1. Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazelon (Random House)
Listeners of Slate’s Political Gabfest and readers of The New York Times Magazine will recognize Bazelon’s sharp, original insights in her new investigation of the criminal justice system and the role that local prosecutors play in the crisis of mass incarceration. Bazelon exposes how overzealous prosecutors have accelerated incarceration and relates how other reform-minded district attorneys buck the trend by fashioning common-sense alternatives to prison. Bazelon artfully weaves the stories of a young Brooklyn man arrested on gun charges and an 18-year-old woman from Memphis, Tennessee, charged with the murder of her mother, and makes a convincing case for transforming the work of prosecutors to make the justice system more just.
2. Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror by Charles Lane (Hanover Square Press)
Washington Post editorial board member and op-ed columnist Lane zeroes in on the birth of the Secret Service in this portrait of Hiram C. Whitley, the overlooked chief of the U.S. Secret Service. Lane’s riveting portrait of Whitley also illuminates the rise of the KKK during the Reconstruction Era and points to the roots of the war on terror, particularly the clandestine surveillance and the isolation and torture techniques that have hardened into practice over time. In this nuanced history, Lane exposes how Whitley’s original well-placed opposition to the Klan edged into shadier practices.
3. The Light Years by Chris Rush (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Painter and designer Rush doesn’t so much document his journey from Catholic New Jersey affluence to bullied boarding school student to 13-year-old acid-head in the wilderness of the Southwest as evoke it in his pulsating memoir. In a narrative of episodic images, Rush depicts the ascent of 1970’s counterculture and casts his druggy adventures in the context of reckoning with his sexuality and the church. Drifting through the Southwest off the grid, overdosing, and working for Christian drug smugglers, Rush also works on his art and searches for the divine. Decades later, he paints his father’s portrait and grasps: “What was hidden becomes visible.”
4. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Henry Holt)
Adolescence at the competitive Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA) would end up as Glee if the novelist weren’t the brilliant Choi, whose fiction, like her Pulitzer Prize finalist American Woman, upends narrative expectation. Trust Exercise deftly shifts time and perspective, and teen drama becomes a dark, edgy exploration of boundaries between coercion and consent, theater and reality, charisma and manipulation, and student and teacher. From its early focus on a drama teacher and two lovestruck teens, Choi flashes forward to a wider set of characters and highlights the malleability of memory and imagination.
5. Around Harvard Square by C.J. Farley (Black Sheep/Akashic Books)
As a federal judge decides whether Harvard University discriminates against Asian American applicants and a massive national admissions scandal exposes a web of lies and bribes to secure admission to elite institutions through a “side door,” along comes a smart, satirical novel about surviving the racial and cultural tensions ratcheted up in the elite Harvard hothouse. Farley has created a marvelously engaging and diverse set of characters, at the center of which is a nerdy Jamaican American with a philosophical bent and his cohort of oddballs struggling to win a spot on Harvard’s brainy humor magazine, which provides a springboard for Farley to dive into the ethics of comedy, among other subjects.