“Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch — Graham Piro
Multiverse theories and quantum physics typically make for dry, scholarly writing. In the hands of Blake Crouch, however, these topics make for gripping fiction. His novel “Dark Matter” tells the story of Jason Dessen, a college professor who wrestled with his decision to give up the pursuit of his dreams as an inventor in order to start a family. One night, he finds himself abducted by a masked stranger and thrust into a new world he does not recognize where he has achieved the creation of his invention, yet this success has come at the cost of having a family. Dessen finds himself torn between two lives: one in which he has made huge strides for science, and one in which he has found happiness with his family.
Dessen is no fearless, muscle-bound protagonist who can solve every issue in his way, and this makes his character all the more compelling. He is a man of science, and he finds himself questioning his own mind and his perception of reality as the story progresses. Crouch seamlessly blends Dessen’s emotional struggles in with headier science and ensures that the reader never becomes too lost. After a fairly straightforward first half, Crouch kicks into high gear, throwing twist after twist at the reader. The mind-bending plot keeps the novel’s pace fast and engaging, but it is the compelling personal story of the protagonist that reveals itself to be the true heart of the narrative.
“How to Set a Fire and Why” by Jesse Ball — Lara Fishbane
Deadpan and wry, Jesse Ball’s protagonist, Lucia Stanton, is of the Holden Caulfield breed of narrators: too cynical and intelligent for their circumstances. Kicked out of her previous school for stabbing a fellow student with a pencil and left abandoned by the death of her father and institutionalization of her mother, Lucia faces her world alone, with only her astute skepticism.
She trudges each day between the converted garage she lives in with her aunt and the uninspiring high school she attends, always with her late father’s Zippo lighter on hand, knowing it promises her freedom. Lucia’s passion for fire and freedom leads her to discover the school’s arson club, which provides her mind refuge from the dullness of her world and also from the grief she carries. Though much of Lucia’s brilliance is lost both amidst the brain-dead society she lives in and to the unstructured plot of Ball’s novel, Lucia’s take on arsonry gives way to some seriously poignant moments. From the absolute bottom, Lucia finds small ways to reclaim power in a world that seems structured against her. She reminds us that we have power both in igniting the fire, and also in choosing not to, allowing the world to continue its existence only with our permission.
“Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Daler — Amy Guay
It’s tough to approach “Sweetbitter” with anything but high expectations. The debut novel by Stephanie Danler netted a reported high-six-figure, two-book deal and publishing giant Knopf’s famous hound logo stamped on its spine. The rapturous reviews clamoring for a say on its jacket prime you for perfection.
The hype is well-deserved. Drawing from her own experiences as a waitress and manager, Danler chronicles youthful Tess’s first year working in a high-end New York restaurant, replete with alien parlance and servers who wax philosophical and snort lines in equal measure. Thankfully, Tess is a sponge, absorbing the interactions of passion, power, and desire through unironic eyes.
Danler’s tendency to eschew character development in favor of brilliant depictions and cerebral quips is a surprisingly small shortcoming considering her genius for description: Heirloom tomatoes taste like “summer lightning,” softening joints are “butter going to room temperature,” and rain “[collects] like quartz on my wrist.” These details render hangovers, taxi sex, and the highbrow conversations of restaurant staff simultaneously symbolic and hyperreal, familiar yet otherworldly.
This aesthetic approach enables “Sweetbitter”’s premier triumph. It captures not only the rarefied restaurant life but that equally privileged, messy state of being: to be young and hungry in New York.
“The Caped Crusade” by Glen Wheldon — Mike Bergin
NPR’s resident book and comic book critic, Glen Wheldon, emerges with a witty, comprehensive history of one of pop culture’s most famous icons. “The Caped Crusade: Batman and The Rise of Nerd Culture” is a blessing for those seeking to understand how the franchise experienced massive changes and relapses over time due to the social impacts that surrounded it.
Wheldon flaunts his clever sense of humor, particularly when commenting on the absurdity of certain eras in comic book history such as the interplanetary battles of Batman in the Space Age to the 2000’s school of hyperrealism. His blunt, comical writing style is also laced with many personal experiences as a fan. His passion for the comic books is quite apparent through his seemingly insider knowledge of the franchise.
