By Tara Conklin (William Morrow, 384 pages, $25.99)
It’s shelved under historical fiction, but “House Girl” reads more like a historical whodunit, and a smart one at that. A series of portraits of slaves on a Virginia plantation comes under question. Are they the work of the plantation owner’s wife, who has been considered a great artist for generations, or were they actually drawn by a house slave known only by the name Josephine?
To answer that question, the book veers between the pre-Civil War South and modern-day New York City, where we follow Lina, a young corporate lawyer who’s been given the unlikely task of determining who the artist really was.
The impetus for Lina’s journey seems unlikely. (Why would a junior partner be tasked with finding the perfect plaintiff for a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves?) Still, that doesn’t detract from the storyline. We can suspend our disbelief, in part because the rest of the book resonates with reality.
Both Josephine and Lina are intricately drawn characters — fierce, flawed and very real. Author Tara Conklin doesn’t shy away from depicting the base cruelty of plantation life — describing rapes, beatings and soul-killing misery. But she also manages to give a hint of the deception and ruthlessness inside a large corporate law firm.
Of course, the present can rarely stand up to the past. It’s true in this novel, as it is in most. It’s Josephine’s story that will stay with you, the story of a strong woman who sees in others what she can’t afford to see in herself.
Senior editor for lifestyles
THE NIGHT RANGER
By Alex Berenson (Putnam, 389 pages, $27.95)
In “The Night Ranger,” Alex Berenson, an award-winning former New York Times reporter and a heavyweight in the thriller genre, has delivered a real stunner. And in a significant departure from his previous books featuring U.S. operative (and convert to Islam) John Wells, he takes us from the Middle East/East Asia to the lethal environs of east Africa and the simmering, lawless expanse of southern Somalia. Four American aid workers, two young women and two young men, have been kidnapped near the refugee camp where they volunteer in northern Kenya. Everyone fears the perps are Somali gang members or, worse, Islamic fanatics. But no group claims responsibility and no ransom demand is made — at first. The media are in a frenzy, and forces at work in Washington are hoping to prompt a U.S. invasion of Somalia. Wells’ son knows one of the girls and guilt-trips his dad into helping find the Americans. Wells normally wouldn’t fall for such a ploy, but the back story that Berenson has woven through his previous books comes to fruition here. The author’s evocations of Kenya and Somalia, and the beasts, animal and otherwise, that roam the land are spot on. So, too, is his cast of characters, including a particularly compelling little gang leader called Wizard. Excellent writing, intriguing subplots, and a sure knowledge of his locales’ culture and history make Berenson’s books a class unto themselves. Don’t miss this one.
MICHAEL J. BONAFIELD
Night copy editor