Alternating between two centuries, Kingsolver (Flight Behavior, 2012, etc.) examines the personal and social shocks that ensue when people’s assumptions about the world and their place in it are challenged.
The magazine Willa Knox worked for went broke, and so did the college where her husband, Iano, had tenure, destroying the market value of their Virginia home, which stood on college land. They should be grateful to have inherited a house in Vineland, New Jersey, just a half-hour commute from Iano’s new, non-tenured one-year gig, except it’s falling apart, and they have been abruptly saddled with son Zeke’s infant after his girlfriend commits suicide. In the same town during Ulysses Grant’s presidency, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood is also grappling with a house he can’t afford to repair as well as a headmaster hostile to his wish to discuss Darwin’s theory of evolution with his students and a young wife interested only in social climbing. While Willa strives to understand how her comfortable middle-class life could have vanished overnight, her 26-year-old daughter, Tig, matter-of-factly sees both her mother’s disbelief and her Greek-immigrant grandfather Nick’s racist diatribes and hearty approval of presidential candidate Donald Trump as symptoms of a dying culture of entitlement and unbridled consumption. Lest this all sound schematic, Kingsolver has enfolded her political themes in two dramas of family conflict with full-bodied characters, including Mary Treat, a real-life 19th-century biologist enlisted here as the fictional friend and intellectual support of beleaguered Thatcher. Sexy, mildly feckless Iano and Thatcher’s feisty sister-in-law, Polly, are particularly well-drawn subsidiary figures, and Willa’s doubts and confusion make her the appealing center of the 21st-century story. The paired conclusions, although hardly cheerful, see hope in the indomitable human instinct for survival. Nonetheless, the words that haunt are Tig’s judgment on blinkered America: “All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.”
As always, Kingsolver gives readers plenty to think about. Her warm humanism coupled with an unabashed point of view make her a fine 21st-century exponent of the honorable tradition of politically engaged fiction.
With impeccable timing, the acclaimed historian focuses on the ways four presidents navigated the country through wrenching clashes and crises.
Pulitzer Prize winner Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, 2013, etc.) profiles Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom she’s written about previously. Lincoln’s “unmatched work ethic, rhetorical abilities, equable nature, and elevated ambition” steered him to the moment in 1862 when he gathered his Cabinet for the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. That document, writes the author, is “remarkable for its flat precision,” revealing Lincoln’s wisdom in reining in rhetorical flourishes “to reach across factions” and avoid moral condemnation of slaveholding states. Goodwin admires Theodore Roosevelt for his ability to change himself from a “nervous, unhealthy, fragile child” to a leader who, through the force of his personality and adept use of the press, protected working-class Americans from vast wealth inequality. Franklin Roosevelt’s amiable confidence and ability to lead by example pushed the country through the Great Depression, while Johnson’s mastery of legislative strategy eventually compelled many national politicians to see that civil rights were long overdue. The most remarkable aspects of this book are the astute psychological portraits of these leaders: comprehensive, human, and engaging, clearly the results of long study. In the final chapters, Goodwin uses short signposts, snippets of advice, to guide readers. For example, in the section about Johnson’s seemingly insurmountable passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she writes, “make a dramatic start” and “establish the most effective order of battle,” and then follows that line with several paragraphs about why Johnson fought to pass a tax cut before attempting the more momentous civil rights bill. These demarcations clarify the labyrinthine political and cultural issues the presidents confronted.
In intimate, knowing ways, Goodwin crafts history as aspiration—or at least inspiration—for readers; let’s hope a hefty portion of those readers have titles that begin with Sen. or Rep.
An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.
In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.
Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.
A ripped-from-the-headlines book offering copious evidence of the Republican Party’s relentless efforts to strip eligible voters of their right to cast ballots.
After providing a look back at voter suppression throughout the history of the United States, Anderson (African-American Studies/Emory Univ.)—who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016), her top-notch dissection of racial issues in America—focuses on the years since 2013, when elected Republicans in the majority of states and in Congress ratcheted up their anti-democracy, racist campaign to reduce the number of black voters. The author begins by delineating the requirements imposed on voter identification at polling places. In general, the requirement to have a specific government-issued ID with an up-to-date photograph hits blacks and low-income individuals the hardest, and election officials specifying the requirements are acutely aware of that reality. As Anderson shows, they realize that voter fraud is essentially nonexistent in most locales, but they spread misinformation about the pervasive problem to defeat court challenges. In the next chapter, the author explains the inhumane and often illegal tactic of purging eligible voters from the master list. The officials often refuse to tell voters that a purge has occurred, rendering those voters helpless on election day. In her chapter “Rigging the Rules,” Anderson focuses on the pernicious creep of disenfranchisement through gerrymandering. Many opponents of more accessible voting practices distinguish artificially between race-based gerrymandering and purely political gerrymandering of legislative districts, but the author offers persuasive evidence that both forms primarily target people of color. In the concluding chapter, “At the Crossroads of Half Slave, Half Free,” Anderson connects Russian meddling in the 2016 election cycle with Republican voter suppression tactics.
