This week, the greatest ship ever created, a psychologist who sleeps with the lights on, and Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" columns collected. Plus: the newest from the author of TheBoy in the Striped Pajamas.
The Absolutist by John Boyne (Other Press) – In this relentlessly tragic yet beautifully crafted novel, Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) documents the lives of two inseparable men navigating the trenches of WWI and the ramifications of a taboo involvement. The emotive wartime saga is narrated by Tristan Sadler, a soldier en route to visit his dead comrade Will Bancroft’s older sister Marian in Norwich, England, a few years after serving in the Great War. The story oscillates between Sadler’s trip in 1919 to return Will’s letters to Marian, and recollections of wartime, including a forbidden and fleeting homosexual affair with Bancroft, depicted by Boyne with the same polite, properly delicate prose that permeates the book. Check out our Q&A with Boyne.
The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner (Doubleday) - With a degree in electrical engineering, Castner served as an air force officer in Saudi Arabia in 2001, and Iraq in 2005 and 2006, where he earned a Bronze Star. He then trained military Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in tactical bomb procedures. Castner’s chilling account of those years is, he feels, “as correct as a story can be from someone with blast-induced memory lapses.” He details daily rituals and routines, and the Humvee expeditions, seeking improvised explosive devices (IED) with robots. When robots fail, there is the Long Walk, wearing the bomb suit (“eighty pounds of mailed kevlar”). Castner edges through this world of hidden dangers, suicide bombers, and scattered body parts. The intercutting of two different narratives effectively conveys how a disturbing mental condition can erupt in the aftermath of nightmarish war horrors. Read an essay from Castner on struggling for truth in the book.
Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff, trans. from the Swedish by Paul Norlen (Free Press) - This powerful first in a new thriller series from Swedish sisters Grebe and Träff introduces a delightfully flawed heroine, Dr. Siri Bergman, a psychologist who sleeps with the lights on. Riddled with fears since her husband’s death in a diving accident, Siri lives alone in an isolated cottage in the Swedish countryside. When Siri finds the lifeless body of one of her patients, the fragile but manipulative Sara Matteus, floating in the lake near her cottage, she fears she’ll be the next victim. The action moves swiftly to a surprising climax.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Random) - In this complex, intrigue-laden YA fantasy, which establishes Hartman as an exciting new talent, readers are introduced to a world in which dragons and humans coexist in an uneasy truce. Sixteen-year-old Seraphina, assistant to the court composer, hides a secret that could have her ostracized or even killed: she’s half-dragon, against all rules and social codes. As Seraphina navigates the complicated politics of a court where human-dragon relations are growing ever more fragile following a royal murder, she has to come to terms with her true nature and powers. There’s a lot to enjoy in Hartman’s debut, from the admirably resourceful heroine and intriguing spin on dragons to the intricately described medievalesque setting and emphasis on music and family.
Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, illus. by Andrea Dezsö (Candlewick) - Several stories trade happily ever after for disappointment and discontent, as with the danger-addicted queen in Rumpelstiltskin, or with Rapunzel, who is left with a moody prince instead of the attentive witch who locked her in. Dezsö’s cut-paper Scherenschnitte-style silhouettes nod toward Hans Christian Andersen’s own papercuts—if Andersen were creating a storyboard for the Saw franchise. From Bluebeard’s beheaded wives to a bloody dismemberment in “The Robber Bridegroom,” there are gruesome surprises throughout. A fiendishly clever and darkly funny collection. Check out three wicked tales.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage) – Before she was Oprah’s newest book club author, Strayed wrote anonymously as Sugar in the “Dear Sugar” column on therumpus.net. This collection of her advice (some previously unpublished), chooses thought-provoking questions from her readers and listens deeply to their emotional content. In casually intimate prose (to a struggling writer: “dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy tortured talented rising star glowbug”) and literary grace, she creates moments of wise, compassionate insight in often startlingly personal miniature memoirs, cradling gentle but practical guidance with enough humor to cement Strayed’s presence as both a mentor and the most understanding of friends. Sugar can be tough and honest (to the same struggling writer: “buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing [in your letter], there’s arrogance at its core”), but she’s never mean: in Sugar’s world, we all deserve love unconditionally.
A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States by Steven Ujifusa (Simon & Schuster) - In his debut, Ujifusa harks back to a time when men were men, and transatlantic ships were serious business. Over the span of a century, he examines the life and career of William Francis Gibbs (1886–1967), the Philadelphia native whose lifelong ambition was to build the biggest, fastest, safest liner ever. Ujifusa places everything into context as he breathes life into a golden age of ocean travel, invoking such storied names as Titanic, Lusitania, Leviathan, Queen Mary, and America. He follows Gibbs’s monomania over decades and through trials and tribulations, leading up to Gibbs’s finest creation, the SS United States. Written with passion and thoroughness, this is a love letter to a bygone time and the ships that once ruled the seas. Read our Q&A with Ujifusa.
Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall (Bantam) - Wall’s stunning second novel (after Sweeping Up Glass) tells the heart-wrenching tale of Clea Shine, a precocious girl growing up in the shadow of a northern Mississippi prison in the 1980s. Clea, a white girl, has always lived with her black “aunt” Jerusha and Jerusha’s sister in False River, a stone’s throw from the house where her mother frequently entertains guards from the prison and other local men. Though she loves Auntie, Clea’s longing for her mother often sends her across Potato Shed Road, where she sees too much and gets too little from her mother. Meanwhile, Clea consorts with colorful characters including separated conjoined twins born with three arms between them, a boy who lives in a tree, and another boy being held captive under a neighbor’s house. Wall’s talent and empathy are evident in this story of learning to forgive.