The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Jennifer Homans, and Hayao Miyazaki.
At the start of this stunning series launch from Khan (the Esa Khattak series), the corpse of high school student and Syrian refugee Razan Elkader is found nailed to the door of a mosque in Blackwater Falls, Colo. Lt. Waqas Seif of the Community Response Unit, a small team assigned to cases involving vulnerable and minority groups, selects detective Inaya Rahman for the investigation, her first hands-on case since moving to Blackwater six months earlier. Rahman discovers that two Somali girls who were friends of Razan’s disappeared months before, but were dismissed as runaways by Blackwater’s powerful sheriff, who’s known to mistreat minorities. Though the girls’ bodies haven’t been found, Rahman fears they too may be dead. Activist-attorney Areesha Adams and criminal psychologist Catalina Hernandez offer Rahman both support and assistance as the investigation leads to the aerospace company at which Razan had interned, the meatpacking plant that employs the three girls’ fathers, and an anti-Muslim evangelical church. When Seif unexpectedly starts to oppose Rahman’s efforts, she wonders whether he has an agenda other than solving the crime. Khan brilliantly depicts the complexities of her characters and the tensions of a multicultural American community struggling with bias, fear, and corruption. At once suspenseful, moving, and thought-provoking, this is not to be missed.
The legendary choreographer made ballet—and ballerinas—a religion according to this entrancing biography from New Yorker dance critic Homans (Apollo’s Angels). The volume follows Balanchine (1904–1983) from ballet training in Tsarist St. Petersburg through his time starving in revolutionary Petrograd and absorbing avant-garde innovations as an exile in 1920s Europe, to his reign at New York City Ballet beginning in the 1930s. Homans charts a visionary modernism that took Balanchine from pirouetting individualism to an abstract style that immersed dancers in plotless patterns of collective movement, with a “spiritual” cast, influenced by everything from Orthodox icons to Spinoza’s philosophy. Homans’s Balanchine is a charming, supremely competent but also romantic figure, and she focuses on the dynamic of inspiration and attraction between him and his ballerinas—he married several—culminating in his besotted infatuation with the decades-younger Suzanne Farrell, his “grand obsession” who ruled him, Homans contends, until she married another dancer and was (temporarily) cast out. Homans, an ex-ballerina who trained at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, knows this world well and combines marvelous recreations of dances—“she leaned, spiderlike, almost crawling on his spine”—with novelistic evocations of character. The result is a revelatory, aptly melodramatic portrait of Balanchine and his aesthetic.
Animator Miyazaki (Spirited Away) has released only a few comics in his career; this lush fantasy, available in English for the first time, is cause for celebration. First published in Japan in 1983, it takes inspiration from a Tibetan folktale, spun into an original story with Miyazaki’s humanistic, abundantly imaginative touch. Young Prince Shuna leaves his small, struggling kingdom (“Beautiful and brutal was the nature,” intones the lyrical translation) in search of a fabled “golden grain” to feed his people. Traveling through wastelands with only a few pockets of civilization, he finds a harsh society driven by violence, slavery, and desperation. After a descent into the baffling Land of the God-Folk, he must rely on the kindness and strength of two sisters he once saved. Miyazaki is truly a master of worldbuilding, and this ecologically devastated fairy tale world feels more and more prescient of a postapocalyptic future. The format is a cross between manga and a picture book, with blocks of text describing the action in the delicate, earth-toned watercolor illustrations. The panels are packed with evocative cultural details: embroidered costumes, weathered buildings, rooms painted with murals and hung with tapestries, and towering statues from a forgotten past. Miyazaki’s art has a timeless beauty, and the theme of small human kindnesses redeeming a cruel and dehumanizing world feels more relevant than ever. Don’t miss this one.
