The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.
Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.
Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.
A reprint of a minor novella first published in 1976 that’s still a full-blown freak show of serial murder, psychological self-torment, and literal disintegration.
Ever since he was plucked from inside a locker in a New York bus terminal shortly after his birth in 1944, Bobbie Gotteson, aka the Maniac, has shattered expectations, and not in a good way. He’s traveled the country as a singer and songwriter, screen-tested (or maybe not: the putative studio denies it, and no footage has survived) for a movie role, and spent considerable time in prison. Now, put on trial for one of nine murders, more or less, he’s accused of committing, he lets it all hang out, recalling his relationships with Melva, whose son he’s been mistaken for; Danny Minx, his rapist and protector in stir; Baby Sharleen, who killed herself before she could testify against him; and a host of wraithlike women who drift in and out of his consciousness. “Consciousness,” in fact, may be too definite a term for Bobbie’s monologue, which persistently tramples on the distinctions between inside and outside, laughing and screaming, guitars and machetes, Jesus and Satan, first and third person, and the sanity Bobbie claims and the madness he acknowledges. A straight-faced footnote announces early on that “all remarks in this strange document are the Maniac’s, even those he attributes to the ‘court’ and to other people.” Oates (My Life as a Rat, 2019, etc.) withholds the gruesome details of Bobbie’s butchery; the defiant confession of this fictional counterpart of Charles Manson is horrific, often carnivalesque, but never salacious or sensationalistic. As a bonus, this edition includes Love, Careless Love, a sequel of sorts that traces the doomed bond that forms between Dewalene, a young woman still traumatized by her encounter with Bobbie, and Jules, the disturbed young man hired for unknown reasons to keep an eye on her.
What’s most memorable about these twin blasts from the past is Oates’ mastery of distinctly different flavors of nightmare, from the surreal to the flat-out demented.
A reunion on Martha's Vineyard reopens old mysteries and wounds for three Vietnam-era college friends.
Russo's (The Destiny Thief, 2018, etc.) 14th book blends everything we love about this author with something new. Yes, this is a novel about male friendship, fathers and sons, small-town class issues, and lifelong crushes, and it provides the familiar pleasure of immersion in the author's distinctive, richly observed world and his inimitable ironic voice. But this is also a mystery about a 1971 cold case. At the center of it is one of Russo's impossibly magical women, one Jacy Rockafellow, who graduated Minerva College in Connecticut that year with three "hashers"—scholarship students who worked in the dining hall of her sorority and were also her closest friends. Mickey is the son of a West Haven construction worker, Teddy the offspring of Midwestern high school teachers, and Lincoln comes from Dunbar, Arizona, the only child of a tiny tyrant named Wolfgang Amadeus Moser—Dub Yay to his friends—and his downtrodden, docile wife, Trudy. Dub Yay announces that in order for Lincoln to go to college at a small East Coast liberal arts school, he, Dub Yay, would have to be dead. "A statement that was clearly designed to end this conversation, so Lincoln was surprised to see on his mother's face an unfamiliar expression that suggested she'd contemplated her husband's mortality with equanimity and was undeterred." Vintage Russo. All three boys are head over heels in love with Jacy, who is engaged to someone named Vance, Chance, or Lance, whom she seems to care about not a whit. Midway through their college years, the draft lottery occurs; one of the boys gets a very low number and is certain to be called up. A farewell weekend at Lincoln's mother's beach house on Martha's Vineyard turns out to be the last time Jacy is ever seen or heard of. When the three boys reunite there as 66-year-old men, they can't think of anything but her; cherchez la femme. No one understands men better than Russo, and no one is more eloquent in explaining how they think, suffer, and love.
At a rough time for masculinity, Russo's flawed but always decent characters are repositories of the classic virtues of their gender.
McCall Smith’s sequel to My Italian Bulldozer (2017, etc.) switches its focus from Italy to a small French village where the earlier novel’s hero, a Scottish food writer, falls into very mild adventures while trying to improve the local restaurant.
After finishing his recent food guide to Tuscany, 36-year-old Paul Stuart has returned to Edinburgh and is living “part-time” with his editor/girlfriend, Gloria. But Gloria’s cats prove an annoying distraction whenever Paul sits down to write his newly contracted book on the philosophy of food. When the already lukewarm romance with Gloria sputters out, he accepts an invitation from a relative known to their family as “Remarkable Cousin Chloe” to join her in a village near Poitiers. He’s hoping he’ll have the quiet and peace to finish his philosophy tome before his publisher’s six-month deadline. Instead he ends up hanging out with 50-something Chloe and the landladies of the villa she has leased. These older women involve him in various escapades surrounding the local restaurant described by the novel’s title. The waitress is busy hiding from her new baby’s nefarious father, so Chloe and Paul volunteer to take over for her; the owner, who has no cooking skills, falls for Chloe while Paul finds an unlikely ally in turning the food service around. Paul comments that Chloe strikes him as belonging to an earlier era “when people made tactless remarks and rarely apologized for what they were.” Actually, Chloe’s list of ex-husbands, her mysterious, rather daring career, and her New Age–y politics of kindness make her seem a more contemporary, as well as more intriguing, character than Paul himself. He’s a young fogey who exhibits the formal, bloodless sensibility of someone around 70 (McCall Smith’s age)—affronted by students playing loud music, he rejects passes from several young women and is tired of song lyrics about love.
