Rauch’s fantastical novel tracks the afterlife of a widowed atheist.
Walter Klein is diagnosed with cancer and makes a principled decision to refuse treatment, essentially issuing himself an imminent death sentence. His wife, Susan, the love of his life, is dead, and with her went his attachment to this world. Walter continues on with his quotidian affairs—he plays in a jazz band, goes to work, and starts to spend time platonically with a woman, Leslie, whose appearance reminds him of Susan. When some repressed rage suddenly surfaces, he goes on a murderous rampage, killing Leslie and raping her, murdering two of his band mates and then his noisy neighbors. Walter wakes, discovering that he died in his sleep. Now he’s to be escorted in the afterlife by a guide named Vincent until the moment he is finally judged. Walter’s paroxysm of violence was part of a cleansing process, a kind of cathartic prelude to his judgment and did not occur in the physical world, but on some spiritual plane. Once evaluated, his judges will determine whether he is permitted to retain his “Right of Choice,” his prerogative to select either permanent nothingness or a sustained fantasy crafted specifically for him. Debut novelist Rauch slowly unfurls the moral cataclysm of Walter’s young life—a violent confrontation with his mother’s abusive boyfriend, an event that engendered an emotional rift between the two.
Rauch imaginatively conjures an entire underworld, not only characterized by a different metaphysical reality, but a different set of moral and juridical rules. Rapists are raped as punishment for their past transgressions, and a pedophile who exercised restraint is given guilt-free orgies with children. Walter is the fulcrum of the plot though, a profoundly complex man—loving but also brimming with volatile anger, a simple person who lived a small, precious life but is also capable of real emotional and philosophical depth. The judicial aspect of the novel is fascinating and provocative—a man who kills 157 people is taken to task not for the murders themselves—none of them were innocents—but for the delight he took in the killing. The theological cosmology that emerges—instead of the historical monotheistic god, a being or beings, simply referred to as “The Truth,” preside over all—is both a little opaque and overwrought. Also, there isn’t much of a supporting cast for the protagonist. Walter’s spiritual guide, Vincent, is the only other character fleshed out enough to even approach authentic personhood. The prose, though, is sharp and lively, and Rauch has a talent for the seamless integration of serious philosophical themes and bantering humor. This is an ambitious modernization of Dante’s Inferno, an homage to a literary classic that boldly stakes out its own creative and intellectual territory. Furthermore, Rauch furnishes a thoughtful reflection on the meaning of a life well lived.
A richly creative meditation on love, mortality, and the possibility of what lies beyond.
A historical novel describes the chaos that ensued after Germany invaded France during World War II.
The French government is divided over the proper response to German belligerence. Some favor an orderly capitulation that guarantees peace at the expense of self-determination in order to save countless lives, pledging their allegiance to the new government formed in Vichy under the leadership of Marshal Pétain. Others want to preserve a free France and fight on, inspired by Charles de Gaulle, the undersecretary of defense. De Gaulle hopes that a new government can be installed in French territory in North Africa and that a military regrouping can be staged. While doing his best to keep up the appearance of neutrality, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatches Robert Murphy, a diplomat, to Algiers to either help prepare the French to reenter the fray or to at least repel a possible German invasion. Murphy is accompanied by Jacques Dubois, a handsome banker who buys war equipment for the French and the British, both in dire need of as many fighter planes as possible. Algiers is a remarkably complex place, under the constant vigilance of competing spies, and the Allied Powers are anxious to secure it, but also afraid to spook Germany into a preemptive strike. Myers (Betrayal in Europe, 2015, etc.) adroitly limns not only the perilousness of Algiers in 1941, but also the war as a whole: “Contradictory information flooded Algiers. What was clear was that the Germans seemed to be winning—everywhere. Increasingly, the people in Algiers felt isolated as German power spread across the Mediterranean like one of the black stains spreading across the map that you saw in the Allied newsreels.” The author’s command of the historical period is simply magisterial—the serpentine politics of a cleaved France is masterfully and vividly depicted. Myers also furnishes a stirring account of a perilous romance between Joan Tuyl, a married mother clandestinely working for the British cause, and John Knox, an American merchandise officer attached to the consulate in Algiers.