Anderson is a highly praised academic who has mastered the art of gathering information and writing for a general readership, and her latest book could not be more timely.
The author of A God in Ruins (2015) and Life After Life (2013) revisits the Second World War.
Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old and all alone in the world when she’s recruited by MI5. Her job is transcribing meetings of British citizens sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Soon, she’s pulled even deeper into the world of espionage, a world she will ultimately discover is hard to escape—even after she leaves the intelligence service to produce radio programs for the BBC. Atkinson is a careful author, and the title she’s chosen for this novel is more than a description of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort. The concept of writing over or across—meanings available from the Latin roots that make up the word “transcribe”—runs through the book. For example, the British Fascists who think they’re passing secrets to the Third Reich are actually giving them to an English spy; their crimes are both deadly serious and parodic. At the BBC, Juliet creates programming about the past for children, versions of history that rely more on nostalgia than fact. She knows she's creating an idea of England, a scrim to hang over bombed-out buildings and dead bodies. Just as Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels borrow from mystery but exist in a category apart from that genre, her latest is a sort of demystified thriller. There is intrigue. There are surprises. But the unknowns aren’t always what we think they are. The deepest pleasure here, though, is the author’s language. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny. She might be the best Anglophone author working when it comes to adverbs. Consider this exchange: “Trude suddenly declared vehemently, ‘Let’s hope the Germans bomb us the way they bombed Rotterdam.’ ‘Goodness, why?’ Mrs Scaife asked, rather taken aback by the savagery of this outburst. ‘Because then the cowards in government will capitulate and make peace with the Third Reich.’ ‘Do have a scone,’ Mrs Scaife said appeasingly.”
Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.
Darius Kellner suffers from depression, bullying by high school jocks, and a father who seems to always be disappointed in him.
When Darius’ grandfather becomes terminally ill, Darius, along with his parents and younger sister, travels to Iran for the first time in his life. Iranian on his mother’s side and white American on his father’s side, Darius never quite fits in. He’s mocked for his name and nerdy interests at Chapel Hill High School in Portland, Oregon, and doesn’t speak enough Farsi to communicate with his Iranian relatives either. When he arrives in Iran, learning to play the Persian card game Rook, socializing, and celebrating Nowruz with a family he had never properly met before is all overwhelming and leaves Darius wondering if he’ll ever truly belong anywhere. But all that changes when Darius meets Sohrab, a Bahá’í boy, in Yazd. Sohrab teaches Darius what friendship is really about: loyalty, honesty, and someone who has your back in a football (soccer) match. For the first time in a long time, Darius learns to love himself no matter what external forces attempt to squash his confidence. Khorram’s debut novel is filled with insight into the lives of teens, weaving together the reality of living with mental illness while also dealing with identity and immigration politics.
This tear-jerker will leave readers wanting to follow the next chapter in Darius’ life.
Merci navigates the challenges of being a scholarship kid at a posh South Florida private school and the expectations of and responsibilities to her intergenerational family.
Eleven-year-old Merci Suárez isn’t the typical Seaward Pines Academy sixth-grader. Instead of a stately mansion, Merci lives with her parents and older brother, Roli, in one of three identical homes next to her Cuban-American extended family: Abuela and Lolo, Tía Inéz, and her rambunctious little twin cousins. At school, Merci has to deal with condescending mean girl Edna Santos, who loves to brag, boss around her friends, and throw out hurtful comments that start with “No offense….” Although Merci wants to earn money so that she can afford a new bike, she’s stuck volunteering for Sunshine Buddies, in which current students mentor new ones. What’s worse is that her assigned buddy is Michael Clark, a new tall white boy in her class. At home, Merci’s beloved Lolo begins to act erratically, and it becomes clear something secret and serious is happening. Medina writes about the joys of multigenerational home life (a staple of the Latinx community) with a touching, humorous authenticity. Merci’s relationship with Lolo is heartbreakingly beautiful and will particularly strike readers who can relate to the close, chaotic, and complicated bonds of live-in grandparents.
Medina delivers another stellar and deeply moving story.
A poignant letter written by a fearful Syrian father to his son on the eve of a treacherous sea crossing to Europe.
