Best Books of 2021 at the Jacksonville Public Library

  • A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris (physical book available at the library): Joshua Ferris’ comic novel follows a suburban Chicago investment adviser who believes he’s dying of pancreatic cancer, only to find out that his internet-fueled self-diagnosis was wrong. He tries to make amends with his estranged children, with mixed results. Then things go off the rails with a series of narrative shifts that lead the reader to question whether anything that came before was actually true. The novel wears its metafictional heart on its sleeve, but as smart as it is, Ferris isn’t in love with his own cleverness–the result is a brilliant novel that’s full of heart. -Michael Schaub, book critic
  • A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib (physical book available at the library): Hanif Abdurraqib combines memoir and criticism in this stunning essay collection centered on Black artists such as Michael Jackson and Josephine Baker. The deep dives into history are fascinating, and his criticism is brilliant, but it’s his honest, passionate forays into autobiography that make this collection so singular and powerful. Talent like Abdurraqib’s doesn’t come along often, and this book is one of the best essay collections–and best memoirs–in years. -Michael Schaub, book critic
  • A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske (physical book available at the library): A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske is incandescent. In this historical fantasy of manners and magicians, Robin is the new liaison to a secret magical society he has just found out exists. He’s quickly embroiled in the mystery of his predecessor’s disappearance, helped reluctantly by his icy magical counterpart, Edwin. The prose is exquisite, the world-building rich and the magic system so good. The romance is also-ahem-very good. Do you like stories that drip with yearning? A book you might read on a train, pausing only to textscream about some new beauty? That you’ll immediately reread? This is it. Fog-faced menaces, houses with character, magical hedgemazes, romance–go read! -Jessica P. Wick, writer and book critic
  • A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg (physical book available at the library): Even if you’re an avid birder, you might never have heard of the striated caracara, a charismatic but endangered scavenger that makes its home in and around Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. In his fascinating debut book, ornithologist and indie rocker Jonathan Meiburg writes about his journeys in search of the elusive bird, and the changes that threaten its future. You don’t have to know the first thing about birds to be drawn into this beautifully written, enchanting book. -Michael Schaub, book critic
  • A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (physical book available at the library): Humans screw a lot of things up. If you need a break from that, read A Psalm for the Wild-Built. You’ll enter a world (not our world) where people have managed to dial things back from the brink. Centuries earlier, humans and robots agreed to part ways, and now the humans are living in harmony with nature–existing on clean energy, eschewing consumerism and working with their hands. But as good as things are, our protagonist, Dex, just isn’t content. The novel opens with the traveling monk abandoning a seemingly good life to seek out cricket song, long vanished in this world–which is when things start to get really interesting. Because that split between robots and humans? It ends when Dex runs into a chipper robot called Splendid Speckled Mosscap. -Beck Harlan, visual and digital editor, NPR’s Life Kit
  • A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins (physical book available at the library): The unreliable narrator is a hallmark of many a thriller, but this book is a master class in not knowing who to believe. There are three narrators, each lying to themselves just as often as they’re trying to deceive others. Paula Hawkins’ universe weaves together memory, imagination, wishful thinking and delusion to create a painful yet propulsive murder mystery in which no one comes out with their hands completely clean. -Leah Donnella, supervising editor, NPR’s Code Switch
  • A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow (physical book available at the library): Zinnia is cursed, not by fairy and spindle, but by a corporation and a genetic disease that will kill her before she’s 22. She’s always felt a connection to the Sleeping Beauty tale–and on her 21st birthday, staring down the barrel of inevitability, she’s suddenly transported to a storybook otherworld, where another sleeping beauty is trying to escape her story. Cue quest, spanning worlds. I adore how Alix Harrow tells stories about story, dredging myth from mundanity, giving us women who save each other. A Spindle Splintered is unapologetically self-aware, but also earnestly romantic. It doesn’t flinch from darkness, and Zinnia’s voice is worth reading. -Jessica P. Wick, writer and book critic
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (physical book available at the library): When my faith in humanity falters (often, these days), I reach for a George Saunders story. His fiction is the dressing room mirror that finds us naked and vulnerable, capturing us humans at our most embarrassing, selfish, lazy or lovelorn. Saunders’ gift, though, if that he never condemns his characters–or us–but instead pleads for patience and grace, daring readers to forgive each other our awfulness and to live with kindness on our minds. His latest book is nonfiction but still thrums with empathy as Saunders, who also teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, unpacks the short stories of four Russian writers–Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol–exploring how they too used verbs, nouns and adjectives to paint and plead for our shared humanity. It’s a must-read for writers, and for the rest of us humans. -Cory Turner, correspondent/senior editor, NPR Ed
  • Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert (physical book available at the library): Has there ever been a better time to read about a charming, hilarious young woman who just can’t seem to get it together? This book follows Eve Brown–a talented cook, phenomenal singer, devoted sister and, at the start of the story, a notorious ne’er-do-well. As her story unspools, Eve winds up learning a lot about herself and what she’s capable of; her struggle also helps illuminate how rigid and often misguided the expectations of our family, friends and communities can be. -Leah Donnella, supervising editor, NPR’s Code Switch
  • Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So (physical book available at the library): This is a book that examines refugee stories and touches on themes of generational rumination and cultural introspection, focusing on memory. At its fulcrum is a doughnut shop that separates So’s characters from the Cambodia they remember and the America they’ve come to understand. They’re all carrying baggage, and are often enduring–trying to make sense of repressed feelings. As memories go, it is a prison, but also a refuge. -Andrew Tran, intern, NPR’s Washington Desk
  • Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): This moving nonlinear memoir explores Nadia Owusu’s many lives–as privileged child of a U.N. employee, world traveler, bereft daughter, caretaker to her siblings, boarding school student, serial job applicant, writer–and the cracks and fault lines running through them. One of her main themes is storytelling, which she sees as the way we understand ourselves, others and the world we live in; any story that is too simple or that holds no contradictions is suspect, for that means it lacks the nuance necessary for a deeper understanding. Aftershocks is a marvel of narrative agility. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • All That She Carried by Tiya Miles (physical book available at the library): In the 1850s, an enslaved woman named Rose, upon learning that her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, was about to be sold away, packed a tattered cotton bag that would serve as a keepsake. Rose and Ashley never saw each other again, but Ashley’s sack was passed down within the family. In 1921, Rose’s great-granddaughter embroidered it with a cursive script starkly describing the cruelty her foremothers had endured–and the strength and hope embodied in Rose’s gift: “It be filled with my Love always.” In All That She Carried, historian Tiya Miles unpacks Ashley’s sack to tell a sweeping story about the unfathomable horror of slavery–as well as the transcendent power of Black love and resilience. -Bridget Bentz, web producer, NPR’s Fresh Air
  • All the Feels by Olivia Dade (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): All the Feels is Olivia Dade’s latest installment in a loosely linked series of stories about the cast of a fantasy TV show that TOTALLY isn’t Game of Thrones (even though everyone, including the cast, hates the last season). Bad boy actor Alexander can’t stop getting into trouble; he despises his character arc and he’s got plenty of off-screen demons, so after one bar fight too many, the showrunners stick him with a minder–short, stubborn former emergency room therapist Lauren. Do sparks fly? You bet they do. Is there angst? Oh so much. Alex and Lauren have chemistry like Mentos and Diet Coke–and Dade’s spot-on depiction of fan culture is just chef’s kiss. -Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books
  • Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (physical book available at the library): Amari and the Night Brothers takes readers on a (literally) magical adventure following a protagonist named Amari, a young Black girl who you can’t help but root for. She’s full of heart and determination, making her way through supernatural trials to find her missing brother, while discovering the magic she had in herself all along. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter and the world of fantasy, this is the next series you should jump into (For ages 8-12) -Kara Frame, associate producer, NPR Visuals
  • America, My Love, America, My Heart by Daria Peoples-Riley (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): If patriotism is a love of one’s country, what happens when you’re not sure whether your country loves you back? Daria Peoples-Riley explores this topic with a poet’s spirit, asking probing questions that delve into the complexities of American identity. And while she doesn’t claim to have an answer to all these difficult questions, the book is ultimately hopeful. Because questioning is an act of love and holding a country to high expectations is patriotism. The book ends with the lines, “America, I am you. America, you are me.” because one thing is beyond question: It is we the people who make a country. (For ages 4-8) -Minh Le, author of Lift and Green Lantern: Legacy