A riveting fictionalization of an all-too-neglected, pivotal moment in Algiers in 1941.
A debut fantasy sees a corrupt empire crumbling as enemies from within and without exact vengeance.
On the world of Urrael, the Sindathi Empire stretches across the continent of Terryth. In the 22nd year of Emperor Thelden III Arrigar’s rule, a column of Imperial Guardsmen breached the forested Kingdom of Sunset. They skirmished with the Aelfen people to retrieve a silver-haired boy, the emperor's bastard grandson. Ten years later, that boy is the princeling Drake, who’s been raised alongside Crown Prince Baildan and his twin brother, Cirrus, in the city of Arleon. Drake knows five languages and practices sorcery, but one subject with which he’d love to become better acquainted is the alluring handmaiden Leasha. Celebrating her 16th birthday, she, Drake, and her upstanding cousin Darius visit the Whirling Blade tavern. The fun ends when a drunken Baildan gives salacious attention to Leasha. Fearing that she’ll be manhandled, Drake lets loose a magical fireball that scorches the establishment’s ceiling. He’s found guilty of attempting to assassinate Baildan and is exiled to the far-flung posting of Icegate. Meanwhile, Darius, an Initiate in the Order of the Golden Path, is raised by the emperor to be Champion of the First Rank. His first mission as a soldier brings him to the hamlet of Ferrin, which revolts against Gov. Bravard. Darius is second-in-command under 1st Capt. Jarvis, who quells the rebellion with merciless violence. But when Darius learns that Bravard has been raping the girls of Ferrin, his role as a Champion becomes that much more urgent.
Sterling’s lushly realized novel should scratch the itch for those awaiting more material from Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin. Terryth is an aggressively horrible place, bristling with religious and political complexities, mainly in service to Ryack, the Empire’s patron deity. Narrative sparks come from the ways in which Drake, Leasha, and Darius strive to assert their humanity with malicious forces coiling around them. As Drake imagines dying a traitor’s death, Sterling writes, “His mortal soul would be forbidden Ryack’s Aetherial embrace so that upon his expiration it would have no refuge from consumption within the Everdeep, that dread ocean of half-understood madness that awaits all who die heretics.” Fantasy elements never crowd out the human moments—which often involve suffering—but when scenes like the battle between Drake and the gigantic, hammer-wielding Vendigon occur, they bring the adventure a feverish, anything-can-happen vibe. Most riveting is Sterling’s portrayal of faith. When Darius faces Ferrin’s rebel Champion, Uldar, the man is able to summon the light and strength of Ryack because “the Order does not have a monopoly on righteousness.” While Drake, who is half-Aelfen, and Leasha, a young servant, know the hypocritical core of the Empire too well, it’s the honorable Darius whose hopes are dashed the worst. The finale to this first volume in a trilogy is staggeringly violent, made all the more effective because readers have seen the characters through both trial and mirth.
This striking tale whips up a fresh storm in familiar fantasy territory.
A literary novel offers a coming-of-age story in the Jim Crow South.
Ruth-Ann Weathering is something special among the African-American community of Mandarin, Florida. When she completes the eighth grade at the young age of 13, she is already smarter than Mr. Turner, her teacher. Mr. Turner—considered something of a prodigy himself in that rural community—begs Ruth-Ann’s parents to send her to high school: “Ruth-Ann is the best of what the future can be. If we give her the chance—we can help build—for our people—a world that your folks and my folks—that you and I—never dreamed of.” The narrative, which follows Ruth-Ann from the ages of 13 to 20 during the early 20th century, shows that she is indeed a uniquely clever and observant girl even if she doesn’t quite end up on the track that Mr. Turner hopes for her. She falls in love with Stephen, a scion of the family called the “Black Wenders,” who own hundreds of acres along the St. John’s River. Ruth-Ann and Stephen both have ambitions that will take them further than their parents, but the age-old tragedies of poverty, misfortune, and malicious racism on the parts of their white neighbors prove that overcoming anything in the Jim Crow South is all but impossible. Covin (Black Politics in a Time of Transition, 2017) writes in a lyrical prose that perfectly summons the rhythms and magic of the tale’s rural setting: “Later on, they would each, one by one, get Ruth-Ann’s story, her full, true story of what had happened. But not this night. This night it was too new, too exciting, too big. It would have to remain mythical and undefined, an occasion for wild extravagances and craziness.” An introductory note reveals that this novel was praised—though rejected—by Toni Morrison while she was working as an editor for Random House in 1977, and it certainly fits within the tradition of black Southern authors that includes Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. The plot unfurls slowly, but the story feels simultaneously ancient and evergreen. The absorbing book may have slipped through the cracks in 1977, but readers should be grateful to have it now.