As the subheading suggests, “Crusade” is not strictly about what occurred during production. It is about the fans: their feelings, their responses, their frequent backlashes. Wheldon comments on the fan-created magazines and (eventually) websites that became forums of their own for Batman fans. He follows Batman through the decades, noting the many times the franchise gave in to mainstream expectations to cyclically return the demands of the nerd super-fandom. His approach is graciously accepting of Caped Crusader laymen, providing a straightforward understanding to any curious reader.
Wheldon presents himself as a student of history and nostalgia through this work, providing knowledge that the nerd-world both deserves and needs, particularly in these troubling times of DC’s franchise reboot. His style is funny and memorable, serving as a traveler’s guide to an unexpectedly rich subculture.
“The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo” by Amy Schumer — Emma Francois
As a feminist and comedy-lover, I am the textbook demographic for Amy Schumer’s new humorist essay book, “The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo.” While this book is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it’s definitely read-with-your-lips-slightly-upturned funny. And the humor is almost always in Schumer’s signature self-deprecating and self-loving style. If I had a buck for every time a paragraph ends in a “JK, JK” or an exclamation point, I’d be able to afford a J. Crew sweater.
Unexpectedly, it’s the many chapters where Schumer sways from the celebrity-writing-book formula where she strikes gold (she’d use a sex metaphor here, but we can’t all write like a “Schu”). When Schumer writes about her father with M.S., her humor seems accidental, like a coping mechanism, and readers feel the agony and love. Stripped of the pressure of trying to empower or explain, stories about past boyfriends, abusive relationships, sexual assault, and the Louisiana shooting at her film showing in 2015 had me shaking with anger, sadness, and fear. Not because she paints her life as being damaged or unfair, but because the stories are so genuine, and above all, normal.
This is a book you’ll want to marry, not date; it’s challenging, provoking, and rewarding. That’s the magic of a great essay book and that’s exactly the reason why we can’t help but fall into the “Schu” squad, because we’re all human, all imperfect, all being held together by plastic zippers—just like Schumer reminds us of over and over in her amusing, heartfelt way.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling — Caitlin Mannering
Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, the wizarding world again lies in peril in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Our favorite boy wizard has settled into middle age and struggles to relate to his middle child, Albus. Harry’s son is stifled by the expectations of those who wait for him to follow in The Boy Who Lived’s footsteps, and he is ridiculed when he fails to immediately do so.
Much like the original series, “The Cursed Child” brims with suspense and adventure. Escapades into time and space, with the help of a Time-Turner, make the story a compelling read and allow us to delve back into familiar settings such as Harry’s Triwizard Tournament and even Godric’s Hollow. As always, the forces of light must triumph against those of darkness to save everything our beloved characters hold dear.
Although it is to be expected, as “The Cursed Child” is only a script, the new book lacks the same stunning character development and detailed description that made J.K. Rowling’s world magical for so many. When Rowling ended the series with her masterful epilogue, she did so by giving just a glimpse of Harry and the wizarding world’s future. This so-called eighth book in the series disrupts that final, fleeting look by seeming at points far-fetched and overly dramatic. While “The Cursed Child” may allow fans to indulge in their nostalgia, is it worth the bittersweet aftertaste?
“A Rage for Order” by Robert Worth — Kevin Huggard
Hope, then chaos, then despair.
It’s a familiar narrative for the Arab Spring, yet Robert Worth’s “A Rage for Order” tells it with such aching closeness that it takes on fresh power. He weaves together the personal and the structural with a rare effortlessness, his strength lying in his ability to place a reader in the world of his subjects without wasting a word across his 234 pages.
“Rage” begins in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and no knowledge of the massacres and autocrats to come can prevent one from getting caught up in Worth’s telling of the square’s soaring utopianism in the early months of 2011.
The story then dips in and out of Libya, Yemen, Syria and Tunisia, becoming darker as it goes. In one especially powerful section, two Syrian women—longtime best friends from different sects—find themselves pitted against each other in their country’s civil war, their friendship steadily dissolved by the hatred bubbling around them.
There is no lack of tragedy in this book, yet, for all the horror shows required of any account of the Arab Spring, it deserves praise for rejecting the easy path of cynicism. It finds hope in Tunisia, closing with an account of that country’s sometimes shaky move toward democracy.
Worth’s account is a captivating retelling of the recent chaos of the Arab world, and for that alone it should be applauded. “Rage” does more than just this, however, allowing its audience to experience a sense of the tumultuous mood swings that define this era in Arab politics.