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PW Picks: Books of the Week, June 14, 2021
Jun 11, 2021
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The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Leonardo Padura, Chris Offutt, and Scott Howard-Cooper.
The Transparency of Time
Leonardo Padura, trans. from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-27795-6
Dressed in the grungy trappings of a crime drama, this literary tour-de-force from Padura (Grab a Snake by the Tail) offers a colorful cultural history of Cuba and the island’s historical contact with Europe that helped to shape its people’s religious beliefs. Detective Mario Conde, an aging former cop, is hired by his old school friend, Bobby, to recover a statue of the Virgin of Regla, a Black madonna integral to Bobby’s worship of Santeria. The statue was stolen by Bobby’s lover, Raydel, but when Raydel and a confederate turn up murdered and high-end art dealers begin mingling with the suspects, Conde realizes Bobby’s statue has more than just sentimental value. As Conde’s adventures lead him into increasingly dangerous waters, an alternate narrative thread follows the statue’s ownership back through time to the Crusades and the Knights Templar—a pedigree it shares with the eponymous statue of The Maltese Falcon, thus referencing the Bogart films adored by Conde. (In an inspired bar scene midway through, Conde, after receiving a lump on the back of the head while interviewing one of Raydel’s associates, imagines he’s Bogart while ordering a drink with the lift of a finger.) The author forges a wondrous connection between the past and present through his characters’ faith in the statue’s occult powers and through a vivid portrait of a decayed Havana, where vestiges of opulence glimmer in the ravages of time. Padura’s novel will appeal equally to genre fans and lovers of literary thrillers.
The Tangleroot Palace: Stories
Marjorie Liu. Tachyon, $16.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-61696-352-1
Liu (the Monstress series) charms with this spellbinding collection of six short stories and one novella. The standouts are “The Briar and the Rose,” a darkly fascinating retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” in which a female duelist discovers her witch employer is living in the stolen body of Princess Rose, and helps Rose to regain it; and “Call Her Savage,” a steampunk western set during the Opium Wars and following half-Chinese antiheroine Lady Marshal as she struggles to be the hero others need her to be. Also of note are the haunting and eerie, “Sympathy for the Bones”; “The Last Dignity of Man,” about a would-be supervillain who realizes he must be his own superman; and two stories set in the world of Liu’s Dirk & Steele paranormal romance series: the atmospheric historical fantasy, “Where the Heart Lives,” which serves as a prequel to the series, and the dystopian “After the Blood,” about Amish vampires, set in the series’s future. The title novella offers a more standard secondary world fantasy, about a runaway princess drawn to an enchanted forest, but uses this familiar plot to probe the character’s feelings of being trapped. Liu’s mastery of so many different subgenres astounds, and her ear for language carries each story forward on gorgeously crafted sentences. This is a must-read.
Brainscapes: The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain—And How They Guide You
Rebecca Schwarzlose. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-328-94996-7
Neuroscientist Schwarzlose debuts with a fascinating deep-dive into the “remarkable maps” in the human brain. “I am not being metaphorical or using artistic license; there are actual maps in your brain,” she writes, and explains how those maps, made of interconnected neurons, function. Schwarzlose examines how each of the five senses is translated into perception via brain maps: the maps feature “gross distortions,” she writes, in how the brain perceives and makes sense of the world. These maps also play a role in movement, enabling memory and allowing humans to comprehend emotions. She also describes breakthroughs that enable individuals in apparent vegetative states to communicate through mental imagery and allow paralyzed individuals to control prosthetic devices simply by thinking of motions. She also warns of the double-edged nature of “brain-based” technologies often brushed off as science fiction: they may “empower the powerless, but they might also threaten our privacy and lessen our personal sovereignty.” Schwarzlose’s presentation of cutting-edge science is consistently accessible and concise, as is her historical perspective on early brain research (she describes work on mental imagery used by the founder of eugenics in 1870, noting that his sample only featured aristocratic European men). This is deeply enjoyable and thoroughly researched—science-minded readers should take note.
The Killing Hills
Chris Offutt. Grove, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8021-5841-3
Offutt's brooding and bloody country noir (after Country Dark) takes readers to the hollers of rural Kentucky, where meth and Oxycontin ravage the population, and havoc is wrought by long-festering family feuds. Mick Hardin, a traumatized veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now working as an Army intelligence agent, teams up with his sheriff sister to solve the murder of Nonnie Johnson after her body is discovered deep in the woods. In the process, they find themselves pitted against coal tycoon Murvil Knox; a meddling agent FBI agent who fingers an obvious patsy in disturbed outsider Tanner Curtis; roughneck brothers Bobby and Billy; and a pair of bumbling henchmen sent by arch-criminal Charley Flowers. Soon Hardin is up to his ears in intrigue and trying to keep a low profile as he interrogates suspects including local miscreant Fuckin' Barney; Knox's hapless nephew Delmer Collins; Nonnie's vengeful son, Frankie; and the earthy Old Man Tucker, who found Nonnie's body. Not only will Hardin have to find his man somewhere among this cast of backwoods desperados, he'll need to do so before he becomes a casualty of grudges old and new. The lean prose elicits more than a hard-boiled style, and while the brisk yet gnarled atmosphere is reminiscent of Winter's Bone, the dime-store crime novels of Jim Thompson, or even William Faulkner's Sanctuary, Offutt brilliantly evokes the body and soul of his wounded hero. It adds up to a mesmerizing and nightmarish view of what lurks just over the hills. This is sure to be Offutt's breakout.
