In Vicars’ debut YA novel, a teenager becomes a target of bullying when a nude photo surfaces online, and she takes it upon herself to discover who uploaded it and why.
Polarity Weeks is a sensitive 15-year-old girl with a love of poetry. Her mother suffers from borderline personality disorder—a condition that causes her to move the family frequently in a search for alternative cures. After they move to a small Texas town, bullies victimize Polarity at her new school. Eventually, a student unveils what appears to be a nude image of Polarity in class, but she has no idea where it came from. Authorities suspect her parents, and Polarity goes through a harrowing experience within the justice system as she’s taken from her home and placed in state care before finally being released to her grandmother. By the time she’s sent to an alternative school for teens with disciplinary problems, Polarity has had her eyes opened not only to her own unjust treatment, but to the injustice of a system that targets primarily minorities and those on the margins of society. When her budding love interest, Ethan, winds up in the alternative school after being framed on a drug charge, Polarity decides to get retribution for them both, and she returns to her old school with a newfound determination. Vicars shows how Polarity resists folding inward in order to become sensitive to the plights of the marginalized teens around her. When her parents get her perks at the alternative school, for example, she confronts them: “I’d rather ride the bus and eat the food than stand out as the privileged white girl who doesn’t have to follow the rules.” The author also presents many other dynamic characters; Polarity’s brilliant, troubled mother, for example, is hilarious and menacing, as when she goes on an ill-conceived attack against the principal, claiming that Polarity “was in a gluten-induced haze caused by the soap from the dispensers in your showers.”
An aging New Yorker reflects on his childhood growing up on a Canadian island in novelist Reeves’ (Bada Bing in Brooklyn, 2012, etc.) linked story collection.
Once a sparsely populated area given to wildlife, Manitoulin Island is now primarily a retreat for Midwestern tourists with little appreciation for its history. At least, that’s true according to Jim, a professor in Brooklyn who spent much of his childhood there. In the late 1950s, he and his parents moved to the island from Indiana in search of simplicity, renting out rooms in their cabin for cash. As an adult, Jim visits the island often, both in person and in memory, haunted by the joyful yet trying years he contended withhis increasingly alcoholic father and aided his mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. But none of this is explained directly. Details are gradually revealed in nine candid stories, united by their lack of details (Jim is usually referred to only as “the man” or “professor”), the family’s golden retrievers, various objects (e.g., cigars and Kohl binoculars) and a structural formula that typically finds Jim in a present-day scenario conveniently similar to one from his boyhood. Warning a tourist about yellow jackets reminds him of when a customer entered a wasp-infested outhouse. Observing a potential suicide on the George Washington Bridge, he recalls helping his father retrieve a drowned corpse. In an uncharacteristic move, Jim unleashes snakes in a lodge as vindication against the owner, whose mother once stood his up at a lunch gathering. And in the pinnacle story, “Dire Straits,” young Jim secretly purchases a ferry ride to shorten a family trip that results in tragedy. Reeves delivers each tale in relentlessly spare prose that evokes Hemingway’s; often, however, he omits just enough detail to stir frustration. Likewise, sarcastic Jim is always wiser than those around him, and though he finds connectionsto strangers, he withholds information to avoid interaction. In “The Hoax,” for instance, Jim sips beer in a Manhattan bar where fellow drinkers ask whether he’s heard of their hometown, Muncie, Ind. “ ‘No,’ said the professor, whose parents graduated from Muncie Central High School.” And while Reeves proves himself adept at transitioning back and forth in time, the conceit becomes tiring and ostentatious. Still, his prose is sharp and subtle, his eye attuned to human frailty and offbeat humor.
A beautiful, tragic glimpse into isolation, family and coming of age.
Opening just before Lincoln is inaugurated, this historical novel describes the world of cowboys and Native Americans as it collides with the Civil War.
