5 HOT BOOKS: Jim Jones's Death Cult, a Thriller About a Cold Case, and More

Here are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1. Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Crown)

After a motley crew of college friends, a little boy, and a former teacher are trapped for a night in an abandoned Philadelphia penitentiary in 1980, they are rescued by the police – except for one, who seems to have disappeared. It is a cold case for decades, until the discovery of some remains, which sets up a braid of mysteries to unravel.  Boylan’s Long Black Veil is more than just an engrossing whodunit. It is a highly charged work of imagination, and a thriller with fully formed characters, grappling with truth and identity. Boylan is a prominent writer and activist – the inaugural Anna Quindlan Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College, national chair of the board of GLAAD (the media advocacy group for LGBT rights), New York Times Op-Ed contributor, consultant to Amazon’s Transparent, and to the docu-series I Am Cait, about Caitlin Jenner, of which she is also a cast member. She is the author of the 2003 best-selling memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, and another well-regarded memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, in which she recalled her childhood growing up with the whispers, creaks and shadows of the suburban Philadelphia mansion known as the “Coffin House,” which had some of the same themes, including love and forgiveness, and and some of the humor, as this deeply human new novel.

2. An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal (Penguin Press)

In her insightful new book, Rosenthal traces the transformation of American medicine from its origins as a caring endeavor to the most profitable industry in the U.S. A physician-turned-journalist, Rosenthal was a reporter for The New York Times and recently became editor-in-chief of the non-profit Kaiser Health News, an independent newsroom focusing on health and health policy. Writing with clarity and nuance, Rosenthal divides her book into two parts: “History of the Present Illness and a Review of Systems” details the development of the “medical-industrial complex,” and “Diagnosis and Treatment” offers recommendations for insurers, doctors, and hospitals on becoming more responsive and affordable, including ways government can do more. She provides specific questions patients can ask about costs: “Which blood test, and why?” “Where will this test or surgery take place (surgery center, office, hospital)" and, simply, "What are the cheapest ways to do this?” We have clearly not seen the last major push for health care reform, and Rosenthal has some wise advice about how it should be done.

3. What to Do About the Solomons by Bethany Ball (Grove Atlantic)

In this big-hearted, fast-paced multigenerational family drama, the Solomons have raised children on a kibbutz in Israel, and while one stays, the others make their lives in Los Angeles and New York. Ball’s debut novel is poignant and full of joy, as she weaves together the dramatic tales of these colorful Solomon clan.  There is financial scandal in the asset trading business, an actress trying to make it where she can, an estranged gay son living in Asia, and the world of gossipy intrigue in the kibbutz where word of family antics travels fast and is a source of endless speculation and amusement. Ball has a keen eye for the absurdity of modern life, and a distinctive perspective -- as Booklist put it, “Eudora Welty with sex and Jews."  

4. Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (Knopf)

In this engaging memoir, Dani Shapiro writes about her 18-year marriage to her war-correspondent-turned-screenwriter husband (referred to simply as “M,” throughout the book).  Shapiro is particularly interested in, and eloquent about, how the marriage has evolved through the vicissitudes of time. She resists structuring her memoir in a neat, linear fashion. Instead, she draws on her power of memory as it processes the relationship over the years, through the illness of their son, deaths of their parents, and the successes and disappointments of their lives as writers. “Already my mind is a kaleidoscope,“ writes Shapiro, in this spare and poetic book. “Years vanish. Months collapse.  Time is like a tall building made of playing cards.”

5.  The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster)

In November 1978, more than 900 people – among them, children and babies – perished in a jungle in Guyana after madman cult leader Jim Jones ordered his followers to drink a cyanide-laced concoction.  With a previous book on Charles Manson, and now this one on Jones, Guinn has established himself as a reporter, forensic researcher, and dispassionate cult expert who has an impressive ability to separate myth from reality. In The Road to Jonestown, Guinn traces Jones’s privileged roots as a Nazi sympathizer in Indianapolis, to his establishment of the People’s Temple in California, where he won followers and praise as “an American Gandhi,” through to his final stand in Guyana – and he explores how Jones’s increasing manipulation of his followers went largely unnoticed, until their catastrophic demise.