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No Place like Murder: True Crime in the Midwest

Janice Thornton. Quarry, $20 trade paper (270p) ISBN 978-0-25305-278-0

Drawing on newspaper records and government archives, Thornton (Too Good a Girl) brings to vivid life 20 grisly crimes that were committed between 1869 and 1950 in the Midwest. One of the more sensational crimes was the slaughter of the Agrue family on their Indiana farm in 1941. Virginius Carter had a strange relationship with the family, having been married to two of the daughters. Carter’s first wife hated him, but her sister, his second wife, was still in love with him when he was accused of the shotgun murder of their parents, two brothers, and an 11-year-old niece for no apparent reason. He confessed, but then denied he killed the family in court. He was convicted and died in the electric chair. Another killer was Don Snider, accused of poisoning his wife, daughter, and the family dog in 1876. He was tried three times and sent to prison for life, but served only 17 years before being pardoned. In 1920, Snider’s second wife died in a suspicious fire, and he himself died nine years later when he was hit by a train. Thornton expertly marshals all the salient lurid details in these and the 18 other cases she chronicles. True crime fans will be well satisfied. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. the Will of the People

Barry C. Lynn. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-24062-0

Open Markets Institute director Lynn (Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction) contends in this forceful and well-documented account that shifts in regulating monopolies that began in the 1980s and ’90s have led to today’s economic and political woes. For the bulk of American history, Lynn writes, so-called “common carrier” laws ensured “that any corporation that controlled access to a vital service treated every person who depended on that monopoly the same.” But when “neoliberal reactionaries” in the Reagan and Clinton administrations rolled back these and other regulations, the road was paved for Amazon, Facebook, and Google to amass unprecedented power “by deliver[ing] to each of us different information, different prices, different services.” Drawing on the personal information consumers provide, these companies and other “platform monopolists” now have the ability, Lynn argues, to “manipulate” Americans “to a degree that no previous private power, in any nation, has ever come close to achieving.” He dives deep into antitrust law, trade policy, electoral politics, economic theory, and legislative history to make his case, but doesn’t provide much in the way of a practical path forward. Still, this is an eye-opening and persuasive defense of robust antitrust enforcement as essential to the core principles of American democracy. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Overstated: A Coast-to-Coast Roast of the 50 States

Colin Quinn. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-250-26844-0

Comedian Quinn (The Coloring Book) pokes fun at America’s regional idiosyncracies in this quip-filled survey of U.S. history. Tracking how the country got to the point “where everybody is broken up into cults trying to force their values and ideals onto each other,” Quinn takes on each state one by one. Noting that New Hampshire was the first state to declare its independence from England, he compares the December 1774 raid on Fort William and Mary to “going into a rough sports bar and turning off the game everyone’s watching and putting on The Devil Wears Prada.” He describes Idaho as having “the beauty of Wyoming combined with the boredom of Iowa” and calls out South Dakota for “riding off the fact that North Dakota looks at you like you are the hip brother.” Though Quinn holds out little hope for the long-term health of the union (“this country was supposed to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse”), he thinks Americans should take pride in the fact that “we let everybody have a personality.” Though more incisive in its cultural skewering than its political analysis, Quinn’s sardonic portrait of America in decline will resonate with readers suspicious of ideological stalwarts on both the right and the left. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mueller Report: Graphic Novel

Shannon Wheeler and Steve Duin. IDW, $15.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-68405-668-2