Black Sci-Fi Short Stories
Edited by Tia Ross. Flame Tree, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-1-83964-480-1
Ross brings together 20 classic and contemporary writers for this excellent primer on Black sci-fi writing, with stories ranging from the pensive to the action-packed. The thought-provoking foreword by Temi Oh, who also contributes the emotionally charged short story “Almost Too Good to Be True,” and scholarly but accessible introduction from Sandra M. Grayson, set up any newbie to Black science fiction with a crash course in its historical context and contemporary relevance. Canonical authors including W.E.B. Du Bois, whose apocalyptic “The Comet” concerns the last Black man and white woman in New York City, and Pauline Hopkins, who imagines a lost African society in “Of One Blood,” are put in conversation with standout contemporary authors including Harambee K. Grey-Sun (“The New Colossuses”) and emerging writers such as Tara Campbell (“The Orb”). With topics ranging from slavery to space travel, the impressive breadth of this anthology makes for a well-rounded survey. Readers, writers, and scholars alike will find great value here.
Steve Kerr: A Life
Scott Howard-Cooper. Morrow, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-063-00127-5
In this thrilling biography, journalist Howard-Cooper (Tim Duncan) looks back at the trophy-laden career of player-turned-coach Steve Kerr. Written with an emphasis on Kerr’s charismatic personality, the narrative follows him from his days as a UCLA ball boy to becoming one of the most successful basketball coaches in history, having led the Golden State Warriors to three titles (in addition to the five he won as a player). Along the way, Kerr overcame severe challenges, most notably the assassination of his father, a high-profile academic, in Beirut in 1984, when Kerr was in college. While the tragedy rocked Kerr’s life, it didn’t stifle his fun-loving spirit, or his passion for basketball. Howard-Cooper documents how Kerr went from a lowly reserve to team leader for the University of Arizona Wildcats and helped them reach the NCAA Final Four, and later joined the Phoenix Suns before beginning a successful stint with the Chicago Bulls in 1993. Though his work as a TV commentator are touched on, his time with the Bulls makes for the most exciting passages, from his first season as a champion (during which he partying with Dennis Rodman) to an evocative detailing of his “slightly flawed” game-winning shot in the 1998 finals. Casual fans and hoops nuts alike will love this illuminating work.
A Bridge in Babylon: Stories of a Military Chaplain in Iraq
Owen R. Chandler. Chalice, $16.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-8272-0317-4
Military chaplain Chandler debuts with a frank, faith-filled account of military life during his 2016 deployment in Iraq. Chandler was pastor of a Disciples of Christ church in Tucson when his Army Reserve unit was mobilized; Chandler was tasked with providing counseling and religious support to troops and overseeing the development of a resiliency center, which provides soldiers a space to rest and recuperate. He never saw combat, but was acutely aware of its effects on his comrades as he counseled them wherever he met them, even in a latrine at 2 a.m. Chandler is candid about the loneliness of enforced celibacy, and eloquent about his initial fear of harm: “My mind tormented me with mini-movies playing scenes of all the ways in which I was going to be brutally killed.” He describes the “deceptively safe” Camp Taji and daily moments of moral questioning, particularly about the Iraqi soldiers and contractors killed by suicide bombers while securing the base. A particularly affecting chapter shares how counseling appointments quadrupled during December as soldiers connected with family and considered their lives post-deployment. Chandler’s affecting memoir testifies to the traumatic cost of perpetual war.
Vertigo & Ghost
Fiona Benson. Norton, $26.95 (112p) ISBN 978-0-393-54186-1
In her gorgeously visceral second collection, Benson (Bright Travellers) explores misogynist violence through the lens of myth, bringing Zeus into the present day as a serial rapist and abuser. Those familiar with Greek mythology will recall the god’s penchant for questionable sexual behavior, disguising himself as a swan to seduce Leda, for example. In one poem, Zeus appears before a judge and receives a “light sentence” because he is “an exemplary member/ of the swimming squad.” In another, his victim addresses him with vitriol, declaring her intentions for vengeance: “to out you/ Zeus, to drive you through the streets, with/ songs that find a name for you at last,/ you filthy pimp, you animal, you rapist.” The second half of the collection is more overtly personal, as the poet reflects on experiences with childbirth, motherhood, and mental health. There is chaotic beauty throughout, particularly in her physical descriptions of how the human body becomes more animal while giving birth. In “Wildebeest,” she writes: “I submitted to my body’s/ wild stampede/ to deliver you safe/ to the other side// and I was both the flood/ and the furious corral/ from which you were expelled.” This is a fiercely feminist articulation of rage and reckoning.
Isn’t It Bromantic?
Lyssa Kay Adams. Berkley, $16 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-33277-1
The fourth rom-com—and possibly the best yet—of Adams’s Bromance Book Club series (after Crazy Stupid Bromance), sees beloved side character and pro hockey player Vlad Konnikov, aka The Russian, diagnosed with a gluten allergy, finally alleviating his intestinal distress and leaving him ready to step up as a hero. Nearly done with her graduate degree in Chicago, Elena, an aspiring journalist and Vlad’s estranged wife, reluctantly returns to the Nashville home she’s never shared with Vlad after he suffers an injury during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Elena and Vlad were best friends as children, but after a hurried wedding to get Elena a visa, they went their separate ways, each unsure of the other’s desires. In nursing Vlad through his recovery, meeting his friends from the Bromance Book Club, and making him his favorite Russian meals, Elena becomes more confident in her feelings for her husband—but unless he makes his own emotions clear, she plans to head home to Russia to pursue the truth about her father’s long-ago disappearance. Vlad must take the advice of the romance novels he’s read—and is now writing himself—to prove his worth and get Elena to stay. Readers are sure to fall in love with sensitive Vlad and root for him and Elena. This is an utter delight.
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