In his second novel, Kohlhagen (Tiger Found, 2008) weaves a complex tale around the real-life murder of Santa Fe’s provost marshal Maj. Joseph Cummings and the thousands of dollars stolen from the Army, the church and the New Mexico Territory during the time of the Civil War. He blends fiction with reality and uses many historical characters—Cochise, the chief of the Chiricahua Apaches; Kit Carson, one of the American frontier’s controversial legends; Augustyn “Auggy” Damours, a gambler and con artist. Kohlhagen also introduces several fictitious characters, including the sassy Lily Smoot, a Santa Fe poker dealer and occasional prostitute; U.S. Army captain John Arnold, who, over time, serves as a sort of father figure to Lily; and David Zapico, store owner and businessman. In the book, this unlikely (and untrustworthy) team of outlaws bands together to pull off one of the greatest heists in American history. Their plan, however, is not without its hiccups, close calls and, ultimately, fatalities. Greed and stupidity often get in the way. But, this is not the only plot unfolding. While the plan for embezzlement slowly takes shape, we see the effects the “White Eyes” have on Native American nations. Kohlhagen capably sketches the growing tensions between Native Americans and the U.S. soldiers and settlers; among various nations, as they unwittingly enter each other’s territories due to increasing loss of land to U.S. forces; and between the Union and Confederate soldiers as Lincoln takes office and the Civil War breaks out. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that few people trust each other, and for good reason, as everyone appears to have an agenda.
In this rough-and-tumble frontier story, endless layers of deceit up the ante and interest.
In Elberfeld’s debut novel, a newly widowed, 50-ish woman looks back at significant moments in her life, reflected through the prism of memory and dream.
As this pared-down novel begins, Annie, 52, has just returned from her husband Pearce’s funeral, facing an empty apartment and her memories. Disjointed thoughts of the past keep arising—not of Pearce, but of Danny, the boy she first loved. If she can get these thoughts “to click into place, they would reveal their secret to her….Why, why had she left Danny behind?” Through reverie and dreams, Annie pieces together the significant moments of her childhood: first meeting Danny, her mean-spirited grandmother, her mother’s early death, Danny’s proposal and why she turned him down. Through this process, Annie finds the strength she needs within herself. In her debut, Elberfeld confers a sense of ominous significance to small events, as memories often turn to dreams or nightmares. A dutiful childhood visit to an old lady in her stuffy parlor, for example, slides into a bad dream: “And the door on the parakeet cage clanged shut and Annie was in the cage and the bird smell and the old-lady smell filled her nostrils like powder and her windpipe closed in.” In evocative, poetic language, Elberfeld captures the evanescence of youth: “[P]ressed between Danny’s body and the body of his truck, Annie stood in the moonless night with the crickets zigzagging in her ears and heart and drank as if she stood at the fountain of life.” Annie’s story is, however, rather slight to bear all the weight of this significance. Her husband was dear and sweet; if he valued security over excitement, how could he live up to her memory of Danny, unchallenged by any of the real cares of adulthood? And while Annie remains convinced that the central issue was her lack of faith in Danny, it’s her inability to stand up for herself that’s most prominent.
A lyrical exploration of memory, grief and choice.
Penny Pound, divorced mom, schoolteacher and church organist, gets caught up in the investigations that follow a deadly blaze at a student’s home in this first installment of a planned series.
Penny Pound is a third-grade teacher in Redfield, Ohio, in 1990. She also serves as organist at the nearby Episcopal church, led by the kindly Rev. Huddleston. Offbeat, yet deeply engaged with her students, Penny feels under scrutiny since she doesn’t always follow the school’s curriculum. It doesn’t help that her professor ex-husband convinced their 15-year-old son, Sam, to live with him and only visit her on weekends. Still, she has supportive friends—African-American school psychologist Glory, fellow newbie teacher Robin and choirmaster Andrew. Her retired cop father calls to tell her about a fire at the home of her student Keith. The circumstances are peculiar: Keith’s mother is acting strangely, her current boyfriend and ex-husband have criminal pasts, and Keith’s brother, who perished in the blaze, was drugged. A multilayered investigation ensues. Penny soon meets firefighter Jake Richards and experiences combustible attraction. Then her caring outreach to Keith prompts its own suspicions, leading to a final fiery showdown. First-time novelist Greenwood has created an appealing world that has elements of a cozy as well as the small-town charm and spirituality found in Jan Karon’s Mitford series. Keith’s home life proves to be quite dark and disturbing, which lends a somewhat jarring undertone to this largely folksy narrative. Greenwood addresses this issue squarely, providing several beautifully written, touching scenes that point the way, as do sprinklings of excerpts from prayers and hymns, to this planned series’ focus on redemption, hope and light. Overall, a skillful debut.
An accomplished launch of a promising new spirituality-focused small-town series.