  • American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser (physical book available at the library): Did you know that in the mid-20th century, adoption in the U.S. was an industry? Pregnant girls were sent to homes to have children that would be adopted in utter secrecy. Gabrielle Glaser dives into that history while making you feel the personal cost through the story of one mother who gave up her son even though she and the baby’s father married and wanted desperately to keep him. We also meet their son, who though happy with his adoptive family, always wondered about the woman who gave him up. The book powerfully argues against adoption secrecy. -Emiko Tamagawa, senior producer, NPR’s Here & Now
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (physical book available at the library): Is it possible to review the entirety of our current geologic era? Probably not. But don’t tell that to John Green, whose sparkling collection of essays attempts to make sense of the anthropocene through five-star-scale reviews of everything from Piggly Wiggly to staphylococcus aureus. The essays are charming, curious and heartfelt–a short yet poignant ode to The Mountain Goats chief among them–and each feels like its own adventure on a journey toward understanding our world and humanity’s impact on it. -Brandon Carter, assistant producer, NPR’s Washington Desk
  • Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan (physical book available at the library): Who doesn’t like baking with Dorie? You might feel a jolt of deja vu at this new release from the popular baking doyenne. Same meticulous Dorie-style foolproof instructions but newly packaged into a collection of irresistible essentials. Most are sweet sophisticates, like Mocha-Walnut Torte, Tea and Honey Madeleines, and Apple Szarlotka; but there are head-turning savories (clam chowder pie!) and breakfast treats (cheddar-scallion scones!) too. Whether this winter brings convivial gatherings or yet another unwelcome quarantine, these indulgences will lift all spirits and every mood. -T. Susan Chang, food writer
  • Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): It’s 1913, and 12-year-old Petra is tasked with leading her family through war-torn Mexico to seek safety in the United States. A fast-paced, thrilling tale of courage, danger and loss, Petra Luna is based on author Alda P. Dobbs’ own great-grandmother. This is Dobbs’ middle-grade debut novel, and it’s not just a powerful story that tackles serious issues–it’s a gripping piece of historical fiction that you may read in one sitting. (For ages 8-12) -Juanita Giles, Executive Director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival
  • Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang (physical book available at the library): Qian Julie Wang’s story weaves through the streets of New York City, where she and her family try to build a life as undocumented immigrants from China. Wang’s world is shaken when her mother falls extremely ill, but cannot risk going to a doctor because of her immigration status. I was moved by how powerfully Wang writes about the grief of being an outsider, but also the courage required to forge onward. This book powerfully illustrates a question in the center of American identity today: What does it mean to call America home? -Hafsa Fathima, production assistant, NPR’s Weekend Edition
  • Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (physical book available at the library): Sally Rooney’s third novel is again about a small group of young, literary Irish folks swirling around each other, experiencing searing feelings of need, ego and beauty. They live otherwise unremarkable lives. When I talk about the book in person, I have trouble making eye contact, worried that admitting an intense connection with Rooney’s writing reveals something about myself that I wouldn’t otherwise share–as though I (to borrow a scene) inadvertently disclosed my mobile browsing history to an acquaintance. -Eric McDaniel, editor, the NPR Politics Podcast
  • Bewilderment by Richard Powers (physical book available at the library): A widowed father cares for his autistic son as they both struggle to reckon with their grief–for their lost loved one and for the planet in the time of climate change. It’s a quick read compared to Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning climate epic The Overstory, but no less powerful, a wrenching mediation on the twinned pains of love and grief and what it means when we’re forced to feel things that are simply too big to feel. -Eric McDaniel, editor, the NPR Politics Podcast
  • The Big Bath House by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Gracey Zhang (physical book available at the library): You say you believe in body positivity? In this picture book, an American girl and her Japanese grandmother don’t share a language, but they do share a love of bathhouses. Look for some U.S. readers to get squeamish when they realize that everyone inside the bathhouse is naked. It’s a small price to pay for a book celebrating all kinds of people, big and small. You’ll find this to be one of the best “love your body” titles for kids on the market today. (For ages 4-8) -Betsy Bird, librarian, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus
  • Borders by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): A boy and his mother get caught between the American and Canadian border when they refuse to deny their Blackfoot citizenship. The kids who pick up this graphic novel will have to read through the book and then sit and think about it for a while. These characters calmly refuse to claim themselves as either Canadians for Americans, throwing the world around them into chaos. This is a powerful story of identity and standing up for yourself. (For ages 8-12) -Betsy Bird, librarian, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus
  • Bright Star by Yuyi Morales (physical book available at the library): Bright Star takes readers on an exploration of the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, inviting us to observe moments of joy, to be attentive to danger and to shout out in anger when necessary. Yuyi Morales includes reminders to “breathe in, breathe out” throughout the book, giving the story the feel of a guided meditation that crosses from the world of animals to the world of people. In doing so, she shows how the actions of humanity can sometimes run counter to the ways of the natural world. (For ages 4-8) -Minh Le, author of Lift and Green Lantern: Legacy
  • Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile (physical book available at the library): I was enthralled with this memoir as one of my favorite artists shared stories about her dysfunctional childhood, life on the road and what it’s actually like to be a songwriter. What makes the audiobook a must-listen is that each chapter is punctuated by Carlile singing a song that shaped her life; you’ll get to hear phenomenal covers of the artists who shaped Carlile, like Elton John and Dolly Parton, plus new takes on some of her classic songs “The Joke” and “The Story.” -Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (physical book available at the library): A terrific sequel to Catfishing on CatNet–which somehow managed to be both a tender coming-of-age story and an edge-of-your-seat thriller–Chaos introduces new characters and new dangers. On her first day in a new school, Steph meets Nell, a closeted teen raised in a doomsday cult; entrusted to her estranged father after her mother’s strange disappearance, Nell is both worried and testing the bounds of her relative new freedom. Steph and CheshireCat (her benevolent, cat-loving AI friend) decide to help–but find themselves uncovering app-based conspiracies and terrorist plots, as well as a mysterious new AI. -Amal El-Mohtar, book critic and co-author of This Is How You Lose the Time War
  • Chasing Me to My Grave by Winfred Rembert and Erin I. Kelly (physical book available at the library): This book is visually stunning, full of images of the late Winfred Rembert’s art, which he carved and painted in leather. There are scenes of his life growing up in rural Georgia–a jarring juxtaposition of nostalgic moments like fishing or dancing in the juke joint, and dark memories of picking cotton, escaping a lynching, and working on the chain gang. Rembert’s brutally honest storytelling helps us see the sacrifice and grit it took for Black Americans to survive in the Jim Crow South, something he said should make families proud and want to talk about their history. -Debbie Elliott, correspondent, NPR’s National Desk
  • Children Under Fire by John Woodrow Cox (physical book available at the library): It’s one thing to be told America’s gun violence epidemic is bad for kids. It’s quite another to let Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox take you inside the Olsen family as their 8-year-old daughter–who survived a school shooting–experiences a 34-minute violent fit of rage and self-loathing that requires her parents to restrain her and administer sedatives. Or to have Cox introduce you to a 9-year-old boy in Washington, D.C., who told his mom he wants to die so he can be reunited with his dad, who was fatally shot. Neither of these children was ever hit by a bullet, but that’s exactly the point. -Chris Benderev, producer, NPR’s Embedded
  • Children of the Fox by Kevin Sands (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): What’s better than a group of clever, brave kids who get the better of adults? If they happen to be criminals, all the more entertaining. Kevin Sands brings mystery, magic and a pretty major con-job to his first fantasy novel, a story where things are never quite as they seem. It’s not easy to create an entirely new mythology, but Sands does a fine job with this first installment in his new series. Be prepared for an exciting read. (For ages 8-12) -Juanita Giles, Executive Director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival
  • The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is heady stuff, soaked through with longing as thoroughly as strawberries left overnight in gin. Told from Jordan Baker’s perspective, this is the retelling of The Great Gatsby we deserve: vibrant, dazzling examination of ambition; an insightful exploration of character and the drive to belong; a dreamy, sharply-etched glamour, dripping with exquisite images, infernal deals, and paper silhouettes brought to life. Jordan’s uncertain social status, as a Vietnamese adoptee in a rich white family, coupled with a keen wit make for a compelling narrator. I’d spend more time with her. -Jessica P. Wick, writer and book critic