McCall Smith knows how to turn a phrase, but this novel never rises above a low simmer.
The Nobel laureate brings her unique style of collecting firsthand memories to the stories of those who were children during World War II.
Like all of Alexievich’s (The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, 2017, etc.) books, this one makes for a difficult but powerful reading experience. The Nazis ruthlessly killed entire villages or took all the men who might be partisans out to be shot, transporting women and children to concentration camps. One universal memory of these children was the complete lack of color: Everything was gray or black; spring never arrived. Many raged that they never had a childhood, which was stolen from them. As one 13-year-old recounts, “I learned to be a good shot….But I forgot my math….” The children were not immune to Nazi tortures, and the author does not hide that fact from readers. Even 70 years later, many couldn’t bear to remember the horrors of separation, the killings, and the hunger, which was perpetual—many ate grass, bark, even dirt. One man said there were no tears in him; he didn’t know how to cry. The ages of Alexievich’s subjects range from 4 to 15 years, most in the younger range because the teenagers were usually taken for slave labor or shot. Children were sold as slaves to German farmers and worked to death, but one of the most heinous crimes has to be the Aryan-looking children’s being taken to camps so their blood could be used for transfusions for injured soldiers. The stories of escaping to the East, many alone, are remarkable, especially as we see the total strangers who took them in and treated them as family. Strangers were all they knew, and it was strangers who saved them. There are some uplifting stories of parents finding their children after the war, but many never found anyone.
As usual, Alexievich shines a bright light on those who were there; an excellent book but not for the faint of heart.
High school students dabble in witchcraft in a race to break a deadly spell.
McKenna Brady is back from boarding school for winter break, having been expelled after unsuccessfully attempting to break Violet Simmons’ lethal curses. She now has just eight days to prevent Violet from killing her friend Mischa. Last fall, Violet predicted the deaths of their friends Olivia and Candace, with macabre details and accuracy during a game of Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. Now Violet is giving tarot card readings in school, and McKenna believes her predictions are connected to the lunar calendar. Aarsen quickly picks up where Light as a Feather (2018) leaves off, with improved results: The story is gripping and fast-paced, with sharper dialogue and plenty of hair-raising spookiness mixed with high school tomfoolery. Readers will devour the juicy occult particulars as McKenna discovers that she is a medium and teams up with friends to use a divination pendulum, phases of the moon, and other Wiccan magick to try to stop Violet. There’s much to enjoy here, but the main premise, that McKenna and her friends must somehow force Violet to lie down and play Light as a Feather, Cold as Marble to break the spell, is flimsy enough that one hopes Aarsen uses her growing talents on new material. Most characters are assumed white.
A lively and captivating teen paranormal ride.
Thirty-four wry bits of metafiction from the eternally ironic Klosterman (Chuck Klosterman X, 2017, etc.).
Billed as “Fictional Nonfiction,” in this we get more echoes of the creative process behind Gen X icon Klosterman’s two absurdist novels (Downtown Owl, 2008, and The Visible Man, 2011) than we do from his tart essays and meandering nonfiction. It kicks off with an interesting scenario in “Raised in Captivity,” in which a nominally successful dude is presented with an existential crisis when he discovers a puma in an airplane bathroom. It’s a bit worrisome that the collection is absolutely laced with confessions—the perp being interviewed in “Experience Music Project,” the dying father in “To Live in the Hearts of Those We Leave Behind Is Not to Die, Except That It Actually Is,” and the guy who swears he didn’t kill those people in “Execute Again,” to name just a few—but they’re acidly funny. Even stranger: The serial attacker in “Cat Person,” who...rubs cats on people, is drawn in glorious noir-tinged prose. Klosterman not only excels at character and dialogue, as the people and conversations in the book seem very organic, but he’s also keen on setting up offbeat scenarios, which often drift toward the bizarre. In “Every Day Just Comes and Goes,” a regular Joe finds himself arguing with a time traveler. There’s a surreal conversation about magic in “Tricks Aren’t Illusions.” A terribly polite housewife hires an overeager hit man in “Not That Kind of Person.” Elsewhere, Klosterman savages political correctness in “Toxic Actuality,” conjures up a band with a hit single that’s superracist in “Blizzard of Summer,” and imagines a death cult in Silicon Valley in “What About the Children.” Armed with everything from existential crises to a robot dinosaur, there’s really something for everyone in this crisp collection of imaginative snippets.
A colorful, somewhat wicked collection of stories that are touching as often as they are laugh-out-loud funny.
