow as she recounts her grandfather’s story (in a “Polish/Russian accent”) of keeping back the cream when the family’s cow’s milk was stolen by Nazis, and her mother’s determined and defiant run in the Mrs. Minnesota contest. Punctuated with sections such as “Three Jewish Jokes,” a brief history of Betty Crocker as a modern woman archetype, and a recipe for Waikiki meatballs (a dish that led her parents to bicker about the price of canned pineapple), Bernick’s nimble storytelling has much to love. It’s an insightful and spot-on mélange of perfectly preserved stories on place, history, and family.
Cardinal (Category Five) delivers a stunning, magic-infused tale of family ties and secrets. In the 1970s, eight-year-old Isla Larsen Sanchez is sent from New Jersey to Puerto Rico by her mother to live with relatives while Isla’s father is terminally ill. Isla returns to New Jersey after her father’s death, where her mother pulls her out of Catholic school. She struggles to fit in at the public school and continues to spend summers in Puerto Rico. When Isla is 18, she begins to see stories in her head and experience visions of significant events in the lives of long-deceased relatives, such as a story her grandmother told her about monkeys escaping from the zoo. Eventually, Isla learns that she comes from generations of cuentistas, or storytellers, including her recently deceased grandmother. But when the tenor of her visions turns violent (a later iteration of the monkey story ends with a gunshot), Isla has to uncover the secrets her family has been hiding for generations—before they harm or possibly kill her. Cardinal’s storytelling prowess shines in this beautifully imagined and multilayered story, as do her fully developed characters. Fans of sweeping family sagas will enjoy every page.
In this unflinching English-language debut from Ecuadorian writer Ponce, a 38-year-old woman wrestles with life-changing decisions. The author adopts a stream-of-consciousness style for the unnamed narrator, who enjoys roller-skating in Ecuador with her girlfriends and drinking in bars. With her marriage on the rocks, the narrator develops a torrid affair with a stranger who resides in a cave-like hovel, coated in vines, moss, and mud. Their attraction is intense and visceral; while on her period, her blood heightens his desire. After her husband announces he’s leaving her, he informs her that he’s also having an affair. Her own affair, which is purely physical, leaves her unsatisfied and lonely. While despondent after realizing she’s in love with the cave dweller, she drives drunk and believes she hits a man with her car, which destabilizes her. She seeks refuge at a retreat that temporarily salves her heartache over her lover and guilt over the accident, though she wonders if the crash was a hallucination. Ponce brings striking candor to the narrator’s ambivalence as she undergoes a series of emotional transformations, and Booker expertly captures the rhythm and velocity of Ponce's prose, which skims along the surface before plunging into startling depths, such as this scene with the narrator and her husband: “we talked about friends, filed a few complaints, and then he said he’d met someone. I asked her name and then came the quiet that warns of the greatest danger.” Ponce packs a powerful punch.