If you need a gift for the book lover that tends to fall head over heels into the fantastical and magical worlds of literature and stories, then The Starless Sea (Doubleday, $28.95) by Erin Morgenstern, author of the bestselling Night Circus, is the perfect pick. The intrigue begins when Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers a mysterious book in his college library. It seems to contain a series of clues, which lead him to an underground society dedicated to the protection of the stories of the world. An epic tale of love and adventure, the narrative has everything bibliophiles crave: underground hidden libraries, pirates and sword fights, secret assassins, cats and owls, and lots of sweet honey. Bouncing back and forth between chapters in the found book and the action of the present day, The Starless Sea pays homage to the stories of our lives, and demonstrates how our destinies come to mirror those of the plot lines we read over and over.
Ben Lerner is one of the smartest and most ambitious authors working today. His novel The Topeka School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), like his previous 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, is a semiautobiographical, metafictional narrative, this time following Adam Gordon, a senior in a Topeka, Kansas, high school and, like the author, a nationally ranked debater, an aspiring poet, and a young man coming to grips with his role in a society imbued with toxic masculinity. Adam’s father is a psychiatrist specializing in treatments for “lost boys,” and his mother is a famous feminist author. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of this family, as well as that of Darren Eberheart, a violence-prone loner at the high school and one of the father’s “lost boys.” This is another Lerner novel about language; we watch as Adam’s speech evolves through spreading an opponent’s arguments in policy debate, engaging in freestyle rap battles with his classmates, and following the free association of memories that surface in therapy. This is also a look at childhood, and at the heartland of America and how the country has morphed along with the language into the current political atmosphere. Lerner’s latest work is brilliant, poetic, and introspective.
Hiram Walker, the son of a black woman and her white master, is born a slave nonetheless in this imaginative rendering of life in antebellum Virginia. But it is the strength of his memories that kindles a special inner gift, the magic of conduction. In the much-anticipated first novel from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hiram’s talent is used by agents of the Underground Railroad to bring runaway slaves north, and also to help bring families whole once again. This searing and ultimately uplifting story explores the constructs of family, real or artificial, and the power of memory to bind people together from afar.