Critic’s Picks: August

Assistant book editor Jason Kehe chooses his four must-reads of the month—his favorite L.A. release, one pick from the wide-open West, another from our friends in the East, and a recommendation for more adventurous readers




Dead Man’s Switch: A Kate Reilly Mystery
By Tammy Kaehler
(Poisoned Pen Press, 279 pages, $15)
Rookie racecar driver Kate Reilly knows she didn’t kill Wade Becker, but when she takes his place in the American Le Mans Series, the rumor mill starts spinning faster than the wheels of her new Corvette. Desperate to clear her name, she begins her own investigation, putting not just her career at risk but also her life. L.A. pumps out standard-issue whodunits with the regularity of racetrack car accidents. What sets Tammy Kaehler’s first-time effort apart is its slam-bang setting—and the ease with which this former technical writer renders descriptions of her fancy equipment. 






Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife
By Philip L. Fradkin
(University of California Press, 207 pages, $25)
In 1934, Everet Ruess was just a precocious 20-year-old obsessed with exploring, painting, and writing about the American Southwest. But in November of that year, he ventured into the backcountry of Utah and vanished, leaving behind two lonely burros and the cryptic message “NEMO 1934” on a cave wall. What happened to him became the stuff of myth. Philip L. Fradkin, a prolific chronicler of the Western mythos, isn’t the first writer on whom Ruess has cast his spell, but this biography might be the most complete. Spare and direct, Fradkin rarely indulges an overstatement, and often lets Ruess speak for himself—sensuous and haunting descriptions of the very wilderness that would eventually swallow him. 






The Family Fang: A Novel
By Kevin Wilson
(Ecco, 309 pages, $24)
Meet performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, two of the world’s screwiest parents, and their kids, Annie and Buster. From the time they’re born, “Child A” and “Child B” have to participate in their parents’ pieces—grotesque, chaos-inducing public spectacles that are recorded and broadcast in national art galleries. Though brilliant in their own ways, Annie and Buster, now adults, can barely function in the real world. When they crawl back to their parents, a surprise awaits. Great art is difficult, Caleb Fang likes to say, but with this wonder of a first novel, Kevin Wilson makes it look easy. 






The Magician King: A Novel
By Lev Grossman
(Viking Adult, 400 pages, $27)
Don’t mistake this YA-sounding book for childish entertainment; it’s Lev Grossman’s case for “adult fantasy,” in which sex and violence help pass the time and profanity is the only way to express emotion. In this sequel to the 2009 bestseller The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater and his friends, now royalty, must save their beloved Fillory from collapse. That the book critic for Time magazine is writing fantasy novels—in the boy-wizard mode of forebears like Feist, Le Guin, and Rowling—must appall snobbier members of the literati, but for the rest of us, it’s a confirmation of what we’ve always known: that fantasy, then as now, is not to be so easily dismissed.