An African-American tale crafted with wisdom and poetry.
A debut book offers an unconventional approach to long-term pain management and relief.
Ennis, a psychiatrist with a 25-year career in treating chronic pain, opens his revelatory book with a stark declaration: “I am in pain every day, all day.” As the author points out, he’s able to explore the subject of long-term chronic pain from both sides of the equation: as a medical professional who continually deals with the issue and as a victim of the phenomenon itself. Therefore, he has a deep perspective on the often maddening, day-to-day reality of chronic pain sufferers, who are often forced to wonder: Must they simply resign themselves to being “burned at the stake” of their pain, or can they find a way to surmount it? In clear, accessible prose, Ennis proposes a strategy: a multistep process of self-hypnosis that he describes after grounding the narrative by telling his own story of living with chronic pain. He presents readers with comprehensive, readable histories of the study of pain and the development of the most popular weapon to address it: opioids. In his analysis of these potent drugs, Ennis remains unflinching. He rigorously examines the supposed efficacy of most opioids in alleviating chronic pain and finds them overprescribed and under-effective—and extremely risky, considering the serious nature of their side effects. Self-hypnosis, he contends repeatedly, has no side effects.
The book’s central idea—that highly stressed and sometimes desperate sufferers of chronic pain must reject their impulses to reach for chemical solutions—is so revolutionary as to seem almost counterintuitive in the current age of both unprecedented opioid prescription and unparalleled abuse of those drugs. Ennis very effectively buttresses his advocacy for a more internal, mental method by threading the whole subject through his vast personal history as both doctor and patient. As a result, the ultimate case he makes is powerfully convincing. In forceful, unambiguous prose, the author clarifies exactly what hypnosis is and isn’t and then enumerates the steps of using it as a means of pain relief in either professionally administered sessions or ones that are conducted independently. It’s difficult to argue with Ennis’ assessment of the comparative superiority of his approach to the rote prescription of opioids. But even objections that might be raised are sidelined by the indisputable fact that the core of the technique presented here—controlling breathing, cultivating inner calm, conceptualizing the pain—should help sufferers regardless of their success or failure with self-hypnosis. The book’s underlying tone is one of hope, which is something sufferers often find is in short supply when coping with their health problems. Ennis’ own story underscores the need for such hope.
A challenging and ultimately optimistic game plan for dealing with chronic pain; important reading for sufferers.
Cupples (co-author: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style, 2013) provides a straightforward, user-friendly guide to the American political system with an emphasis on how the average citizen can get involved.
Cupples’ guide comprises three sections. First, the author focuses on the source of citizens’ rights and duties, namely the Constitution and the laws that are enacted by federal, state, and local governments. Second, she explores the three branches of federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial), how they interact, and how they affect American citizens. Third, she explores outside influences on government, such as lobbying and the media, and covers ways citizens can participate in the lawmaking process. Cupples eschews stodgy descriptions of the governing process. In discussing the overall maturity of the Senate compared with the House, she notes, “That doesn’t mean the Senate is always like the Dalai Lama or Yoda.” She goes on to refer to the speaker of the House as its “head honcho.” She also finds ways to make certain her text does not become boring, inserting theoretical situations that may surprise the casual reader (in discussing the Sixth Amendment and problems with state-appointed counsel, she asks, “What about a lawyer who slams vodka shots before trial?”) Cupples’ work is also very much geared toward the modern world of connectivity. Throughout, she suggests websites (such as for each executive branch department) and internet search terms for seeking out answers to policy questions or the validity of news stories (e.g., “To find your county election office, search online for ‘election office’ + your county + your state”). She is admirably nonpartisan throughout her work, focusing instead on the facts of American government with little regard for party.
