Love and loss compel a brilliant scientist to defy the laws of physics.
It’s 1986, and Nedda Papas—a precocious 11-year-old who dreams of becoming an astronaut—sits in an Easter, Florida, classroom, watching the Challenger launch on television. Across town, Nedda’s father, Theo, tinkers with Crucible, a machine designed to manipulate time by controlling entropy. The technology has numerous practical applications, which is how the former NASA physicist–turned–college professor secured funding for his research, but in truth, the long-ago death of his infant son has Theo desperate to prolong Nedda’s childhood. Cape Canaveral is just 10 miles away, so when Challenger explodes, it sends shockwaves both literal and figurative through Easter. As Nedda grapples with the crew members’ demises, a catastrophic reaction sparks in Crucible’s core, immobilizing Theo and leaving Easter’s fate in the hands of Nedda and her mother, Betheen—a baker who, unbeknownst to Nedda, forsook a career in chemistry for her family. Swyler (The Book of Speculation, 2015) intersperses this storyline with scenes from Nedda’s future aboard the Chawla, a four-person interstellar vessel en route to a faraway planet when its life-support generator begins to fail. Keenly wrought characters and evocative prose complement a multifaceted plot that explores topics ranging from relativity and thermodynamics to parent-child relationships and the afterlife. Though Theo’s grief and ambition serve as a catalyst, it’s Nedda’s and Betheen’s passion, determination, and fortitude that drive the book to its heart-wrenching, awe-inspiring conclusion.
Grand in scope and graceful in execution, Swyler’s latest is at once a wistfully nostalgic coming-of-age tale and a profound work of horror-tinged science fiction.
An elegant, meditative novelistic reconstruction of critical years in the life of Varian Fry, the American classicist who is honored at Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations” for his work rescuing victims of the Holocaust.
Focusing on the era that informed her first novel, The Invisible Bridge (2010), Orringer opens with an encounter in which Marc Chagall, one of the most beloved of modern artists, figures. He is living in Vichy France, convinced that because it is France he will be kept safe from the Nazis—“These things happened in Germany.” he says. “They won’t happen here. Not to us.” His interlocutor is Varian Fry, who, under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee, is combing the country for a couple of hundred “artists, writers, and intellectuals,” most of them Jewish or politically suspect, who similarly imagined themselves to be safe in France even as the Holocaust begins to unfold and the Gestapo arrest lists lengthen. Fry has allowed himself a month to get those 200 sure victims to safety, and in doing so, as his old friend—and more—Elliott Grant, a shadowy figure of many connections, warns him, he is proving “inconvenient to the American diplomatic mission in France.” The cloak-and-dagger element of Orringer’s story is effective, though it runs somewhat long. Woven into the action is the slow reconciliation between Fry and Grant, whose friendship is deep but at first tentative, finally heating. Orringer nicely captures two worlds, the fraught one of refugee rescue and the more genteel but still complicated one of intellectuals in orbit, with the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, and Victor Serge among the cast of characters. The central point of intrigue, providing a fine plot twist, is also expertly handled, evidence of an accomplished storyteller at work.
Altogether satisfying. Mix Alan Furst and André Aciman, and you’ll have a feel for the territory in which this well-plotted book falls.
A year after his friend’s murder, a boy finds a clue that propels him to start his own investigation.
Mac lives in Camera Cove, once famous only for its picturesque scenery. That was before the serial killer who murdered four people struck, leaving a clipping from an old catalog on each victim. The police found evidence of a drifter’s involvement, but the culprit was never identified. One victim was Connor, Mac’s close friend, for whom he harbored secret feelings. Now, the summer after graduation, Mac and his friend group have scattered, most hoping to move on. But without closure, Mac feels stuck until he discovers a note Connor left him the night of his murder. Riddled with guilt, Mac makes it his mission to find out what happened. Under the guise of collecting donations for a rummage sale, he visits the families of each victim, seeking clues. Quill, one victim’s cousin, becomes a partner in his investigation—and maybe something more. As Mac works out theories, he uncovers far more than he ever could have imagined, and he’s forced to rewrite everything he thought he knew. When the truth finally reveals itself, it’s breathtakingly chilling. Set across the lush backdrop of an oceanside vacation town, the mystery unfurls like a thick fog, eerie and wholly immersive. Most characters are assumed white; Quill is biracial (black/white).
A tightly plotted mystery with an unforgettably unnerving reveal.
