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Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else

Jordan Ellenberg. Penguin Press, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-984-87905-9

Math professor Ellenberg (How Not to Be Wrong) shows how challenging mathematics informs real-world problems in this breezy survey. “Geometry,” Ellenberg writes, is “at the heart of what’s required for real figuring in the world,” and in 14 chapters, he covers such questions as why polling works and how artificial intelligence plays chess. In “How Many Holes Does a Straw Have,” he uses topology to prove that the answer is one (pants, meanwhile, have two). Especially relevant are his explanations of the math behind Covid-19 case growth and why more testing makes sense, and how geometry plays into politics. On the thorny issue of redistricting, he convincingly argues that there is significant electoral inequality at play and that math can help solve the problem of gerrymandering. Ellenberg digs into the human side of the science by sharing tales of the feuds and disagreements that punctuated the history of the field (such as a rivalry between a chess master and a computer program) and paying tribute to the genius of the mathematicians whose work underlies today’s disciplines. Math-minded readers will be rewarded with a greater understanding of the world around them. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME. (May)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California

Matthew Specktor. Tin House, $17.95 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-951142-62-9

Specktor (American Dream Machine), a novelist and film critic, calls on both skills in this fascinating look at Hollywood, a place that’s “as much a notion as it is a neighborhood.” To better understand his “gnawing fascination” with his hometown and its promise “against some very steep odds for ‘success,’ ” he surveys a range of “marginal” Hollywood figures who were drawn to its flame, but “whose careers carry an aura of what might, also, have been.” These include film director Frank Perry, whose “modest” reputation obscured the “substantial” body of work of his partner and wife Eleanor Perry, thanks to the industry’s “institutional and overt sexism”—a situation that echoes the careers of Specktor’s film industry parents. Rock singer-songwriter Warren Zevon (and former paramour of writer Eve Babitz) may have been born in Chicago, but his music was conceived from “the mirage of Hollywood... like an all-night casino, in which every gesture has the force of desperation while remaining... fundamentally lighthearted.” Meanwhile, an illuminating essay on Specktor’s childhood idol, the novelist Thomas McGuane, considers how he left the “sheer California chaos” that both fueled and imperiled his writing for a quiet life in Montana. This enthralling work deserves a central spot on the ever-growing shelf of books about Tinseltown. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Razorblade Tears

S.A. Cosby. Flatiron, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-25270-8

In this strong crime novel from Thriller Award finalist Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland), the double murder of married couple Isiah Randolph and Derek Jenkins, shot dead outside “a fancy wine store” in Richmond, Va., drives African American Ike Randolph and self-proclaimed redneck Buddy Lee Jenkins, both hardened ex-cons, to track down their sons’ killers. For the fathers, it’s not just simple vengeance but a matter of redemption for having rejected their sons because they were gay. Ike and Buddy Lee soon realize that the double killing was not merely a hate crime but tied to their sons’ search for an elusive girl known only as Tangerine. Looking for Tangerine leads the pair to a Nazi biker gang, and when Ike and Buddy Lee refuse to back off after a violent encounter, things escalate: Ike’s home is destroyed, his wife seriously injured, and their granddaughter abducted. The relentless pace and at times brutal action stand out, but more memorable are the richly developed characters of Ike and Buddy Lee. Along the way, the book provides a nuanced take on contemporary race and LGBTQ issues of a type not commonly found in crime fiction. Chalk up another winner to Cosby. Agent: Josh Getzler, HG Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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An Irish Hostage: A Bess Crawford Mystery

Charles Todd. Morrow, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-285985-3