Wheeler (Sh*t My President Says) and Duin (Comics: Between the Panels) play it up for a lefty base (who may be familiar with Wheeler’s alt-press Too Much Coffee Man series) in their addition to the growing stack of graphic and parody titles to illustrate special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, joining the more straitlaced entry by the Washington Post and others like Mewler Report: Mueller Report with Cats. This satirical summary makes no pretense at balance: the cover design depicts Mueller pursuing a fleeing baby president and the frontispiece has Trump defacing “E Pluribus Unum” by inserting an M to make ME. Wheeler breaks the report in half, covering first possible intrusion into the 2016 election, and then the potential collusion to cover it up. Caricatures and gags adorn and dance around commentary, such as when Vladimir Putin plays with puppets of Trump and Paul Manafort, or Trump eats trash food. A detailed timeline in the back breaks down events chronologically, but there are no annotations or a bibliography designating sources for analysis of the report. While it lacks nuance, the humor makes fast work of thorny material. This wisecracking digest version offers a resource for those already inclined against Trump, but who haven’t yet studied the report and want some chuckles as they catch up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Lying Life of Adults

Elena Ferrante, trans from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, $26 (324p) ISBN 978-1-60945-591-0

A single comment can change a life, or for Giovanna, the adolescent only child of a middle-class Neapolitan couple in the early 1990s and narrator of Ferrante’s sumptuous latest (after The Story of the Lost Child), it can set it in motion. “She’s getting the face of Vittoria,” Giovanna’s father, Andrea, says about her, referring to Giovanna’s estranged aunt Vittoria, whom Andrea disdains and calls ugly. The comment provokes Giovanna into seeking out Vittoria on the other side of Naples, where she finds a beautiful, fiery woman, consumed by bitterness over a lover’s death and resentful of Andrea’s arrogance at having climbed the social ladder. Andrea can’t save Giovanna from Vittoria’s influence, and their relationship will affect those closest to Giovanna as family secrets unravel and disrupt the harmony of her quiet life. Giovanna’s parents’ devastating marital collapse, meanwhile, causes her to be distracted at school and held back a year, and prompts Giovanna into a steely self-awareness as she has her first sexual experiences along a bumpy ride toward adulthood. Themes of class disparity and women’s coming-of-age are at play much as they were in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but the depictions of inequality serve primarily as a backdrop to Giovanna’s coming-of-age trials that buttress the gripping, plot-heavy tale. While this feels minor in comparison to Ferrante’s previous work, Giovanna is the kind of winning character readers wouldn’t mind seeing more of. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

Louis P. Masur. Oxford Univ, $29.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-19-069257-5

Rutgers University history professor Masur (Lincoln’s Last Speech) balances “the reprehensible and the redemptive” in this judicious single-volume history of the U.S. Taking the book’s title from a 2007 speech by Barack Obama on the plurality of “American dreams,” Masur pays close attention to the country’s record of violence and racial animus, as well as its democratic impulses and unprecedented economic opportunities. Moving chronologically, he devotes each chapter to a distinct time period, addressing five key events, trends, or issues within that era. The chapter on pre–Civil War America, for instance, includes sections on the Compromise of 1850, the “Bleeding Kansas” skirmishes between pro- and antislavery partisans, and abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Masur also details lesser-known developments such as the conflicts between capital and labor during the Gilded Age, the development of post-WWII suburbia, and the “stagflation” of the 1970s. Throughout, his insights and succinct character sketches (on reformist Wisconsin governor Robert La Follette: “One of the most charismatic orators of the day, his full head of hair would whip from side to side and the veins in his neck popped as he denounced corporate power and political corruption”) give the book the feel of an excellent undergraduate survey course. American history buffs will savor this well-executed chronicle. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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One Morning

Jessica Hagy. Tartarus, $45 (244p) ISBN 978-1-912586-26-4

Hagy’s fascinating debut novel (after Indexed, a collection of her blog posts) takes place over 12 hours starting at midnight, with each hour narrated by one of 12 women living in the dying, former coal mining town of Gour Borough, Pa. Built on an area where “sinkholes... bloom like dandelions,” the town subtlety serves as the catalyst for each of the narrators. They include a theatrical costumer who specializes in using animal hides and bones in her work, and uses arson as a means to unwind; two children who have been held hostage by a mad woman for years; a wife who chooses a passive route to murder; a diner owner with a secret flair for finance; a hotelier with a daring plan to “save the hotel, revive the town, keep everyone and then some employed”; a maid overwhelmed by misfortune; and a disgruntled geologist who’s “working at the bakery until she begins her PhD in the fall.” Each voice is captivating and distinct, and each adds a new level of urgency that leads to the haunting finale. The big mystery is how the stories will intersect and affect one another. This elegantly told and thought-provoking work deserves a wide audience. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Ancestor

