A captivating narrative about arson, persistent law enforcers, an unlikely romantic relationship, and a courtroom drama.
The setting is Accomack County, a lightly populated area of the Eastern Shore “separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay and a few hundred years of cultural isolation.” Washington Post reporter Hesse (Girl in the Blue Coat, 2016) knew almost nothing about the economically depressed, desolate county when she first visited there in 2013 after hearing about a series of regularly occurring arsons of abandoned buildings. Eventually, the number of similar-seeming arsons would top out at 67. Though there were no reported deaths or serious injuries, the burning buildings were exhausting the lightly staffed volunteer fire departments in the county and consuming the resources of local and state law enforcement agencies. For nearly half a year, police mounted sophisticated stakeouts hoping to catch the arsonist in the act, but they consistently failed to identify a suspect. Even a profiler, who, it turned out, accurately predicted the neighborhood where the arsonist resided, did not see his lead pan out. Then, finally, a stakeout at an unoccupied home paid off. Hesse reveals the culprit early in the book—two of them, actually, Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick (“Bonnie and Clyde of the Eastern Shore”), who lived together romantically along with Bundick’s sons. Local police knew the culprits personally; Smith had even served as a volunteer firefighter, as did his brother. As Hesse constructs her narrative, the surprises arrive in the manner of the arrest, the motives for the fires, and the outcomes of the multiple trials. Throughout, the author offers a nuanced portrait of a way of life unknown to most who have never resided on or visited the Eastern Shore.
A deadly game of hide-and-seek is set inside a darkened menagerie.
Joan and her 4-year-old son, Lincoln, are playing with action figures in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit when several small explosions echo through the zoo. Joan is puzzled by the noise, but it’s nearly closing time and she doesn’t want to get locked inside, so she ushers Lincoln toward the exit. Near the gate, dead bodies litter the ground, and an armed man is entering the women's bathroom. Joan grabs Lincoln and flees into the heart of the park, searching the shuttered buildings for a place to hide while attempting to explain the situation without frightening him. The duo hunkers down, but it's not long before stress and hunger take their toll. With at least one active shooter on the hunt and an increasingly cranky child in tow, Joan faces a series of heartbreaking decisions. Phillips’ (A Little Bit of Spectacular, 2015, etc.) latest is expertly structured to maximize tension and emotional impact. The siege unfolds in real time, with each chapter noting the hour and minute. Joan’s inner monologue provides the bulk of the narration, her thoughts a rolling storm of tangents that relate history and inform motivation while governing pace and tone. Phillips’ characters are exquisitely rendered, her prose is artful and evocative, and the restraint she practices with regard to on-screen carnage grants weight to every shot fired and corpse discovered.
Poignant and profound, this adrenaline-fueled thriller will shatter readers like a bullet through bone.
In Perrotta’s latest (Nine Inches: Stories, 2013, etc.), a mother and son experience existential tizzies following his departure for college.
As is often the case with Perrotta’s fiction, it takes a while to warm up to his protagonists, who make their first appearances while engaged in off-putting, though wincingly credible, behavior. Brendan Fletcher nurses a hangover while his mother lugs his boxes and suitcases downstairs and packs the van; Eve is both such a patsy and so weirdly controlling that once they get to Berkshire State University, she hangs around Brendan's dorm, “organizing his closet and dresser just the way they were at home,” before her mortified son makes it clear that she should, like, leave. We soon grow fond of Eve, compassionate director of the Haddington Senior Center and, after she signs up for a community college course on “Gender and Society,” the friend and confidante of its transgender professor, Margo Fairchild. Brendan initially seems set to be the same sexist jock in college that he was in high school, until he’s thrown radically off course by a girl named Amber. It’s not such a stretch that she gets him involved in the Autism Awareness Network—his stepbrother from his father’s new marriage is on the spectrum—but getting him to join a protest about Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson is pretty startling. Of course, it’s mostly because Amber is really pretty, but Perrotta invites us to appreciate the slow growth of Brendan’s awareness that there are actually other people in the universe in tandem with Eve’s pleasant discovery of her unexpected sexual appeal for younger men—and a taste for internet porn. Perrotta’s eye for contemporary mores and social details remains razor-sharp; his portraits of the substantial supporting cast are equally keen and tempered with compassion. There are no bad guys here, just fallible human beings trying to grab some happiness. The deliberately inconclusive conclusion points Eve and Brendan toward that goal but doesn’t promise they’ll get there.
More spot-on satire with heart and soul from a uniquely gifted writer.
In this inventive debut novel, a young woman writes her way out of grief.