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (physical book available at the library): In 15th century Constantinople, a young girl scales an abandoned monastery looking to steal books. In the 1940s, in Lakeport, Idaho, a boy follows his father to a new job, a new life and, eventually, a new war. In 2020, a troubled teenager sits in his car outside the Lakeport public library, a gun in his pocket, a bomb in the backpack beside him. In 2146, on a generation ship headed for a new home on Beta Oph2, a girl waits inside a sealed room, hiding from a deadly plague, her only company an artificial intelligence called Sybil. These characters are linked, brilliantly, impossibly, through words, stories, libraries and, most notably, an invented manuscript (for which the novel is named) about a man who gets turned into a goat, a fish and a bird while searching for an imaginary city in the sky. -Jason Sheehan, author and book critic
  • The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen (physical book available at the library): Although sequels to literary successes aren’t rare, few deliver on the promise of the initial work. But that’s not so with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book The Committed. The formerly unnamed narrator of The Sympathizer trades the underbelly of Los Angeles and the squalid reeducation camps of Vietnam for Paris, where he sells hashish to intellectuals while undergoing a mental breakdown. On the face of it, the novel is a thriller, but dig deeper and it tells the story of not only what immigrants often must do to survive, but also the dehumanizing impact of colonialism on the colonized. -Krishnadev Calamur, acting chief desk editor, NPR’s Washington Desk
  • Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (physical book available at the library): The Hate U Give is one of my favorite books of the past few years, so I knew I had to read its new prequel–and it did not disappoint. The first book focused on 16-year-old Starr Carter, who witnesses her best friend’s death at the hand of the police. In Concrete Rose, Thomas proves she’s a master at world-building and shifts the focus to Maverick Carter, Starr’s father. Set in 1998, 17-year-old Maverick learns he is the father of a young baby. Once again, Thomas creates an honest and compelling story about what it’s like to bear adult responsibilities when you’re only a teenager–a reality many young Black people face. I hope Thomas continues to revisit this universe again and again. -Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • The Confidence Men by Margalit Fox (physical book available at the library): This story is so gripping and so extraordinary, I had to keep double-checking to see if it was true. It is. During World War I, two British officers imprisoned in a remote Turkish camp conned their way to freedom using–wait for it–a Ouija board. Margalit Fox weaves in bits of history about the long con, spiritualism, telepathy and the treatment of people experiencing mental illness. But it’s the plot that rivets (and sometimes makes you laugh out loud). -Carol Ritchie, homepage and engagement editor, NPR Digital News Desk
  • Cook This Book by Molly Baz (physical book available at the library): Whether you’re a longtime Molly Baz fan or just discovering her, you’re sure to have a good time with Cook This Book. Time in the kitchen is meant to be fun, and Baz works to make that so by providing the fundamentals to take your home cooking to the next level. Throughout this book, you’ll find QR codes that help you learn a new technique visually. Follow her guidance when it comes to seasoning and flavor profiles, and then you can make any recipe your own. Hot ‘n’ Crispy Chicken Cutlets and Kimchi Ranch and Paccheri with Pork & Lentil Ragu are just a couple of the recipes that you’ll want to make over and over, making them more your own each time. -Wynne Davis, editorial assistant, NPR’s All Things Considered
  • Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (physical book available at the library): People love to hate on Jonathan Franzen. He writes chick lit! He snubbed Oprah! What’s with all those essays about birds!? But even if you’re in it for the hate-read, you kind of have to admit the man knows novel writing. Crossroads explores the inner life of each member of the Hildebrandt family, beginning with Russ, the small-town Indiana pastor whose inner life is more angsty than those of the teens he preaches to; his wife, Marion; and their four kids. Every character makes bad decisions, each is wracked with insecurity, but they’re so richly drawn with delicious, gossipy backstories that it’s too much fun to pass up. -Rose Friedman, editor, NPR’s Culture Desk
  • Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (physical book available at the library): Michelle Zauner’s debut memoir eloquently lays out the complexity and the ongoing grief of losing a parent in your 20s, just as your own life is about to start. Zauner, who heads the indie band Japanese Breakfast, writes about how she turned to Korean food as a way to process her grief when her mother, her only tie to Korean culture, died of cancer. The book, which was first excerpted as viral New Yorker essay in 2018, reflects on how cooking and eating the food that her mom once prepared gives her a way to connect to her identity. -Alyssa Jeong Perry, producer, NPR’s Code Switch
  • Cultish by Amanda Montell (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): In this thought-provoking-yet-accessible read, linguist Amanda Montell weaves together personal anecdotes, survivor interviews and academic research to walk us through the loaded language of cults. The book explores the influence of “cultish” groups from Scientology to SoulCycle, examining how they use language to their advantage and why so many of us find them fascinating. Montell, the daughter of a cult survivor, breaks down these communties’ stories and rhetorical strategies with context and care, asking important questions about what constitutes a cult and how exactly they win over their followers. You’ll come away armed with some nifty vocab terms and a better understanding of the cultish language that shapes us on a daily basis. -Rachel Treisman, production assistant, NPR’s Digital News Desk
  • The Dating Playbook by Farrah Rochon (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): Any list of 2021’s best romantic comedies must include Farrah Rochon’s The Dating Playbook. The story she weaves about Taylor Powell, a fitness trainer in need of some clients, and Jamar Dixon, an injured football superstar in need of a secret but hard-core fitness regime, is fresh, funny and sexy. It also boasts a ripped-from-the-headlines plot that touches on topics like football and concussion, and how social media has made having a private life an artform for anyone with celebrity status. Rochon presents her themes with jump-off-the-page humor, and they go far beyond the ups and downs of romance to broader concerns about family, women, friendship and jealousy. -Denny S. Bryce, book critic
  • The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): The past few years have given us many reasons to wonder: How did we get here? In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, an anthropologist and an archaeologist attempt to answer that question, while also examining the assumptions upon which most of social history is based. You may be familiar with the basic story that gets told: It starts with hunter-gatherers in their “state of nature,” which is followed by the rise of agriculture, which leads to population growth, private property and eventually hierarchy and bureaucracy, all culminating in the modern state. But what if that narrative is a little too linear and neatly organized? What if that version of history is actually kind of racist and sexist and overlooks many of the most interesting moments in the history of humankind? As we struggle with where to go next as a species, this book asks us to reexamine the story we’ve told about ourselves–and to imagine some new possibilities. -Erin Sells, director, NPR’s Institutional Giving
  • The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling (physical book available at the library): The Death of Jane Lawrence asks the age-old question pondered by Gothic novels and fairy tales alike: What do you do if your deeply attractive but hastily married husband is hiding a dark secret in his crumbling manor house? Well, when bookkeeper Jane’s arranged marriage gets complicated, she takes matters into her own hands. Gothic novels have to walk the line between horror and romance and not flinch from either. The Death of Jane Lawrence is up to this task, even as it descends into a sort of frenzied madness. -Caitlyn Paxson, book critic
  • The Debt Trap by Josh Mitchell (physical book available at the library): If you remember the days of people working their way through college doing shifts on the docks or driving a cab–or lived that yourself–you might be wondering why those days are long gone unless you’re, say, an equity fund baby or the Olsen twins. Josh Mitchell, a Wall Street Journal reporter, explains why: government policies designed to help Americans compete in the global technological race, but also an unholy alliance of funding systems, lax regulation and institutional competition that has bid up the price of a college education far beyond the rate of inflation and far beyond the ability of many people to pay. This might be an unlikely choice for a book club pick but hear me out. You could do worse than to educate yourself about how a system that is designed to improve access to education seems to be doing the opposite. -Michel Martin, host, NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered
  • Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): Transgender characters in literature often get flattened into archetypes, which I didn’t fully realize until I started to see the world through the eyes of the funny, flawed, complicated characters in this debut novel by Torrey Peters. Peters pivots from comedy to tragedy and back as effortlessly as great writers like Annie Dillard. Describing a funeral for a trans girl, Peters writes, “Everyone will dress themselves in some shade of goth–in goth apparel you can look sad while also showing off fishnets…” Few authors can walk that tightrope without tumbling. Peters does it with grace, all the while giving us a front-row seat. -Ari Shapiro, host, NPR’s All Things Considered
  • Dream Girl by Laura Lippman (physical book available at the library): Laura Lippman’s latest standalone thriller, Dream Girl, deftly draws on #MeToo themes and owes a lot to Stephen King’s 1987 horror classic, Misery. Here’s the premise: Shortly after a famous novelist named Gerry Anderson moves into a duplex penthouse in Baltimore, he tumbles down his “floating staircase” and is rendered immobile, totally dependent on a night nurse and young assistant for care and company. That’s when the threatening phone calls begin. Cranky, funny, brilliant and unscrupulous, Gerry is a marvelous creation–a literary lion in winter who may belatedly pay a high price for the crimes of his youth. -Maureen Corrigan, book critic, NPR’s Fresh Air
