Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Once in a while you come across a novel whose protagonist is so engaging that you find yourself thinking, Oh no! or Don’t do that! interspersed with sighs of relief and some heartfelt rejoicing when things go right for a change. Lily King’s Writers & Lovers is one of those novels. Casey Kasem, born Camila Peabody, is a struggling writer trying (and failing) to make ends meet as a waitress, living in her landlord’s converted shed and walking his dog in the morning to get a break on the rent. She lacks health insurance. She’s $70K in debt, and though she has many supportive friends, her love life is in shambles. On top of this, her beloved mother recently died, suddenly and prematurely, and no one seems to know why. Casey’s father, a jerk who’s bitter over Casey’s failure to become a golf pro, is a waste of space. King is one of those rare writers who can entwine sadness, hilarity and burning fury in the briefest of moments. There’s a lot of this in her restaurant scenes, which are so finely observed that you may wonder if King ever worked in a sad little eatery once upon a time. Though some of Casey’s co-workers are funny and caring, others leaver her quivering with rage. King’s other characters are just as well-drawn, including Oscar, Casey’s somewhat older lover. He’s a successful writer, a widower, a Kevin Costner look-alike and father of two adorably rambunctious boys. Then there’s Casey’s other lover, Silas, who’s younger and unsettled. King doesn’t hesitate to bring up how financial insecurity impacts love; should Casey move in with Oscar and the boys just because she’s about to be evicted and can’t afford rent? Nor can Casey choose whether to write for love or money; she has to write for both reasons. Casey’s story, like so many stories in real life, is messy. She’s messy. But King’s book isn’t. It’s a pleasure.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (e-book available on Axis 360 app): We’re living in a moment when predatory men are being held responsible for the power they wield against women–especially younger women. Typically we hear about it when the now-adult women discuss their abuse years later. In My Dark Vanessa, first-time novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell gives voice to a 15-year-old girl who enters into a relationship with her teacher. Vanessa Wye is a bright but socially disconnected girl at a Northeastern boarding school. Jacob Strane, a literature teacher who is 27 years her senior, zeros in on her loneliness and grooms his young student for an inappropriate relationship. Vanessa’s narration switches back and forth from the early 2000s, when she is an enthralled student keeping the relationship a secret, to 2017, when a reporter from a feminist blog reaches out to her in the hopes that she’ll discuss Strane’s abuse. It turns out that Strane had other victims, and they have come forward. Russell has clearly done her psychology homework on how sexual abuse transpires. Her storytelling is particularly strong when she shows how manipulation and coercion operate, and how predators intentionally choose isolated victims whose distress is unlikely to be noticed. Still, as both a teen and an adult, Vanessa balks at the characterization that she had no agency. The reader is able to see heartbreaking results that Vanessa can’t yet bear to look at, and this conflict is utterly gripping. It’s painful for the reader to view Vanessa’s experience through a more critical lens than she does, and this divide between reader and narrator will surely prompt the audience to ask questions about the interactions they’ve had in their own lives.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Louise Erdrich’s prolific output has done nothing to water down the quality of her writing. If anything, after 3 decades of storytelling, she knows her groove and tells her tales in an assured, leisurely fashion. In this way, her latest novel is less a tightly plotted story than a recounting of an episode in American history with character sketches filled in along the way. Certain themes can be relied upon throughout Erdrich’s body of work, most notably the injustice handed out to Native American tribes by the powers that be. The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s on North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation, is no exception. It’s based on the extraordinary story of the author’s grandfather, Thomas Wazhushk, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., where he took on Congress in 1953. Pixie Paranteau is Wazhushk’s niece. She takes a leave of absence at her job at the Jewel Bearing Plant to search for her sister, Vera, who was last seen in Minneapolis. Though she doesn’t find her sister, she finds love in the arms of a promising young boxer named Wood Mountain, himself the victim of racism in the ring. (When he is winning a round against a white fighter, the bell rings 15 seconds early.) Pixie, her uncle Thomas, grad student Millie Cloud and other Turtle Mountain inhabitants have a common enemy in Senator Arthur V. Watkins, who is bent on reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. If Watkins wins his election, it would mean the end of the Turtle Mountain community and tribes living on reservations throughout the U.S. Erdrich weaves an element of the supernatural throughout these events, with Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returning as a ghost. The Night Watchman serves as a timely reminder that history seems to have a habit of repeating itself.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride: In Deacon King Kong, the venerable James McBride’s first novel since winning the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a grief-stricken church deacon nicknamed Sportcoat shoots Deems, a 19-year-old drug dealer, at a Brooklyn-area housing project called the Cause Houses in 1969. The shooting shocks the community of the Causes Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church and triggers a chain of subplots that McBride explores in touching and intriguing ways. Such a web of interconnected relationships could produce confusion when from the pen of a less talented writer. McBride, however, gives every character finely tuned identities and experiences. Aside from Sportcoat and Deems, there in Officer Potts Mullen, a worn-down white beat cop who yearns for the heart of cynical yet warm-hearted pastor’s wife Sister Gee. Soup is a recently released ex-convict and Nation of Islam convert who seeks to heal the community that he used to hurt. Italian mobster Tommy Elephante, also known as the Elephant, is the neighborhood boogeyman who is pursuing a treasure hunt left behind by his deceased father. These subplots are tied together by a mysterious link that reveals itself over time. These are just a few of the threads that comprise the web of experiences that generate the book’s ultimate protagonist, the Cause Houses. The characters are mere microorganisms; the Cause is the body. McBride imagines the project building not just as a setting but also as a living being that speaks, laughs, cries and, most importantly, loves. Deacon King Kong engages with serious issues including grief, poverty, drug use and gun violence, among others. At the same time, it is an incredibly funny novel. McBride’s comedic language and timing are precise and dynamic. Comedy is cultural, and in a truly exceptional move, he gives authentic comedic voices to characters with wide-ranging racial and cultural backgrounds. Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions. Deacon King Kong reaffirms James McBride’s position among the greatest American storytellers of our time.
Actress by Anne Enright: Celebrity often looks glamorous to outsiders. And who wouldn’t have envied the life of Irish actress Katherine O’Dell? Her daughter, Norah, acknowledges her mother’s elegance, like the way she’d leave a last bite of toast on her plate with “a little wavy-over thing she does with her hand, a shimmy of rejection or desire.” Even at the breakfast table, her mother was a star. But as Anne Enright reminds us in Actress, celebrity is often accompanied by gloom. This touching novel charts a star’s decline, from early Broadway and Hollywood fame in 1948 to her sad later years, when she was reduced to degrading stage roles and a commercial for Irish butter. One of the saddest ironies is that Katherine, “the most Irish actress in the world,” wasn’t Irish. She was born in London to a stage-actor father who never had a great career. Katherine’s life was more successful–and more checkered, with relationships with domineering men, suspected interactions with IRA members and struggles with mental illness, culminating in her rash decision to shoot a producer in the foot after he declined to produce one of her scripts. All of these events are relayed from the perspective of Norah, a novelist, who travels to London to meet people from Katherine’s past and seek answers to several mysteries, among them the identity of her father. Actress is at its best when Enright examines the complexities of the unusual mother-daughter bond. Memorable descriptions of even secondary characters make this book a treat, as when Norah reminisces about her thespian grandfather who “carried his handsome like an unwanted gift–one he offered to the world, but could never quite give away.” Late in the novel, when ruminating on events that can harm, Norah says, “You can also be destroyed by love.” As Enright shows, love often looks glamorous, but sometimes it’s only a guise.
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Judy Vogel is caught in a downward spiral. She is mourning both the recent loss of her parents and the anticipated loss of her best friend, who is dying of cancer. Judy’s promising career as a children’s author has stalled, and she now supports her family by writing for a wellness website. She has also lost all sense of connection with her husband, a pothead who suffers from severe anxiety and works as a “snackologist,” but they cannot afford to divorce. They are separated but live together in the same house and pretend everything is normal for their teenage son, Teddy. But what Judy grieves the most is the increasing loss of closeness to her only child as he grows into a young man. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Judy discovers a strange coping mechanism when she begins to carry their sheltie, Charlotte, everywhere in an old baby sling, to almost everyone’s dismay. In this intriguing novel, Laura Zigman doesn’t sugarcoat but instead lays bare Judy’s feelings with heartbreaking honesty. Every middle-aged woman who has ever felt invisible, lost or depressed will connect with some aspect of Judy’s life. Indeed, Zigman labels her work “semi-autobiographical fiction,” which may explain its devastating authenticity. At the same time, Zigman cleverly wraps her story in genuine hilarity. Judy’s continuous, cynical commentary is priceless, especially when discussing Teddy’s Montessori school. What at first might seem like a depressing premise is in fact both refreshingly truthful and highly entertaining. As a result of this unique mix, this novel is both unpredictable and delightfully original. For those seeking a good laugh and a good cry, look no further than Separation Anxiety.
Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Ashley Hawkins has always felt at home when she’s outside in nature. She’s grown up around the mountains and trails of Tennessee, and wilderness survival skills run in her blood. She even earned the nickname “*Butt*-kicker Ashley” from her old friend Davey–before he mysteriously disappeared on a solo hiking trip. Unlike many of her friends, Ashley is intimately aware of the woods’ pragmatic ruthlessness, not just their potential for keggers and drunken hookups. Against her better judgment, Ashley agrees to go to the Smoky Mountains with friends for a weekend of hiking and partying–only to stumble upon her new boyfriend in a compromising position with his ex. Stunned and heartbroken, Ashley feels into the night, completely alone, without her backpack, phone or even her shoes. When she suffers a fall in the darkness and her injuries cause her to become increasingly disoriented, the forest that’s always been a place of solace for her becomes instead a site of mortal danger. Will Ashley suffer the same fate as Davey? Be Not Far From Me, a brutal survival tale from Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis, doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the harsh realities Ashley encounters in the woods or the excruciating decisions she must make in order to stay alive. As Ashley summons reserves of strength she didn’t know she had, she also comes to terms with the difficult circumstances of her past that have made her stronger–and given her the resilience she will need to keep going. Readers will be utterly captivated by Ashley’s harrowing, hopeful fight to survive.
Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman: It may be hard to believe in these days of seemingly endless political campaigns, but once upon a time, presidential candidates disdained personally stumping for political office. Asserting oneself through the written word was considered vain, undignified and beneath the status of a public figure. This is not to say they stayed silent: Through “anonymously” written biographies, pamphlets and authoritative histories like Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, they made themselves known and helped themselves become, for the most part, exalted. (Try as he might, John Adams didn’t fare so well in his attempts, and even Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had their partisan cynics and critics.) In this eye-opener of a read, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, Craig Fehrman resurrects many such presidential pages, along with a plethora of facts and foibles about their writers–and ghostwriters. Alexander Hamilton and Ted Sorensen were among these invisible helpers, and their tales are here, too. For both the scholar and the casually curious, there is a lot to learn about our presidents. This story cannot be told without layering in the birth of the publishing industry and the growing pains of transportation, and Fehrman weaves a detailed tapestry from these threads. From salesmen on horseback to today’s online clicks, authors have struggled to reach their readers. As Fehrman explains, “The most interesting thing about Obama and Lincoln are the differences”–as in, riding a horse to a distant general store with the hope that any book might be there in one era, and downloading an eBook onto one’s phone in the next. There are the predictable standouts–Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt and Kennedy–and some outstanding surprises, such as Coolidge, Truman and Reagan. Whiffs of scandal puff up now and then. Jefferson spoke mightily of human rights but kept his slaves. Kennedy earned his Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, or did he? Every candidate used the power of the written word to open the door to the White House and, later, secure his legacy. Fehrman ensures their words will continue to matter.
American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson: We live in an era that feels awash in crime case forensic evidence. Every day, news comes of DNA tests that have exonerated long-imprisoned innocents or nabbed villains in cold cases. An entire generation has grown up watching the CSI franchise on television, and jurors tend to expect some Gil Grissom-like savant to testify, even when that’s not realistic. That was hardly the case a century ago. Police relied on third-degree interrogations, and science just wasn’t in the picture. But slowly, a handful of forensic pioneers changed the criminal justice landscape. One of the most prominent was Edward Oscar Heinrich, a largely forgotten figure whose riveting story is revived in Kate Winkler Dawson’s American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI. After finishing her well-regarded Death in the Air, Dawson was looking for a follow-up project when she stumbled on the voluminous Heinrich papers at the University of California at Berkeley. She literally had to persuade the university to catalog the neglected collection so she could do her research. It produced archival gold. Heinrich was a headline name in the 1920s and ’30s as a key criminologist in high-profile murder cases. Dawson structures her book around his most mysterious and sensational cases–among them, a bloody train robbery that netted almost no money, the killing of a priest solved in part through handwriting analysis and the multiple trials of a Stanford University employee who may or may not have bludgeoned his wife in her bathtub. Heinrich forged the way in blood pattern analysis, ballistics, forensic photography, polygraphs and criminal profiling. Yet he was often frustrated by juries who were baffled by his work, and importantly, he wasn’t always right. He trusted forensic science too much; as Dawson reminds us, we now know that handwriting, blood and gun evidence is far from flawless. Like Heinrich himself, she argues, we need to continue pushing forward in the never-ending quest for true justice.
No Bad Deed by Heather Chavez (e-book available in Libby app): Heather Chavez’s No Bad Deed is a fast-paced, high-anxiety tale of a good Samaritan’s offer of assistance gone very, very wrong. On her drive home from work after a 12-hour shift at her veterinarian practice, Cassie Larkin pulls over to mop up a spilled drink–and sees a man throw a woman into a ravine. A shocked Cassie calls 911 and, despite the dispatcher’s exhortations to stay in her minivan, she gets out and stumbles down a steep hill in an attempt to save the woman. The attacker offers a terrifying bargain–“Let her die and I’ll let you live”–before running off, stealing Cassie’s van (as well as her wallet and keys) along the way. The woman lives, and Cassie pushes through her shock and fear to give a statement to Detective Ray Rico, who tells her, “Every crime is personal, even the random ones.” But Cassie can’t imagine how on earth this crime could have anything to do with her, nor can she figure out why Rico seems to be regarding her with skepticism rather than focusing on catching the criminal who knows where she lives and has the keys to her house. Exhausted and distraught, she pushes the weirdness aside and goes home, hoping the police will soon catch said criminal and resolving to start fresh tomorrow. Alas, rather than a festive day with a candy-filled finale, Cassie’s Halloween ends on a strange and terrifying note. Her husband Sam takes their 6-year-old daughter trick-or-treating and then disappears. Cassie wonders if he’s having a affair, but can’t believe that he would abandon their child. Chavez, a former newspaper reporter, does an excellent job of pulling the reader along with Cassie as she tears around town assembling clues in an effort to figure out what the hell is going on. Thanks to the uncanny timing, Cassie wonders if Sam’s disappearance is related to the bizarre assault she witnessed. That would be a wild coincidence, but as the hours pass and the danger and strangeness increases, Cassie’s sense of reality warps and changes, and her instincts are increasingly at odds with what she’s seeing and hearing. No Bad Deed is an exciting exploration of what might happen when a person’s ordinary life is suddenly thrown into chaos, and knowing whom or what to trust is no longer possible. It’s also a delightfully Harlan Coben-esque tale of the ways in which the past can influence the present–for better or much, much worse.