In Fulbright’s (Driving Mad, 2014) thriller, the real threat during the Cold War in the 1980s is the French president, who claims to have a weapon capable of shifting the balance of global power.
Henry Wright, an Englishman working in Brussels, is recruited by a secret U.S. intelligence agency. Henry is employed as an interpreter, a relatively painless job, but distrust within the states puts the man in peril. John Heldring, head of IBIS, a commodities-trading group that’s really a front for the Pentagon and State Department’s covert operations, for one, thinks Henry is a Pentagon spy and goes gunning for him. Superpowers America and the USSR, meanwhile, are understandably nervous when Henri Fouquet, France’s president, announces that French scientists have created bombs that can generate a devastating electromagnetic pulse. Mark Tollworth, a man from the Foundation for the Rescue and Restitution of Collected Objets d’Art, promises Henry a safe return to Brussels and a $250,000 paycheck if he simply delivers a message to Fouquet. The fascinating titular protagonist is the antithesis of a typical literary hero: he is seemingly unqualified for counterintelligence (agents erroneously suspect him of espionage), and he avoids the majority of gunfire, as Henry himself admits, by sheer luck. He’s also habitually contentious, mocking American slang and complaining about the tea at Starbucks. Fortunately, the story is rife with characters even more absorbing than Henry, especially Clem Haight, who essentially becomes one of Henry’s bodyguards, and former KGB assassin (and knife-throwing circus performer) Dmitri Zhukhovsky. The intelligent prose and sporadic (but welcome) action sequences are too often sidelined by incidental scenes; e.g., Henry and others have a trivial discussion of his name’s origin. But the characters’ delightfully ambiguous motives and backgrounds make distinguishing good or bad guys a near impossibility, giving the story an atmosphere of perennial unease. Not everyone is as good at steering clear of bullets as Henry, so the novel loses a few characters before it’s over. The author likewise leaves the ending wide open for a potential sequel.
Henry is indelible, and Fulbright smartly surrounds him with equally memorable characters in this exceptional outing.
A down-home attorney becomes an amateur sleuth in this quirky overture to the MisAdventures of Miss Lilly series.
After discovering her fiance in flagrante delicto with his secretary, Lilly Atkins leaves her Dallas law firm behind to start her own practice in her hometown of Brooks, Oklahoma. Though Lilly is a former cheerleading captain, salutatorian, and rodeo queen, she says that “ ‘pretty’ isn’t the right word” to describe herself: “It conjures up images of sweet and soft looks. I’m striking and I stand out.” In rapid-fire Southern drawl, she introduces a head-spinning number of family members and friends, notably a sister with model looks, a bigmouth grandmother with a pacemaker, and an ex-boyfriend, Cash Stetson, who can’t sign his divorce papers fast enough when he sees Lilly. It would be too much exposition if the back stories weren’t so funny. One-liners are let loose as if from a slingshot: “I’d like to buy her for what she’s worth and sell her for what she thinks she’s worth,” says Lilly’s hairstylist about Cash’s wife, Tina. Lilly’s friend Mark Ames is dead, and Ronnie Duvall, the local mortician, needs Lilly to find out who replaced the corpse’s femur with PVC pipe and stole all his fingernails. In order to keep the disturbing news from reaching the police—and Mark’s family—too soon, Lilly and her friend Fae Lynn head to the morgue to investigate. In a small town where everyone is looking (and then looking the other way), gossip trumps police work, with hilarious results. The only person who might foil Lilly’s sleuthing is Spencer Locke, the Yankee nephew of Tina’s lawyer. Lilly is either Spencer’s “worst nightmare” or his next girlfriend. Unfortunately, the big-haired, small-town lawyer has barely shaken the dust off her favorite boots before she and her friends solve the case, which slips away as quickly as the last few grains of sand in an hourglass.
Featuring a heroine worth accompanying home, this brief yet punchy debut begs for a sequel.
In Collison’s (Star-Crossed, 2006, etc.) YA adventure, a teen on a character-building excursion at sea faces challenges larger than getting along with his crewmates when the spirit of a destructive ancient Chinese ghost appears.
