All the Secrets of the World

The fates of two Sacramento families in the 1980s collide most spectacularly in All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond (Bad StoriesAgainst Football). This sweeping drama follows 13-year-old Lorena Saenz and a troubled scientist whose disappearance sets in motion a flawed criminal investigation that will ultimately ensnare Lorena's undocumented brother, Tony.

Nerdy and academically brilliant Lorena and popular rich girl Jenny Stallworth are middle-schoolers who exist in different social spheres, their paths unlikely to cross if not for their teacher pairing them for a science project. Lorena finds herself invited to the Stallworth mansion, where she develops an all-consuming crush on Jenny's father, Marcus, a scientist who studies scorpions. A quiet academic, Marcus is barely able to contain his inner demons and struggles against his worst impulses and temptations, especially when it comes to Lorena's fast-emerging womanhood and her tendency to show up at his study uninvited.

Tracking his characters from the Sacramento suburbs through the desert toward Yuma, Ariz., and beyond, Almond paints a satirically astute portrait of Reagan's America, with California the epicenter of the president's anti-crime campaign. When Marcus disappears and his Jeep is found abandoned south of Death Valley, foul play is suspected and Tony, the lowest-hanging fruit of possible suspects, is arrested.

With cleverly overlapping subplots and a memorable cast of characters that includes a polygamous cult leader living on a Mexican ranch, Almond's meticulously researched first novel is a triumph of storytelling powered by a central theme: the perilous disconnect between those who control or abuse systems of power and the individuals who are at the losing end of the power dynamic. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer

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