The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee and Pascal Campion: It’s hard for Daniel to leave his warm bed and cozy apartment, but without a babysitter, he must accompany his parents to their nighttime janitorial job. While they work, they make up stories, transforming the empty conference rooms, messy kitchen and echoing hallways into a magical realm. Welcome to The Paper Kingdom. Author Helena Ku Rhee writes from her own personal experience, having also gone with her parents to their night custodial jobs. Her narration rings with honesty as Daniel’s voice changes from sleepy and surly to curious but frustrated as he sees how hard his parents work to clean up the messes created by the office workers. Illustrator Pascal Campion expertly uses colors to build a sense of atmosphere on every page. Readers will feel the warm glow of a lamp, hear the squeaky shine of newly mopped floors and see the blur of the city through bleary eyes. The facial expressions of Daniel and his parents are simple but convey their emotions (especially their exhaustion) clearly and unmistakably. Campion’s digital brushstrokes vary from soft and vague to finely detailed. Plants become bold strokes of color, while bathroom-stall doors are sharp and precise. This variety–along with a few magical touches–brings readers into Daniel’s sleepy, dreamlike state and makes every page feel like a slightly hazy memory. The Paper Kingdom salutes the sacrifices that parents make for their children and movingly acknowledges the work of those who toil while the city sleeps. It’s an affectionate tribute to the bonds of family and the unexpected memories we form when we perform seemingly mundane tasks together. It’s also an homage to the way imagination sometimes works when we are young, and how reality and the possibility of dragons can mingle.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): When a body of historical literature is as vast as the one on Winston Churchill in World War II, it’s fair to ask whether the world needs yet another entry. But when the author is a master of popular history like Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz–the engrossing story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister–needs no additional justification. Larson begins his account with Churchill’s assumption of power on May 10, 1940, on the eve of the British evacuation of Dunkirk, and continues for exactly one year. That highly consequential span saw, among other events, the fall of France, the London Blitz (Germany’s relentless aerial bombardment that killed nearly 45,000 Britons) and Churchill’s tactful but persistent courtship of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that culminated in the securing of material assistance vital to sustaining Britain’s war effort. It was also a year in which Churchill time and again displayed his unsurpassed gift for inspiring a beleaguered nation–through his oratory and through the sheer force of his personality–to persist through some of the darkest days of the war, when German bombs rained death nightly on Britain’s cities, and invasion seemed imminent. But The Splendid and the Vile isn’t merely a story of war and diplomacy. Larson devotes considerable attention to daily life inside the Churchill household, including frequent weekend excursions at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers, where social gatherings often stretched into the early morning hours amid intensive war planning. Larson also humanizes the prime minster through stories of his teenage daughter, Mary, struggling to make the awkward transition into adulthood in the midst of war’s chaos, and his son Randolph, whose marriage was crumbling under the weight of a gambling addiction. While Britain didn’t defeat Hitler in Churchill’s momentous first year, it unquestionably stared down annihilation and survived. Enlivened by Larson’s effective use of primary sources and, above all, by his vibrant storytelling, The Splendid and the Vile brings a fresh eye to a familiar story of courage, determination and hope.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Colum McCann’s ambitious new novel tells the true story of the friendship between two men brought together by tragedy. The title, Apeirogon, refers to a shape with an infinite but countable number of sides, and this image serves as a metaphor for both political complexity as well as the episodic manner in which the story unfolds. Palestinian Bassam Aramin’s life was transformed when, jailed as a teenager, he became interested in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Upon release, Bassam co-founded Combatants for Peace, a grassroots movement committed to nonviolence in Israel and the West Bank, and got a degree in Holocaust Studies in England. After Bassam’s daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli border guard in 2005, he joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization founded for Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost relatives to the violence. There, he met graphic designer Rami Elhanan, 19 years his senior, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in 1997. The two men have made it their lives’ work to travel together all over the world, telling their daughters’ stories in their quest for peace. Apeirogon takes place during a single day as the men make their separate ways to a monastery in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in Bethlehem, where they have a speaking engagement. Bassam leaves from his home in Jericho, traveling through checkpoints, worries he will be stopped for having a headlight out, and Rami is on his motorcycle, crossing in and out of Israel-occupied territories. As in earlier novels, McCann mixes history and fiction, shifting narrators, place and time into a seamless though sprawling whole. Through 1,001 brief fragments that lead up to and away from two monologues, one by each man, McCann interweaves their lives with topics as diverse as soccer, avian migration and, in a tip of the hat to Let the Great World Spin, Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope strung over the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in 1987 Jerusalem. Segment after segment evokes the experiences of McCann’s protagonists, their families and the divided land in which they live. McCann’s protagonists believe that if a country’s commitment to peace leads the way, the most complex politics will sort themselves out. Apeirogon makes space for this belief, a placeholder for a future where irreparable loss transforms violence, where grief leads to reconciliation.
1774 by Mary Beth Norton: American colonists loved tea and wished to acquire it cheaply. Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773, however, made that impossible. As an anonymous New York Writer at the time explained, colonists would pay “a duty which is a tax for the Purpose of raising a Revenue from us without our own consent, and tax, or duty, is therefore unconstitutional, cruel, or unjust.” It was an effort to help the financially struggling East India Company. In protest, some ports halted or sent back their shipments of tea. In Boston, in December of 1773, men disguised as Native Americans destroyed 342 chests of tea. The term “Boston Tea Party” wasn’t used until the next century, but the action was controversial and set in motion crucial actions and discussions that lasted until mid-April 1775. The vigorous debates regarding freedom and liberty during that period prepared the country for what was to follow in 1776. Drawing on correspondence, newspapers and pamphlets, noted historian Mary Beth Norton brings that 16-month period vividly alive in her meticulously documented and richly rewarding 1774: The Long Year of Revolution. Support for resistance to King George III was far from unanimous. Loyalists sought to deal rationally with Parliament on the Tea Act and other issues. The proposal to elect a congress to coordinate opposition tactics came not from radical leaders but from conservatives who hoped for reconciliation with Britain. Loyalists to England, not the revolutionaries, were the most vocal advocates for freedom of the press and strong dissenting opinions. But shortsighted decisions from London often moved these conservatives in the opposite direction. This important book demonstrates how opposition to the king developed and shows us that without the “long year” of 1774, there may not have been an American Revolution at all.
The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer (e-book available in Libby app): Typically, the phrase “true crime” brings to mind stories of serial murderers–not of, say, thieves and traffickers of rare eggs. But in The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, Joshua Hammer has crafted a story that will fascinate readers craving a dramatic true tale of confident criminals, denizens of shadowy underworlds and the law enforcers who strive to catch and punish them. First the bad guy. Jeffrey Lendrum is an audacious criminal who travels the world stealing rare eggs from birds of prey and selling them to uber-wealthy falcon enthusiasts in the United Arab Emirates. Our hero, Andy McWilliam, is a career police officer who rose to the top of the U.K.’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, thanks to his success tracking and capturing wildlife-related criminals such as badger-baiters, zookeepers and real estate developers. But his specialization, of course, is ornithological crime solving. Hammer’s exploration of the factors that culminated in egg trafficking is thorough and fascinating, offering context and entertainment alike. He plumbs the origins of falconry, which began as a means of survival (peregrines were trained hunters) and over the centuries evolved into the high-dollar, high-stakes sport it is today. In Dubai, there’s a falcon hospital, research center and the President Cup, a racing event with an $11 million purse. It’s mind-boggling, but in Hammer’s hands it makes a bizarre kind of sense: Rather than collecting jerseys and memorizing stats, falcon-obsessed men (they’re all men, it seems) steal and collect eggs, keep meticulous notes and are always planning their next get. The wealthiest members of this group in the UAE hire out such tasks to men like Lendrum who thrive on the adrenaline rush of plundering nature. Hammer paints a vivid portrait of the thrill of the chase and the long-term relationships between criminal and police officer–both of them smart and daring, neither of them willing to give up. The Falcon Thief also shines a light on the world of wildlife crime: its perpetrators, addicted to their pursuits; its wealthy and Machiavellian masterminds; and our heroes, who work toward ensuring that all creatures are safe from the greedy and devious few. Ultimately, this book is a fine tribute to McWilliam and to others dedicated to conservation, and a compelling deep dive into the psyche of a very specific sort of criminal.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: Fiction that transports us back to another time can, at its best, make us feel at home in an era into which we’ve never set foot. Unless, of course, the author doesn’t want us to feel at home. In the realm of great fantasy fiction set in a past we think we know, it’s often to a storyteller’s advantage to lure us in with a false sense of familiarity, only to reveal something else entirely. With Things in Jars, Jess Kidd has woven a spellbinding alternate version of Victorian London that is both recognizable and like getting lost in some mist-shrouded parallel world only spoken of in myths. It is into this version of London, where tattooed ghosts lurk near their own gravestones and seven-foot-tall housekeepers spend their idle time reading potboiler fiction, that Kidd drops Bridie Devine, a private detective with such distinctive style and intense charisma that we fall in love with immediately. When we meet her, Bridie is coming off a tough, failed case, but she’s got a new one on the horizon. The secret child of a wealthy man is missing, and the child may be much more than just a lost little girl. Armed with her own wits and accompanied by an unlikely spectral assistant, Bridie sets out to learn the truth about the child and along the way finds some ties to a past she tried to leave behind. Equal parts historical thriller and fabulist phantasm, Things in Jars is instantly compelling, but what sets it apart is the prose. There’s a playful, lithe familiarity to it as Kidd dances across delightfully apt phrases like a master. Even as the novel sweeps you up in its narrative, it also sweeps you up in it sentence-by-sentence construction, making it both a whirlwind read and a novel you could happily get lost in for weeks, dissecting every paragraph. Things in Jars is the kind of lavish, elegant genre treat that makes you wish Kidd would churn out a new Bridie Devine mystery every three years until the end of time.