Set in 1919, this subpar 12th Bess Crawford mystery (after Mary Higgins Clark Award–winner Todd’s 2019’s A Cruel Deception) takes Bess, who served as a British army nurse during WWI, to Ireland to attend the wedding of Eileen Flynn, a nurse whose life she saved at the war’s start. Upon arriving in Eileen’s village, Bess discovers that her friend’s fiancé, Michael Sullivan, an Irishman who fought for England during the war, has disappeared, but it’s not clear who might have abducted him, or if he’s even still alive. Bess gets a mixed reception from the locals, many of whom are openly hostile to her as an Englishwoman and regard Michael’s choice to aid Britain as traitorous. The capable nurse ends up with a murder to solve as well. Todd (the pen name of mother-son team Caroline and Charles Todd) normally has a steady hand at creating solid characters, but doesn’t do so with the Irish who are seeking independence, and the whodunit is less gripping than usual. In addition, Bess acting as an amateur sleuth in peacetime makes it harder to suspend disbelief. Todd is capable of better. Agent: Lisa Gallagher, DeFiore and Co. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Stolen: A Memoir

Elizabeth Gilpin. Grand Central, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-538-73544-2

Actor and producer Gilpin debuts with a searing indictment of the billion-dollar “Troubled Teen Industry” and the boarding school that upended her life. She relates how in high school, she was a successful student who also battled depression and rage. After months of clashing with her parents, she was taken to an “educational consultant” who recommended she be sent to a behavioral modification program. Following the program’s protocol, professional escorts pulled 15-year-old Gilpin from her bed one night and took her deep into the Appalachian Mountains, where she was forced to live in the wilderness and partake in humiliating group therapy sessions. Three months later, she was sent to Carlbrook, a boarding school in Virginia that touted a therapeutic curriculum but in reality applied a shame-based “one-size-fits-all treatment plan” to students who suffered from everything from opioid addiction to “playing too many video games.” Gilpin is a captivating writer, made even more impressive by the fact that her formal education at Carlbrook wasn’t just abysmal, but involved psychological torture—such as having a flashlight beam shot into her eyes nightly as she attempted to sleep—until she graduated at age 17. By confronting the ugliness of a system that almost killed her, Gilpin emerges victorious in a narrative that radiates with humanity. This unflinching account is impossible to put down. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Desert Torn Asunder

Bradley P. Beaulieu. Daw, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1465-8

Beaulieu’s The Song of the Shattered Sands series comes to a thunderous conclusion (after When Jackals Storm the Walls) in which the fate of the Great Shangazi Desert hinges on a select few who seek to stop a mad former queen’s quest to raise an elder god. Çeda, one of the lost 13th tribe of the desert, must use visions granted by the sacred acacia tree to convince the shaikhs of the other twelve tribes to come to the city of Sharakhai’s rescue. Elsewhere in the sands, Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, searches for the resting place of the god Ashael, hoping to use his power to regain her own, while Ramahd of Qaimir and the Sharakhani King Ihsan follow arcane clues in hopes of thwarting her. Queen Alansal of Mirea, meanwhile, controls the city, where she uses her water dancers to foresee the movements of enemy armies. And the blood mage Davud seeks a way to close the mystical gateway to the lands beyond that the younger gods hope to force open. Beaulieu packs in enough magic and battle for multiple books while satisfyingly wrapping up the stories of the multifaceted cast. Epic fantasy fans won’t want to miss it. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Tokyo Ever After (Tokyo Ever After #1)

Emiko Jean. Flatiron, $18.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-76660-1

Mount Shasta, Calif., high school senior Izumi Tanaka is a normal 18-year-old American girl: she enjoys baking, watching Real Housewives, and dressing like “Lululemon’s sloppy sister.” But Japanese American Izzy, conceived during a one-night stand in her mother Hanako’s final year at Harvard, has never known the identity of her father. So when she and her best friend find a letter in Hanako’s bedroom, the duo jump at the chance to ferret out Izzy’s dad’s true identity—only to find out he’s the Crown Prince of Japan. Desperate to know her father, Izzy agrees to spend the summer in his home country. But press surveillance, pressure to quickly learn the language and etiquette, and an unexpected romance make her time in Tokyo more fraught than she imagined. Add in a medley of cousins and an upcoming wedding, and Izzy is in for an unforgettable summer. Abrupt switches from Izzy’s perspective to lyrical descriptions of Japan may disrupt readers’ enjoyment, but a snarky voice plus interspersed text conversations and tabloid coverage keep the pages turning in Jean’s (Empress of All Seasons) fun, frothy, and often heartfelt duology starter. Ages 12–up. Agent: Erin Harris, Folio Literary Management. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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That Thing about Bollywood

