This resourceful writer weds violence, despair, and glimmers of hope during a few tense days in the life of a once-legendary bare-knuckle fighter.
In a brief prologue, Jack Boucher is abandoned at age 2 and bounces around foster homes before an unmarried woman named Maryann takes him in at age 12. As the main story opens, Jack is 50 and facing nothing but trouble. The bank is about to repossess Maryann’s house, and a vicious bookie has sent collectors to squeeze him for gambling debts. It gets worse. After winning $12,000 at a casino, Jack crashes his truck and wanders off in a daze, forgetting the money. The cash then slips into a subplot about a traveling carnival with ex-con roustabouts and a tattooed beauty named Annette. She and the carnie boss find the money, but there are complications, not least her possible ties to Jack. In flashbacks, Smith (Desperation Road, 2017, etc.) reveals the loving bonds Jack forms with Maryann and the thrill he discovers in the bare-knuckle cage, where he soon becomes a star in a bloody demimonde. But too many blows to the head leave him in constant pain and addicted to pills and booze that also cost him his edge in the cage—an edge he may need one last time. Smith could be nodding to the classical unities of place and time, with his three-day plot centered on Clarksdale, Mississippi. Other unifying factors are hard-edged, like the brass knuckles that appear four times in nearly 200 pages, or quasi-mystical, like a hawk that marks both Jack and Annette. These elements are subtly handled, but Smith shows less restraint by letting Jack’s pondering of his physical and psychological pain become a litany.
A gifted storyteller who parses battered dreams and the legacies of abandonment with a harsh realism that is both saddening and engaging.
A ferocious young woman is drawn into her grandmother’s sinister fairy-tale realm in this pitch-black fantasy debut.
Once upon a time, Althea Proserpine achieved a cult celebrity with Tales from the Hinterland, a slim volume of dark, feminist fairy tales, but Alice has never met her reclusive grandmother nor visited her eponymous estate. Instead, she has spent her entire 17 years on the run from persistent bad luck, relying only on her mother, Ella. Now Althea is dead and Ella has been kidnapped, and the Hinterland seems determined to claim Alice as well. The Hinterland—and the Stories that animate it—appear as simultaneously wondrous and horrific, dreamlike and bloody, lyrical and creepy, exquisitely haunting and casually, brutally cruel. White, petite, and princess-pretty Alice is a difficult heroine to like in her stormy (and frequently profane) narration, larded with pop-culture and children’s-literature references and sprinkled with wry humor; her deceptive fragility conceals a scary toughness, icy hostility, and simmering rage. Despite her tentative friendship (and maybe more) with Ellery Finch, a wealthy biracial, brown-skinned geek for all things Althea Proserpine, any hints of romance are negligible compared to the powerful relationships among women: mothers and daughters, sisters and strangers, spinner and stories; ties of support and exploitation and love and liberation.
Not everybody lives, and certainly not “happily ever after”—but within all the grisly darkness, Alice’s fierce integrity and hard-won self-knowledge shine unquenched.
Another Brown (Inferno, 2013, etc.) blockbuster, blending arcana, religion, and skulduggery—sound familiar?—with the latest headlines.
You just have to know that when the first character you meet in a Brown novel is a debonair tech mogul and the second a bony-fingered old bishop, you’ll end up with a clash of ideologies and worldviews. So it is. Edmond Kirsch, once a student of longtime Brown hero Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist–turned–action hero, has assembled a massive crowd, virtual and real, in Bilbao to announce he’s discovered something that’s destined to kill off religion and replace it with science. It would be ungallant to reveal just what the discovery is, but suffice it to say that the religious leaders of the world are in a tizzy about it, whereupon one shadowy Knights of Malta type takes it upon himself to put a bloody end to Kirsch’s nascent heresy. Ah, but what if Kirsch had concocted an AI agent so powerful that his own death was just an inconvenience? What if it was time for not just schism, but singularity? Digging into the mystery, Langdon finds a couple of new pals, one of them that computer avatar, and a whole pack of new enemies, who, not content just to keep Kirsch’s discovery under wraps, also frown on the thought that a great many people in the modern world, including some extremely prominent Spaniards, find fascism and Falangism passé and think the reigning liberal pope is a pretty good guy. Yes, Franco is still dead, as are Christopher Hitchens, Julian Jaynes, Jacques Derrida, William Blake, and other cultural figures Brown enlists along the way—and that’s just the beginning of the body count. The old ham-fisted Brown is here in full glory (“In that instant, Langdon realized that perhaps there was a macabre silver lining to Edmond’s horrific murder”; “The vivacious, strong-minded beauty had turned Julián’s world upside down”)—but, for all his defects as a stylist, it can’t be denied that he knows how to spin a yarn, and most satisfyingly.
The plot is absurd, of course, but the book is a definitive pleasure. Prepare to be absorbed—and in more ways than one.