James McCafferty has the bad luck to be shanghaied by his mother and her boyfriend and sent aboard the Chinese junk Good Fortune. He is not a happy sailor. While the other teens possess what might pass as conventional behavior problems—the bookish boy obsessed with weapons, the tattooed punk girl, the adopted Asian kleptomaniac, the bully and his minions—James is different. He isn’t a bad kid; he just sees and hears dead people, who now pursue the Good Fortune as it wanders to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Yu Chin, the spirit of a 700-year-old Chinese eunuch in the imperial court, talks to James, berates him as a weakling, then tells him his plan to take over his body and send him to hell. Until then, readers’ are treated to plenty of irreverent Holden Caulfield–like wit along with James’ spot-on observations, which seem to keep him afloat as the situation takes on water. When the chipper youth counselor Marty—“a continuous public service announcement”—and first mate Miles disappear and Capt. Dan, who “looks more like somebody’s fat, stoned uncle,” dies, the ship is inexorably drawn toward a fate that involves a parallel spirit world and an ancient Chinese power struggle. The abandoned teens don’t become as feral as those in The Lord of the Flies; instead, their camaraderie comes in handy just as a ghost armada raises itself from the deep. Much interesting information on Chinese sailing ships and mythology is introduced, and while not all of it is essential to the plot, Collison deftly prevents the info from talking down to young readers or encumbering the story.
Merchant offers a collectivistic approach to economics in his debut treatise.
It’s long been held that self-interest is the elemental mechanism of the economy, but Merchant respectfully disagrees. He says that the capitalistic claim that humans are motivated by selfishness is just as false as the Marxist assumption that they’re motivated by utilitarianism. Instead, he argues for a third way of thinking that considers human communal tendencies that he terms “collectivistic.” He walks readers through various economic areas, demonstrating how behaviors that one might blithely describe as individualistic, such as dining out, actually have complex, communal dimensions that many economic models don’t consider. The implications of this view help explain why many representations of the economy appear insufficient, he says; it’s not simply the sum of its individuals, but something far greater. The true wealth of a nation, he says, lies not in its land or resources but in its collectivistic potential; he also identifies anti-collectivistic “weapons” that exist in our society that keep us from realizing it. He expresses his hopes that society will eventually move forward into an increasingly globalized, post–nation-state economy. At a little over 100 pages, readers can breeze through this book in one or two sittings. Merchant takes a topical approach to his argument, dividing the essay into easily digestible chapters with titles such as “Consumption: The Concept of Commodity,” “Work: The Concept of Role,” and “Trade: Buying and Selling.” Although many readers may seek out economics books that reinforce their own personal beliefs, Merchant’s vision isn’t traditionally conservative or liberal. Instead, he advocates a holistic approach that’s rarely encountered in mainstream debate. He writes in crisp, accessible prose and offers examples to illustrate the principles he discusses, placing them into the relatable, physical world of the everyday. The brevity and clarity of the work will make it attractive to readers who aren’t engaged by opaque economics tomes and pundit-penned rehashings of established ideas. If it’s true that the most plainly stated arguments win the most supporters, this one should have no trouble entering the larger dialogue.
A concise, persuasive argument for the importance of the collective in economics.
As his long-dormant conscience slowly revives, a Black Ops assassin wrestles with his role as a pawn in the Vietnam War in Lealos’ (Pashtun, 2014, etc.) powerful novel.
In 1969, Frank Morgan is an American assassin in Vietnam known as “the Night Snake.” He receives his orders from an agency, Phoenix, that doesn’t officially exist, is answerable to no one, and funds itself in part with money from drugs, prostitution and the sale of orphans. Morgan fits right into this world, however, as he was brought up by a father he calls “the Colonel,” a militaristic lunatic who always raised him to be a soldier. At first, Morgan has little problem with taking part in dubious operations for the greater glory of the United States, although he does have nightmares that he beats back with drugs and drink. But when he kills Liem Tran, a Sorbonne-educated woman with striking green eyes, it particularly affects him, even though Phoenix says that she’s a top Viet Cong cadre chief. When he learns that the mission was actually revenge for Tran’s refusal to sleep with a South Vietnamese official—and that most of his other assignments may be equally bogus—Morgan goes rogue, killing people he’s not assigned to terminate while letting other targets go free. Lealos presents Vietnam as a Dantean landscape from which no one ever really returns, not even the survivors. He underscores its futility through Morgan’s cynical, first-person Mickey Spillane–speak, which draws every comparison by using words of war (“The only noise the M79 thumper in my chest”; “The sound was like snapping my M16 to full auto”; “The kiss lasted longer than it took between hearing the hushed thud of a mortar tube and the impact”). Overall, it’s a gut-wrenchingly realistic portrayal of how violence, politics and corruption combine to destroy the souls of people and countries.