Lee Matthew Goldberg. All Due Respect, $18.95 trade paper (350p) ISBN 978-1-64396-114-9

Gold prospector Wyatt Barlow, the hero of this mediocre thriller from Goldberg (The Mentor), became frozen in the Alaskan ice in 1898, but somehow managed to stay alive until 2020, when he breaks free. After killing a wolf for food and its pelt, he wanders into the nearest town, where he confronts countless things that are new to him, such as unfamiliar food and technology. Wyatt encounters a bigger shock when he spots a man who appears to be his double, who he eventually realizes is his great-great-grandson Travis Barlow. Wyatt gradually works his way into his descendant’s life, while holding back his real identity. The prospector finds a prostitute with a heart of gold and struggles with substance abuse and his propensity to violence. Flashbacks to his life before the ice are of little more interest. Along the way, Goldberg doesn’t bother to sweat the details. Though Barlow went into suspended animation before there was an IRS or federal income tax, he understands the tax implications of being paid off the books in cash. This spin on “Rip Van Winkle” doesn’t make its premise pay off. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Girls of Brackenhill

Kate Moretti. Thomas & Mercer, $15.95 trade paper (372p) ISBN 978-1-5420-0008-6

In 2019, Hannah Maloney, the heroine of this riveting thriller from bestseller Moretti (The Vanishing Year), is living in Virginia with her fiancé, Huck, when she receives a phone call letting her know that her aunt Fae has been in a car accident. Though Hannah hasn’t spoken to Fae in 17 years, she’s listed as Fae’s emergency contact. After Hannah and Huck arrive at Brackenhill, her aunt Fae and uncle Stuart’s castle home in the Catskills, Hannah learns that Fae has died from her injuries, and Stuart is gravely ill with cancer. Hannah and her sister, Julia, used to spend summers at Brackenhill, until the summer 17 years earlier that Julia disappeared. When Hannah’s dog uncovers a human bone on her aunt’s property, the police, led by police officer Wyatt McCarran, who was Hannah’s first boyfriend in their teens, investigate, though Hannah is sure the bone is her sister’s. Meanwhile, Hannah has disturbing dreams and episodes of sleepwalking, and she’s again attracted to Wyatt. Flashbacks to the summer Julia vanished heighten the suspense. Fans of gothic mysteries with a touch of the supernatural will be richly rewarded. Agent: Mark Gottlieb, Trident Media Group. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Robert B. Parker’s Fool’s Paradise: A Jesse Stone Novel

Mike Lupica. Putnam, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-525-54208-7

Edgar finalist Lupica captured the spirit and feel of the late Robert P. Parker’s Sunny Randall novels in Blood Feud and Grudge Match, but this novel featuring Parker’s Paradise, Mass., police chief Jesse Stone is strictly by-the-numbers. When a man is found in a lake, shot in the back of the head, Stone, a recovering alcoholic, is shocked to recognize him as Paul, whom he met in passing the night before at an AA meeting. As Stone and his number two, Molly Crane, probe who Paul is, they each come under attack: Stone from a shooter; Molly from an assailant from a knife. Lupica pulls his punches, however, as Stone and Molly avoid serious harm purely through chance. The routine investigation into the murder and the assaults fails to engage, and the prose doesn’t meet Parker’s standard (“She had a heart as big as the ocean, and was tough enough to clean up Afghanistan all by herself”). Lupica does nothing to develop the major continuity change Reed Farrel Coleman introduced to the franchise—giving Stone a previously unknown adult son who is pursuing a career in law enforcement. This is a disappointing offering from an author who’s capable of better. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM Partners. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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