Easy-to-read, balanced introduction to American civics.
Debut author Stalinsky offers a profile of an American who became an al-Qaida operative.
Adam Pearlman’s story begins with his upbringing in rural California, where he, along with his siblings, was home-schooled on the family farm. In his teenage years, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of death-metal music, and he channeled his interest into writing reviews of new releases and even recording a solo album under the name Aphasia. At the age of 16, however, his life took an abrupt turn. While staying with his grandparents in Santa Ana, California, in the mid-1990s, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Adam Gadahn. As he explained in an essay at the time, “I discovered that the beliefs and practices of this religion fit my personal theology.” Following his conversion, he fell under the influence of a group of “radical jihadists” in the area, eventually traveling to Pakistan and becoming “Azzam the American.” With this new persona, now bearded and frequently brandishing a weapon, Gadahn would help shape al-Qaida’s propaganda wing, appearing in and producing numerous videos over the years. These videos would get the attention of audiences ranging from would-be terrorists to U.S. government operatives, and they’d eventually lead to charges of treason and death by drone-strike. Stalinsky’s book relies heavily on material from other publications; for example, a January 2007 article from the New Yorker proves indispensable to early chapters. However, it’s at its best when laying bare Gadahn’s message over the years. The author makes frequent use of transcripts of his subject’s videos, effectively offering close commentary on his statements and showing how they reflected political developments in the United States and abroad. For example, he tells of how Gadahn produced annual videos celebrating the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, advised American terrorists to purchase firearms at gun shows, and demanded the United States stop sending Peace Corps volunteers to the Islamic world. Stalinsky’s highlighting of such sentiments, particularly when compared with Gadahn’s innocuous teenage praise of obscure bands like Timeghoul, makes for a truly unnerving examination of a real-life enemy of the state.
An up-close look at one man’s bizarre journey to international notoriety.
In Friedland’s debut historical novel, a British family sends their daughter to South Carolina, where she becomes embroiled in the mid-19th-century politics of the Deep South.
Abby Milton arrives in Charleston in 1845, already haggard due to the South Carolina heat. Hailing from Wigan, England, she’s been sent away to ease the financial burden on her middle-class family. An old family friend, the highly esteemed and enigmatic estate owner Douglas Elling, receives her. The novel opens three years before this, with a tragic fire at Douglas’ home that kills his wife and daughter; he watches helplessly as his staff prevents him from rushing into the flames. By the time Abby arrives, Douglas is embittered and reclusive. Her early impression is that he’s also a bigot; he yells at her for making physical contact with a black stable hand. Then readers learn that he was once involved in liberating captives from slave ships and continues to shelter black refugees. As Abby and Douglas’ relationship develops, she learns more about his position in the town. She reluctantly attends the Cunningham ball, where she meets the striking, if manipulative, Cora Rae Cunningham, who has designs on Douglas. As politics and desire heat up, Abby and Douglas tread a precarious path, but will it bring them together or tear them apart? This is a promising debut from Friedland, who writes with an enviable emotional intuitiveness. Her prose bores to the center of her characters’ psychologies to reveal their drives and desires: “He knew the minute he laid hands on her, he couldn’t say why, that his new mission was to rescue her, not only from the immediate incident, but from whatever it was that had pushed her from her British home, ragged and defeated, to him....Maybe at last he could save just one person who was actually relevant to the story of his own life.” This results in engaging characters that readers will care about. Overall, this is a well-researched novel that vividly and believably reanimates the aristocratic world of South Carolina’s historical planter class.
A vibrant, solidly entertaining story that will seize readers from the first page and not let go.
This detailed psychological analysis of self-acceptance explains what it is, why readers need it, and how to get it.