Historian Gaskill (Between Two Worlds) combines first-rate historical research with a driving narrative in this captivating study of a married couple accused of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. Mary Lewis and Hugh Parsons arrived separately in Springfield, Mass., in 1645 and married later that year. According to Gaskill, the community’s growth and prosperity also brought “competition and unrest,” as well as fears about external enemies, political instabilities, and diversions from Puritan orthodoxy. Residents became convinced that a series of odd occurrences meant the devil was in Springfield, and suspicion soon fell on the Parsons. Mary, who had three children by 1650 and likely suffered from postpartum depression, didn’t behave like a proper Puritan wife, while Hugh was beset by health problems and bad dreams, and exhibited a lack of emotion following his son’s death. (He was also accused of causing a cow to act strangely and knives to disappear.) Though the General Court in Boston found the evidence of the Parsons’ witchcraft insufficient, Mary died in prison awaiting execution for the self-confessed killing of one of her sons. Hugh, meanwhile, moved with their daughter to Rhode Island, where he prospered. Gaskill’s vibrant portraits of Springfield community members, especially town founder and magistrate William Pynchon, an amateur theologian whose life “had been stalked by war, hunger and pestilence,” and lucid explanations of Puritan theology and Massachusetts’s intertwined laws of church and state make for dense yet riveting reading. This portrait of early America fascinates.
“Like periods, these histories are not tidy or neat,” writes Nalebuff (Stages) in her introduction to this powerful collection. Contributors include members of Nalebuff’s family, as well as activists, artists, and other visionaries. Ma Xiao Ling describes the secretive nature surrounding getting one’s period in China during the Cultural Revolution, Mariana Roa Oliva reflects on the relationship between menstruation and gender, and Judy Blume recalls wishing her period would come. “You’d think that a fourteen-year-old girl, desperate to get her period, would have a clue what this is. But I don’t,” she writes. A section on “menstrual justice” features Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate,” which argues for “federally funded and free” period products, and a conversation about “the intersection of menstrual equity and climate justice.” Nalebuff interjects frequently with commentary and anecdotes, artfully linking stories together (“At the time that the essay was published, it was viewed as satire. After all the above conversations, [it] reads pretty differently,” she notes of Steinem’s essay). Bold and candid, these missives go a long way in breaking through what one contributor calls “the taboo of bleeding.”
Fay’s enthralling second Marrowbone Spells fantasy (after Innate Magic) thrusts an impetuous mage into the center of a tumultuous political conflict. In the late 1950s, four years after charming but foolhardy mage Paul Gallagher defeated the last threat to Great Britain, the country is in peril yet again as the conservative political group, the Virtuis Party, rises to power. Paul, who has fallen into favor with the royal family through his role as Princess Katherine’s personal dressmaker and friend, has a front row seat to the madness. Things take a turn for the worse when the Virtuis Party’s mysterious leader reveals he knows of Paul’s innate magic, a rare, illegal power that allows Paul to create other mages and perform dark miracles. Paul becomes key to the party’s plan to catapult Britain into fascism—which means he’s also the only person who can stop it. There are myriad moving pieces to Fay’s intense plot, but she manages to preserve her dry, witty voice even in the most outlandish situations. Series fans will be eager to see what Paul and his equally delightful and eccentric friends are up to, and new readers will find it easy to jump in. This is a treat.
Holdt sticks the landing with the satisfying conclusion to her Hanged God trilogy (following 2021’s Shackled Fates), a fascinating exploration of whether the universe is governed by fate or free will. The plot centers on whether Ragnarok, the long-foretold twilight of the Norse gods, can be averted as two characters attempt to stop it in very different ways. Ragnar, a bard who has repeatedly miraculously survived dying, knows that Odin, the Alfather, is prophesied to die during Ragnarok, “torn apart by the great wolf, Fenrir,” one of the trickster god Loki’s three monstrous children. So Ragnar decides to kill Odin himself as soon as possible, thus preempting the fall of the gods. Meanwhile, Ragnar’s daughter Hilda, a warrior who survived her hometown’s destruction and is haunted by visions of Ragnarok, adopts a different plan. Hilda hopes to kill Fenrir so that the beast will not be alive to kill Odin. Holdt keeps readers on the edge of their seats as to whether either long-shot scheme will succeed—and how they might affect the fates of gods and men. Lush prose and epic battles only enhance this well-crafted series finale from a rising genre talent.