Reviews of the Week with Rachel Cusk, Tim Alberta, Laura Ruby, and More!

Every weekday we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, or in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

A collection of essays revealing a writer’s love of stories; a reeling exposé of the Republican Party as it comes to terms with Trump; a dark and unpredictable new chapter for Oslo’s favorite fictional detective, Harry Hole; an atmospheric coming-of-age story narrated by ghosts; a haunting debut novel about twin sisters in Victorian London. Human drama at its most absurd, dark, surreal, and beautiful is captured in this week’s Reviews of the Day, posted between July 22 and July 26, below.

Monday, July 22

Coventry, by Rachel Cusk

Stories figure prominently in this collection of essays, all originally published or forthcoming elsewhere, by Cusk, author of the Outline trilogy. They’re addressed, of course, in the collection’s seven pieces about literature, from classics like The Age of Innocence to best-sellers like Never Let Me Go. But stories are also at the crux of essays about driving, relationships, homemaking, and parenting. “It was as if driving was a story I had suddenly stopped believing in,” Cusk writes in “Driving as Metaphor.” “It is almost as if she feels that the true story of her family has eluded her,” she speculates about a friend in the collection’s titular essay. She writes of the home as her “mother’s novel,” and of “the public narrative of parenthood.” Stories, Cusk insists, are not just the stuff of literature. They are our way of being in the world.

Tuesday, July 23

American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump, by Tim Alberta

Alberta, chief political reporter for Politico, didn’t have to look far to find his title. “American carnage” are words Donald Trump used in his inaugural speech to describe the state of the country. Here it’s shorthand for how the Republican Party became the party of Trump, fueled by Republican dissatisfaction with the party of Bush, as George W. left the country broke and mired in war. The term also evokes the ire provoked among Republicans by the ineffectual presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, who couldn’t win against Barack Hussein Obama, a man the Right viewed as elitist and condescending (and who is, yes, Black). All of that led, along with anger at political correctness and changing demographics, to the Republican Party being fractured between the firebrands and the traditionalists. The latter attempted to address the former’s concerns, but, alas, as one operative put it, “We fed the beast and the beast ate us.”

Wednesday, July 24

Knife, by Jo Nesbø and translated by Neil Smith

“Who is the darkest of them all?” If there was a crime-fiction magic mirror somewhere, and one were to put this query to it, hoping to determine whose novels were the darkest in mood, in theme, and in the protagonist’s soul, the answer, almost certainly, would be Jo Nesbø. No one knows darkness like Nesbø’s Harry Hole, the Oslo supercop who continually confronts demons both in the external world and—every bit as terrifying—in his own mind and heart. So it is here, in Nesbø’s latest Hole adventure. The inner demons take the first bite, sending Harry tumbling off the wagon yet again and prompting his wife, the long-suffering Rakel, to throw him out. But that’s only the beginning. There’s a new serial killer in town, but Harry, confined to cold cases, isn’t free to track him or to make the case that this killer isn’t new at all. Harry’s bête noire, Svein Finne, is out of jail (where Harry put him 10 years ago), and, in Harry’s mind at least, is on the rampage once more. Yes, but bouts with booze and serial killers are old hat for Harry. So Nesbø delivers a haymaker to Harry’s solar plexus that leaves him reeling as he’s never reeled before.

Thursday, July 25

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves behind Them All, by Laura Ruby

It’s 1941 and Chicago is full of ghosts. Ghosts reliving their traumatic deaths; ghosts seeking revenge; ghosts enjoying the lakeshore; and ghosts that quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) observe the living. One such living girl is Frankie, who’s stuck in an orphanage with her sister, Toni, because their father can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to take care of them. The ghost narrating Printz winner Ruby’s (Bone Gap, 2015) enchanting latest watches Frankie make friends, resent her father, fear the cruelty of the nuns, enjoy secret sweet moments with a boy, and try to keep her sister out of trouble. Frankie’s gradual coming of age, with all its joy and heartbreak, is the core of the story, but told alongside the many stories of the ghosts on the margins, who experience joy and heartbreak of their own, it takes on ever more depth. Ruby’s delicate, powerful storytelling—it’s as if each word carries deliberate weight—draws out potent connections among women living in different eras, and the places where their stories overlap captivatingly demonstrate the varied ways anger, love, strength, vengeance, and forgiveness appear.

Friday, July 26

The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

In London, 1850, porcelain-doll painter Iris’ family disowns her for leaving the oppressive but respectable doll shop to become an artist’s model. Her coworker and twin sister, Rose, deformed in her teens by smallpox, feels especially betrayed. Meanwhile, taxidermist and curiosity-shop owner Silas nurses an obsession for Iris and her own deformity, a bent collarbone. In the build-up to and shadow of the 1851 Great Exhibition and Royal Academy show, love grows between Iris and Pre-Raphaelite painter Louis; Iris tastes true freedom and determinedly pursues her own painting; and Silas finalizes plans for capturing his most prized specimen. Talented debut novelist Macneal drops readers right into a Victorian London that’s home to stinking squalor and chaos, but also significant beauty and possibility. Midway through, readers won’t know if they’re holding a romance, tragedy, or murder mystery, but won’t pause long enough to wonder about it as Iris rails against the limitations of her gender and social status, and Silas’ creepiness comes into sharp focus.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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