A suspect’s hobby, an overheard word, and a bottle cap knocked eschew: everything is a clue in Riku Onda’s riveting novel The Aosawa Murders, whose terrible central crime cannot be solved too many times.
Some cases capture the public’s imagination with such ferocity that they beg to be revived. This proves true of the seaside murders of the Aosawa family and their guests, who were collectively poisoned during an otherwise envied party decades ago. Only a few survived, including some latecomers and the family’s much admired, supersensitive daughter, Hisako.
On that day, Hisako sat blind among the writhing victims; to the investigating detectives, she could only report a memory from her childhood. Such details fascinated Maki, whom Hisako warned off from attending the party, but who still arrived just in time to call the police. Always envious of the perspectives of others, Maki resolved to understand the mind of the murderer, leading her to write The Forgotten Festival, a meticulous inquest into the crime.
The Forgotten Festival was the murders’ first revival. Just when it seems bound to be forgotten, too, another investigator decides to fill in its holes and correct its misdirections, conducting third interviews with all of those connected to the case. Whether they overlap or are contradictory, these interviews are shared in their entirety, forming the novel’s core. They ignite and squelch doubt, proffer tantalizing hints, make survivors suspect, and render potential culprits sympathetic.
As they muse about the natures of love, complicity, and endurance, each subject suggests a theory, and each theory warrants its own minor obsessions. Intoxicating details and shiver-inducing propositions hold the full story at a careful distance; when the truth emerges, it’s both partial and staggering. The Aosawa Murders is an intricate and devastating search for the facts behind a complicated crime.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (February 26, 2020)
Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia
Matthew Algeo’s All This Marvelous Potential is a broad study of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 two-day trip to Kentucky and its lasting effects on both the Appalachian people and on the greater national conversation regarding poverty. This detailed narrative revives the struggles and successes of the people of Kentucky’s coal country, as well as Kennedy’s endless passion for empowering America’s poor.
Using the two-day visit as an analytical framework, the text paints a vibrant picture of life in Kentucky’s east in the late 1960s. Observations are placed in their political and social context; the book shows how events like the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Space Race, the election against President Johnson, and the Civil Rights Movement impacted the region. The specter of the coal industry looms; it is shown to be both Appalachia’s savior and its destroyer.
Kennedy’s travels are presented in chronological order, but its the Appalachian people’s stories that are their backbone. Kennedy visited their schoolhouses, homes, and neighborhoods to gather information for the Senate, and the people he spoke with, inspired, and angered all have room in the text. The book follows their lives beyond Kennedy’s short visit, too, showing how that tour impacted their futures. Further, Algeo’s text humanizes Kennedy, presenting him as genuine in his concern for solving poverty in America, but also showing that he was intent on crafting a narrative around which he could enter the presidential race.
All This Marvelous Potential is a concise historical analysis through which stories of Appalachia’s coal country, and its residents’ poverty, make clear the challenges of the past and the legacies that shaped a more hopeful future.
HOLLY JORDAN (February 26, 2020)
One Meal, A Lifetime in the Making
Look forward to gorging on wit, food history, and strong opinions in Jay Rayner’s Last Supper, an entertaining, bon mots-studded consideration of the feast that the British journalist threw for a lucky circle of loved ones following some adventures in gastronomy.
With the realization that a condemned prisoner or terminally ill person’s last meal is an inherently melancholic and an unappetizing exercise for the guest of honor, and facing his own mortality, Rayner researched an idiosyncratic and celebratory version of the meal, hoping to “capture the essence of one’s life through food.” Organized by courses, from bread and butter to a fondly remembered dessert and bizarre boozy nightcap, the book touches upon interesting events in Rayner’s life, the coming of age of British cuisine, and the global rise of food journalism and entertainment.
Rayner’s parents loved dinner parties and gourmet restaurant meals, so fond, fun chapters on oysters and snails are included. However, Rayner is also a fan of more common edibles (expertly sourced and prepared!) that are revealed in his final menu.