What begins as the story of obsessive first love between drama students at a competitive performing arts high school in the early 1980s twists into something much darker in Choi’s singular new novel.
The summer between their freshman and sophomore years at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts—an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the [unnamed Southern] city” where they lived—Sarah and David consummate the romance that had been brewing the whole previous year. It is the natural culmination of the “taut, even dangerous energy running between them,” which—while naturally occurring—has been fostered by Mr. Kingsley, the head of Theatre Arts, who has positioned himself as the central figure in his students' lives, holding power not only over their professional futures, but their social ones as well: part parent, part guru, part master manipulator. But when Sarah and David return in the fall, their relationship instantly crumbles, and in the wake of their very public dissolution, Sarah finds herself increasingly isolated, dismissed into the shadows of CAPA life. Until, that spring, a British theater troupe comes to campus as part of a cultural exchange, and Sarah, along with her classmate Karen, begin parallel relationships with the English imports: Karen is in love with the director, and Sarah is uncomfortably linked to his protégé, the production’s star. It is, until now, a straightforward story, capturing—with nauseating, addictive accuracy—the particular power dynamics of elite theater training. And then, in the second part of the novel, Pulitzer finalist Choi (My Education, 2013, etc.) upends everything we thought we knew, calling the truth of the original narrative into question. (A short coda, set in 2013, recasts it again.) This could easily be insufferable; in Choi’s hands, it works: an effective interrogation of memory, the impossible gulf between accuracy and the stories we tell. And yet, as rigorous and as clever and as relevant as it is, the second half of the novel never quite reaches the soaring heights of the first. It’s hardly a deal breaker: the writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi’s latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind.
Slowly emerging from the coma she's been in since a black cargo van rammed the car she was using to transport a visiting professor, killing him, Maine college senior Tara Beckley is targeted by a ruthless young hit man.
After the driver of the van admits his guilt, police rule the collision a simple wreck. But it doesn't take long for insurance investigator Abby Kaplan, a former racer and stunt driver who knows how cars behave at high speeds, to determine that this was no accident. She responds emotionally to Tara and her family; Abby's boyfriend in Los Angeles was left in a coma after a reckless joy ride she took him on ended badly. The bad news for the bad guys, who are desperate to get their hands on a device that was in the professor's possession, is that Tara is now conscious and alert and able to communicate by moving her eyes. Dax Blackwell, the boyish, creepily calm gunman (whose father, Jack, an Australian assassin, died in Koryta's Those Who Wish Me Dead), must not only get past Abby to get to Tara, he also has to contend with Tara's fiercely protective sister, Shannon. It's a measure of how good this book is that the chilling, masterfully sustained suspense is only one of its standout achievements. Koryta never brushes off anyone's death; he makes you feel for the victims. The relationship between Tara and her sibling is beautifully nuanced, full of revealing details going back to their childhood. And Koryta’s (How It Happened, 2018, etc.) fans will surely appreciate the suggestion of a sequel.
Koryta has never been better than with this knuckle-biting thriller.
A depressed New England teen writes her perfect world into reality and uses it to exact revenge.
Sixteen-year-old Margaret “Magpie” Lewis’ father left soon after she caught him having sex with her mother’s sister. Since then, Magpie’s older sister, Eryn, a college senior, has stopped communicating with her, and her mother’s drinking has gotten much worse. In addition, her ex–best friend, Allison, has shunned her and branded her as a slut after a horrid encounter with Allison’s boyfriend, Brandon. School is an afterthought, but Magpie has made new friends: Clare, whose father committed suicide; bisexual Luke; Brianna, who suffered a humiliating incident; and Ben, who is trans. Magpie also copes by writing about a place called Near. After a portal to Near manifests in Magpie’s backyard shed, she spends days there with her Stepford-esque family—one untouched by tragedy—but as Magpie tests her new abilities, her numb, shattered heart tells her that revenge will be sweet, no matter the cost. Poor Magpie’s spiral is a heartbreaking example of how deep pain often masquerades as cruelty, and her actions are tragic. Leno (Summer of Salt, 2018, etc.), channeling early Stephen King at his best, offers no neat conclusions, and her frank examination of depression, grief, alcoholism, and the ruinous aftermath of sexual assault is grim yet effective. Characters are presumed white.
Readers will ponder this exceedingly creepy gut punch of a tale long after turning the last page.
