A full-throttle dive into the psyche and romantic attachments of Beryl Markham—whose 1936 solo flight across the Atlantic in a two-seater prop plane (carrying emergency fuel in the extra seat) transfixed the world.
As conceived in this second historical by novelist McLain (The Paris Wife, 2011, etc.), Markham—nee Beryl Clutterbuck—is the neglected daughter of an impecunious racehorse trainer who fails to make a go at farming in British East Africa and a feckless, squeamish mother who bolts back to England with their older son. Set on her own two feet early, she is barely schooled but precociously brave and wired for physical challenges—a trait honed by her childhood companion Kibii (a lifelong friend and son of a local chief). In the Mau forest—“before Kenya was Kenya”—she finds a “heaven fitted exactly to me.” Keeping poised around large mammals (a leopard and a lion also figure significantly) is in her blood and later gains her credibility at the racecourse in Nairobi, where she becomes the youngest trainer ever licensed. Statuesque, blonde, and carrying an air of self-sufficiency—she marries, disastrously, at 16 but is granted a separation to train Lord Delamere’s bloodstock—Beryl turns heads among the cheerfully doped and dissolute Muthaiga Club set (“I don’t know what it is about Africa, but champagne is absolutely compulsory here”), charms not one but two heirs to the British crown at Baroness Karen Blixen’s soiree, and sets her cap on Blixen’s lover, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’ll have him, too, and much enjoyment derives from guessing how that script, and other intrigues, will play out in McLain’s retelling. Fittingly, McLain has Markham tell her story from an altitude of 1,800 feet: “I’m meant to do this,” she begins, “stitch my name on the sky.” Popularly regarded as “a kind of Circe” (to quote Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman), the young woman McLain explores owns her mistakes (at least privately) and is more boxed in by class, gender assumptions, and self-doubt than her reputation as aviatrix, big game hunter, and femme fatale suggests.
Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as “a high-grade bitch” but proclaimed her 1942 memoir West with the Night “bloody wonderful.” Readers might even say the same of McLain’s sparkling prose and sympathetic reimagining.
Intense, deeply detailed, and compassionate account of the atomic bomb’s effects on the people and city of Nagasaki, then and now.
The generation of hibakusha, or atomic-bomb survivors, is sadly passing away, as journalist and artistic director Southard (Essential Theatre, Tempe, Arizona) acknowledges in her tracking of the experiences of five who were teenagers in the once-thriving port city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. As the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb over Nagasaki approaches, the author aims to enlighten her American audience, whose largely unequivocal stance about the rightness of forcing Japan to capitulate and the ignorance regarding radiation exposure the U.S. government took great pains to promote have kept readers unaware, she believes, of the magnitude of this nuclear annihilation—“a scale that defies imagination.” These five teenagers, and many like them, had all been enlisted in the war effort, as had their families in Nagasaki, one of Japan’s first Westernized cities, containing the largest Christian population. One of the teens delivered mail, one was a streetcar operator, and several worked in the Mitsubishi factories that lined the river. When the bomb obliterated the Urakami Valley, where many of them lived, all lost family members and were horribly injured and scarred for life. Southard’s descriptions stick to the eyewitness accounts of these and other survivors, and they are tremendously moving, nearly unbearable to read, and accompanied by gruesome photos. She alternates first-person accounts—e.g., reports by the Japanese doctors who first treated the burns and identified the subsequent radiation “sickness”—with an outline of the political developments at the war’s conclusion. The author emphasizes the postwar censorship imposed by the U.S. occupying force in Japan regarding the discussion of the bombing or radiation effects (see George Weller's First into Nagasaki), as well as the bravery of the hibakusha, who were determined to speak the truth.
A valiant, moving work of research certain to provoke vigorous discussion.
If you’re a student of the late Christopher Hitchens or William Shawcross, the idea won’t seem far-fetched. Grossman (You, 2013, etc.) takes it into fictional realms with this oddball book, which opens with none other than “Tricky” Dick Nixon giving a long soliloquy of a confession: “I outlived the hippies,” he says, “I outlived Elvis and Marlene Dietrich and the Soviet Union itself. It’s been twenty years since I was forced to stage my own death.” Say what? A stake doesn’t hold his heart to the Yorba Linda soil? Nope, for the eternal Nixon, bearing an eldritch tattoo administered by Henry the K and full of secrets and lies, isn’t the only evil being in the piece; indeed, after a fashion, as “the last of the American sorcerer-presidents,” he’s been helping save the world from all manner of mischief that plays out under the general rubric of the Cold War, giving new meaning to the phrase “Evil Empire.” It takes Grossman, who’s apparently been reading up on his H.P. Lovecraft, a while to fill this saggy balloon with enough gas to give it loft, and there’s way too much talk and way too little action, unless you count Pat Nixon’s discussion of her voting record as action. A sometimes-confusing timeline doesn’t help matters. Still, and even if the story is an inconsequential confection in the end, it’s pleasing to allow Nixon, who revisits his checkered career throughout Grossman's pages, supernatural leeway in explaining how he could have betrayed the public trust so badly—and pleasing to imagine, with Grossman, that he wasn’t really talking about football with those protestors at the Lincoln Memorial on that cold night all those years ago. And as for conspiracy theory? Well, let Kissinger take you down the miles and miles of secret corridors at the Pentagon—not the 17 miles that we know of but the places underground where the nukes live, ready to put an end to the world way back in our bicentennial year, “the final one of the American Republic.”