  • Edge Case by YZ Chin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): YZ Chin’s excellent debut follows Edwina, a Malaysian woman who does quality assurance for a New York City startup, as she navigates a host of problems. Her work visa is about to expire, her mother keeps trying to get her to move back home, her co-workers won’t stop making sexist “jokes,” and her husband has gone missing. Chin’s novel explores social problems deftly; it’s smart but not showy, emotional but not sentimental. This is a wonderful novel from an author of deep compassion. -Michael Schaub, book critic
  • Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (physical book available at the library): This is the story of one family’s pursuit of profit and the trail of death and addiction left in its wake. Empire of Pain is a meticulously reported account of the Sackler family, whose development and ruthless marketing of the painkiller OxyContin triggered the opioid epidemic, devastating communities across the U.S. It’s also a compelling indictment of a drug company more focused on money than alleviating suffering–and a system of checks and balances that didn’t work. -Jane Greenhalgh, senior producer and editor, NPR’s Science Desk
  • Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho (physical book available at the library): This book is brilliantly written because it focuses both on how the characters’ eyes look and on how they see. Focusing on a young girl who takes pride in her “eyes that kiss in the corner and glow like warm tea,” Joanna Ho’s lyrical intergenerational story combines with Dung Ho’s warm and often magical imagery to bring us a celebration on how we see the world–and how we see ourselves. (For ages 4-8) -Minh Le, author of Lift and Green Lantern: Legacy
  • Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown (physical book available at the library): Daniel James Brown’s absorbing book tells the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, which was composed of Nisei, second-generation Japanese American soldiers in World War II. He chronicles the valor of the young American men who fought in Europe, but whose families were imprisoned in internment camps, the victims of the vile racism that choked the country at the time. It’s a fascinating, expertly written look at selfless heroes who emerged from one of the darkest periods of American history. -Michael Schaub, book critic
  • Fight Night by Miriam Toews (physical book available at the library): Miriam Toews’ fiction has long mined the central traumas of her life–her father’s and sister’s depression and their suicides, and her childhood in a repressive Mennonite community. This novel adds tenderness by parsing these events from the perspective of a 9-year-old, Swiv, who has been suspended from school for fighting. Written as a letter to her missing father, Fight Night tracks Swiv’s new education. Her teacher is her grandmother Elvira, an effervescent woman with a chronic heart condition. This study of trudging forward after calamity teems with absurdity and reminds us that staying alive, despite it all, can be its own revenge and reward. -Kristen Martin, writer and book critic
  • Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (physical book available at the library): As we head into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, Brandon Taylor’s collection of short stories unfolds like a season of prestige television–a warm potluck of human messiness. It’s actually at a potluck that we meet the three characters whose messy love triangle is the fulcrum around which the stories turn. Taylor’s prose is gorgeous, his stories are sharp and beautiful, and they collect to form an extraordinary portrait of what it means to be overwhelmed, which in 2021 is also what it means to be human. -Catherine Whelan, editor, NPR’s Morning Edition
  • The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (physical book available at the library): This is a thriller-mystery as drenched in affection for slasher flicks of the ’80s and ’90s as their heroines were in blood. Here, those franchises are based on real-world murder sprees survived by a “final girl,” the lone survivor who takes out the monster at the end. For decades, these women have been meeting for group therapy–and then somebody starts trying to kill them. Glorying in horror tropes, meta-references and social critique, Hendrix’s novel is about women who refuse to give up. There’s interesting stuff here about the way women are discussed, how their stories are monetized and how we as a society consume anguish. -Jessica P. Wick, writer and book critic
  • The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton (physical book available at the library): Most novels about popular music are bad. But author Dawnie Walton beats the curse with her story of a Black woman from Detroit, Opal Jewel, and a white Englishman, Nev Charles, who pair up and become an early-1970s sensation. Walton, a longtime arts journalist, goes granular and gets all the details right, whether it’s the particular accents of the British Invasion, the sleaze of the music business or the fabulosity of the industry’s designers who turned ordinary strivers into birds of paradise. The book is a tour de force structurally and, on the level of language, a total gas. Best is the character of Opal, an amalgam of real-life rock heroines like Nona Hendryx and Merry Clayton, whom Walton renders as utterly unique. This is the rock novel that owns the subgenre now. -Ann Powers, critic and correspondent, NPR Music
  • Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh (physical book available at the library): In this timely novel, Junie is subject to traumatic taunts and attacks. Ellen Oh’s unflinching look at racism in middle school doesn’t shy away from big issues. When Junie learns of her immigrant grandparents’ harrowing hardships during the Korean War, she views them, and her situation, through a new lens. Slowly, she begins to find herself and, in doing so, gains the courage and confidence to speak up and fight back. (For ages 8-12) -Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius
  • Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (physical book available at the library): Ojibwe college student Daunis has become enveloped in an FBI investigation that threatens to tear apart her community, and once she agrees to go undercover, she realizes that the corruption runs deeper than she ever could have imagined. This absolute powerhouse of a debut combines a contemplative exploration of existing between two cultural identities with backwoods thriller intrigue, and does it with such confidence and grace that you find yourself suddenly at the end, breathless and hard-pressed to believe that it’s over. Firekeeper’s Daughter forges a new path, creating a deeply engaging mystery that illuminates far more than the expected whodunnit. -Caitlyn Paxson, book critic
  • First Comes Like by Alisha Rai (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Alisha Rai is one of my go-to writers when I need a romance. Her books are usually quite spicy, but with this novel, Rai shows she can write a great slow-burn romance. When beauty influencer Jia Ahmed learns that she has been catfished by a man pretending to be Bollywood star Dev Dixit, she ends up striking up a friendship with the real actor. A paparazzi mishap leads Jai and Dev to begin fake-dating. Will their fake relationship lead to real feelings? It’s a lovely story about decent people just trying to do the right thing. -Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King (physical book available at the library): Lily King’s writing is my most widely recommended: anchored so insistently around character and plot that it pulls in even the least voracious reader, so keenly observed and gently told that I made time to revisit her novel Euphoria. Many of Five Tuesdays in Winter‘s stories are quite sad–but in their refusal to treat emotion with any distance, they manage to make sadness feel less lonely. Hard to imagine what else you might ask a book to do. -Eric McDaniel, editor, the NPR Politics Podcast
  • The Five Wounds by Kristin Valdez Quade (physical book available at the library): I read this book months ago, and I still think about the opening–in which unemployed and floundering Amadeo ponders his role as Jesus in his town’s Good Friday procession. He takes the job, arguably, too seriously. The end result involves a nail gun and trip to the emergency room. From there, we spend a year with Amadeo and his family as they try to hold it together in fictional Las Penas, N.M.; through a teen pregnancy, cancer and the launch of a doomed windshield repair business. Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel is often funny, but it doesn’t hesitate to dive into the darkest corners of family life either. Quade weaves the stories of several family members, plus friends and lovers, together easily. You end up feeling like you’ve known them all, and their often messy and beautiful dynamics, forever. -Nina Kravinsky, assistant producer, NPR’s Morning Edition
  • The Free World by Louis Menand (physical book available at the library): This brick of a book is a dazzling, often dizzying, cultural history of the decades following World War II. It was a period when, in Louis Menand’s words, “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.” I learned a lot about towering intellectual and artistic figures such as George Kennan, James Baldwin and Pauline Kael. Much to his credit, Menand does not indulge in hero worship. His sketches can be frank and unflattering. And he does not skimp on the struggles of women, as well as writers and thinkers of color, to get their due in the intellectual hothouse of Cold War America. -Neal Carruth, senior director, NPR’s On-Demand News Programming
  • From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry by Paula Yoo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): This story of Vincent Chin’s murder will grab you and not let go, even long after you’ve read the last page. This book is a meticulously researched account of the 1982 killing of a young Chinese American–and how the dramatic aftermath united the Asian American community. Extensive interviews give voice to Vincent’s life and death and show us that even though this tragedy occurred 40 years ago, anti-AAPI hate and violence are still jarringly present. -Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius
  • Fuzz by Mary Roach (physical book available at the library): Mary Roach is your favorite party friend. Her stories crackle with wit and gumption, and each leaves you thinking: “I can’t believe she did that…and I very much wish I’d been there.” In this book, Roach shadows Vatican rat catchers, investigates simulated animal attacks in a Reno conference center, and (yes) learns how to build a better mousetrap. But the magic of Roach’s work is what lurks just below the surface of each of her escapades: her gentle meditations on how we all might live as better stewards of a planet we share. -Eric McDaniel, editor, the NPR Politics Podcast