A dark redemption tale, but not one for the faint of heart.
In a year’s worth of blog posts, a mother goes through the complex process of helping her special needs daughter make the transition from childhood to independent adulthood.
In the introduction to her debut work, Edelman quotes a journalist friend: “This is a story that nobody is telling.” From bookstore to blogosphere, there are many accounts of raising special needs children but fewer about caring for a developmentally disabled adult child. Edelman explains that her topic is “the parents’ quest to bring their child to the threshold of adulthood, safely and successfully” and to “provide something of a map for others to use.” As Edelman describes with impressive specificity, there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved—in her case, most of it centered on her daughter’s return home from boarding school and turning 21. At that age, she “ages out” of the Connecticut public school system and other state resources and segues into a whole new frontier of need-based services, of which Medicaid is probably the least complicated. There’s a mass of jargon and acronyms and a crazy quilt of service agencies, all of which Edelman, a licensed social worker, explains fluently. She writes with equal assurance when describing her conflicting emotions: gratitude and frustration with the system and hesitation about when to help her daughter and when to stand back. She writes of her unmistakably heartfelt love for her child and honestly portrays the difficulties of dealing with her disability. The transition of this material from blog to book, however, is somewhat less well-handled. The text seems to have been transferred verbatim, including some dead and absent links, and its practice of beginning almost every paragraph with an italicized subheading is hardly noticeable in a blog but somewhat tedious in a nearly 500-page book. However, the book sensitively does what it sets out to do, documenting a complicated and too-little-discussed struggle in order to help others dealing with similar challenges. This account provides both the practical advice of an insider and the compassion and wisdom of a loving parent.
A must-read for parents of special needs children nearing adulthood.
In Kelly’s debut middle-grade adventure, a young mermaid princess returns to save her underwater kingdom years after it was taken over by an evil sorceress.
Shortly before the Witch of Darkness conquers the mermaid kingdom and hurls the ruler, Princess Marri-Anna, to the ocean floor via a whirlpool, Marri-Anna’s human lover, Robbie, smuggles their young baby daughter to safety. Out of necessity, he leaves Willamina in the care of his cruel sisters, Lena and Lottie, before going after the witch himself to save the woman he loves. After telling his sisters that it’s crucial the shell locket around the baby’s neck never be removed, he leaves, shortly thereafter getting captured by the witch. The greedy aunts immediately ignore his warning and remove the necklace, assuming it to be valuable, which instantly turns Willamina from her human form into a mermaid. For the next 12 years, they keep her confined to an upstairs bathroom, never telling her the truth about her origins. Besides the fact that she has a tail and can talk to fish, she has no clue what exactly is “wrong” with her other than that her aunts make her sit in a wheelchair and hide her lower half under a blanket when company visits. On her 12th birthday, a nasty cousin after her inheritance pushes her from her wheelchair into the ocean, where she is reunited with her people and learns the truth from the sea wizard, Merlin, about her destiny and the prophecy that says she’ll be the one to free the kingdom from the witch’s rule. Kelly’s zippy, imaginative tale samples elements from the best of both recent and classic YA fantasies and fairy tales. Willamina’s childhood and horrid aunts are Harry Potter crossed with Roald Dahl but with the refreshing twist of a female protagonist, and there is a great deal of The Little Mermaid, particularly Disney’s version, in the under-the-sea happenings. Some readers might find many of the characters a bit too broadly drawn and over-the-top, though the exaggerated style tends to fit the creative story’s fairy-tale tone.
A clever, fast-paced story that should delight young readers hungry for magical stories.
An Irish farmer becomes a pawn in an interplanetary conflict in Hauck’s uproarious fiction debut.