A husband, horrified at his beloved wife's disappearance, begins to question their entire marriage, and his very reality, in Bell’s assured debut.
Alexandra and Marc Southwood have a wonderful marriage of 13 years and two beautiful little girls, Charlotte and Lizzie. When Alex doesn’t come home one night, Marc is flummoxed. The North Yorkshire Police aren’t immediately concerned, but when she hasn’t returned a day later and they uncover her bloody clothing, Marc fears the worst. As the police investigate, they turn up shocking things that Marc never knew about Alex, leading him to do some investigating of his own. The book is narrated entirely by Alex: she makes it clear that what she’s writing, presumably while in captivity, are guesses about Marc’s actions based on how well she knows him as well as her access to things like a recording of Marc's phone call to the police and his credit card statement; she also gives us glimpses into the early days of their marriage. Interspersed with Alex's narration are letters from Amelia Heldt, an old friend and performance artist in New York who expresses an undeniable yearning for Alex. Bell paints a convincing portrait of a woman struggling with society’s tendency to put a man’s needs and desires over those of women and the guilt that accompanies a mother’s longing for fulfillment outside of marriage and children. Alex is passionate and complex, and her almost aggressive idealism can grow tiresome, but her yearning to be something “more” is palpable, leading her to blur the lines between life and art. For readers into controversial performance art, which Alex especially admires, and art in general, there’s a lot to chew on, but even if not, the truth behind Alex’s disappearance is a doozy, and the finale is satisfying while offering plenty of food for thought. Is Alex an unreliable narrator? Of course she is, but this is no bait and switch. Bell gives us all the clues and dares us to follow them to the shocking end.
This smart, mirror maze of a thriller bristles with sharp edges, twisting familiar Gone Girl themes into Bell’s own intense creation.
America’s most approachable astrophysicist distills the past, present, and (theoretical) future of the cosmos into a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read for a general audience.
In his signature conversational style, Tyson (Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, 2012, etc.), director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and host of StarTalk, shows once again his masterly skills at explaining complex scientific concepts in a lucid, readable fashion. In fun, digestible chapters, he covers all the basics: the constituent bits that make up the universe, the forces and laws that govern their interaction, and the pioneering scientists who pieced together the mechanics fabricating our reality. Substituting down-to-earth wit for unnecessary jargon, Tyson presents ideas in clean, straightforward language and allows for the awesome nature of the universe to impress itself on readers unadorned. Also compelling is the author’s contagious exuberance for his field, which he has consistently demonstrated throughout his writing and TV careers. Whether expounding on the general theory of relativity or the mystery of dark matter, he celebrates the many theories that have been experimentally confirmed while acknowledging the grand extent to which there is still so much left to discover. He also emphasizes that astrophysics need not be inaccessible. “The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist,” he writes. “It belongs to everyone….The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and sex.” In short order, you’ll be conversant in mind-bending trivia about “star stuff” that may fundamentally shift your perspective of our place in the universe—and convince you to pursue some of the many fine longer-form books on the subject.
A sublime introduction to some of the most exciting ideas in astrophysics that will leave readers wanting more.
If you want a raise, ask the boss in the morning—but never at 2:55 in the afternoon. The reason? Ask pop-science writer Pink (To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, 2012, etc.), who examines what happens when in daily life.
It’s a truism that timing is of the utmost importance. Mining veins familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Ariely, Pink delves into circadian rhythms, bimodal patterns, data clusters, and all the other stuff of popular business writing to explore, for instance, what a person’s optimal time of day is for such things as collegiality, productivity, happiness, and the like. The answer is that mornings are when good things happen, while afternoons are times of flagging energy, surliness, and negativity. Perhaps surprisingly, afternoon is also the time when ethical lapses are likeliest to occur, with some variation depending on one’s “chronotype.” Moving on, the author analyzes problems, addresses some of the latest research surrounding them, and then offers a few simple strategies for self-improvement, some a touch soft (join a yoga class), some more pointed—for instance, if you want to be perceived as an effective manager, answer colleagues’ email promptly, since “e-mail response time is the single best predictor of whether employees are satisfied with their boss.” Timing, similarly, can be a simple matter or a highly elaborate one, as with the food delivery workers who fan out across Mumbai each day, guided by the careful communication of information that “allows the walas to anticipate one another’s actions and move in harmony.” Pink also notes points at which our culture is inefficient in its accommodation of people who move to different rhythms: night owls tend to greater intelligence and creativity than early risers, but they’re forced to be “like left-handers in a right-handed world.”
Solid science backed by sensible action points—good airplane reading for business travelers.
A search for a missing girl is the spark that sets off the fireworks in the latest noir adventures of the Texas investigators Hap and Leonard.