Weather by Jenny Offill: Lizzie Benson, the protagonist of Jenny Offill’s smart, provocative new novel, Weather, has a lot on her mind. Lizzie has opted out of a Ph.D. program and is underemployed at a university library in Brooklyn. She is the major supporter of her younger brother, Henry, whose addictions were the primary reason Lizzie abandoned graduate school in the first place, and her husband is losing patience. She actively avoids a bigoted neighbor, is cowed by the officious crossing guard at her son’s elementary school and frets over the dwindling attendance at the workplace meditation class. Not to mention her bum knee. After the 2016 election, her pessimism increases. Lizzie’s former thesis adviser, Sylvia, who is now the host of a popular “doom and gloom” environmental podcast called “Hell and High Water,” hires Lizzie to field her listeners’ questions. Lizzie finds herself spending hours in a highly polarized virtual world, addressing the concerns of survivalists, doomsday preppers, climate-change deniers and panicky environmentalists. She grows obsessed with the psychology behind disaster planning and survivalism, exacerbating the situation by web surfing and watching reality shows on extreme couponing and animism. But as worrying as these issues are, nothing quite compares to Lizzie’s enmeshed relationship with Henry, whose fragile hold on sobriety is tested by a wife and a new baby. Like Offill’s award-winning Department of Speculation, Weather is short, absorbing and disturbingly funny. Its structure–quotations, lists, jokes, articles and emails mixed with Lizzie’s trenchant observations–echoes our current fragmented world and ever-shortening attention spans. As the tensions between the doomsday predictions and everyday relationships fray and fester, Lizzie finds it more and more difficult to keep from tipping over into despair. She begins to look to her loving family for stability, even as she tests their patience. The title itself connoting climate conditions and the human ability to withstand and survive change, Weather feels both immediate and intimate, as Lizzie’s concerns become eerily close to our own.
Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon (e-book available on the Libby app): The Vietnam War has generated a substantial body of literature since its end in 1975, but the same can’t be said of the civil war that raged simultaneously in the country of Laos. Paul Yoon’s novel Run Me to Earth, a pensive tale of war’s savage toll on innocents during and after the conflict, partially remedies that absence. As Yoon explains in an author’s note, more than 2 million tons of ordnance rained down on Laos, a country half the size of California, between 1964 and 1973. That’s more than was dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War II. Thirty percent of these cluster bombs failed to explode on impact, leaving a residue of lethal, baseball-size “bombies.” Amid this version of hell on earth, three local teenagers–Alisak, Prany and his younger sister, Noi–are recruited to work for a doctor named Vang who ministers to the war-ravaged civilian population. When these well-meaning but untrained children aren’t struggling to aid the doctor in an abandoned farmhouse converted into an ill-equipped government hospital, they’re navigating speedy motorbikes across bomb-strewn fields, guided only by “safe lines” of sticks and their own daring. When helicopters arrive to evacuate the three young characters (as well as the hospital’s remaining patients, save for the dying, who are left behind), Yoon follows them to a prison camp run by Laotian rebels, a small town in southern France and even New York’s Hudson River Valley. Their subsequent acts of revenge, self-sacrifice and profound courage all resonate with their wartime experiences, when they were, in the words of one character, “still just children. Children hired to help others survive a war.” Run Me to Earth is a melancholy reminder that valor isn’t limited to those who win medals on the battlefield, and that to many noncombatants, the question isn’t who wins or loses, but whether one will survive the madness.
When You See Me by Lisa Gardner (e-book available on the Libby app): It begins with a femur. When a couple detour off their hiking trail in the Georgia hills and find the weathered leg bone, and the more female remains, it seems likely to be the work of a known predator. But an ever-growing group of investigators discovers there’s more to this laid-back community than just one notorious monster. When You See Me is most frightening when it shows us the boogeymen we meet and interact with every day. Lisa Gardner’s latest novel once again unites Sergeant D.D. Warren and Flora Dane, the survivor of a brutal abduction who has repaid some of that abuse in the years since. They make a good team, especially since only one is bound to obey laws. Flora and Keith, her maybe-boyfriend who adds tech skills to the team, investigate the small town near the burial site with Warren and FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy. Chapter narration alternates between Warren, Flora, Quincy and a young, mysterious figure who is unable to speak; for her, this is anything but a cold case. When her story intersects with the investigation, the stakes and tension ratchet up quickly. Warren, Dane and Quincy struggle to square the folksy demeanor of people they interview with what appears to be a fairly long, dark history of criminal behavior. It’s hard to know who to trust when talking to people well-trained in the art of people-pleasing to ensure repeat business. Meanwhile, the one person desperate to tell the truth and exact justice has lost her voice entirely. The twists and turns keep peeling veils off an evil nobody wants to look at head-on, and it all culminates in a breakneck final act. The forensic analysis of shallow graves can unearth a lot of clues, but When You See Me also looks at the ways evil is handed down from one generation to the next. It’s a mystery that will keep you up late at night, haunted by the events within its pages.
The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley (e-book available on Axis 360 app): In his 1962 novel, Mother Night, the late Kurt Vonnegut let loose the tale’s moral on the first page: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Clare Pooley revisits that theme in The Authenticity Project, but with a twist: “Everyone lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth instead?” “Keeping up appearances” was a posh British blood sport long before the days of social media, but in the era of Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and a hundred more, many of us succumb to the siren song of “building our brand” by relentlessly editing the public-facing image of our lives. While that curated presentation has an element of truthiness to it, it’s ultimately unsatisfying and leaves followers believing their own lives fail to measure up. So what happens when an aging, formerly semi-famous artist decides to entitle a blank journal The Authenticity Project, launch into an admission of how his life is not meeting expectations and leave the book in a public place for the next person to expand, ignore or discard? As you might guess, the person who finds it, a cafe owner named Monica, decides to contribute. And so, as much by happenstance as through intentional actions, the journal makes its way halfway around the world (and back again), with contributors adding their respective warts-and-all memoirs. The secret sauce that spices this book is that all the diarists are busybodies to some degree, so they wind up interacting in strange and unexpected ways. Much like a Twitter or Facebook feed, the book is composed of fairly short chapters (each from a different character’s point of view), and while it moves along at a bracing clip, the thread is always easy to follow. The story’s confessional tone is in many ways a logical extension of Pooley’s popular pseudonymous blog, Mummy Was a Secret Drinker, but TMI is always balanced by TLC. And while Pooley’s characters’ lives, much like our own, often look better from the outside, they all ultimately reconcile what they pretend to be with what they actually are.
The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez: The best science fiction stories create a bridge between ambitious, precisely calculated genre concepts and the deep, emotional truths that unite us all. Keeping the balance between intricate sci-fi backdrops and delicate matters of the heart is a high-wire act that only succeeds with tremendous care, passion and narrative grace. In his debut novel, The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez has announced himself as a graceful, spellbinding storyteller with the gifts to pull it off. The Vanished Birds charts, in its carefully selective way, centuries of human history and advancement, ultimately catapulting us into a future carved out of glittering corporate-run space stations and far-flung starships that zip through folds in spacetime. It’s into this future, where time is as much of a commodity as any physical good, that Jimenez drops Nia Imani, a woman whose job as captain of a time-folding ship means she’s constantly losing time. Months of travel for her mean years lost on either side of the journey, and this constant sense of detachment has left her unmoored. Then she meets a mysterious boy who fell from the sky onto a distant planet, a boy with a gift for music who could also be destined for much more. Together, they find a bond neither dreamed possible, but powerful forces also want the boy, and a struggle lies ahead. Though Jimenez’s prose feels right at home in a universe of interstellar travel and space station settlements, The Vanished Birds soars highest when the author is navigating the complex emotional avenues through which much of this deeply human story unfolds. The book never fails to deliver the science fiction goods, and fan of high-concept leaps will be satisfied, but the book’s emotional core is what makes it fly. The Vanished Birds strikes a breathless balance between the conceptually dazzling and the emotionally resonant, and it’s in that balance that a bright new voice in genre fiction is born.
A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris: Fresh from an unexpectedly complicated job in Mexico, Lizbeth Rose is shepherding a mysterious crate from her native Texoma to the nation of Dixie when her train derails and her cargo is stolen. As the only member of the crew left alive and in fighting condition, she attempts to infiltrate the small town of Sally, with the unexpected aid of some old friends from Mexico. Lizbeth must now find her missing cargo, outwit a mysterious order of white supremacists and seek vengeance for the deaths of her crew members. And she must do so in Dixie, accompanied by a Russian wizard pretending to be her husband, and without her precious guns. A Longer Fall, Charlaine Harris’ sequel to An Easy Death, is just as gritty as its predecessor. Harris’ prose is blunt and uncomplicated, matching Lizbeth’s general sensibility, and lending the novel a welcome readability. This straightforward style meshes well with the first-person narration, implying that the protagonist is relating events in her own words as she remembers them. Each character is filtered through Lizbeth’s biases, resulting in a refreshingly direct story, albeit one in which everyone uses roughly the same cadence and vocabulary and some of the plot twists are foreshadowed into predictability. The most remarkable aspect of A Longer Fall, though, is the fluency of Harris’ alternate history. Her fractured United States features references to Alexei Romanov’s hemophilia, Russian and Coptic Orthodox theology and the racial dynamics of the Reconstruction-era American South, to name a few. While Texoma communities tend to write their own rules, both Dixie (the former South) and the Holy Russian Empire (California) operate under established hierarchies. In Dixie, these structures are founded on gender and race, while the Holy Russian Empire’s society revolves around religion, genealogy and magical ability. Lizbeth encounters these systems as an outsider both to these specific cultures and to the idea of a firmly hierarchical social structure in general, and her difficulties making sense of them form the central obstacles in both An Easy Death and A Longer Fall. Well, except for the people who keep trying to kill her, of course.