As a “strange in-betweener” with two mixed-race parents—a South African mother and an American father—Thandi must navigate the majority-white suburbs of Philadelphia, where she's "often mistaken for Hispanic or Asian, sometimes Jewish." "But you're not, like, a real black person," she's told as a young student, confirming her feeling that she was "never fully accepted by any race." When her mother dies of cancer, Thandi must come to terms with the loss—including her strongest link to family in Johannesburg. Caught between two continents—between American blackness and South Africa's legacy of apartheid—she sets out to discover what makes life worth living after tragedy hits. In the process, she produces an honest, propulsive account of grief, interrogating the relationship among death, sex, motherhood, and culture. Written in compact episodes that collage autofiction with '90s rap lyrics, hand-drawn graphs, blog entries, and photographs, the novel pushes restlessly against its own boundaries—like Thandi herself. Clemmons manages to write with economy without ever making her book feel small, and with humor and frankness, so the novel is not overly steeped in grief. This is a big, brainy drama told by a fearless, funny young woman—part philosophy, part sociology, and part ghost story. “My theory is that loneliness creates the feeling of haunting,” Thandi confesses during a rough patch. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, prepare for Thandi's voice to follow you from room to room long after you put this book away.
A compelling exploration of race, migration, and womanhood in contemporary America.
A tragedy thrusts a mourning father into peculiar, otherworldly corners of New York City.
When Apollo and Emma have their baby, Brian, it feels like both reward and challenge for the new dad. Apollo, the son of a single mother, had been scraping by as a bookseller who hunts estate and garage sales for rare first editions, so even the unusual circumstance of Brian's birth (in a stalled subway train) seems like a blessing, as does the way Apollo stumbles across a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird (inscribed by Harper Lee to Truman Capote, no less) shortly after. But after some young-parent squabbles and inexplicable images on their smartphones foreshadow trouble, the story turns nightmarish: Apollo finds himself tied up and beaten by Emma, then forced to listen to the sounds of Brian’s murder. LaValle has a knack for blending social realism with genre tropes (The Ballad of Black Tom, 2012, etc.), and this blend of horror story and fatherhood fable is surprising and admirably controlled. Though the plot is labyrinthine, it ultimately connects that first edition (“It’s just a story about a good father, right?”), Emma’s motivations, and the fate of their son, with enough room to contemplate everyday racism, the perils of personal technology, and the bookselling business as well. Built on brief, punchy chapters, the novel frames Apollo’s travels as a New York adventure tale, taking him from the basements of the Bronx to a small island in the East River that’s become a haven for misfit families to a seemingly sleepy neighborhood in Queens that’s the center of the story’s malevolence. But though the narrative takes Apollo to “magical places, where the rules of the world are different,” he’s fully absorbed the notion that fairy tales are manifestations of our deepest real-world anxieties. In that regard, LaValle has successfully delivered a tale of wonder and thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a parent.
A smart and knotty merger of horror, fantasy, and realism.
The unlikely friendship between a canny widow and a scholarly vicar sets the stage for this sweeping 19th-century saga of competing belief systems.
Widow Cora Seaborne knows she should mourn the death of her husband; instead, she finally feels free. Eschewing the advice of her friends, Cora retreats from London with her lady’s maid, Martha, and strange, prescient son, Francis. The curious party decamps to muddy Essex, where Cora dons an ugly men’s coat and goes tramping in the mud, looking for fossils. Soon she becomes captivated by the local rumor of a menacing presence that haunts the Blackwater estuary, a threat that locks children in their houses after dark and puts farmers on watch as the tide creeps in. Cora’s fascination with the fabled Essex Serpent leads her to the Rev. William Ransome, desperate to keep his flock from descending into outright hysteria. An unlikely pair, the two develop a fast intellectual friendship, curious to many but accepted by all, including Ransome’s ailing wife, Stella. Perry (After Me Comes the Flood, 2015) pulls out all the stops in her richly detailed Victorian yarn, weaving myth and local flavor with 19th-century debates about theology and evolution, medical science and social justice for the poor. Each of Perry’s characters receives his or her due, from the smallest Essex urchin to the devastating Stella, who suffers from tuberculosis and obsesses over the color blue throughout her decline. There are Katherine and Charles Ambrose, a good-natured but shallow society couple; the ambitious and radical Dr. Luke Garrett and his wealthier but less-talented friend George Spencer, who longs for Martha; Martha herself, who rattles off Marx with the best of them and longs to win Cora’s affection; not to mention a host of sailors, superstitious tenant farmers, and bewitched schoolgirls. The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry’s prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself. Fans of Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things should prepare to fall under Perry’s spell and into her very capable hands.
Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.
When their mother dies in a car accident, the Chase sisters, 18-year-old Mary and 4-year-old Hannah (affectionately called Bunny), are on their own. Their connection is intense, “the line where one ended and the other began a malleable, gossamer thing,” but what Mary knows about the identities of the girls’ fathers she does not share. They leave their home and the motel their mother ran on the southeast coast to find lives elsewhere, slowly but surely trailing a kind of fate to the opposite coast. On the road, they have to cobble together funds, shelter, and food. Mary is smart, strong-willed, beautiful, and fiercely protective of Hannah. She knows how to use these powers to manipulate the men she encounters. The first of these is her second cousin’s husband, whom she blackmails for $10,000—a desperate but lifesaving move with major consequences. They rarely stay anywhere for longer than a few days until a significant stop in Rhode Island. Eventually, the choice of this location becomes clear: it’s the hometown of a boy who passed through their motel when Mary was 14, a boy with whom she is still in love. When the past catches up to them and they are forced to leave Rhode Island, it is with extreme devastation that they have to get back on the road toward their final destination: California, where Mary will work the night shift at a famous old hotel and Hannah will begin school. The fate that brought them there ultimately brings them face to face with their fathers. The story unfolds over the course of 13 years and feels throughout like one of providence. Healy (House of Wonder, 2014, etc.) takes every opportunity to surprise her reader as Mary and Hannah grow up and into themselves.
The sisters' relationship—and their resilience—makes this novel powerful when it might otherwise have been prosaic.
A blogger (Bitches Gotta Eat) has to laugh to keep from crying—or maybe killing somebody—in this collection of essays from the black, full-figured female perspective.
The second collection of essays by Irby (Meaty, 2013) explores what it means to be “fat and black.” Though she has an active and diverse sex life, the author seems to prefer staying home with her cat, with whom she’s “trapped in this mutually abusive codependent relationship.” She watches a lot of TV and eats a lot of junk food while watching junk TV. She prefers writing jokes for online consumption rather than interacting with so-called real people in the so-called real world. “People are boring and terrible,” she writes. “I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups, my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge!” Irby shows her sharp edge throughout a collection that touches on topics ranging from the potential pros and cons of living in a small town, her employment adventures at an animal hospital, her upbringing with an alcoholic, abusive father and the mother he exploited, her preoccupation with death, and her unpredicted path to lesbian marriage. She responds to a pre-marriage questionnaire that asks, “how important is sex to you?” with “Is there such a thing as ‘the opposite of important?’….Hopefully lesbian bed death is real and not another unattainable fantasy the Internet has lied to me about, like poreless skin.” Though the collection is uneven, and many of the pieces strain for effect, some are very funny, some of them ring painfully true, and the best do both. Consider the essay about what happens when all of Irby’s friends have reached the birthing and raising children stages, and she has no experience around kids: “I forget when they’re within earshot and say mean things about dead people or recount in excruciating detail the highlights of my most recent gynecological exam.”
Personal embarrassment provides plenty of material for in-print or online entertainment.
Raw glimpses of the humorist’s personal life as he clambered from starving artist to household name.
For years, Sedaris (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, 2013, etc.) has peppered his public readings with samples from his diaries, usually comic vignettes with a gently skewed view of humanity. Those are in abundance here. “Jews in concentration camps had shaved heads and tattoos,” he writes after learning about a Chicago skinhead’s arrest. “You’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.” Forced to trim his toenails with poultry shears for lack of clippers, he writes, “that is exactly why you don’t want people staying in your apartment when you’re not there, or even when you are, really.” The diaries also provide Ur-texts for some of the author’s most famous stories, like his stint as a Macy’s Christmas elf that led to his breakthrough radio piece, “The SantaLand Diaries,” or the short-tempered, chalk-throwing French teacher in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000). But though the mood is usually light, the book is also a more serious look into his travails as an artist and person: Sedaris is candid about his early ambitions to succeed as a writer, his imposter syndrome as a teacher, his squabbles with his never-satisfied dad and mentally ill sister, Tiffany, and his alcoholism. Even that last challenge, though, is framed as comic, or at least the stuff of non sequitur: “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.” While Sedaris’ career took flight during the period this book captures, success didn’t change him much; it just introduced him to a broader swath of the world to observe and satirize. He can hardly believe his good luck, so he’s charmed by the woman who, upon escorting him to a packed bookstore reading, exclaims, “goodness, they must be having a sale.”
A surprisingly poignant portrait of the artist as a young to middle-aged man.