Waite (From Underdog to Winner, 2017) begins this book by setting it apart from works that seek to raise self-esteem. She specifies that self-esteem “relies on the perception of success…to obtain a sense of worth” whereas self-acceptance is unconditional: “We see ourselves ‘warts and all,’ and find value and potential based on the mere fact that we are complex and inherently valuable human beings.” She suggests—and supports with a great amount of evidence—that self-acceptance gives people the freedom to fail without losing self-worth, motivates them by helping them recognize weaknesses and productively move forward, takes the fear out of performance, and allows for consistent, instead of “contingent,” happiness. She then describes how readers can learn and be reminded of self-acceptance: through intuition, dogmatic messages (from religions or role models, for example), logical reasoning, and their own personal experiences. She concludes by describing “a perfect world” in which self-acceptance is the status quo, further encouraging readers to develop and promote the idea. As a whole, this book is skillfully structured—Waite first helps readers understand self-acceptance, convinces them why it’s important, explains how to develop it, and finally reiterates its value. Taken in smaller pieces, the organization is just as efficient, with alluring introductions, comprehensive explanations, and succinct summaries that make the content unmistakably clear. Waite’s lucid details and profound insights are often interwoven with case studies that effectively demonstrate the principles she’s sharing. These examples are mostly of athletes (because of the author’s sport psychology background), but the concepts are universal. For instance, a young quarterback loses a big game, drinks until intoxicated because of his shame, and commits a hit-and-run. The author uses this tale to illustrate how a lack of self-acceptance triggered these events and how this man’s later development of the belief helped him move past the tragedy. Fans of Brene Brown’s thoughts on shame and vulnerability will find many related ideas in this book, written with a similar academic flavor.
An illuminating examination of an often neglected but vital concept.
In this debut fantasy, a young woman wakes up in what seems like paradise only to meet a wizard and numerous strange creatures.
Chemistry student Lahar remembers falling asleep in front of the TV after a long day of college classes and work. When a breeze hits her face, she wakes beneath a beautifully colored tree. She wanders and finds a beach. There she meets a young man with a mohawk named Arena. His gigantic sheepdog, Pyros, and the fact that they live on the beach inspire her to guess that he’s some kind of wizard. Arena indeed uses magic to locate the being who brought Lahar to this realm. Arena’s floating arrow, made from grains of white sand, points through a meadow and to the entrance of a secret tunnel. The softly lit passage brings the trio to a cavern, in the center of which is a floating island. There, a figure in a tattered cloak awaits them. Turning, the entity reveals itself to be a wooden mannequin with white flames for eyes. This being, named Void, has kidnapped Lahar. He says that to return home, she must help him get Arena’s heart. For his adventurous tale, Rosado offers a parade of whimsical elements reminiscent of early, dreamlike video games, including “The Legend of Zelda.” Arena’s home is powered by lightning in a bottle that is “bursting with a flurry of neon colors.” He also arms Lahar with a water cannon that looks like a colorful toy ray gun and a gold bangle to channel the magical Source, which infuses all things. The action commences when Void sends three masked Beasts against the heroes: Bark, Toothpick, and Statue. In turn, the heroes are aided by wisps—versatile beings made of sand and animated by flame—named Doc, Crew, and King. While the story skews toward YA readers, Arena teaches Lahar magic with the caveat: “Don’t trap yourself in a cage of your own making. It’s good to be ambitious, but enjoy the life you have.” A cliffhanger adds a further quirk to the puzzle of sending Lahar home.
In this debut novel set in 18th-century Scotland, a group of physicians gets caught up in disease, murder, and political intrigue.