In his debut novel, Natt och Dag examines the effects of a brutal murder on those who investigate it—and explores the psychological causes for the crime.
Stockholm, 1793: Sweden is still recovering from an unpopular war with Russia; some veterans, like watchman Mickel Cardell, lost limbs in the slaughter, and he was one of the lucky ones. Cardell hardly feels lucky though, nursing a fierce rage that simmers below the surface and finding solace only in drinking to excess. When Cardell is summoned by two children to examine a body they've found floating in putrid waters, he can barely be bothered, but the corpse, disturbingly mutilated, haunts him. Together with lawyer Cecil Winge, who is measuring his life in days since being diagnosed with consumption and trying to stay above the rampant political corruption that is flooding the police department, Cardell doggedly pursues every lead to find the monster at the heart of this case. Along the way, he meets a desperate widow, lately escaped from the cruel fate of a workhouse; learns of a secret society of wealthy men who are offered a place to indulge their perverted desires in return for charitable donations; and picks savage fights to slake his anger at the way the world treats the poor and the downtrodden. Winge brings a certain intellectual precision to the investigation as he, too, struggles to keep his demons at bay. Natt och Dag writes sensory, horror-inducing descriptions of the lives and deaths of the poor inhabitants of Stockholm. At the same time, his characters almost spring off the page, they are so human and so fully realized. Natt och Dag doesn’t apologize for human nature, nor does he excuse our crimes and basest cruelties, but his deep dive into the dark corners of our psyches, as well as this harsh time in history, is both chilling and thought-provoking.
Relentless, well-written, and nearly impossible to put down.
“Nothing before the sea was real”: a bleak portrait of a future world shaped by global climate change and refugees desperate for a few square feet of dry land.
In the Britain of the near future, there are no beaches. Indeed, as the draftee called Kavanagh tells it, “there isn’t a single beach left, anywhere in the world.” Kavanagh, nicknamed Chewy by his fellow Defenders, has just one job: He has to guard a spot along the Wall (“officially it is the National Coastal Defense Structure”) that now rings the island fortress. It’s a preternaturally cold place, miserable, boring, but the stakes are high, for if any of the refugees called ”The Others“ get over the wall, one of the Defenders is put out to sea, exiled forever. Meanwhile, that Other, when inevitably captured, becomes one of "The Help," essentially enslaved; as the mother of Hifa, a fellow Defender, says, “Another human being at one’s beck and call, just by lifting a finger, simply provided to one, in effect one’s personal property…though of course they are technically the property of the state.” Kavanagh is diligent if bitter, especially toward the parents who avert their eyes when they see him, ashamed that they let the Change occur, ashamed that their world has come to all this. Unashamed, as impenetrable as the Wall, is the Captain, Kavanagh’s commander, who in time reveals that the monolithic state of elites, soldiers, and all the rest is less impervious than it appears, bringing on a sequence of events that finds Kavanagh, Hifa, and the Captain on the outside, in a Hobbesian world, desperate to get back in. Lanchester’s view is unblinking, his prose assured, a matter of "if” and "then”: This is what happens when the sea rises, this is what happens when an outsider lands in a place where life has little meaning and the only certain things are the Wall, the cold, the water, and death.
Dystopian fiction done just right, with a scenario that’s all too real.
Her father, the king, taught her to believe in the people, the courts, truth, and the new era.
As Hesina begins to seek justice for his death, she finds hard truths and becomes entangled in lies, some of her own making. In her debut, He creates an Asian-inspired fantasy where centuries ago, the last of the relic emperors, who pursued selfishness over the welfare of the people, was overthrown by the Eleven, a group of outlaw heroes who authored the Tenets, a book that the rulers of Yan have since lived by. In building this new era, they also perpetuated the systematic slaughter of the emperor’s henchmen, the sooths, and anyone else with the power to see the future—those whose blood burns blue. At 17, Hesina needs to be the ruler her father groomed her to be while navigating the land mines of court politics, internal power plays, and personal betrayal. The plot twists are truly dizzying at times, and everyone, from villain to ally, has an intriguing backstory. Learning forgiveness and the need to sympathize with the things people do to survive, Hesina evolves, sometimes painfully, from a naïve, reckless girl to a compassionate queen. All characters may be assumed Asian, and the author makes an effort to incorporate Chinese terms and writing conventions throughout.
With complex worldbuilding and character development, readers tired of cookie-cutter stories will find some surprise twists here.