  • The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): The old adage warns against judging a book by its cover but the vibrant colors of this book are what first attracted me to Namina Forna’s exhilarating debut novel. This gripping fantasy adventure stars Deka, a young woman whose golden blood causes her to be cast out of her community–but not before she suffers unspeakable atrocities. When Deka accepts an opportunity to start fresh in service of the emperor’s elite army of warriors, she leaves her home behind, embarking on a campaign that puts her special abilities to the test and sow the seeds of revolution. Every bit as intriguing as its cover, this book is packed with action, shocking revelations and a bold heroine whose courage and tenacity are sure to keep readers turning the pages until its thrilling conclusion. -Nikki Birch, lead video producer, NPR Music
  • Girlhood by Melissa Febos (physical book available at the library): Peering back at one’s childhood and adolescence can be a daunting task, one that Melissa Febos takes seriously. Although most of the essays in this book dip into the author’s adult life as well, they keep trying to find the child and teenager that she was–how she learned to be, feel, believe and react. In her trademark lush prose, Febos questions the ways girls’ behaviors are controlled, and how we learn to cage and control ourselves well into adulthood. But there is hope: She also shares her own attempts to unlearn the lessons of girlhood and find pockets of liberation. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian (physical book available at the library): Neil–Neeraj when his parents are mad–Narayan is the narrator of this fast-paced, voice-driven debut novel. His rollicking tale begins when he’s a teenager living in Hammond Creek, Ga., with his parents’ expectations weighing on his shoulders and an unrequited crush on Anita, his neighbor and childhood friend. When he discovers that Anita and her mother have been brewing a secret alchemical concoction using stolen gold and ambition to help Anita succeed, he quite understandably wants in…consequences… who cares? A gripping novel that’s as intelligent as it is fun. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • Goldenrod by Maggie Smith (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): During a time when so much felt out of our control–not the least because of the pandemic–Maggie Smith swooped in with her poems to help us make sense of the world. Sure, we all want to know “what is the point?” And Smith, with quintessential charm, responds: “We say in the grand scheme of things / as if there were one. We say that’s now how / the world works, as if the world works.” Instead of trying to figure out “how the world works” Smith’s poems ask that we turn to smaller objects. The stone, the seashell, the goldenrod–what can they tell us? Maybe there are no answers. Just lessons to be learned and unlearned; our vision continually altered by the small details around us. -Jeevika Verma, assistant producer, NPR’s Morning Edition
  • The Good Girls by Sonia Faleiro (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): In mid-2014, the news in India was dominated by two stories: Narendra Modi’s landmark election as the country’s prime minister and the horrific deaths of two teenage girls in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. The image of the girls’ bodies hanging from a tree in a village grove went viral. A year later, Sonia Faleiro began her multiyear journey of reporting their deaths by investigating their lives. This groundbreaking book goes beyond the national conversations about sex and violence, the sociopolitical machinations and the media-generated controversies around the killings to weave an intricate, page-turning whodunit. Faleiro doesn’t simply lay out the various problems that beset the case. She shows us, in precise detail, its human, historical, political and economic costs. -Jenny Bhatt, book critic, host of the Desi Books podcast
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (physical book available at the library): How delightful, one year into a pandemic, to take a high-flying journey to far-flung corners of our world with Maggie Shipstead. This aviation novel takes us from Montana to Antarctica and fits nicely into a grand tradition of epic historical dramas, but it comes with a twist. Woven throughout is a modern Hollywood retelling of the missing pilot’s story, which provides a bonus commentary on how myths and legends refract over time. -Danny Hensel, production assistant, NPR’s Weekend Edition
  • The Guncle by Steven Rowley (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): Don that caftan, shake that cocktail and settle in for the story of a single, not-quite-middle-aged guncle (gay uncle) learning to care for two small children. Patrick acquires his niece and nephew through a series of family tragedies. He’s a successful sitcom actor hiding out from his celebrity and from himself, it turns out, in Palm Springs. While mostly a comic novel, The Guncle also portrays slights against queer people and the toll those take on a person’s life. Patrick learns to nurture the children and himself. -Jason DeRose, NPR’s Western Bureau Chief
  • Halfway Home by Reuben Jonathan Miller (physical book available at the library): Reuben Jonathan Miller’s impressive debut takes on an often-ignored aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system: the fact that even those who leave incarceration are, in many ways, never truly free. Labyrinthine rules and regulations govern the lives of the released and can mean ineligibility for student loans and public housing or the inability to live in a home that has a foster child. Miller combines data with the lived experiences of the people behind the numbers to create a compelling critique of a deeply problematic system. -Ericka Taylor, organizing director for DC Working Families, book critic
  • Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (physical book available at the library): Colson Whitehead’s newest novel is about a heist in Harlem and the ramifications of the crime for those who did the deed. The novel kicks off in 1959 and storms into the 1960s with Ray Carney, furniture store owner, at the helm. Whitehead’s characters live in Harlem (thus the title), and his book brings the Black community of the 1960s to life with insight, grace, research, an outstanding cast of characters, and humor that is by turns gritty, culturally observant and wickedly funny. Harlem Shuffle is a powerful must-read–if it isn’t already on your bookshelf. -Denny S. Bryce, book critic
  • The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale (physical book available at the library): In 1938, Alma Fielding, a 34-year-old housewife in London, told the press that a poltergeist invaded her home. Nandor Fodor, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant working for the International Institute for Psychical Research, spent the next several months investigating the strange activity in Fielding’s home. These two intriguing figures are at the center of Kate Summerscale’s excellent narrative, a ghost story that is also about women and power, the anxiety of the unknown and the ways people (consciously or unconsciously) behave in order to escape certain aspects of their lives. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (physical book available at the library): Anna Sun is a talented violinist in the Bay Area whose disappointing boyfriend springs a proposal on her: an open relationship. While processing her boyfriend’s request and battling a creative block, Anna meets Quan and wonders if he might be the real deal. I love this book because it deals with issues that feel really relevant to today, such as creative burnout, bad boyfriends and neurodivergence, which Helen Hoang explores through these deeply rich and heartfelt characters. -Candice Lim, production assistant, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • Hell of a Book by Jason Mott (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): As a nameless narrator and debut author of a bestselling novel travels the country on his first book tour, he finds himself on an epic journey of self-discovery–even though he is usually drunk and never entirely certain of where he is or even what his book is about. He is also never entirely certain of what is real–is he being followed by a young Black boy who was recently murdered by the police? Why is his dead mother in the audience? This is a novel about racism and loss and fear and trauma and the toll it all exacts. It is also about who we become as a result. It is also, as the narrator insists, a very unusual love story. -Erin Sells, director, NPR’s Institutional Giving
  • Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): One night, Grace Porter–burned out and aimless after finally getting her Ph.D. in astronomy–gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she does not know, in Vegas no less. Cliché? Definitely. A bad idea? Maybe…not? Through the mists of her epic hangover, Grace starts to piece together clues about her mysterious new wife. Yuki, as it turns out, hosts a radio show about the supernatural. What follows is a delightfully weird summer where together, Grace and Yuki learn about mythical monsters and even face down some of their own. -Lauren Migaki, senior producer, NPR Ed
  • House of Sticks by Ly Tran (physical book available at the library): Ly Tran’s memoir is unique among Vietnamese American narratives in the sense that the author’s identity crisis is not about liberating himself from her parents’ past, but her unwillingness to remove herself from their suffering. As an unsentimental yet deeply moving examination of filial bonds, displacement, war trauma, and poverty, the impact of this book lies in Tran’s nuanced celebration of a family love that withstands the enormous cost of the American dream. -Thuy Dinh, writer and book critic
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): There’s a crime at the beginning of this novel, but it isn’t crime fiction–it’s a noirish Caribbean-set drama. Starting with a young woman’s act of defiance and the botched robbery of a wealthy British visitor, tragic events occur in quick succession in a far-from-idyllic fictional island community. The full consequences and interconnectedness of those events are revealed at a slower pace, however. Alternating between generations, time periods and characters’ points of view, Barbadian author Cherie Jones unveils an absorbing and authentic allegory of race, class, and intergenerational trauma. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer (physical book available at the library): From the moment you meet bodybuilder security consultant Jane Smith and her massive purse she’s dubbed “Shovel Pig,” you’re stuck with her–in a good way. The book kicks off with a taxidermied hummingbird and a mysterious note, and it just gets stranger from there. VanderMeer is known for his weird and wonderful world-building, as well as his ability to inject commentary about the perils of climate change and surveillance into his plots, making a sci-fi thriller something more. This book doesn’t disappoint. For big VanderMeer fans, it’s also a lot easier to follow than his 2019 novel Dead Astronauts. -Jenna McLaughlin, correspondent, NPR’s National Desk