A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen: For Moira, it starts at a concert. Her concert, actually; she’s a beloved pop star, known as MoJo, and she’s on stage at Madison Square Garden when news of a flu-like outbreak called multi-generational syndrome (MGS) sends her fans into a panic. Moira follows the crowd into the streets of New York City and recognizes her chance. The world may be ending, but this is her shot at freedom from her overbearing father. Rob and Sunny find themselves in quarantine after Rob’s wife, Elena, is fatally injured during a riot. Rob can’t bring himself to tell Sunny her mother has died, and he spends each subsequent day wrestling with the resulting lies. Krista is watching over her dying boyfriend–a victim of the MGS pandemic–when opportunity literally knocks on her door. She chooses life and joins a group fleeing to save themselves. These four survivors come together in San Francisco, an unlikely group fused by Moira’s pending nuptials, Krista’s role as an event planner and Rob’s desperation to keep his daughter at his side. A Beginning at the End, the second imaginative novel by technical-and sportswriter-turned-novelist Mike Chen (Here and Now and Then), examines the hysteria of a world where some adopt an “every individual for him-or herself” attitude. Relationships fall apart as most of the world’ remaining population wrestles with a PTSD-like condition. Even against a science fiction backdrop, humanity is the center of Chen’s post-apocalyptic tale. Krista banks on her clients’ desire to find some joy in the midst of a bleak world. But the real hope comes from the characters’ desires to hide their pasts–and then their willingness to reveal their true selves to one another as they seek something worth living for. “I’m out here because I love people, and that’s the American Dream today. We mourn, we rebuild, we respect the things we have,” explains one of the men who helped Moira flee her pop-star past, effectively summarizing the crew’s ongoing hope. Chen’s fast-paced tale is an optimistic look at how our humanity can bring out the best in us, even in the darkest times.
To the Edge of Sorrow by Aharon Appelfeld: To the Edge of Sorrow, Aharon Appelfeld’s novel about a band of Jewish refugees hiding from German patrols in the forests of Ukraine, could have been just another World War II story of strikes and counterstrikes, bullets exchanged and bombs exploding. But thankfully, Appelfeld instead gives readers an up-close, deeply moving story of characters haunted by grief and loss yet buoyed by courage and hope in the most adverse conditions. The novel follows the group’s day-to-day efforts to survive, seen through the eyes of the young narrator, 17-year-old Edmund. Haunted by his forced separation from his parents and from his non-Jewish girlfriend after the relentless advance of German soldiers, Edmund find uneasy comfort among this resistance group. Guided by a somewhat reluctant leader, Kamil, the group initially strives simply to endure. Searching for food, medicine and shelter is the focus of their everyday existence. They raid local villages and farms to gather only what they need, leaving behind enough for the innocent farmers and families they’re robbing. The only luxury the group affords itself is the few books confiscated along the way, books whose words offer inspiration, comfort and faith. But the Germans are always close behind and are determined to root them out, forcing the group deeper into the mountains of Ukraine. Infrequent reports over a stolen transistor radio and contact with other refugees are the group’s only real links to developments in the war and their place in it. It’s only upon learning that the Germans are shipping Jews by train to death camps that the group’s mission changes to one of attack and rescue. Edmund eventually earns his place as a soldier within the group’s ranks and participates in the raids. Nevertheless, most of the story revolves around the group itself, composed of stalwart victims of persecution who display enduring compassion for each other as well as relentless faith in humanity. The author of more than 40 critically acclaimed books, Appelfeld (1932-2018) weaves a memorable chronicle of those who sought to persevere at the height of one of the world’s worst moments.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Storyteller par excellence Isabel Allende brings to life an epic saga in A Long Petal of the Sea. During the Spanish Civil War in 1938, medic Victor Dalmau aids the fight against ruthless General Franco by tending the wounded under the worst possible conditions, while Roser Bruguera, a young piano student, becomes the lover of Victor’s soldier brother. After Victor’s brother is killed and the Franco-led fascists gain control of Spain, Victor and Roser, fearing even greater atrocities, join the sea of desperate refugees fleeing to France. There, they are detained under horrific conditions in a camp by the sea. To escape their precarious status as refugees, Victor and Roser marry without love to gain passage on Paulo Neruda’s Winnipeg, the real-life ship that carried more than 2,000 Spanish refugees to a new life in Chile in 1939. Over the next 55 years, and through the rise and fall of another cruel dictator, Victor and Roser build a life together in South America, based first on shared loyalty, and later on something more. Against a backdrop of violent political and social upheaval, the lives of Allende’s characters quietly unfold in unexpected ways that prove both riveting and satisfying. Allende, a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, explores what it means to live in freedom and under tyranny, to feel displaced and at home. As with Allende’s bestselling novel House of Spirits, subtle touches of magical realism add richness to the story. Although Allende writes of political events and personalities from distant lands and decades in the past, readers may feel a very real sense that these events have much to say about the world today. Some may find hope in Victor’s and Roser’s abilities not just to survive such dark times but also to eventually heal and thrive. For those familiar with Allende’s earlier work, this novel will not disappoint. For those new to Allende’s writing, A Long Petal of the Sea will prove a captivating introduction.
Almost Just Friends by Jill Shalvis (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Jill Shalvis is back with the fourth installment of her contemporary Wildstone series, Almost Just Friends. Just like every other book she’s written, you can count on this one to make you feel good. Shalvis has a knack for creating charming characters who are vulnerable yet strong. They’re likable, relatable and possess the ability to face any challenge head-on. On her 30th birthday, at a celebration she neither asked for nor wanted, the reality of Piper Manning’s life rings true: She is responsible for “gathering and keeping all us misfits together and sane.” That’s her friends talking, but the same goes for her family–Piper is the glue that holds them together. She’s raised her siblings, build a career as an EMT and has started refurbishing her grandparents’ lake house. Once she sells the valuable property, she’ll finally have the money to pursue her dreams of becoming a physician’s assistant. But change is scary. Despite the responsibilities Piper has had for over half her life and now her yearning for the next chapter, taking the first step is harder than she thought. And despite all the planning, hoping and wishing she holds close in her heart, falling in love doesn’t factor into the chaos of her life. Then she meets Camden Reid, a secretive DEA agent and Coast Guard reservist. Camden, a man in search of an anchor but with no interest in romance or love, finds Piper to be both a conundrum and irresistible. He’s drawn to her strength and vulnerability (which we’ll call the “Shalvis specialty”), and Piper challenges him more than anything he’s ever experienced. Almost Just Friends is the message we need for this new decade: Everybody struggles with change and challenge and hardship, but if you’re brave and take a leap of faith, you can be happy.
Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Over the past 50 years, Zora Neale Hurston has been restored from nearly forgotten to a canonical writer, in no small part due to the efforts of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. One of the seminal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston is most known today for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and for her nonfiction works of black history and folklore. But before she published those books, she honed her craft by writing short stories. Between 1921 and 1937, Hurston published 21 stories, some widely anthologized but many virtually lost–until now. Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick collects all 21, including eight “lost” stories, for the first time in one volume. Editor Genevieve West located the recovered stories in periodicals and as unpublished manuscripts, and the hallmarks of Hurston’s distinctive writing are on full display: her use of rural black dialect, the wickedly sly humor she finds in day-to-day life, the folkloric underpinnings of her many tales. The world Hurston re-creates is a circumscribed African American world, where white characters are relegated to the sidelines and rarely figure into the consequences of the plot, if they appear at all. The agency that Hurston affords her community is one of the defining delights of her art, which explores identity, class and gender within the African American experience. Many of Hurston’s stories take place among the denizens of rural Eatonville, Florida, also the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God and the actual community where Hurston grew up. Other stories are set among urban landscapes, particularly in Harlem, where the fledgling writer moved in 1924. West points to “The Back Room,” one of the recovered stories, as unique among Hurston’s work for its depiction of what she calls “New Negro” life during the Harlem Renaissance. “The Conversion of Sam,” another found story, is an early effort written before Hurston’s own move to New York. It has a less defined urban setting but nonetheless depicts a migrant’s experience and explores familiar Hurston themes of sexual attraction, courtship and the interplay between men and women. As with any collection of stories, quality varies greatly, but these narratives comprise a rich tapestry of Hurston’s matchless vision and talent. After this period as a short story writer, Hurston mostly turned her attention to novels and to the indelible folklore collections she assembled. These would prove the bedrock of her literary reputation, but these early stories are also a welcome and illuminating component of her legacy.
Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino: In 1898, the American Baptist Publication Society called Wilmington, North Carolina, “the freest town for a negro in the country.” By November 10 of that same year, Wilmington had devolved into perhaps the most dangerous place for black people in North Carolina, if not in America. David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy explores in gripping detail the efforts of white supremacists to overturn black political and social power in Wilmington and to eliminate black citizens by any means necessary. One long-held view of the November 1898 events in Wilmington is that they were race riots. Zucchino digs deep into archival records, interviews locals’ descendants about their relatives’ involvement in the events and discovers that there’s simply no evidence that race riots fomented by black people against white people occurred. Instead, he uncovers evidence that on that November day, white men had been buying guns, vowing to remove Wilmington’s “interracial government and black officials by the ballot or the bullet.” Zucchino carefully outlines the roles that black people held in Wilmington’s government and explores why white people were bothered by what they called “Negro rule” when black people held only a small portion of elected positions in the city. With dramatic opening sentences (“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads.”), Zucchino creates a suspenseful atmosphere as he unfolds the stories of white supremacist Democrats who would stop at nothing to, as they saw it, take back Wilmington. The results of these events “inspired white supremacists across the South…Wilmington’s whites had mounted America’s first and only armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black with impunity…They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.” Wilmington’s Lie is a riveting and mesmerizing page turner, with lessons about racial violence that echo loudly today.
Naked Came the Florida Man by Tim Dorsey (e-book available on the Libby app): Naked Came the Florida Man, the newest novel by Tim Dorsey, is a crazy read from start to finish, and I mean that in a good way. The novel–part comedy, part thriller–follows the latest exploits of Dorsey’s oddball duo of Serge Storms and his sidekick Coleman on a meandering trek across the Sunshine State, with no real end goal in mind. And that’s just part of what makes this book so fun. Longtime Dorsey fans already familiar with Serge and Coleman’s antics will have the distinct advantage of knowing what to expect heading into the novel (but they won’t be able to rekindle the feeling of discovering the intrepid pair for the first time like new readers). Admittedly, the misadventures and seemingly aimless wanderings of Dorsey’s characters take a bit of getting used to, but once you do, you’ll be all too eager to go along for the ride. What starts out as a simple tour of the state’s historic graveyards (complete with fascinating lessons about the state and its people that you probably won’t find in tourist brochures at the state line) turns into a series of escapades resulting in Serge’s unique brand of vigilante justice. Between tombstone rubbings, the pair intervene in a so-called pastor’s scheme to bilk needy seniors out of their money through shady reverse-mortgage deals, exact punishment on a man filming birds that explode after consuming Alka Seltzer tablets and help save a young football player from a greedy pirate. If that’s not enough to pique your curiosity, Dorsey peppers the novel with Serge’s one-of-a-kind social rants on anything that comes to mind, from tangents in internet comment threads and why the U.S. cares about soccer to the length of receipts from drug stores. At one point, Serge even admits to being completely “off his rocker” and adopts a ferret as an emotional support animal. A former reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune until 1999, Dorsey has shirked his commitment to serious recounts of the day’s top events in favor of over-the-top tall tales and wacky characters like Serge and Coleman. They’re a lot more fun.
Followers by Megan Angelo: Is it too early to declare Megan Angelo’s debut one of the best novels of 2020? Maybe. Even so, it’s probably one of the funniest and most hopeful dystopian stories you’ll come across this year. Set in 2015 Manhattan and in a fictional community in 2051 California, Followers tells the story of three women who are all social media influencers and reality TV megastars of their time. When Orla, a wannabe author who blogs about celebrity gossip, ends up with a roommate named Floss, a shameless fame chaser, they concoct a scheme to use the public’s collective obsession with famous people to their advantage. This is in 2015, when living without social media and smartphones is far more daunting for these young women than the seemingly unlikely concern of surviving without access to clean water. But then comes the spill. Bringing back long-forgotten memories of Y2K hysteria, Angelo presents a future in which Apple and Instagram no longer exist. The internet as we know it is gone, but this advanced civilization nevertheless functions with self-driving cars, robots, networks and devices. Society is still obsessed with celebrity, and Floss’ daughter, Marlow, is its new star. Living in the government-created community of Constellation, where everyone is filmed 24/7 for the rest of country’s viewing pleasure (and as a corporate marketing tool), Marlow begins to realize that maybe she has a choice–one that connects her back to Orla in the most surprising way. Even if you aren’t a fan of science fiction or reality TV, Followers delivers a shrewd look at human relationships, habits and obsessions. Of all the doomsday scenarios out there, perhaps it won’t be too bad if this one comes true after all.
Hill Women by Cassie Chambers: As a child, Cassie Chambers spent many nights with her grandparents and aunt deep in the mountains of Owsley County, Kentucky, because her young parents were university students who couldn’t afford day care. “I was at peace in this holler in the hills,” Chambers writes, describing the time she spent helping her family of tobacco sharecroppers while her parents earned degrees at Berea College. Destined to be compared to Hillbilly Elegy and Educated, Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains is a quietly moving, powerful memoir in which Chambers shares her family’s story while praising the fortitude, intelligence and strength of Appalachian women. Unlike Tara Westover’s parents in Educated, Chambers’ parents deeply understood education’s importance, imbuing Chambers with a fierce drive that led her to Yale College, the Yale School of Public Health, the London School of Economics and Harvard Law School. She recounts moments of homesickness and feeling like an outsider, such as when her mother expressed concern about her spending habits at Yale, and Chambers shamefully told her, “You don’t understand. Everyone has a Burberry scarf.” Ultimately, Chambers returned to Kentucky to practice law and help domestic violence survivors, often meeting clients in gas stations, Dairy Queens and other fast-food restaurants. She notes that this experience has been “a powerful reminder about the importance of telling women’s stories” and that “when given the right tools, support, and environment, these women are capable of changing the world.” Chambers has also ventured into politics since returning to Kentucky. She became the vice chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, admitting that “after November 2016, I realized in a whole new way that elections mattered. It wasn’t enough to save the world one family at a time.” Never didactic or dull, Chambers is particularly skillful at sharing her family’s narrative while weaving in facts and commentary about Appalachian sociology, education, health, economics and politics. Most of all, the author’s love and respect for her Granny (married at age 15 to a man she had known for a few months), mother (married at 18, the first in her family to graduate high school or college) and Aunt Ruth (an independent woman who married in her 40s) shine through, brightening each page like a welcoming front porch light. In this age of political divisions, Hill Women offers a loving, luminous look at an often misunderstood and undervalued segment of our society.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: In Dear Edward, author Ann Napolitano deftly navigates the psychological and physical trauma of 12-year-old Edward Adler in the aftermath of a plane crash, of which he is the only survivor. He grapples with the loss of his family, his near-celebritylike status and the adjustment to living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. In his new home, Edward’s lifeline becomes his next-door neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter, Shay, and the novel follows their deepening friendship through the subsequent six years. Chapters alternate between Edward’s post-crash life and the flight itself, from its takeoff on the East Coast to its end, three-quarters of the way to Los Angeles. The novel hones in on the lives of several of the passengers, including Edward’s family–his professor dad, screenwriter mom and 15-year-old brother. There’s an elderly but curmudgeonly billionaire, a beautiful flight attendant who engages in a tryst with a passenger, a New Age Filipina who remembers past lives and an injured soldier who’s beginning to understand his sexuality. Dear Edward isn’t a page turner with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. Instead it’s a slow burn that draws you in to Edward’s interior life, the melancholia of his loss and of the fractured lives around him. Years after the crash, Edward’s healing begins to accelerate when he finds bags of unopened letters from the crash victims’ families. He is able to empathize and grieve with them, and so come to terms with his own loss. It’s hard for a novel to thoroughly capture a reader’s attention while simultaneously meditating on profoundly complex issues. In Dear Edward, Napolitano, a creative writing professor in New York and author of two previous novels, including A Good Hard Look, manages to achieve this. The delicate sparseness of her prose slowly peels back the layers to reveal a warm, fulfilling center that is a true reward for readers.