An abused boy fights back, escapes, then returns as an attorney to his beloved hometown, but just as he’s falling in love with a transplanted landscaper, a series of attacks from shadowy enemies jeopardizes their happiness.
“From the outside, the house in Lakeview Terrace looked perfect.” Which of course means that it wasn't. We're introduced to the horrifying Dr. Graham Bigelow, who beats his wife and, increasingly as the boy gets older, his son, Zane. On the night of Zane’s prom, a particularly savage attack puts him and his sister in the hospital, and his father blames Zane, landing him in jail. Then his sister stands up for him, enlisting the aid of their aunt, and everything changes, mainly due to Zane’s secret diaries. Nearly 20 years later, Zane leaves a successful career as a lawyer to return to Lakeview, where his aunt and sister live with their families, deciding to hang a shingle as a small-town lawyer. Then he meets Darby McCray, the landscaper who’s recently relocated and taken the town by storm, starting with the transformation of his family’s rental bungalows. The two are instantly intrigued by each other, but they move slowly into a relationship neither is looking for. Darby has a violent past of her own, so she is more than willing to take on the risk of antagonizing a boorish local family when she and Zane help an abused wife. Suddenly Zane and Darby face one attack after another, and even as they grow ever closer under the pressure, the dangers become more insidious. Roberts’ latest title feels a little long and the story is slightly cumbersome, but her greatest strength is in making the reader feel connected to her characters, so “unnecessary details” can also charm and engage.
A storied marksman meets his equal in the 11th installment of Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger series (G-Man, 2017, etc.).
Seventy-two-year-old retired sniper Bob Lee Swagger watches the prairie from his rocking chair in Idaho, neither expecting nor wanting to see anyone. But Janet McDowell shows up, saying that her son was shot by a sniper in Baghdad and that she had gone to extraordinary, fruitless trouble trying to exact vengeance on Juba the Sniper, who has killed hundreds of Americans. Swagger agrees to hunt the man down—hey, it’ll be more interesting than hanging out at Cracker Barrel. Meanwhile, Juba dreams of killing Marines—“The world was a kill box. His finger spoke for God.” Soon Swagger is in Tel Aviv, chatting with the Mossad. They want Juba, too, but they want him alive “to have a series of chats with him.” Swagger would like to feed Juba’s face to the pigs, but “Alas,” he’s told, “we’re a little Jewish country. No pigs.” Scenes with Juba show off his bloodthirsty side—wait, that’s his only side, for which he routinely gives thanks. This chap is a fascinating one-dimensional villain, crediting his bloodlust to God. Then U.S. intelligence learns that Juba is coming to America to kill a high-value target from a long-distance shot, so Swagger returns home. There’s more than enough detail in this story about hollow point shells, muzzle velocities, and precision kills from over a mile away to make Second Amendment worshipers quiver jellolike with excitement. As the title suggests, Swagger and Juba are inevitably in for a showdown, not a little chat, and it’s going to be spectacular. The author is a Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic who knows how to tell a crackling good story.
Fast-moving, violent, and entertaining, this is genuine good-guy–versus–bad-guy stuff.
As if Mississippi’s Tibbehah County didn’t have enough present-day malfeasance to keep Sheriff Quinn Colson hopping, a cold case brings the customary pot of criminals and misfits to yet another boil.
Newly married to Maggie Powers, Quinn would like nothing better than to take a break from his hometown’s constant diet of organized and disorganized crime and begin adoption proceedings for Maggie’s 8-year-old son, Brandon. Not happening. His attention is demanded by another Brandon, who’s suddenly captured the imagination of Thin Air podcast reporter Tashi Coleman and her producer, Jessica Torres. They’ve made the trip down from New York at the behest of Shaina Taylor, whose brother vanished in the wilderness 21 years ago before turning up shot to death a week later. Brandon Taylor, the cold-case publicity hounds announce, has waited long enough for justice, and they aim to camp out in Tibbehah County, asking awkward questions and bedding the locals, until they’ve gotten to the truth. Does this mean that franchise villains like Fannie Hathcock, the county’s premiere supplier of sweet young female companionship, and the syndicate she’s in bed with will wither from neglect? Not a bit, because they’re all tied in to Brandon Taylor’s long-ago shooting, U.S. Marshal Lillie Virgil’s recent arrest of fugitive Wes Taggart, and the race-baiting gubernatorial campaign of state Sen. Jimmy Vardaman. When Taggart, who hints that he knows where the bodies are buried, is shot to death in his cell by a pair of hired killers who manage to infiltrate the jail, his murder raises what ought to be the pivotal question of “why his sorry ole ass was so important to the Syndicate boys.” But the furious torrent of crimes past and present and revelations about same keep any one question or plotline from rising above the fray.
Like James Lee Burke’s Louisiana, Atkins’ violent Mississippi idylls seem more and more clearly shaped as installments in an ongoing serial drama, and this one, ending with both a bang and a whimper, seems mainly intended to set up the next.