  • I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (physical book available at the library): Claire Vaye Watkins may be our greatest living chronicler of the American West, showing how everything from geology to poverty to Charles Manson has shaped it. Hers are always stories of place first, and then the people who find themselves in that place–by choice sometimes, by circumstance often. She writes about the people broken by the land and those who have come to it in an attempt at healing. This book focuses on a writer named Claire Vaye Watkins who abandoned her husband and newborn back East by coming out for a book event in Reno and simply… not going home. There’s fun to be had in trying to parse the real Watkins from the made-up one, but the novel itself takes the form of a sex, drugs and Oregon Trail revisitation of all the lovely and horrible things that make us who we are. -Jason Sheehan, author and book critic
  • Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee (physical book available at the library): Over the course of three books–Jade City, Jade War and now Jade Legacy–Fonda Lee has charted the history of the Kaul family of the No Peak clan as they engage in war, politics and murder. Those characters we met as young men and women in City have grown up now. Those who lived through War have husbands and wives, children are growing into their own power; they’ve all spent two decades (or more) jockeying for control over territory, businesses and, most important, the magical/bioenergetic jade that gives superhuman powers to those who possess it. Lee’s Green Bone Saga is The Godfather with an Asian cast, Game of Thrones in a suit, tie and sunglasses. It has all the earmarks of a modern, international gangster epic juiced with boardroom intrigue, economic theory and swordfights. -Jason Sheehan, author and book critic
  • Jew-ish by Jake Cohen (physical book available at the library): Food writer and self-described “nice Jewish boy” Jake Cohen’s love letter to his Ashkenazi culinary heritage concerns itself with more than brisket and latkes. Even as he hunts down the perfect challah or matzo ball soup, he’s also toying with weird and wonderful mashups like Pastrami Biscuits and Gravy, or Pesto and Sun-dried Tomato Babka. And he has one eye on the very different foodways of his Mizrahi husband. That means Roasted Cauliflower with Pistachios and Golden Raisins, or Sour Cherry Rice Pudding. This may not be your bubbe’s recipe collection, but the marriage of flavors it brings to life was clearly meant to be. -T. Susan Chang, food writer
  • Juan Hormiga by Gustavo Roldan, translated by Robert Croll (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Juan Hormiga is the one red ant among thousands of black ants, but it’s not his being red that sets him apart from the rest of the colony. While every other ant is an industrious as you might expect, busily collecting food or digging tunnels, that’s just not Juan Hormiga’s forte. No, Juan has some extraspecial talents: “If there was one way in which Juan Hormiga was second to none, it was his way of taking a nap.” And he’s a born storyteller. Roldan’s illustrations–whimsical, charming, fun, adorable–show wide-eyed ants at rapt attention. How can the ants possibly work when Juan is telling such wonderful stories? Juan Hormiga is a jewel of a story. It has everything kids want from a book: silliness, adventure (kind of), daring (kind of), a cliffhanger (kind of), a satisfying ending (truly!). (For ages 5-8) -Juanita Giles, Executive Director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival
  • Just as I Am by Cicely Tyson (physical book available at the library): In a memoir published just days before her death, Cicely Tyson reflected on her 96 years on Earth, including over six massively influential decades in the entertainment industry. The book is a rich text; it goes beyond the surface of just chronicling a legendary performer’s career highlights. Instead it’s an eye-opening look at life as a Black actress in Hollywood, proving that little has changed. The book is an opus that should be read by anyone who cares about film and television. -Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): To tell you the story of the book implies that I know more than I do. Here’s what I do know: It’s amazing and worth many visits. A series of vignettes introduced by luscious pencil drawings of the view inside a kaleidoscope and an image from the vignette itself, it features a 13-year-old narrator and his friend James, who is alive in some of the vignettes and dead in others, but never any less real or present. It’s about memory and love. It’s amazing and beautiful. (For ages 10 and up) -Philipp Goedicke, limericist, NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
  • Kennedy’s Avenger by Dan Abrams and David Fisher (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): For much of the nation–save the conspiracy theorists–Dallas’ role in the Kennedy assassination ended with the death of Lee Harvey Oswald at the hands of Jack Ruby. But what became of the man who assassinated the assassin on national TV? Dan Abrams and David Fisher, who have cornered the market on overlooked trials of historic significance, bring us Ruby’s murder trial. We meet the characters (Ruby and his celebrity lawyer), hear the arguments (was Ruby insane and when?) and contemplate the reputation of Dallas, which became a national pariah. -Patricia Cole, copy editor, NPR’s Digital News Desk
  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (physical book available at the library): This book is a masterpiece from Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro about the saving grace of love. The story is set in a United States of the near future, a place riven by fascist political movements. Our narrator, Klara, is a type of robot known as an “Artificial Friend,” designed as a companion for the children of this brave new world. Klara becomes the companion of a girl named Josie, who’s sick, and the story turns on Klara’s attempts to heal her. Poignant and profound, this book will make you think about what makes a creature truly “human.” -Maureen Corrigan, book critic, NPR’s Fresh Air
  • Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Set in both mainland China and the United States, Te-Ping Chen’s stories explore the personal and the public, individuality and community, and the complicated relationships between those. In one story, a group of commuters gets stuck on a subway platform for days, then weeks, and they begin making a new life down there. In another, a widow goes in search of her husband’s family, about whom she knows next to nothing. Including tales both realist and fabulist, Chen’s stories shine with haunting details and nuanced emotions. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • Last Call by Elon Green (physical book available at the library): This hard-boiled true crime book tells the story of the “Last Call Killer,” a man who preyed on gay men in the 1980s and ’90s. Instead of leading with the killer’s story, Elon Green puts the victims first, shining a light onto their complicated lives and the messiness of who they were. Along the way, he gives readers glimpses into queer life in New York City at the time and of the gay activists working to protect their community during the height of the AIDS epidemic. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (physical book available at the library): What would you risk for the truth? Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s, all Chinese American Lily Hu can see is what’s expected of her from her family and friends. But her views are challenged when she falls in love with a white girl who makes her question everything about the life she thought she was supposed to lead. Danger, racism, and homophobia, overt and otherwise, strike from all sides in this nuanced and thrilling page-turner. Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a novel for anyone who has ever dared to wonder “what if?” -Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius
  • Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough (physical book available at the library): Containing the viral essay “Cable Guy” among others, Lauren Hough’s debut collection chronicles her time being raised in the Children of God cult–also known as The Family–and the years after she left. But this alternatively funny and painful book isn’t only a cult memoir. Slowly, essay after essay, Hough draws parallels between the cult she was raised in and American exceptionalism in all its various facets, from rah-rah-‘Merica attitudes surrounding freedom to the worship of individualism to the demands of capitalism. This is a startling, vivid read. -Ilana Masad, book critic
  • The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor (physical book available at the library): Set in a Sierra Nevada logging camp three years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, this book focuses on 13-year-old Mei. As a Chinese kid, Mei is exposed to the racial tumult created by the law, and she copes by telling stories about the legendary Auntie Po and her giant blue water buffalo, Pei Pei. Written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor, this is a really sweet book that centers nonwhite Americans within American history. The art is lovely and accessible for young readers, and there’s plenty to enjoy for older comics enthusiasts too. (For ages 10 and up) -Mallory Yu, producer/editor, NPR’s All Things Considered
  • Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (physical book available at the library): This latest Joan Didion collection includes stories on addiction, alternative media, not getting into a college and the rise of Martha Stewart. Although some of these pieces are half a century old, Didion’s prose crackles with immediacy and precision. Generations of readers have turned to her iconic Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album to wrestle with the atomization of culture. Didion’s theme continues to be the widening gyre and a center that cannot hold. -Jason DeRose, NPR’s Western Bureau Chief