The Secret She Keeps by HelenKay Dimon (e-book available on Libby App): HelenKay Dimon takes readers back to the intriguing world of remote Whitaker Island, Washington in The Secret She Keeps. The same nosy group of colorful islanders also returns, evidence of the fact that even in a small community, away from the rush of a big city, there’s no such thing as down (or quiet) time. But it’s the killer lurking in the bushes, so to speak, that serves as a swift reminder that no matter how far you run, the past always catches up. Nearly two years after the death of his sister Alexis, Connor Rye finally relocates to Whitaker Island from Washington, D.C., to be closer to his brother and remaining family. Although the beautiful island seems serene on the surface, he’s no stranger to its shadows. Not only was Alexis murdered; someone breaks into his cabin and attacks him on his first night, giving fair warning that he needs to leave. Maddie Rhine has her own secrets–chief among them the fact that she’s on the run and living under a false identity. With the attack on Connor, it’s obvious Whitaker Island once again faces a dangerous interloper, and since Maddie’s a suspicious element, she may be in danger too. Dimon is a master at world building, and often writes heroic characters who find greatness within, rather than individuals who are weighed down with walls full of medals. Everyday heroics are just as important as strong men and women who can leap single bounds–everyday heroics keep the world going. And something is definitely amiss on Whitaker Island. That much was clear from the first book in the series, Her Other Secret, and readers get an immersion course in murder and mayhem with this second installment. In the end, The Secret She Keeps, is a complex story of love and grief, forgiveness and fresh starts. It’s a perfect story with which to wrap up the decade and forge a new path in the New Year.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (e-book available in Libby app): Briskly told and devilishly well-plotted, Such a Fun Age follows a young black babysitter and her affluent white employer in the months following a racially motivated public altercation in an upscale grocery. Although strewn with emails, tweets, blogs and texts, Kiley Reid’s game-changing debut novel is rooted in classic dialogue-driven storytelling and is a marker for precisely where our culture is today. Alix Chamberlain and her family have recently relocated to Philadelphia. Alix makes her living as a blogger, and now with an established brand, LetterSpeak, she has speaking engagements and a book contract. Emira is the babysitter for Alix’s precocious and sensitive toddler, Briar. Almost 26, Emira is frustrated by her lack of money and direction. Even more so, she fears the imminent loss of her health insurance. When a security guard in an upscale grocery store accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, a crowd gathers. A white bystander named Kelley films the altercation, then offers to send the video to the local news. Emira is mortified, but she and Kelley begin dating, while the existence of the video remains a sore point between them. When the news that Kelley and Alix had a relationship in high school comes to light, Emira feels even more uncomfortable. Despite assurances from her boyfriend and employer that they are acting on her behalf, it’s not clear who speaks for Emira and why she can’t speak up for herself. Such a Fun Age hits every not just right–from Alix’s self-righteous frustration to Emira’s ambivalence about accepting help. What takes the book to the next level is its willingness to go beyond where the story naturally leads. This is a tale without a heroine or villain; instead it’s a clear-eyed look at the complex transactional relationship that exists between mothers and nannies, while never shying away from the tender closeness that often grows between babysitters and their charges. Smart, witty and even a bit sly, this penetrating social commentary is also one of this year’s most enjoyable novels.
Much Ado About a Widow by Jenna Jaxon (e-book available in Libby app): Lady Georgina Kirkpatrick would love a reason to not marry the loathsome Lord Travers as her father has decreed. She just wasn’t expecting to be kidnapped mere weeks before the planned wedding day. And she certainly wasn’t expecting to be kidnapped twice. After escaping her captors–er, her first (and worst) set of captors–she’s swept away against her will again, but this time into the custody of Robin Kerr, Marquess of St. Just, her brother’s best friend. His intentions are chivalrous, even if his methods are infuriating. As a woman alone, traveling with only her maid and temperamental spaniel, Rob knows that Georgie needs his protection to keep from falling back into her (original) kidnappers’ clutches, whether she’ll admit it or not. And if protecting her means locking her into a cabin on his ship and sailing her to his castle in Cornwall, that’s what he’ll do. What he doesn’t expect is to find her company shifting from an aggravation to a torment of quite a different sort as the fiery-haired, fiery-hearted widow sparks a desire in him like nothing he’s ever known. Unfortunately, Rob isn’t the only man that Georgie has driven into a state of madness. As their journey progresses, they’ll be chased by her irate father, her bewildered but indignant brother, a slew of hired hands deputized into capturing her and–most sinisterly of all–Lord Travers, who orchestrated the first kidnapping himself to compromise Georgie so thoroughly that she’d never be able to escape him. No pirate could ever be more hounded than Rob for this treasure he’s stolen, but as the passion between them strengthens and grows, his love for her becomes something he’ll defy any authority to protect. And Georgie herself, who starts out the story so listless and resigned, bowing to her father’s authority and certain she’s buried any hope of love with her late husband, finds a new, maverick drive to seize this second chance at happiness. She even proves willing to fight–with kicks, curses, flying chamber pots and a feisty dog–against anyone who tries to take it away. There’s a delightful cheekiness to Jenna Jaxon’s playful Regency adventure, a refusal to take the rules and dictates of family and high society all that seriously. Jaxon doesn’t shy away from displaying how vulnerable a woman was in that time and place–an undesirable suitor could manipulate her into an unwanted match, or her family could have her committed to Bedlam for being contrary. But while the dangers are real, Georgie’s response to them is charmingly cathartic as she shows that even a woman with precious little autonomy over her courtships or her fortune can still have her own mind and make her own choices. With humor and heart, Jaxon shows that love–and a liberated woman–will always find a way.
The One for You by Roni Loren (e-book available in Libby app): Roni Loren brings her emotional The One Who Got Away series to a close with The One for You, a rollercoaster friends-to-lovers romance between two childhood best friends whose lives were forever changed by a traumatic event. Kincaid Breslin and Ashton Isaacs were best friends until their prom night turned to tragedy when Graham, Kincaid’s boyfriend and Ashton’s friend, was killed in a school shooting. Consumed by their shared grief, Kincaid and Ash shared a single night together, a mistake that fractured their relationship for years. Over a decade later, they are unexpectedly reunited in their hometown, haunted by memories of that night. In the years since, Ash moved away and became a successful author. Kincaid stayed in her hometown, putting on a brave face as she pursued a career in real estate. When Graham’s parents begin planning to sell their much-loved bookstore, both Kincaid and Ash find themselves fighting for the same cause with a metric ton of baggage waiting to be addressed. Ash and Kincaid’s road to romance is fraught with tension, unaddressed feelings and PTSD. The story switches between past and present, showing readers how the attack created a fragmented before and after for the survivors. Loren ably handles every emotional, heartbreaking layer of The One for You. Ash and Kincaid have built walls upon walls around themselves to avoid addressing their trauma and the guilt they feel for sleeping together while in mourning. Kincaid is a woman who denies her own fragility in the most heartbreaking ways, a master of plastering on a smile, denying herself chances to grieve. Meanwhile, Ash adopts the persona of an affable nerd, and his world travels make it easier for him to forget the terrible events of his past. Reunited by the memory of Graham and wanting to help out his parents, they quickly hand-wave away their years of silence. But as the time they spend together becomes more frequent, simply ignoring what happened between them, as well as the death of Graham, becomes unavoidable. There is truly something special about Loren’s writing and the way she handles the all-too-real realities of gun violence. Devoted fans of the series will find this finale bittersweet; it packs an emotional punch with a hard-won happy ending, but the realization that there are no more books for us to enjoy is a hard pill to swallow. Though Loren most likely has something fantastic on the horizon, The One for You and its predecessors aren’t romances readers will soon forget. Loren has easily created one of the most memorable contemporary romance series of the last decade.
Potions Are for Pushovers by Tamara Berry: Eleanor Wilde is back in Potions Are for Pushovers, a new installment in Tamara Berry’s series that finds the village witch running low on funds and dodging raindrops as her aging thatch roof gives way. Her not-entirely-legitimate business selling elixirs to the townsfolk would be almost enough to keep her afloat, but when neighbor Sarah Blackthorne turns up dead–from poison, no less–Ellie must find the culprit, less as a matter of justice than to keep her own doors open. Berry has fun with the contradictions at play in Ellie’s life: She’s a fraud, taking advantage of her friends and neighbors, yet they love and accept her as one of their own. Her boyfriend is flush with cash, but she turns down his offers of help even as her roof collapses. The village and its townsfolk are a conundrum as well: the story is contemporary, but the rural English setting makes things feel old-fashioned, adding to the overall charm. When a young girl defies her mother and basically apprentices herself to Ellie without so much as asking permission, it’s not only funny but also moves the story forward in unexpected ways. For a witch with no real powers, Ellie still has some connection to the paranormal via her dead sister, with whom she communicates. Their exchanges can be humorous but primarily serve as more serious, grounding subplot to a story that otherwise bubbles along like a hot cauldron.
