The best new books to read in August – The Philadelphia Inquirer

A trial surrounding the merger of Penguin Random House with Simon & Schuster could change the publishing business.
“Every book is a dream. … Sometimes dreams come true, and sometimes they don’t.”
That may sound like an agent consoling an author who just stumbled onto her novel in a Dollar Tree bin, but they’re actually the words of Daniel Petrocelli, lawyer for Penguin Random House, part of his opening statement in the trial that may change the publishing business.
Already the largest book publisher in the world, PRH announced plans to purchase one of its main competitors, Simon & Schuster, in November of 2020. The Department of Justice sued to stop the merger, arguing that a Simon/Penguin hybrid would then command some 49% of the bestseller market, which it argued would reduce the total number of books being published (bad for readers) and chill those famous bidding wars for books that sometimes lead to big paydays (bad for authors). Penguin Random House says that those auctions are a rare occurrence and most books don’t turn a profit at all. (Hence the bit about dreams not coming true.)
Stephen King has been vocal in his opposition to the proposal, testifying as a witness for the DOJ that the merger would be a nightmare for independent publishers, which already represent only a tenth of the market. Nobody knows the business like King. The prolific and best-selling horror author has done it all, working with the biggest publishers as well as the upstart indies and lit mags. He even gave self-publishing a shot 20 years ago. So when he says the merger will be a bloodbath, believe him.
And now, here are five new dreams waiting to come true…
In Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, his first since 2018′s noteworthy Exit West, a white dude named Anders wakes up with brown skin, and for a while we experience the world through his eyes. He’s confused and isolated, worried about how he’ll be treated by his boss, his girlfriend, and strangers at the supermarket. But soon we learn Anders is not the only person in this situation, and our fast-paced fable escapes the existential gravity of The Metamorphosis and enters the moral playground of The Twilight Zone. Somehow both blunt and pointed, The Last White Man doesn’t answer all the questions it raises (how could it?), but it does explore its premise with vigor and empathy. (Riverhead, $26, out now)
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In Megan Giddings’ tightly wound supernatural dystopia, there’s nothing scarier than a woman in total control of herself (as the song says), because you never know when one of them will turn out to be a witch. So teenage girls are told to monitor their own behavior for “signs of magical expression,” and unmarried women are forced to register for government surveillance at age 30. Josephine, who’s Black, bisexual, single, and 28, knows time’s running out, but she’s forced to put all that on the back burner to embark on one final quest as dictated in her missing mother’s will. For a book about witches, The Women Could Fly feels pretty gritty and grounded, and has plenty to say about the regular old dystopia we’re stuck in. (Amistad, $26.99, Aug. 9)
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Perhaps more than any other branch of science, quantum physics has a gobbledygook problem. Its concepts are often quite abstract, its texts so impenetrable, and its terminology too easily hijacked by sellers of crystals and snake oil. In her popular YouTube videos, and now in this engrossing and witty new book, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder aims to give the quantum world a fighting chance by keeping it simple and making it personal. Chapters include “Has physics ruled out free will?”, “Does the past still exist?”, “Why doesn’t anyone ever get younger?”, etc. (Viking, $28, Aug. 9)
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James Hemings — a famously influential chef and brother of Sally Hemings — escapes slave master Thomas Jefferson and takes up with a band of righteous revolutionaries in this “counterfactual” historical adventure novel. Each member of his motley crew exists outside the mainstream of the nascent United States (be they queer, nonwhite, fugitive, or some combination); and they quickly learn to depend on each other as they challenge the power structure and attempt to change the course of history. Begin the World Over impresses with its swift storytelling and vivid descriptions of sensuous meals and forbidden desires. (AK Press, $17, Aug. 23)
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In this witty and powerful fictional memoir, young Trey Singleton III eschews his monied, Midwestern upbringing to explore his queerness and his Blackness in 1980s New York City. What he finds is freedom, kinship, sex, poverty, the AIDS crisis, and a community worth fighting for. My Government Means to Kill Me is so rich with detail, so plausibly sewn into the fabric of history, that its footnotes sometimes become a character in their own right, comically casting doubt on what you’ve just read. So when Trey says he met legendary civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in a Harlem bathhouse, or got groped by conservative bigwig William F. Buckley at a snooty Manhattan cocktail party, the unseen editor asks you to take it with a grain of salt. This book should charm its way onto lots of best books of the year lists. (Flatiron, $27.99, Aug. 23)
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Also out this month:
In this gripping, inspiring, and darkly humorous memoir, Emi Nietfeld recounts a life that took her from homelessness and foster care to Harvard and Google, and still left her unsatisfied with the American dream. (Penguin Press, $27, out now)
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Investigative journalist Pablo Trincia unspools Italy’s infamous Devils of the Bassa Modenese case from the late ‘90s. Is it a story of murder, child abuse, and the occult? Bad science? Mass hysteria? All of the above? True-crime fans take note. (Amazon Crossing, $24.95, out now)
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Sadie Jones, author of the 2012 bestseller The Uninvited Guests, tells a story of two best friends growing up together on a community farm in the English countryside that’s not as idyllic as it seems. (Harper, $25.99, Aug. 16)
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The author of the critically acclaimed Room returns with a sublime survival story about three men in 7th-century Ireland searching for a tiny island in the Atlantic on which to build their monastery. (Little, Brown, $28, Aug. 23)
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Subtitled “a memoir and a mystery,” Diary of a Misfit recounts the author’s own journey as a queer Southerner while also digging into the life of a small-town Louisiana country singer from another era who was assigned female at birth but lived as a man. (Knopf, $29, Aug. 30)
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