Supriya Kelkar. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5344-6673-9

Kelkar’s (Bindu’s Bindis) novel features Oceanview Academy middle schooler Sonali, whose stoicism contrasts with her love of Bollywood movies’ melodrama. Stuck in a Los Angeles home with constantly arguing parents and her sensitive nine-year-old brother Ronak, Gujarati American Sonali, 11, tries to make sense of her world through the Hindi movies she’s seen all her life. Ever since an earnest public attempt five years ago to stop her parents’ fighting led to widespread embarrassment in front of family, Sonali has resolved to hide her emotions and do her best to ignore her parents’ arguments. But her efforts prove futile when her parents decide to try the “nesting” method of separation, where they take turns living in the house with Sonali and Ronak. The contemporary narrative takes an entertaining fabulist turn as Sonali’s life begins to transform into a Bollywood movie, with everything she feels and thinks made apparent through her “Bollywooditis.” Sonali’s first-person perspective is sympathetic as she navigates friendship and family drama, and Kelkar successfully infuses a resonant narrative with “filmi magic,” offering a tale with universal appeal through an engaging cultural lens. Ages 8–12. Agent: Kathleen Rushall, Andrea Brown Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shadows Over London (Empire of the House of Thorns #1)

Christian Klaver. CamCat, $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7443-0376-6

When she was six, Justice Kasric watched her blue-eyed merchant father play chess with the Faerie King. Now 15, Justice believes the event was merely a dream. She spends her days yearning for adventure, watching from the sidelines while her 16-year-old sister Faith, as slender and golden-haired as Justice but not as curious, becomes the toast of Victorian London society. One night, however, their father shatters their comfortable lifestyles when he forces the family—Justice, Faith, their younger brother Henry, and their constantly medicated, distant mother—into a locked carriage that takes them to a shadowy mansion. Justice’s discovery that the Faerie have invaded the human world and are targeting her family gains further urgency when she learns that her parents are on opposite sides of the conflict. Together, the Kasric siblings—including older brothers Benedict and Joshua—must find a way to save their family. While characters lack depth at times, and insufficient historical details don’t fully evoke the Victorian setting, Klaver’s (the Supernatural Case Files of Sherlock Holmes series) rich, lyrical descriptions augment the fantastical source material in this engaging series starter. Ages 13–up. Agent: Lucienne Diver, the Knight Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Lake

Natasha Preston. Delacorte, $10.99 paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-12497-0

Nine years before this novel begins, eight-year-old best friends Esme Randal and Kayla Price snuck out of their cabin at Camp Pine Lake in Texas. They swore never to discuss the terrible events that followed, but when the girls, now 17, return to the camp as counselors-in-training from their hometown of Lewisburg, Pa., that proves easier said than done. Someone begins sabotaging camp activities, and ominous—and increasingly public—threats appear, referencing that fateful summer. The only other person who knows Esme and Kayla’s secret is a local girl named Lillian Campbell, whom they left to fend for herself that night in the woods. They’re loath to voice their suspicions of revenge lest they get in trouble or look bad in front of hunky fellow counselors Jake and Olly, but as events escalate, they realize they may not have a choice. Narrating from Esme’s increasingly apprehensive first-person perspective, Preston (The Twin) pays homage to classic summer camp slasher films. The underdeveloped, predominantly white cast relies heavily on stereotype, and the clichéd tormenter’s motive feels unearned, but horror fans will likely appreciate this paranoia-fueled tale’s gruesome, shocking close. Ages 12–up. Agent: Jon Elek, United Agents. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 05/07/2021 | Details & Permalink

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