As this story opens, a poor, well-intentioned Irish farmer named Sean Patrick O’Meara awakens in the middle of a mysterious crop circle, and it’s not the first time he’s done so. Sean has had recurring nightmares about being abducted by aliens, which has led to predictable needling from locals in the nearby village. But he has proof: otherworldly chocolates that he’s brought back from his hazily remembered space adventures. Back on Earth, Sean confronts the nefarious village priest, Father Murphy, and Sister Mary Phitz, an enigmatic nun who’s far, far more than she seems: she’s an undercover interplanetary agent from the planet Lyleith, where a utopian society of cloned women long ago exiled men to Earth, which they call “Eden.” The women of Lyleith enjoy prosperity, peace, and the respect of the rest of the galaxy. But Phitz, who’s been biologically engineered to be a “paragon of virtue,” is surprised to discover that Father Murphy has visited her perfect home world. The serenity of Lyleith has also been disrupted by covert groups of women embarking on “fertility safaris” to Earth. Her former sisters kidnapher at the same time they kidnap poor Sean, and the two find themselves unlikely allies as Hauck hurtles the narrative forward. The text of this novel is somewhat sloppy at times (“immerged” for “emerged”; “lightening” for “lightning”). However, the storytelling here is assured, the characterization sharp (the tarnishing of Phitz’s priggish innocence is a particular highlight), and the humor infectiously bawdy (“You do have a special gift for pissing people off, don’t you?” Phitz asks Sean). The end result is an odd but highly readable sci-fi romp.
A fun-house mirror version of The Handmaid’s Tale, with extra-potent chocolates thrown in.
In this tender, inviting short book written by a reading specialist, a loving grandmother has wise words for her young grandson when he wishes he were older.
On a walk in the park with his grandmother, an unnamedyoung boy sees older kids playing basketball and, wanting to join in, he says, “I wish I was big right now.” His grandmother asks him not to grow up too fast, “[b]ecause I would miss the little you.” When he’s not swayed, her response sparks a gentle exchange between the two as they continue their walk through the park. The grandmother points out baby ducklings in a pond, saying they need time to learn to swim and fly. She reminds her grandson of the things that his pet dog was like during his “good growing times” that turned a puppy into “a strong and loving dog.” A toddling little girl they meet with her dad needs time for her legs to grow stronger, something that “will happen as surely as summer follows spring.” The message is hardly unique to the genre, but Biery (Words Aren’t Fair, 2009) imparts this wisdom with warmth and the deft rhythm of simple but expressive vocabulary, giving the book (inspired by her own grandson) lift and life. The dog and boy race “like the wind, the boy laughing as the dog dove into a pile of leaves and chased a squirrel out the other side.” While a little girl pats the dog, “a smile bloomed on her face.” A mother duck “nudged the baby ducks,” and they “slipped into the pond, paddling the water with their feet.” The book’s watercolor and pencil illustrations, by professional artist Maxwell, add modest real-world charm, notwithstanding a few odd proportions and facial expressions. For adults, what comes through between the lines is a sense of wistfulness from both sides: The boy wants to grow up fast; his grandmother doesn’t want him to rush, even as she assures him it will happen “all in good time.”
A gently resonant little book as pleasant as a walk in the park.
A collection of autobiographical stories that charts a man’s meandering search for new experiences and ideas.
Author Kaufman is a committed purveyor of ideas, apparently having inherited from his Polish grandfather an insatiable inventiveness. That love of ideas is both born out of and expressed through a peripatetic wandering: the author traversed the globe, visiting Tel Aviv, New York, Italy, Iran, Germany, Ecuador. The book often reads like a travelogue, providing astute commentary on this or that destination. In one memorable analysis, Kaufman notes that the appeal of New Orleans’ French Quarter stems from its unique fusion of revelry and danger. The prose is fairly straightforward, so the narrative hinges on a life very interestingly lived. Kaufman’s life does not disappoint; the book brims with lines like this: “Growing up in the forties in the then Palestine, on the fringes of the Middle East and North African battles in World War II, was exciting if you were a kid.” The tales occur in patchwork fashion, eschewing a full, linear account of the author’s life, but the upside is each chapter can stand alone. Much of the writing is lighthearted and even comical—one story is written from the perspective of a dog—but it still tackles more serious topics like poverty and the pursuit of artistic fulfillment. In one entry, Kaufman’s family repeatedly pawned and rescued a set of silver candlesticks in response to financial distress. Though enamored of their beauty, he came to resent them for what they ultimately symbolized—his family’s precarious circumstances. In another, he won the admiration of a general in Veracruz for recommending that he supply a reception with portable toilets. Later in the collection, he tenderly describes his newborn granddaughter as that “beautiful, sweet, delicately perfect little thing.” The author of several books, Kaufman (The Precipice Option, 2013) is adept at recounting the universality of the idiosyncratic elements of his life; each vignette expresses a general truth about human nature. For example, his obsessive traveling, and the book as a whole, evokes the restless search for meaning that, to some extent, motivates us all.