A worthy pop-cult amusement, if sometimes reading like cutting-room-floor Stephen King mixed up with a little Boris and Natasha.
In the tiny village of Kulumani, the people struggle to keep themselves safe from a marauding band of lions.
Thirty-two-year-old Mariamar is the sole surviving daughter of Hanifa and Genito; her sister, Silência, has just become the lions’ latest victim. But while Mariamar and her family mourn, the people of Kulumani are finally spurred to action, and they call in a hunter to deal with the lions. Mariamar is sequestered at home by her parents to avoid the hunter, Archangel Bullseye, whom she had first met 16 years ago. Then, Bullseye pursued Mariamar with the same passion he used to pursue his animal prey. Mariamar’s narration is masterfully intercut with the hunter's perspective; while she sees visions of her dead sister intermingled with the lions that killed her, Bullseye prepares for what he knows will be his last hunt. As the death toll mounts, the villagers become impatient with Bullseye's inability to kill the lions, and the crisis comes to a head in one terrifying, bloody night. Mozambique biologist and writer Couto (The Tuner of Silences, 2013, etc.) crafts a rich tale in which the spirit world is made real, animals are controlled by people, and dead ancestors are feared for their power to destroy cities. Couto also manages to explore the clash of disparate belief systems—tribal, Islam, Christian—in postcolonial Africa and deftly weaves in a critique of the embedded patriarchy. If there is a fault, it is the unevenness of the reveal of information which at times allows questions to linger too long, distracting the reader from fully falling under the spell of this otherwise entrancing narrative.
A delusional private eye stumbles onto a case that will test him to the max.
Harry Dickinson drives a 1936 Packard, collects film noir posters and back issues of Black Mask, and gives his girl Friday, whom he calls Friday, a first edition of The Thin Man as a gift. Friday, whom everyone else calls Linda Chapin, is touched by the gesture. In fact, she’s so touched by everything about Harry that she’s turned down ever hopeful suitor Sonny Plante for him, even though Harry literally doesn’t notice when she shows up at the office wearing nothing but Victoria’s Secret. She’d feel better about their relationship, though, if she didn’t know that Harry suffers from a partial complex seizure disorder that makes him believe he’s an unlicensed private eye. Harry’s old schoolmate Brian Rossiter, now a detective with the Springdale Police Department, humors him. So, more or less, does his sister, Carol LeGrange, though she wishes he’d go back to work selling used cars for her husband, Phil. But when Harry picks up evidence that Marian Turner withdrew $120,000 from her bank account a week after her disappearance, his determination to track her down endangers himself and Friday, and Carol and Phil step up their efforts to get him committed. A 72-hour remand at the Indian Orchard Wellness Center barely slows Harry down. But what effects will the magic pill so highly touted by psychiatrist Harold Bender have on the life Harry’s so carefully constructed for himself?
Black (The Extinction Event, 2010, etc.) supplies a sweetly moving fable for nostalgia buffs and anyone who thinks the movie Harvey (1960) would have been improved if its imaginary rabbit had been a damsel in distress. An epilogue retailing anecdotes from the author’s Hollywood days is quite as entertaining as the main event.
A thoroughly researched excavation of an astoundingly important (and sadly sacrificed) spy for the CIA during the low point of the 1970s.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009), Washington Post contributing editor Hoffman has strong credentials to tell the unheralded story of Adolf Tolkachev (1927-1986), a radar engineer who offered invaluable information on the state of arms technology in the Soviet Union until he was snagged by the KGB in 1985 and executed soon after. The CIA was scrambling to make a connection in the Soviet Union after the loss of the extremely productive spy Oleg Penkovsky for clandestine acquisition of technology for the West in the 1960s, though the agency was hampered by the “long shadow” cast by ultraparanoid chief of Moscow counterintelligence James Angleton, who believed the KGB was employing a “vast ‘master plan’ of deception,” and thus he trusted no one. Once he left in 1975, a younger generation of more enterprising officers trained in Berlin and other Eastern Bloc cities—e.g., Burton Gerber, who advocated for rigorous sifting of genuine sources from phony ones. Consequently, when a Russian engineer at Moscow’s Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering repeatedly approached American diplomats with his declared access to the development of a “look-down, shoot-down” radar system, they finally paid attention. Given the code name CKSPHERE, Tolkachev was motivated to photograph reams of priceless documents out of deep resentment of the “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery” of the Soviet state. Inspired by the famous defector Viktor Belenko and dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, Tolkachev also wanted money—the “six figures” that Belenko reportedly got, as well as rock albums for his teenage son, all of which would push him to take too many risks. Hoffman ably navigates the many strands of this complex espionage story.