As smallpox sweeps through Edinburgh, headstrong physician Malcolm Forrester is determined to run a study to test one of his hypotheses: that inoculating people with smallpox scabs will make them immune to the illness. Some physicians gather with him to use themselves as test subjects, but they face violent opposition from Sir Robert Turnbull, the change-fearing head of the College of Physicians; radical clerics; and the captain of the guard, Donald Mackmain, who believes the doctors are meddling with God’s will. Meanwhile, a “healer” named Elspeth MacLeod arrives in the Scottish village of Torrport to take on some of Malcolm’s patients, and quickly gets entangled in local intrigue. A woman named Lady Julianne, a relation of the leader Laird MacDuff, arrives at Elspeth’s door one rainy night and gives birth to a premature baby. After examining the woman, who survives, Elspeth suspects Julianne was poisoned. Then the laird’s second-in-command, Capt. John Spence, is found face down in a laundry tub, dead, with a bar of soap in his mouth. When Malcolm and Elspeth attempt to investigate who would want Julianne and Spence dead and why, they uncover surprising hidden ties between certain residents of the town and the Russian czar. Marsolais and Twigg pack their novel with an impressive amount of research on a very specific place and time (the spring of 1705) and its clothing, weaponry, and transportation. They also include a wealth of details about practicing medicine in that period: everything from the accepted way to treat a fistula to the era’s surgical instruments. While some of the political context has the ring of a textbook and Malcolm’s speech is riddled with comma splices (“Can’t blame him, he’s a wife and family, the rest of us are young with no dependents, expendable”), the tale is filled with lively sword fights, Scottish brogues, and colorful characters. Elspeth is especially memorable: she’s gutsy and competent, chafing against a bygone century’s restrictions on female physicians.
A convincing window into a particularly vibrant period of Scottish history.
An Arizona town’s emergency services director preps for a cyberstrike, while his daughter faces a menace of an entirely different kind in McDonald’s debut thriller series-starter.
The North Korean government unsuccessfully fires missiles at the west coast of the United States. It soon appears that the action was merely a precursor to a cyberattack, as various grids start shutting down. The story then jumps back two months to the grand opening of an Arizona police substation, complete with its own independent microgrid for handling disasters. It’s the project of Selwyn “Murf” Murphy, a former Special Forces soldier who’s now the program director of emergency services in the town of Tortolita. For years, Murf has anticipated a North Korean cyberattack, so he continues to develop his substation (colloquially known as “Fort Apache”), debating such additions as a stand-alone emergency room. Meanwhile, his estranged 14-year-old daughter, Dani, is living with her alcoholic mother, Murf’s ex-wife Louise. Louise’s sleazy boyfriend, Vince, who’s in debt to a drug dealer, persuades Dani to dance at the appropriately named Two-Bit Bar. When Murf gets wind of Dani’s situation, saving his daughter takes precedence over all else. Despite the title, there’s very little cyberwar in this thriller; much of the narrative instead focuses on the lead-up to the attack. News reports of various transgressions of the North Korean government create a feeling of imminent danger, however, and Dani’s seemingly unrelated plotline is consistently intense. Her story, in fact, features a character that’s even more indelible than Murf: Doc, a biker-club physician and former battlefield medic who befriends Dani and tends to her when she’s injured. McDonald maintains the momentum throughout by employing alternating perspectives of various characters and very short chapters and scenes. Although Murf gets few opportunities to validate Fort Apache, he does prove himself a hero in the action-packed final act.
Primarily an introduction to the protagonist and his fortress, but its solid writing promises a worthy series.
A debut book exhorts teachers to be better coaches—and vice versa.
Retired high school English instructor/basketball coach Anstett intentionally blurs the line between teaching and coaching in an inspirational, instructional manual that takes a holistic view of secondary education. Sections of the unusual, engaging guide alternate between addressing the specific concerns of each group as the author offers plenty of advice to both teachers and coaches. But he reinforces the basic concept of the book repeatedly: “Oneshould teach more on the court and coach more in the classroom.” Early on, Anstett provides a spirited discussion that contrasts “whining” with “winning,” using examples of both students and teachers/coaches to demonstrate the difference. For example, when a student whines about deserving an A, the author notes: “High expectations are fine, as long as the work ethic supports those goals….Deserving can become a toxic mental detour.” He follows this observation with a few key winning strategies for teachers to deal with the notion of “deserving” good grades. This is the kind of no-nonsense, straightforward advice doled out by Anstett throughout the volume. Parents and the role they play in their child’s development do not go unnoticed either. In a “Letter to Parents,” the author presents several ideas, among them: “Discuss your child’s goals—a great conversation for a Sunday evening each week” and “Stay positive about your child’s teachers. Your kids will lean a great deal on your attitude.” There is a fair amount of autobiographical meandering, but it is not without purpose; for the most part, Anstett’s own story is woven in to make salient points about teaching or coaching. Interestingly, the author is always coaching as he writes, whether it’s “eleven ways teachers can instill and excite dedication” or his bulleted list of “Growing ‘Vitamins’ ” that includes such aphorisms as “Never cheat,” “Measure people by the size of their heart,” and “Don’t major in minor things.” At various points in the text, a blank page titled “Your Turn” is inserted to encourage readers to share their own thoughts.
