Mallory: In Siri Hustvedt’s sixth novel, a female artist, frustrated by her work’s lack of reception, stages an elaborate hoax in which she has men take credit for her work. The novel itself is actually comprised of excerpts from notebooks and interview transcripts assembled by an editor who’s taken an interest in Burden. While reading, I was reminded of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, also about a female artist who gives up the credit for her work to a man (though in that case, it’s against her will). In Big Eyes, though, the only question is whether the world will discover the truth or not. In The Blazing World, the questions are thornier: Did Harriet Burden actually create all of the work she claimed she did as part of her hoax? Moreover: who is Harriet Burden? She is, essentially, an invisible woman: a wife, a mother, but always behind the scenes. We know she’s been in psychoanalysis (so she could be crazy, natch). We also know that she’s not an out-and-out feminist (thankfully, she has more humor than that). The portrait we get of her is fractured—she takes shape primarily through other people’s statements about her as well as excerpts from Burden’s notebooks. The tangle of perspectives only deepens the intrigue. Form follows function in the most pleasing way. But what I love the most about this novel is the sheer excitement I feel untangling the mystery. It’s an art world whodunnit, with all of the delicious thrills you expect when dead bodies are involved.
Ashley: All the cool kids have been hyping up Sabaa Tahir’s debut, An Ember in the Ashes (I was sold on the cool name), since 2014, and while I can definitely see why, this book is also so, so brutal. Violence (or at the very least, the threat of it) bathes every other page in blood as two secretly gentle souls—Laia, a slave, and Elias, a soldier in training from Blackcliff Military Academy—try to navigate this fantasy dystopian world with as few whippings as possible. Laia gets roped into serving and spying on the Commandant, Elias’s mother and a cold-hearted sociopath, by a band of rebels called the Resistance, who promise to break Laia’s brother out of prison (“prison” seems like too nice a word for the torture chamber he’s surely locked in) in exchange for information. Elias gets roped into trying to win the trials—a competition to decide the next emperor—against his best friend and two other top Military Academy soldiers.
An Ember in the Ashes’ greatest strength is in its characterization—all their relationships are so intricate (there’s a love square, because a mere triangle isn’t complicated enough for this story), all their desires so strong yet so suppressed, all their strengths so admirable. Narrators Fiona Hardingham and Steve West bring to life both the characters’ inner turmoil and outer nerves of steel. If you enjoyed Legend by Marie Lu, than this book will probably be your new favorite.
Freya: There’s no way to talk about The Girl on the Train without comparing it to Gone Girl. Both enjoyed the kind of buzz that leads to weeks atop The New York Times bestseller list and big movie deals. Both center on unreliable female narrators who make questionable life choices. Both take you on a chilling ride through sick, suburban marriages gone horribly awry.
Despite the similarities, The Girl on the Train is no copycat. It’s a well-written, cleverly crafted thriller. The titular girl is Rachel, an unemployed, alcoholic divorcee who enjoys living vicariously through the seemingly blissful “golden” couple she observes from her commuter train each day. Her illusions are suddenly shattered when the wife disappears, and Rachel witnesses an event that may be the key to solving a murder.
Like Gone Girl, the story will make you question the seemingly perfect lives of others. Through the first person narrations of three poignantly rendered female characters, Hawkins reveals how events, interactions, and relationships take on differing meanings to different people, how perspective shapes our actions, and how there’s always much more to a person than meets the eye. Wildly addicting and ultimately unsettling, The Girl on the Train is the perfect solution to those Gone Girl withdrawals.
Alex P: One of Nick Hornby’s great strengths is his ability to portray the desires and derelictions of cultural junkies in a way that exudes inclusion rather than pretension. In his latest, Funny Girl, the medium of obsession is positively philistine. Revolving around the world of British sitcoms in the ’60s, the novel follows the burgeoning career of Barbara, a knockout from Blackpool whose looks are alternately hindrance and help in her quest to become the next Lucille Ball. Hornby has a bit of fun with the recognition that such a plot is unlikely to wow the literati; shortly before he makes a crack about the publishers at Penguin (who also happened to publish Funny Girl) as “selling books to people who had never previously bought them,” one of his characters bemoans the sort who take themselves too seriously to find pleasure in the world: “What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.” Hornby’s latest is very much a celebration of entertainment, both of those who entertain and of those who are entertained. It’s definitely a pleasure, but don’t call it a guilty one.
Justin: How did we go from a country that fought a revolution over individual liberties and political speech become one “protests are met with flash grenades, pepper spray, and platoons of riot teams dressed like Robocops”? In this provocative and timely history, Radley Balko tells the story of how the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s and the War on Drugs have fundamentally altered the relationship between American law enforcement and the people they’re charged with protecting. In doing so, he details a decades-long process driven by aggressive police commanders and opportunistic politicians on the right and left. The result? A gradual erosion of individual rights and a hyper-masculine approach to law enforcement that routinely terrorizes and kills innocent civilians in horrifically botched (and frequently unnecessary) raids.
Just as disturbing as a the macho, militaristic attitude many police have adopted over the years is the utter lack of accountability on the part of magistrates and elected representatives charged with keeping the police in check. In one particularly galling passage, an assortment of judges, police chiefs, and community leaders all admit that law enforcement is out of control, but all demand anonymity to avoid the politically toxic accusation that they’re “soft on crime.” As mistrust between the police and the public continues to grow, and departments across the country confront calls for reform, it’s important to remember how we reached this point.