My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh (e-book available on the Libby app): Eva Leigh puts inspiring, forthright female characters at the forefront of her delectable romances, and Lady Grace Wyatt is no exception in My Fake Rake, the first of a new series. But first, Leigh introduces us to a disparate group of boys who, while in a Regency version of detention, form a lifelong bond and will eventually call themselves the Union of the Rakes. One of their number is Sebastian Holloway, a bookish and handsome anthropologist who becomes a close friend of Lady Grace. Grace could care less what others think of her fascination with amphibians. With scholarly friends like Sebastian by her side, she doesn’t need the approval of the ton. However, things change when she’s suddenly faced with the task of finding a husband. Enlisting Sebastian to play the part of her suitor, she hopes to catch the attention of Mason Fredericks, a dreamboat fellow scholar. Like many stories with this plotline, you’re left on the edge of your seat as you wait for Sebastian and Grace to discover their feelings for one another. With a keen eye for pacing, Leigh takes the reader along for the sensual ride, immersing them into Grace and Sebastian’s intimate friendship as they discover feelings that simmer just below the surface. Leigh excels at giving appropriate modern and relatable touches in a historical romance. Grace’s deep intelligence and Sebastian’s social anxiety hook you in and transport you to their time with ease. And the other rakes, such as the scene-stealing Duke of Rotherby, possess sensitive qualities that humanize each man and complement the passionate and engaging female characters. With down-to-earth characters and an enthralling friends-to-lovers storyline, My Fake Rake is a hard one to put down.
Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard: Set in a small town obsessed with the occult, Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard launches a promising new series and delivers an airtight police procedural with deeply macabre elements. This is a read-in-one-sitting book that will refresh readers who are potentially burned out on the genre. With a Salem-esque history of killing suspected witches, the spooky little town of Burning Lake, New York, has turned its link to the dark arts into a tourist attraction. When a high school teacher is stabbed to death, homicide detective Natalie Lockhart turns her attention to a disaffected student who might have ties to a coven of teen witches. As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, Natalie is also working on a cold case of nine Burning Lake residents who went missing over the years, with only strange graffiti and creepy fetishes made of dead birds left behind. While Trace of Evil utilizes paranormal themes like witchcraft, it remains firmly grounded in reality, never crossing the line into a supernatural thriller. What we get instead is a procedural that expertly balances three mysteries at one time with tight plotting and enough clues and red herrings to keep the most experienced of mystery readers conjuring up theory after theory. And truly, Blanchard doesn’t need to utilize the supernatural to make her novel chilling. From the deeply disturbing aspects of the nine disappearances to the teenage obsession with witchcraft, the terror here is tied to people who feel so detached from the world around them that they normalize horrifying violence. Adding to the perfectly executed mysteries and the real-world terror is Blanchard’s careful world building. This is the first book starring Natalie Lockhart, but she appears on the page like a friend readers have known forever. She is the lens through which we view her small town, and she adds an element of empathy to characters who might otherwise feel unsympathetic to the reader. Then there’s the frisson of forbidden tension between Natalie and her boss, a subplot that promises to unwind later in the series. It may seem like a lot to balance within one novel, but Trace of Evil delivers all of these elements without a single misstep.
Anyone by Charles Soule: It seems every new generation gets to witness at least one incredible technological advancement. Something as transformative as the internet or as wondrous as the telephone often redefines life as we know it forever. In Anyone, comics writer-turned-sci-fi scribe Charles Soule builds a world around a similarly staggering invention, but it’s his interest in the people who create it, use it and profit from it that captivates the reader. If you could transfer consciousness to another body, would you be ready for the consequences? Gabrielle White, a brilliant and determined researcher, is at the end of her rope. Out of funding and losing confidence, she has one last chance to prove that her work to cure Alzheimer’s disease hasn’t gone to waste. When she flips the switch on the laser array in her backyard laboratory, something miraculous happens. For an hour or so, she transfers her consciousness into her husband Paul’s body and back again. Knowing that her financial backers would kill for this technology, Gabby must find a way to keep it a secret while she figures out how to reveal it to the world and ensure that it’s hers. Twenty-five years later, the introduction of “flashing” has changed the course of world history. Annami is a secretive loner with a chip on her shoulder. By day, she’s a brilliant engineer at Anyone, the company that oversees consciousness transfer worldwide. By night, she moonlights as a dark share, lending her body as a vessel for criminals to take over for a fee. When a dark share deal goes bad and she loses everything, she takes matters into her own hands to fight the evil that flashing has brought to the world. It is impossible to write about Anyone without first acknowledging the depth of thought and structure Soule has put into flash technology and its potential impact on the world. In chapters written from Annami’s point of view, small details reveal how consciousness transfer affects international relations, criminal operations, military aid and more. However, flashing takes a personal toll on everyone in the story. Annami and the characters she interacts with are all direct victims of Gabby’s invention, and Soule’s Blade Runner-inspired cityscape is full of fascinating, often broken people searching for answers. This gritty future is especially interesting when compared to Gabby’s chapters, which juxtapose perfectly against Annami’s. While Gabby by no means has an easy time of it (some of the troubles she runs into during flash technology’s infancy are gut-wrenching), the promise of a new future that will be better for millions contrasts beautifully with the actual future, where we see that even the purest intentions can be warped into pain and suffering. In today’s world, we are given glimpses of possible futures impacted by vast technological advancements. But we don’t often consider the costs that might come with those futures. If we really could be anyone, would we want to?
Thin Ice by Paige Shelton: A title like Thin Ice immediately connotes danger, and New York Times bestselling author Paige Shelton delivers in every way. A sense of dread persists from the opening page to the novel’s surprising conclusion, with an overall tense mood and an all-too-real terror felt by the book’s protagonist, Beth Rivers. Beth is also known as Elizabeth Fairchild, the famous penname under which she writes popular thrillers. When we first meet her, Beth is on the run from a violent encounter–a kidnapping by an obsessed fan and a dramatic escape. Her flight takes her to the remote village of Benedict, Alaska, where she hopes to elude her assailant, who is still at large. Beth’s scars, both internal and external, are real. Internally, she suffers from an overriding fear that even though she has put hundreds of miles between her former and new lives, she may still be in danger. Externally, there is a ragged scar on her head incurred during her escape, serving as a constant reminder of her close brush with death. Shelton methodically introduces Beth to a wide-ranging cast while swiftly ramping up the tension. It’s not yet winter, but Beth’s Alaskan environment is already harsh, cold and remote. While most of the people she encounters in the village appear to be supportive and caring, she can never quite let go of her suspicions that any one of them could mean her harm–or worse, expose her real identity. With more memories of her ordeal threatening to return, Beth takes on a new role as the community newspaper’s only reporter and thrusts herself into an ongoing investigation of a local death. New secrets and questions abound, leaving Beth to wonder if she has escaped one threat only to have fallen into another. Thin Ice is the first in a series from Shelton, who is best known for her Scottish Bookshop Mystery cozy series. But there is nothing cozy here, only danger.
This Is Happiness by Niall Williams: Imagine a single sentence worthy of its own page. This Is Happiness opens with such a line, reporting that it has stopped raining. Why, you wonder, does this declaration deserve its own page? Especially in a novel about an ordinary Irish village called Faha. Things have not gone irreversibly wonky in Faha, nor is the town enchanted like Brigadoon. It rains a lot in this village, because (to adapt James Joyce’s words) rain is general all over Ireland. When the rain stops, it’s news. The narrator of the tale is Noel Crowe, called Noe. An old man when we meet him, Noe is looking back on a stretch of surprisingly rainless days from when he was a teenager in the late 1950s or so. At that time, Faha was clamoring about its new electricity, and Noe befriended one of the workers, an elderly man named Christy who was lodging with Noe’s kindly grandparents. The beauty and power of Irish author Niall Williams’ writing lies in his ability to invest the quotidian with wonder. A truly peerless wordsmith, he even makes descriptions of gleaming white appliances and telephone wire sing. Readers will never forget the scene in which Christy and Noe get drunk in a pub and try to ride home on their bikes, nor Noe’s first kiss in the balcony of a movie house, an experience he endures from the fast-living sister of the girl he has a crush on. The book is hilarious among its many other virtues. Check this book out now and savor every word of it. Its title says it all: Plunging into This Is Happiness is happiness indeed.