  • The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (physical book available at the library): This clever first novel is a beguiling dual love story about how language and people intersect and connect–the joy of lex. A century apart, two lexicographers beaver away in London on the same unfinished Encyclopedic Dictionary. Peter Winceworth, stuck working on the S’s in 1899, rues the English language’s lamentable gaps, and has a habit of fabricating words that might fill them, such as “procrastinattering” about the weather. A hundred years later, an intern named Mallory is hired to update definitions and weed out any bogus entries, aka Mountweazels. The intertwining plotlines build to an explosive climax that raises questions about the instability of language, how words gain currency, and whether fake words are any less real than actual words. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • The Light of Days by Judy Batalion (physical book available at the library): This book reads like adventure fiction but with a wealth of detail that makes you realize it’s a true story. Young Jewish women living in the Polish ghettos during the 1940s took enormous risks to resist the Nazis: They smuggled weapons, medicine and, sometimes, people. They took full advantage of the fact that as women, it was easier to pass as Catholic Poles. Though many were caught and killed, a few managed to make it out and live as Israeli citizens. Reading about their courage is astonishing and humbling. -Emiko Tamagawa, senior producer, NPR’s Here & Now
  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (physical book available at the library): Amor Towles’ latest is a compulsively readable joyride. Set in 1954, with the country on the brink of major change, this Great American Road Novel follows four boys, three fresh from a juvenile reformatory, as they set out in an old Studebaker in pursuit of a better future. Their route from Nebraska to New York is filled with unexpected twists, turns, detours and close encounters. This is a quest novel, and its large cast–not all of whom are heroic–settle scores as they seek to find their way home. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld (physical book available at the library): When a childless king and queen seek kids of their own, they end up with a wooden robot and a girl made from a log. And when tragedy places the siblings in danger, this unlikely duo will plunge into a multitude of adventures to help each other. First-time picture book creator Tom Gauld has a keen ear for fairy-tale conventions with much of the story’s charm coming down to his keen ear for tone. And with blurbs from Neil Gaiman, Oliver Jeffers, Jillian Tamaki, Jon Klassen and Carson Ellis, clearly this book is doing something right. (For ages 4-8) -Betsy Bird, librarian, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus
  • The Lost Village by Camilla Sten, translated by Alexandra Fleming (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): If you’re a fan of Nordic-noir, you’ll love this creepy story set in the abandoned Swedish mining town of Silvertjarn. Once a bustling outpost, since 1959, the place has been fallow–yet Alice Lindstedt, whose grandmother Margarethe was once the local nurse, can’t get Silvertjarn out of her head. She brings a film crew there to make a documentary, and everything goes wrong. What makes this thriller fresh is that it focuses on nondetective female characters who solve a decades-old mystery by thinking about how those involved once actually lived. -Bethanne Patrick, book critic
  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fannone Jeffers (physical book available at the library): I will admit up front that Honoree Fannone Jeffers’ debut novel is intimidating. For one thing, it’s almost 800 pages long. For another, it is stupendously good. Rooted in the South, this is a very American tale: Jeffers’ heroine, Ailey Pearl Garfield, is a blend of her family’s ethnicities (African, Native, white) and circumstances (enslaved, free, indentured). Readers follow Ailey’s life as she comes of age, becomes a historian and begins to research her family’s accomplishments and traumas over generations. Jeffers’ renditions of Black family traditions and the burden of respectability politics are spot-on, and made me wish the book was even longer. -Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent, NPR’s Code Switch
  • The Magician by Colm Toibin (physical book available at the library): Colm Toibin’s magnificent biographical novel about Thomas Mann encompasses the full sweep of the German Nobel prize-winner’s life, including his carefully repressed homosexuality, the genesis of major works like the story “Death in Venice” and The Magic Mountain, and the devastating rise of Nazism, which sent him, his wealthy, secular Jewish wife, and their large, often ungovernable brood of artistic offspring into exile in Switzerland and the U.S. With its intertwined portraits of a deep, complicated writer and a world that changed beyond recognition in his lifetime, The Magician should appeal to history buffs as well as literary mavens. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): The title stands for protagonist Mary Jane Dillard, but anyone who remembers the 1970s–during which Blau’s latest book is set–will get the double entendre, even if Mary Jane herself is fairly oblivious. Hired to babysit Isabelle “Izzy” cone, whose parents Dr. and Mrs. Cone have an eccentric lifestyle, Mary Jane relishes the escape from her staid upper-class Baltimore neighborhood. When the Cones announce that rock star Jimmy Bendinger and his rock star girlfriend Sheba will be moving in for the summer, things get a little wild. But not too wild. Mary Jane provides exactly the right hit of the good (nostalgic) stuff. -Bethanne Patrick, book critic
  • Matrix by Lauren Groff (physical book available at the library): It’s 1158 and an unlucky but well-educated girl of 17 is sent from her home to become a nun. She proves savvy and sharp-elbowed: In a mere lifetime, she transforms the decrepit abbey into a women-only, lightly queer Vatican. Fans of Fates and Furies will recognize Lauren Groff’s penchant for leads with dark psychologies–and not much else. It’s a challenging read, but deeply rewarding. -Eric McDaniel, editor, the NPR Politics Podcast
  • Me (Moth) by Amber McBride (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): A girl who lost her family in a car accident takes a transformative road trip across America with a boy she barely knows. This book may feature a list of sightseeing stops and a series of motels, but it defies the road trip genre, carving out a pensive path through ancestry, trauma and art. On every page, author Amber McBride builds layer upon layer of meaning, entwining imagery of moths with Navajo creation stories with American history with Hoodoo magic. For a book in verse that is so spare and careful with words, Me (Moth) is very full of meaning. -Caitlyn Paxson, book critic
  • Mike Nichols by Mark Harris (physical book available at the library): This story starts with Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, a German refugee with vaccine-induced baldness who spent most of his childhood quietly observing others and skipping school to hide out in a movie theater. It ends with Mike Nichols, one and the same, the legendary performer-turned-director who dominated both Hollywood and Broadway with a string of spectacular hits and misses. Mark Harris, who knew Nichols, takes us through everything that happened along the way in this immersive biography that includes amazing photos. It’s a book to savor, full of juicy industry details, nonstop name-dropping and insights from scores of Nichols’ famous friends. It truly feels like stepping into Nichols’ world. -Rachel Treisman, production assistant, NPR’s Digital News Desk
  • The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): It’s often said if five people see the same thing happen, they’ll tell you about it in five different ways. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s new novel takes this truism to an extreme: When a supernatural, massive star appears in the sky over Southern Norway one day, it causes all kinds of weirdness, which each of the novel’s many narrators recount differently. They relate the event to the drama and difficulties they’re facing in their lives, whether that’s staring down a loveless marriage or grappling with the existential drama of finding one’s place in the world. (You know, the easy stuff.) Equal parts realistic, fantastical and surreal, this book will leave you with more questions than answers–and perhaps a greater sense of observation toward what’s in the sky above. -Casey Morell, associate producer-director, NPR’s All Things Considered
  • Mr. Watson’s Chickens by Jarrett Dapier, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi (physical book available at the library): Big chaos energy alert! What happens when three chickens turn into 456? Mr. Nelson never signed on for this, but his partner, Mr. Watson, started with just a handful of poultry, never dreaming where it might lead. Can this relationship be saved? Madcap energy infuses Tsurumi’s wild illustrations. It’s also nice to see a loving, gay relationship in a picture book that doesn’t center on parenthood–of human children, anyway. (For ages 3-5) -Betsy Bird, librarian, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus
  • My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (physical book available at the library): You know the saying, “If you have a hammer, every problem look like a nail”? In this book, every problem looks like a slasher movie to 17-year-old Jade Daniels. She sees the world through the lens of doomed towns and sinners, masked killers and final girls. But behind Jade’s dramatic interpretation of events is a more mundane type of horror: the loneliness of a girl with next-to-no community, the isolation of living in a small rural town, the specter of wealthy newcomers who treat Proofrock, Idaho, as a new world to be conquered. Despite all the doom and gloom and bodies piling up, this book still manages to be just as hilarious as it is human. -Leah Donnella, supervising editor, NPR’s Code Switch
  • My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (physical book available at the library): Say “Charlottesville” and two things might come to mind immediately: Thomas Jefferson’s august estate and the white supremacy riot that occurred in the city in 2017. Both figure prominently in Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s first book–a collection of finely crafted short stories and a novella of the same title. Each focuses on race, belonging and community and the question “To whom does American history belong?” All will leave you thinking long after you’ve turned the last page. -Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent, NPR’s Code Switch
  • My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): When Paloma walks into her apartment and finds her roommate dead, she knows things are about to get very messed up. But for Paloma, a transracial adoptee from Sri Lanka now living in California, things are already very complicated. This is a debut thriller from Amanda Jayatissa and is ostensibly about the mysteries in Paloma’s past. Really, though, it’s an intricate story of the masks we wear, the layers we hide behind, the expectations we try to live up to–and a beautiful meditation on identity. -Swapna Krishna, pop culture writer