Heartfelt, powerful, and sincere; should prompt serious reflection by teachers and coaches alike.
This sci-fi novel pits humanity against an eerie, intractable threat.
Elise Broderick owns a flower shop in Glasgow, Scotland. At 41, she’s unmarried and has no children, but she does have parents who’d like her to move to Edinburgh with them. Yet she adores her bustling city and enjoys regular customers like Craig. One day, they discuss some trouble happening “Up North.” He tells her, “Best head out before things get hairy.” Elise does escape the rioting that engulfs Glasgow, eventually hearing the rumor that a chemical spill in the River Clyde has ignited nationwide chaos. But the spill is just a cover story, disinformation spread by someone like Robert Halifax, working in Washington, D.C., for physicist Lillian Tao. She directs a team of specialists studying the Front, a spherical, slowly spreading (at 0.2 mph) phenomenon that is, as far as anyone outside it can guess, 100 percent lethal to humans. It kills “along the same lines as advanced fungal decomposition of a corpse.” As the Front spreads from Oban, Scotland, it devours cities and nations, driving forth waves of confused refugees. Throughout the United States, the National Transport Agency controls mass hysteria using National Guardsmen like Dwight and Brad, who aren’t sure they’re ready to gun down those in need of food and shelter. Can Lillian halt the Front before humanity succumbs to its own most destructive urges?
For readers who like their sci-fi unflinchingly nihilistic, Halpern (The Man Who Stands in Line, 2017) offers an eyes-on-the-ground document of how various stripes of people might spend their final moments. The narrative jumps back and forth among viewpoints staggered across the several years it takes the Front to cover the world. Elise’s chapters, for example, occur within the first 35 days of the phenomenon. This structure allows the author some perverse foreshadowing tricks, as when he introduces Chinese prisoner Yu Feng, whose chapters begin on “Day 730,” and then reveals through a Dwight chapter, “Day 844,” that the “Chinese had tied prisoners to posts to watch” the Front’s progress. Though reminiscent of patchwork narratives like World War Z that use gore to emphasize humanity’s struggle, Halpern’s work avoids gratuitous violence. The strength of this page-turning extinction event lies in the exposure of its characters’ darker selves. Elise, stripped of cleanliness and agency while detained in a camp, begins suffering flashes of xenophobia and thinks, “The more righteous you seemed, the more you secretly harbored racist thoughts.” Other hot-button topics under review are gun control, the bleakness of the internet, and the seriousness of murder as civilization crumbles. Learning what the Front actually is—the wrath of God or perhaps an alien cleansing mechanism—pales in comparison to the crucible it presents to humanity. The author proves excellent in laying bare the souls of Dwight, Lillian, and others. The final chapter, a rewind to “Day 0,” featuring a miserable couple on vacation, leaves readers much to ponder about the cause of humanity’s fall.
A pitch-black global thriller that is nevertheless supremely intimate.
When her grandmother isn’t able to sing and dance anymore, a young girl finds a way to keep their music alive in Pova’s (If I Weren’t with You, 2017, etc.) picture book.
Music and dancing make the days pass quickly for Sarah and her grandma, who spin, skip, chant, and croon in the park and the living room, among wildflowers, and at their annual Fall Festival performance. But as time passes, Sarah’s grandmother can’t move and sing like she used to. Sarah, with her mother’s encouragement, learns that although her grandmother can’t join her onstage, she’ll still be there through the music they share. With warm colors and soft backdrops, Allen’s (Penny Helps...Protect the Polar Ice Caps, 2015, etc.) illustrations subtly show the seasons’ progression, emphasizing gradual loss; although Sarah and her grandmother’s song and dance are constants, the leaves shift from green to orange. The emphasis on simplicity effectively captures the emotion in the characters’ facial expressions and imbues Pova’s story with a hint of bittersweet nostalgia. Although the text sometimes lacks the musicality that’s so integral to the tale, the seamless integration of words, illustrations, and emotions makes for a heartwarming book.