In a nimble and substantial novel, Gregory (Harrison Squared, 2015, etc.) delves into the lives of the members of the eccentric and psychically gifted Telemachus family.
On a summer day in 1963, Teddy Telemachus, a flamboyant and charming con man, card shark, and devotee of sleight of hand, cheats his way into a government study about psychic abilities. He meets Maureen McKinnon, a genuine psychic of enormous and mysterious power, and immediately falls in love with her. They get married, have three children with particular psychic gifts, and become famous as the Amazing Telemachus Family until a combination of televised embarrassment and personal loss begins to unravel their lives. Thirty years later, the Telemachus family’s lives are in tatters and sliding ever further into the dreariness of debt, unhappiness, and possible mental instability when the 14-year-old Matty Telemachus plunges them back into a world of cleverly plotted and swiftly paced adventure. Gregory’s novel deploys a cast of odd, damaged, enormously likable characters in a complex story that gracefully balances the outrageous melodrama of Chicago mobsters and shadowy government agencies with the ordinary mysteries of family dynamics. Each of the characters, even when absurdly cartoonish, has a precise energy and depth that makes him or her irresistible. The chapters shift between their points of view, revealing different threads of the story with masterful control and giving the novel an illusion of gleeful messiness and the argumentative, frequently poignant feeling of a family gathering. While the novel revels in elements that entertain—criminal capers, magic, nostalgia for the internet chat rooms and computer paraphernalia of the 1990s—it never shies away from the real emotion of digging up the lies and illusions that sink into every family history. Readers will emerge from the fray sure they know each Telemachus down to the smudges on their hearts.
A skillfully written family drama that employs quirk and magic with grace.
A suicidal German woman travels to the French coast, intending to drown herself in the sea, but the allure of a quaint seaside village leads her to continually delay her plans.
Marianne Messman has had enough of her miserable life, especially her cold, controlling husband. After 41 years of marriage, she decides to escape her despair during a package trip to Paris by jumping into the Seine. To her great disappointment, she's pulled from the water by a homeless man and sent directly to the hospital. Stalwart in her resolve to end her life, Marianne absconds from the facility and travels west to Brittany, intending simply to walk deep into the sea. When she arrives in the coastal town of Kerdruc, a series of comical events leads her into a charming French bistro that caters to fishermen and tourists. Although Marianne doesn’t speak French, she somehow ends up in the bistro kitchen, assisting the lovesick, distracted head chef. Within just a few hours at this quaint restaurant, Marianne is introduced to a bewitching cast of characters as well as sensual and spiritual aspects of life that were previously unknown to her. As she grows increasingly excited by new discoveries, which range from the exquisite delight of tasting fresh oysters to the pleasure of wearing brightly colored clothing, Marianne struggles with what to do about her estranged husband and her plans for the future. Translated from its original German, George’s (The Little Paris Bookshop, 2015, etc.) engrossing novel is as much about indulging the senses with succulent dishes and dazzling sights as it is about romance and second chances. With a profound sense of place and sensuous prose, the novel functions as a satisfying virtual visit to the French Riviera.
A luscious and uplifting tale of personal redemption in the tradition of Eat, Pray, Love.
Greed, depravity, and serial murder in 1920s Oklahoma.
During that time, enrolled members of the Osage Indian nation were among the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The rich oil fields beneath their reservation brought millions of dollars into the tribe annually, distributed to tribal members holding "headrights" that could not be bought or sold but only inherited. This vast wealth attracted the attention of unscrupulous whites who found ways to divert it to themselves by marrying Osage women or by having Osage declared legally incompetent so the whites could fleece them through the administration of their estates. For some, however, these deceptive tactics were not enough, and a plague of violent death—by shooting, poison, orchestrated automobile accident, and bombing—began to decimate the Osage in what they came to call the "Reign of Terror." Corrupt and incompetent law enforcement and judicial systems ensured that the perpetrators were never found or punished until the young J. Edgar Hoover saw cracking these cases as a means of burnishing the reputation of the newly professionalized FBI. Bestselling New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, 2010, etc.) follows Special Agent Tom White and his assistants as they track the killers of one extended Osage family through a closed local culture of greed, bigotry, and lies in pursuit of protection for the survivors and justice for the dead. But he doesn't stop there; relying almost entirely on primary and unpublished sources, the author goes on to expose a web of conspiracy and corruption that extended far wider than even the FBI ever suspected. This page-turner surges forward with the pacing of a true-crime thriller, elevated by Grann's crisp and evocative prose and enhanced by dozens of period photographs.
Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.