Commemorating the third anniversary of the death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body, captured on camera, washed up on shore in September 2015, sparking worldwide outrage, this intensely moving story opens with the father’s recollection of the family’s peaceful life in Homs, Syria, before the city was turned into a deadly war zone. Writing in the first person, Hosseini successfully contrasts the father’s Homs, a bustling and lively city before the war, with the one his son has known, a ravaged city marked with bombings, starvation, and burials. The contrast is rendered through Hosseini’s unmatchable lyrical style—but also effectively portrayed on a graphic level through a pronounced change in Williams’ palette, warm greens and ochers modulating to slate-blues and grays in the loose, affecting watercolors. The second portion of the letter is a prayer for a safe journey. It is powerfully evocative of the plight in which displaced populations find themselves, having to undertake a journey known to be unsafe—yet, for many, it is an option they cannot afford not to take. The book reads like an emotional gut-punch…an excruciating one. It is impossible to read without feeling intense compassion for those—and there are thousands—whose lives resemble those of the characters in the book.
As up-to-the-minute as a Kendrick Lamar track and as ruefully steeped in eternal truths as a Gogol tale, these stories of young working-class black men coming into their dubious inheritances mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling.
We’ll start with Gio since his is the voice telling most of these interrelated stories of love, longing, and thwarted aspiration among men of color growing up in the hilly, blue-collar enclave of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He is the mixed-race son of a professional football player named Lonnie “The Lion” Campbell, whose career, along with his mind, declined in shockingly abrupt ways. Dub, one of Gio’s childhood friends, dreamed of playing pro football though, as Gio recounts, he wasn’t as good as their other friend, Rye, who as an adult answers to the dual calling of dealing drugs and fighting fires. Then there’s Rolls, whose hard, street-coarsened manner belies a spirit romantic and inquisitive enough to become absorbed in photography. Each of these four young men, as different in temperament as they are similar in sensitivity, is enmeshed in struggles to break free of the constrictions imposed on his dreams by society and by himself. Gio, who has come into considerable money in part because of a settlement with the NFL over his dad’s untimely deterioration and death, is shown squandering these funds on drugs and other diversions in New York City while flashing gifts as a free-style rap artist. At least he gets out of Pawtucket while his friends struggle with their respective demons—and with the wise and often too-forbearing women in their lives. The stories are by turns comedic, bawdy, heartbreaking, and grisly. What links them all is the heady style deployed throughout; language with the same taut rhythm and blunt imagery as the best hip-hop yet capable of intermittent surges of lyricism that F. Scott Fitzgerald in his own precocious stories of youthful romance and remorse could summon.
The publisher says Holmes is working on his first novel. This collection makes you thirst for whatever’s coming next.
Love and hatred haunt survivors in this otherworldly sequel.
It’s been 15 years since the people of Weep slaughtered the gods and godspawn in the seraph-shaped citadel, an event known as the Liberation by the citizens of Weep…and the Carnage by the five godspawn who secretly survived. But an explosion revealed their existence and killed 17-year-old Sarai. Yet she remains, anchored by malevolent Minya and still in love with Lazlo Strange. Grief-stricken Lazlo experiments with his newfound smith powers and reunites with Sarai in exotic, erotic dreams. Also sharing narrative duty: fellow blue-skinned, magically gifted godspawn Ruby, Feral, and Sparrow—absorbed in their own romantic triangle—Minya, literally haunted by lives lost in the Carnage, and the mysterious Nova, fleeing a wintry wasteland in pursuit of her sister Kora and revenge. Freed from isolation, the godspawn struggle to connect, wondering about their parents—both Mesarthim “gods” and unwilling Weep humans—and their missing fellow godspawn. Taylor (Strange the Dreamer, 2017, etc.) dances between fantasy and sci-fi, indulging in gods, magic, alchemy, and lost desert civilizations, only to subvert them with spaceships, interdimensional travel, and alien worlds. Depending on readers’ tastes, this is ornate, emotionally charged, and poetic—or florid, overdone, overstuffed, and angst-y. The people of Weep are brown-skinned, but godspawn turn blue when they are in contact with mesarthium.
A sequel that surpasses the original.
Felicity Montague fights to take up space in a world that demands she remain invisible.
Barred from study at hospitals and universities because of her sex, Felicity chases her dreams of medical study from London all the way to Stuttgart, where her idol, Alexander Platt, an expert in preventative medicine, plans to marry before embarking on an expedition. Without any money of her own since she ran away from home, white English girl Felicity must rely on Sim, an Algerian Muslim woman with connections to piracy and secret motives. To make matters worse, Platt’s fiancee, Johanna Hoffman, also white, used to be Felicity’s best friend until falling out over their changing interests. As in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (2017), Stonewall Honor recipient Lee (Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World, 2018, etc.) develops a world rich in historical detail, crafts a plot wild with unexpected turns, and explores complex topics like colonization and identity. Felicity’s brother, Monty, and his boyfriend, Percy, play smaller roles in this volume; the story focuses on the relationships between Felicity, Sim, and Johanna as the three women fight their own battles for respect and recognition within societal systems built to suppress them. Traveling alongside Sim and Johanna challenges Felicity to acknowledge the flaws of her not-like-other-girls self-image and realize that strength comes in more than one form.
An empowering and energetic adventure that celebrates friendship between women.
(Historical fiction. 14-18)