A thoughtfully crafted story that offers a gentle means to talk about loss with children.
Jane Austen struggles under the burden of loss in the final volume of Hemingway’s (The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen: Volume II, 2016, etc.) trilogy.
In the first two installments, Hemingway reimagined the author Jane Austen as a young mother and wife, filling in the missing years of her historical record. Jane has adapted to marriage and the running of a household and acquired wealth and pregnancy; now, she’s exhausted. Her new son, George, requires her complete attention, and her relationship with her husband, Ashton, is at an all-time low. George also suffers from seizures, which triggers difficult conversations about inherited conditions on Jane’s side of the family. When tragedy strikes, Jane flees to that family, seeking refuge from her marriage and her sorrow. Her profound anger and sadness are incredibly moving, as Hemingway offers a more humanized version of Jane Austen than readers may be used to. She’s not the mysterious and gifted writer they know but a mother and wife haunted by loss, desperately seeking a path forward. Ironically, it’s death that finally brings Jane back to life and allows a reconciliation with Ashton. Determined to stay with him this time, Jane joins her husband and the British Army, who set sail for Spain to fight Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. As the couple encounters new places and old enemies (the Lovelaces, last seen in the previous installment, reappear here to Jane and Ashton’s detriment), they’re continually faced with the terrible cost of war. After a long physical and emotional journey, Hemingway leaves us with Jane the writer, who takes back her voice after losing so much in her life. Although sorrow sweeps through much of this story, Hemingway’s thoughtful, well-written book also offers an incredibly moving portrayal of a young woman confronting love and loss. The narrative also touches on the political, technological, and cultural changes of the early 19th century, but the most successful portions involve the evolution of Jane as a woman and a writer. In the end, she muses, “I cannot go on as if nothing has changed, but I can go on.”
Tragedy makes Jane Austen more relatable than ever in this concluding installment.
In this novel, a doctor confronts his past at a prep school in the 1960s, where the students were unwilling participants in a study.
Robert Thames is an infectious disease physician who searches the tropics for compounds that may lead to the development of new antibiotics. He works for a government agency, and as he has not had much success lately, his position is being eliminated. While he’s at home, UPS delivers a series of boxes with a familiar return address. Back in the ’60s, Robert attended Danvers Academy, a private prep school in New Hampshire. It was an exclusive place, one in which he felt out of place. As a Filipino with Eurasian and American roots, he was one of the few minority students. He was raised in a modest home in the Philippines by adoptive American parents who were missionaries. While new at Danvers, he and other students were photographed nude for unknown reasons, but in reality, it was part of a study to link physical characteristics to personality traits and chances for future success. The study’s coordinator has now sent the boxes of photographs to Robert with the request that he complete the research. Robert is astonished and somewhat sickened by the situation, and a flood of memories fills his mind. He searches for his old school friends and even visits one in Nairobi who has also become a doctor. Robert wants Danvers and those involved in the scheme held accountable for their actions. As revelations of sexual abuse surface, the school’s administration contacts Robert as it tries to save Danvers’ reputation. Based on real events, Sklar’s (La Clínica, 2010) novel is both insightful and nuanced, and he manages to tackle difficult subject matter with compassion. He digs deep into the social realities that Robert lives in and writes beautifully about his protagonist’s feelings of displacement, confusion, and sexual and emotional wonder. Robert’s overall sense of decency gently cuts through any disingenuous sentiments on the parts of others. And the topic of the nude photos is dealt with as a convincing quest for atonement (“When I was alone at home at night, the boys in the photographs called out to me. At first I did not know what they wanted. Eventually I understood: They wanted me to tell our story”).
Perceptive and subtly powerful, this tale attempts to close a perplexing chapter in American history.