An intricate, mesmerizing portrayal of the KGB-CIA spy culture.
In this ambitious novel, Taseer chronicles 40 years of modern Indian history through the eyes of a father and son, both scholars of the ancient Indian language Sanskrit.
In the midst of translating The Birth of Kumara, Skanda leaves Manhattan for Geneva to be with his gravely ill father, Toby, the maharaja of Kalasuryaketu. After Toby dies, Skanda must return his body to India, a country his father has not set foot in since 1992. From here, Taseer (Noon, 2011, etc.) skillfully shifts the narrative between Skanda in present-day Delhi and Toby, beginning in 1975, the year of Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency,” continuing through the riots against Sikhs in 1984, the dissolution of his marriage to Skanda’s mother, and, in 1992, the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya, along with the arrival of American daytime television. Sanskrit phrases bind and illuminate this enchanting saga, and it’s through father's and son’s devotion to the language and their shared “deep knowledge of classical India” that both Skanda and Toby make sense of the history and struggles of their country of origin. “Was the language all that had held the world together? Had that alone been the source of meaning?” As Skanda contemplates how India’s past political strife irrevocably damaged his parents’ marriage, Toby considers, years earlier, whether his love of Sanskrit has distracted him from seeing the truth about his beloved country. “His feeling for the language had now, for as long as he could remember, been part of his way of seeing, part of the way he configured the world. But had it blinded him to the reality of the place?” A year after Toby’s death, when Skanda must release his ashes into the Tamasa River, Skanda begins to appreciate his father’s “whole approach to things, to history, to memory, to place, to civilization.”
An award-winning staff writer for the New Yorker offers a probing account of his lifetime passion for surfing.
Though Finnegan (Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, 1998, etc.) was not “a beach kid,” family friends showed him how to enjoy riding the waves of the nearby Pacific Ocean. Eventually, surfing became an interest he pursued with growing avidity as his parents moved between Southern California and Hawaii. Between detailed accounts of his encounters with the waves of San Onofre and Honolua Bay, Finnegan interweaves stories of growing up a bookish boy among Hawaiian natives who hated him for being haole (white) yet also finding friendship among fellow outsiders who saw beyond race and bonded over surfing. A “sunburnt pagan,” Finnegan was gradually initiated into the deeper mysteries of the ocean that created the waves he rode with such dedicated absorption. He became like the early Hawaiian pioneers of surfing: not exactly “barbaric” (as these practitioners were considered by Christian missionaries) but still part of a group “typecast as truants and vagrants.” In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the author pushed the limits of freedom by experimenting with sex and drugs and dropping in and out of college. Yet surfing remained a constant throughout the chaos of his youth. In his mid-20s, he began an epic quest for the ultimate wave that took him to Guam, Samoa, Fiji, Australia, Java, and, eventually, Africa. Finnegan’s journals of his experiences form the backbone of his minutely detailed rendering of days spent sizing up swells and riding to glory. As brilliant and lucid as some of these descriptions are, they sometimes overwhelm the rest of the narrative, which includes, among many others, stories about the life-changing experiences in apartheid South Africa that turned him away from fiction and toward a career as a prominent journalist. The book nevertheless provides a fascinating look inside the mind of a man terminally in love with a magnificent obsession.
In Mitchell’s debut, two lonely 12-year-old girls develop strong feelings for the man who abducted them.
Their captor, whom they call Zeb, keeps the girls hidden in a lodge in the Adirondacks for two months but doesn't physically harm them. He's eventually killed by the police and the girls are returned home. Years later, when they're both nearly 30, Lois and Carly May seem to have recovered from their abductions and lead fulfilling adult lives. Carly May's changed her name to Chloe Savage and has a moderately successful career as an actress, while Lois, a literature professor in upstate New York, also has an alternate identity. Using the pseudonym Lucy Ledger, she's written a thriller about two kidnapped girls. The book is successful enough to be turned into a movie, and the role of the detective who develops an unhealthy obsession with the intriguing kidnapper goes to none other than Chloe Savage. Chloe, of course, recognizes the plot as her story and begins to revisit her memories of Zeb and their days in the lodge, where the two girls bonded and competed subtly for Zeb's affections. While the story sounds convoluted, it's an interesting and unexpected exploration of the aftermath of an abduction that left invisible scars. At one point, Lois refers to a literary argument that “fiction should adhere to a standard of probability, rather than possibility." Everything about this novel defies probability. By the time Lois and Chloe meet again to talk about their past, many unbelievable things have happened, but this is a novel about stories, truth, and reinvention more than it is a logical thriller about a kidnapping. The voices of the two women are distinctive, each sharp and witty in her own way.