Rayner’s writing career has afforded him singular opportunities for travel, exciting dining experiences, and encounters with the famous and the notorious. He describes bizarre interviews with an off-kilter Holocaust denier and a “cheerfully bigoted against everybody” Cajun oyster farmer, and artfully skewers certain food celebrities with rapier disdain. His admiration for other colleagues, though, is equally fervent. He poignantly muses about the death of Anthony Bourdain, who was a kindred food philosopher and “a brilliant and important man,” and whose “ghost” hangs over this last supper quest.
Side effects of Jay Rayner’s Last Supper include sighing, snorting, drooling, and frequent stops to jot down a grocery or play list. It’s a beguiling gallop through the food memories of a remarkable personality and a carpe diem reminder.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (February 26, 2020)
A lonely, stubborn teenager struggles to adjust to life in America in Juliana Delgado Lopera’s gripping novel, Fiebre Tropical.
Francisca’s life is upended when her recently divorced mother drags her family from Colombia to Florida. Resentful of the move and of her mother’s erratic and controlling behavior, Francisca rebels at every opportunity, especially when it comes to accepting her mother’s histrionic idea of Christianity. It is through her enforced church attendance that Francisca meets Carmen, a youth leader who sends Francisca down a path of painful self-discovery.
Francisca’s narration is lively and peppered with Spanish, as if she is telling the story to a close friend. She is dramatic as only a teenager can be, but she is clear-eyed about the tragic absurdity of her situation: Mami insists on holding an elaborate baptism for her dead son, whom she miscarried seventeen years ago. And yet, as Francisca notes, this is the least of her problems.
Every character is both selfish and sympathetic. Francisca is moody and ungracious but desperate for acceptance; Mami weathers tragedy by clinging to religion at the expense of her family; La Tata, Francisca’s grandmother, was denied her dream as a teenager and now drinks away her remaining years. Carmen, too, is a compelling, even cryptic figure. Francisca never learns the reasons for her fate, making it all the more heartbreaking.
Francisca’s family’s struggle inspires anger and frustration on their behalf. Francisca’s relatives, all successful professionals in Colombia, scrape by with help from their church in Miami. It is a gritty, even cynical, take on the accessibility of the American dream, though spirited Francisca never stops looking for something better.
Boiling over with searing details and raw emotion, Fiebre Tropical is a spellbinding tale about an immigrant family’s emotional downfall.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (February 26, 2020)
In Linda Sue Park’s insightful novel Prairie Lotus, an Asian American girl and her father face prejudice in the 1880s Midwest.
Fourteen-year-old Hanna wants to make a friend, earn her diploma, and make dresses for her father’s store. These goals might be achievable for others, but in the Dakota settlement town of LaForge, Hanna’s background makes her a target of distrust and hostility. Hanna decides to meet prejudice with grace and dignity.
The book’s pioneer landscape features wooden store fronts and a one-room school house, against which the socially acceptable prejudices of the white majority are considered. The cruelty that Hanna experiences, including when most of her classmates choose to leave school rather than share a classroom with her, is appalling.
Hanna’s struggles to prove her worth are eye-opening. She is expected to accept the prejudice of others without complaint, and to meet every remark and action with kindness. At one point, she even offers to repair the shirt of a man who is physically assaulting her, with the hope that he will be distracted from his evil intent.
Conflicted secondary characters include Hanna’s father, who loved his wife and loves Hanna, but who distrusts Native Americans; and Hanna’s teacher, who is unwavering in her support of Hanna’s education, but who urges her to avoid conflict, even when that means accepting abuse. They make up a compelling and realistic cast. That even those who are most willing to support Hanna harbor prejudices illustrates the uphill battle that Hanna fights. As Hanna comes to better understand herself and those around her, her goals change, but she never gives up hope.
Prairie Lotus is a thoughtful middle grade novel focused on racial struggles on the American frontier.
CATHERINE THURESON (February 26, 2020)