By Jennifer duBois
Random House, 384 pp., $26
Loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox case, Northampton native Jennifer duBois’s fast-moving “Cartwheel” is set in Buenos Aires, where a pretty, privileged American undergraduate, Lily Hayes, has been arrested for the murder of her even lovelier roommate, Katy Kellers.
The novel’s title comes from a detail with which the Argentine media are obsessed: During a break in her interrogation, Lily was caught on a security camera doing a cartwheel. Also, she’d said mean things about Katy in e-mails and on Facebook, and hadn’t the two young women been sleeping with the same guy? Conviction should be a slam-dunk.
DuBois Is able to get inside the heads of Lily, her father, sister, and the wealthy, terribly lost boyfriend next door. But the mystery we can’t wrap our minds around involves the prosecution — that a flimsy, far-fetched case is taken as damning. What we want to grasp is how that could happen, and this is where duBois’s imagination fails.
THE DAYLIGHT GATE
By Jeanette Winterson
Grove, 240 pp., $24
About halfway through Jeanette Winterson’s spooky supernatural love story, a charming Shakespeare makes a guest appearance. “Mistress,” he advises wealthy widow Alice Nutter, “do not be seen to stray too far from the real that is clear to others, or you may stand accused of the real that is clear to you.”
This is Jacobean England, where terror of witchcraft and Catholics is in the air, and Alice is suspected of transgressing on both counts. Winterson’s tone is mesmeric, her slant feminist, her tale — based on the Lancashire witch trial of 1612 — old-fashioned yet utterly devoid of cobwebs and superbly told. Its horror is rooted less in the realm of magic, though there is plenty of that, than in the stubborn ignorance and barbaric cruelties of human history.
By Dennis McFarland
Pantheon, 336 pp., $25.95
In Vermont author Dennis McFarland’s Civil War novel, Walt Whitman is a benevolent presence at the hospital bedside of Summerfield Hayes, an orphaned baseball player turned soldier. Wounded in combat and unable to speak, Summerfield, who joined the army to flee his sexual attraction to his sister, can’t piece together what’s happened to him, and neither can we.
Much of the book takes place during slogs from one battle to the next, or as Summerfield wanders alone in the wilderness, his mind befogged. This can be wearying. What’s certain is that, for the psychic damage wrought by war, there is no quick fix, and maybe no complete fix at all.
MAKE ME DO THINGS
By Victoria Redel
Four Way, 200 pp., paperback, $17.95
In Victoria Redel’s surprising story collection, a Russian dancer, long past her glory days, is reduced to teaching talentless American girls in a commuter town; female friends’ baby lust overpowers their al fresco lunch; a young artist spends her first off-season in Provincetown.
The strongest of the strong is “Ahoy,” about a tech-rich Boston couple spending a year at their second home on a New England island. He falls into drink and drugs; she, pregnant, falls seemingly into another century, when she begins giving living-history tours for the local historical society. Ever in character as a sea captain’s wife, she paces the widow’s walk, waiting for her beloved’s return.
THE DEAD RUN
By Adam Mansbach
Harper Voyager, 304 pp.,
Adam Mansbach, best known for the humorous “Go the [Expletive] to Sleep,” dips creepily into the supernatural horror genre with “The Dead Run.” Jess Galvan, a stand-up American desperate to get custody of his daughter, lands in a Mexican prison for trying to protect a teenage girl from a gang of rapists.
There a satanic creature kills a virgin and orders Galvan and a group of protector-thugs to cross the desert and the border with her beating heart. En route, there’s a Virgin Army of beautiful undead girls they’ll need to hack to bits with a machete, as Mansbach savoringly gives us the gruesome play-by-play. Moral murkiness can be interesting, but “The Dead Run” wants to have it both ways.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@ gmail.com.