A true-crime account of a forgotten but horrific monster terrorizing the United States, written by one of the police officers responsible for his capture.
William E. Griffith had a troubled childhood and difficult teenage years, growing up to become a moderately successful traveling salesman. His job enabled him to practice his second life as a voyeur and serial rapist—one who remained active for nearly 30 years. Former police officer Rudy and writing partner Davis detail Griffith’s crimes, mistakes, victims and ultimately his capture and incarceration. The authors rely on police reports and personal memory in reconstructing the background, methods, habits and deeds of Griffith, who’s now behind bars. The subject operated by prowling towns in the Midwest for the homes of women, often single mothers, and he’d watch them from a distance while masturbating. His behavior soon escalated, and he became increasingly dangerous: Knife in hand and face covered by a ski mask, he broke into women’s houses and raped them while their children slept. It’s a chilling, disturbing report, but Rudy and Davis don’t linger on the horrific details as some true crime authors do. Equal time is given to Griffith, the police department’s decades-long search and Griffith’s victims. Intimately portraying the victims’ lives discourages readers from becoming inured to the violence and the long-term effects of being attacked. The book, which reads like a long-form journalism, has a purpose: The authors want to ensure that Griffith (who’s incarcerated for at least another seven years) is never released. While not ideal for bedtime reading, it’s a powerful and convincing narrative.
A disturbing, haunting account of a sexual predator.
Odd disappearances and deaths, UFOs, and incredible deep-sea technology threaten to submerge naval scientist Jason Parker in alien intrigue.
In James Cameron’s cinematic blockbuster The Abyss, the nail-biting tale of undersea disaster and deep-water military jeopardy took a sudden detour into being an alien-first-contact epic. Clarke’s sci-fi techno-thriller debut isn’t too far from Cameron’s original release, though Clarke more neatly flays those different genres flopping around like fish in a rowboat. Jason Parker is a stalwart U.S. Navy scientist and pilot who, from the air, witnesses what appears to be a UFO splashdown off Florida. Thanks to his expertise, timing, and perhaps a bit of predestination, Parker is on the scene for a series of mysterious deaths among deep-water divers as well as the recovery of an incredible new Russian weapon, a supersonic torpedo. The Tom Clancy–esque gizmo turns out to be a bit of a red herring for the actual secret pursued by semiruthless operatives of the U.S. government. Experiments in psychic “remote viewing” have revealed the existence of intelligence and phenomena not quite of this Earth, hidden in the abyssal depths of the Marianas Trench and the Gulf of Mexico. Parker, who begins hearing voices and glimpsing “shadow people,” finds himself and pretty young oceanography student Laura Smith stalked by, if not Men in Black, then at least Men in Green. The author, an expert in scuba and marine minutiae, knows how to tell a good tale while also measuring the specs of a rebreather apparatus; he even tosses in some real-life ufological lore about which paranormalists have been howling for some time. But rather than filching from Whitley Strieber or other usual suspects, he gives the creatures his own Rod Serling–esque spin (for quite a few chapters, the rationalist hero dismisses the toadlike aliens as hallucinations). It still feels like a bit of a mashup, but the story flows nicely and doesn’t anchor itself to the ballast of too much technical jargon. Bonus points for salutes to Fortean Times magazine and the fairy tale of “The Frog Prince.”
A buoyant undersea-alien yarn that’d make an awesome beach read.
Altshul (Stumblings, 2013) brings a gentle wit and a multifaceted view of human existence to his second poetry book.
As the title indicates, one of the throughlines of this collection is the observation of nature—an earthy, figurative framework that gives the poems a common theme. The linked concepts of mortality, memory, sex, and cycles of death and rebirth run strongly through every poem, including those that borrow language from other fields, such as “Vodka Blues,” a rueful examination of a martini gone wrong. These topics give the collection an overarching viewpoint—that of a man reviewing his life. Despite a handful of poignant regrets (as in the affecting “Entreaty,” which keenly portrays his inadvertent role in the killing of a horse), the narrator appears to find the sum of his life to be on the positive side of the ledger. Readers who enjoy the work of Robert Frost—who’s quoted at the opening of this slim compilation—will find much to enjoy in Altshul’s work, as they have several points in common, including the recurrent stanza structure, the use of natural imagery, and the New England setting. However, Altshul leavens his work with a frankness about sex that Frost couldn’t get away with, and he often uses precisely placed profanity and a quick, gentle wit that always points back to himself as a figure of fun. “Patience,” for example, shows the narrator preening over his erudition while getting his facts wrong, and “Samarra, the Sequel” demonstrates how being helpful to the Grim Reaper can backfire. Warmly humanistic without wallowing in sentiment, wise without being world-weary, and readily tipping his authorial hat to his influences (including John Donne and Wallace Stevens), Altshul celebrates life by acknowledging its inevitable end.