The comic volatility of Hap and Leonard's partnership is that they are, respectively, white-black, straight-gay, liberal-conservative. This new installation begins with Hap and his longtime girlfriend, Brett, who also happens to own the detective agency he and Leonard work for, getting hitched and throwing a backyard barbecue by way of celebration. The party is interrupted by unwelcome visitors, a skinny young white supremacist and his ailing mother. It seems their respective sister and daughter has gone missing, and they want Hap to find her. After becoming disconcerted to learn that Leonard is not the boy who cleans up but will be an equal partner in the search, they nonetheless agree to hire the pair for the job. The search takes Hap and Leonard to Hap's small Texas hometown, which, he is disturbed to learn, is being slowly bought up by a slick white supremacist leader who sends his thugs, some of them Hap's old high school acquaintances, to keep tabs on the pair's every move. By now the Hap and Leonard series has settled into an odd mixture of brutality and sentimentality. You can be sure, for instance, that a pit bull used for fighting purposes will be spirited away in the middle of the night to a more loving home, where his happy inner-canine slob can flourish. You can also be sure that, particularly if Leonard has anything to do with it, revenge will be meted out without a trace of pity or regret. This entry feels a mite quick, even its volatility managed and thus kind of a safer bet than the earlier entries. But it remains a companionable, enjoyable, and profane series.
Familiarity has worn down the edge in this series, but its pleasures are still welcome.
Valentine Pescatore, a private investigator working under contract to Homeland Security, teams with sometime cop, sometime crusading journalist Leo Méndez to penetrate the conspiracy surrounding the killing of 10 African women in a Mexican motel.
The Chicago-born Pescatore, who became a PI in Argentina after messing up as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, has recently relocated from Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C., to work again for Isabel Puente, his former boss and one-time lover. Under government protection, Méndez has moved to San Diego with his wife and children to escape the Mexican Mafia and its "rip crews"—roving robbers and killers. At the heart of the motel murders is an illicit scheme involving an American financial outfit with ties to Mexico that is being investigated for money laundering. After an Eritrean cleaning woman is sexually assaulted by one of the company's partners and escapes to Mexico with an incriminating flash drive from her attacker's computer, her life is in danger. Ultimately, wherever they go to connect the dots of the case—Mexico, southern California, Guatemala, Italy—Pescatore and Méndez are under threat as well. (Different troubles await Pescatore in Paris, where a breakup with his counterterrorism-agent girlfriend, Fatima, seems likely.) This latest installment in a series including Triple Crossing (2011) and The Convert's Song (2014) is about as tightly woven and rock-solid as international thrillers get. Rotella is as good at setting up action scenes as he is at springing them (which is saying something: the shootouts are terrific). The crisp dialogue feeds the sculpted plot and vice versa. There is nary a wasted moment in the book or one in which Rotella isn't in complete command. The entertaining combo of Pescatore and Méndez is icing on the cake.
Rotella's latest is a tense, gritty thriller—perfectly seedy when it needs to be and near-perfect in its overall execution.
In the aftermath of a horrific crime, an LA psychologist confronts her own family dysfunction.
Robin, a newly minted therapist, suffers from panic attacks and a serious patient deficit. After a frantic call from her estranged sister, Melanie, informing her that their father’s much younger second wife, Tara, has been shot and killed, Robin returns to her remote hometown, Red Bluff, California. Their father, Greg, a wealthy developer, and Tara’s 12-year-old daughter, Cassidy, were also shot and are hospitalized. Greg’s highly conditional love has scarred both Melanie and Robin, and his many affairs, they feel, hastened their mother’s death. If that wasn’t bad enough, Greg stole Tara, Robin’s best friend, from his son Alec, to whom she was engaged, and showered on Cassidy the affection denied his daughters. Melanie still resents Robin because she got away, whereas Melanie was trapped in Red Bluff by her low paying job, lack of education, and, not least, her autistic son, Landon. The sisters are hounded by Sheriff Prescott, who’s grasping for suspects. The only eyewitnesses are Greg, who is comatose and moribund, and Cassidy, who has been mute for several days. Suddenly, though, Cassidy talks, revealing that two muscular men wearing ski masks had entered Greg and Tara’s newly completed mansion and attacked the family. Melanie’s sardonic sniping and rueful quips (as entertaining to the reader as they are annoying to all around her) aren’t helping, nor is Landon’s slacker friend, Kenny, who keeps dropping by to inquire about Cassidy. Greg’s condition poses another quandary: who will take custody of Cassidy? Robin’s attorney boyfriend, Blake, arrives to allay Robin’s suspicions about his infidelities and to lend his legal skills to the investigation, as Prescott targets Alec and even Landon as persons of interest. So expert is Fielding at seeding clues that readers will never see the final plot twist coming. The acutely portrayed family dynamics lend pathos and a certain schadenfreudian frisson to the proceedings.
An author who knows her way around suburban angst.