Readers who appreciate a warm poetic voice would do well to dive into Altshul’s quick-witted, gregarious work.
In D’Agincourt’s (All Most, 2013, etc.) novel, a woman reflects on her family’s shared history and the shadow it has cast on her own life.
“Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?” This fundamental question, once posed by French artist Paul Gauguin, forms the scaffolding for this novel. Its protagonist, Jocelyn, takes a piercing, introspective look at her past. It’s only now, as a middle-aged woman, that she recognizes that every family “possesses a prevailing philosophy”—one that brings them together in complex ways. For her and her parents, the central fulcrum was art, and in her own life, the “philosophy” was manifested by a Canadian painter, Alex Martaine, whose work appears to have been inspired by Gauguin’s. Alex’s affair with Jocelyn’s mother deeply unsettled Jocelyn, who was, at the time, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. In the present day, she uses the title of Gauguin’s painting “Where Do We Come From?, What Are We?, Where Are We Going?” (pictured on the book’s cover) as the basis for her own voyage of self-discovery. In three sections that tackle each of the title’s questions, Jocelyn takes readers from her claustrophobic early years through middle age as she searches for the meaning of life. Although her early rebellion takes a familiar, almost predictable form, readers may overlook it as one of the few weapons in a confused teenager’s arsenal. D’Agincourt’s economical prose is frustratingly clinical at times, working much too hard to adhere to the “glimpses” promised in the novella’s title; as a result, it gives readers little else. Yet these moments mirror the feel of childhood and the gradual process of self-realization remarkably well—images pieced together in broad brush strokes. At one point, for example, Jocelyn looks at the aforementioned Gauguin painting and observes that its “rich and exotic” colors are “out of keeping with the detachment in the characters’ faces....The uninhibited sensuality oppresses me, entraps me.”
A precisely rendered image of a quest to tease out life’s larger meaning.
An account of a wide-ranging life that embodies the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Montandon (Oh the Hell of It All, 2009, etc.) has written a memoir that almost becomes a full autobiography, although it compresses her last few decades into a couple of chapters. She grew up in the 1930s in a large, dirt-poor Dust Bowl–era Oklahoma family. Her father was a preacher, and the family had to move often—sometimes because her father believed, to his credit, that black people should be welcome among his white congregation. Nonetheless, the members of her family were Old Testament fundamentalists; the focus was on hell, not heaven, and any wrong step, anything construed as loose, secular living, could send you there. She eventually grew into a statuesque stunner, which exacerbated her widowed mother’s worries. At 18, the naïve young woman married a fellow from the Air Force who turned out to be a real jerk,but guilt-ridden as always, she tried to be a good wife as they spent two years in the Azores. Finally, a very kind lover aided her in finding herself, and she also found that she’d had enough of her marriage. Stateside, she divorced Groves and wound up in San Francisco, where she blossomed, becoming a television personality, newspaper columnist, socialite and Nobel Prize–nominated peace activist. The memoir’s byword is “indomitable”; by the age of 30, despite her past trials, the author wasn’t afraid of anything and had roaring energy. (The book’s initially silly-sounding title refers to a traumatic accident that colored her whole life.) Montandon often writes well, although her style is sometimes over-the-top and her diction, sometimes purple (“My tears fell in an unbridled waterfall, pooling at my feet, flowing across the highway, creating a flood of such profound intensity that I turned on the windshield wipers”). Still, readers learn a lot about what she had to face and how she survived. She writes of how, even in later years, some of her siblings were still captives of hateful beliefs; it’s all the more striking that the author, with her native intelligence and sensibility, managed to escape such an upbringing while still loving her family.
A memoir that’s a wild, wrenching ride but one worth taking.