  • Nicky & Vera by Peter Sis (physical book available at the library): Nicky had a secret. An unassuming businessman, he saved hundreds of children from the Nazis–and never told anyone. This brilliant picture book by author-illustrator Peter Sis is also the story of Vera, a young Czech girl Nicky helped rescue. Their lives come together 50 years later when he is surprised on a television show and honored by those he saved. In addition to the moving text, the exquisite art is at once intimate and expansive, as is this incredibly moving story. (For ages 6-8) -Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius
  • Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): When history demands you speak, what happens when you sing? Artist Christian Robinson may be associated with adorable books, but he began his career with serious picture book bios like Harlem’s Little Blackbird and Josephine. Here, he pulls out all the stops with Nina. History is visually incorporated into the day-to-day features of Nina’s life. Meanwhile, Traci N. Todd synthesizes Nina’s importance in a child-friendly manner, punctuating the text with such phrases as “politeness had gotten her people nothing.” Award-winner material and a visual stunner. (For ages 4-8) -Betsy Bird, librarian, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus
  • No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull (physical book available at the library): This book opens with police shooting and killing an unarmed Black man. Lincoln had been addicted to drugs, estranged from his family, living on the street. Not the sort of man the community rallies around, Cadwell Turnbull tells us. But when Lincoln’s sister, Laina, is mysteriously offered a copy of suppressed police bodycam footage of the shooting, it becomes a whole different kind of story. Because Lincoln is a werewolf. The footage proves it. And from that shocking start, Turnbull builds a world where monsters and magic are real and exist within a world like ours, already grappling with issues of race and sexuality and class and collectivism. There’s the overarching idea of othering those who do not look like us or live like us or love like us, and the terrible consequences of both hiding our secrets and revealing them. -Jason Sheehan, author and book critic
  • Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (physical book available at the library): Yes, this book by Nnedi Okorafor contains all of the bracing fast-paced narrative action of her other Africanfuturist novels, and yes it takes on many of the issues she plumbs so well without being heavy-handed. But this one is just… so weird and specific and genius. AO, born Anwuli Okwudili, has always felt those initials stood for Artificial Organism. She’s got technically advanced prosthetics for which she is often demonized. DNA, or Dangote Nuhu Adamu, is a Fulani herdsman with a deeply felt connection to nature and folklore. The two of them are on the run–both wrongly accused–in a story that explores how technology and nature are both exploited, and how they can be harnessed in ways that might give a reader not just a bangin’ page turner, but something akin to…hope. -Barrie Hardymon, supervising senior editor, NPR’s Investigations Unit
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (physical book available at the library): Elizabeth Strout’s third novel about writer Lucy Barton finds her beloved character distracting herself from grief over her second husband’s death by revisiting her relationship with her first, the philandering father of her daughters. Against all odds, William and Lucy have remained friendly, and he turns to her to help navigate some unhappy developments in his life, which lands them on a road trip to Maine. Lucy is repeatedly reminded that people are essentially unknowable and the past is never truly past. But oh, that titular Oh!–two letters that perfectly express Lucy’s abiding fondness for and exasperation with her ex. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • On Girlhood by Glory Edim (physical book available at the library): From the young girl being schooled and scolded in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” to the teenager reckoning with her parents’ abandonment in Alexia Arthurs’ “Bad Behavior,” from the sister who learns to love herself and craws out of the shadow of her shallow sibling in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” to the young woman in Edwidge Danticat’s “Seeing Thing Simply,” who discovers that her body is a work of art; these short stories in Glory Edim’s anthology On Girlhood make a heartfelt window into the expansive world of Black girlhood. We see the way they love, the way they hate, the way they respond to pressure, and perhaps most importantly, the way they respond to society. -Keishel Williams, book critic and editor
  • On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed (physical book available at the library): In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed mingles her groundbreaking personal story–she was the first Black student to desegregate schools in her hometown of Conroe, Texas–with a less white-centered vision of the state’s history to create a new narrative. Shifting away from myths aimed at comforting white people, she reveals a truth that includes everyone, especially those freed by the official emancipation of enslaved people in the state on June 19, 1865. Along the way, Gordon-Reed notes Texas’ long-ago legacy in breaking away from Mexico to preserve its status as a slaveholder’s republic. Her story challenges Texas’ pop culture image as a land of heroic, mostly white cowboys to suggest a more complicated vision that mirrors America’s fitful history on race, equality and society. -Eric Deggans, TV critic, NPR’s Culture Desk
  • One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (physical book available at the library): This book made me fall in love with Casey McQuiston’s writing all over again. In this one, August, an inexperienced 20-something trying to figure out life in the big city, is an expert at keeping other people at arm’s length until she meets Jane, an impossibly cool girl who always seems to be riding the subway at the same time as her. This is a queer romance with a side of time-travel shenanigans, but amid all the whip-smart banter and heartwarming rom-com tropes is a potent reminder to make room for love in all parts of your life. -Sharon Pruitt-Young, reporter, NPR’s News Desk
  • The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng (physical book available at the library): Kids love their things, but which of their things is the most important? The 2002 Newbery-winner Linda Sue Park gets to the heart of the matter in this book. When a teacher gives her class an assignment asking what each student would save from a fire (if all people and pets were already safe), the answers are not what you might expect. Is a laptop really more important than an insulin kit? What about a piano or a sweater hand-knitted by Grandma? Written in the Korean sijo verse style and cozily illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng, this heartwarming story is thought-provoking and illuminating. (For ages 8-12) -Juanita Giles, Executive Director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival
  • The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (physical book available at the library): Effective satire is steeped in truth, and after three year as one of the few Black women in the trenches of mainstream publishing, Zakiya Dalila Harris had a wealth of material to borrow from for her provocative and sharp debut novel. The action centers on a Black editorial assistant whose dream job turns into her worst nightmare when a second Black girl enters the mix, and instead of sisterly camaraderie, she gets competition and gaslighting. The tension and danger escalate from there. With its arresting mix of sly social commentary, subtle horror and suspense, I found this book to be thoroughly and viscerally entertaining. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams (physical book available at the library): I’ve always loved old-school thrillers. But their protagonists were always men. I wanted to read about women like those hard-boiled men, smart and sharp-witted loners caught up in political and historical forces larger than themselves. In Beatriz Williams’ Our Woman in Moscow, I’ve found one: Ruth Macallister, a former model who’s thrust into a Cold War missing-person mystery after her twin sister, Iris, and Iris’ U.S. diplomat husband disappear in London–and then reappear, four years later, in Moscow. The less glamorous Iris saved her sister’s life when they were children; now it’s Ruth’s turn to do the rescuing. Williams borrows liberally from the thriller and noir genres, with dead drops, double-crosses and lots of drinking and smoking. Real spies–of the Cambridge variety–make appearances. This book is a breezy, welcome twist on a genre that, decades after the end of the various wars–both World and Cold–I haven’t bored of yet. -Maureen Pao, editor, NPR’s Digital News Desk
  • Outlawed by Anna North (physical book available at the library): An old Western with a young female protagonist? Count me in! I almost finished this book in one sitting–just couldn’t stop reading. There’s the young Ada at its center, navigating a world that’s told her she doesn’t belong. She joins a band of outlaws in search of answers and a better future. Along the way, there’s a love story, bank robberies, gun battles and an epic road trip. -Elissa Nadworny, correspondent, NPR Ed
  • The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (physical book available at the library): This book is about a middle-aged woman facing a choice: stay with the husband she loves, or leave him and embark on an entirely different life with her childhood sweetheart, the only man who knows her deepest secrets. The pages drip with longing and desire. And they pose an intriguing question: How do we know if we’re living the life we were meant to lead? If you’re looking for a beach read–one you can’t put down but that also make you think–this is a great choice. -Mary Louise Kelly, host, NPR’s All Things Considered
  • People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry (physical book available at the library): For another year in a row, Emily Henry provided me some much-needed escapism. Poppy and Alex are best friends who vacation together each year. The book flip-flops from their pivotal trips (Tuscany, New Orleans, Croatia…) to the present day and chronicles their history from first meeting to when they became close to when things fell apart as adults. They’re polar opposites who are never in the right time in their lives to be together, despite their intense attraction. I found myself screaming at them but also asking the same questions they ask themselves, about safety, comfort and misread romantic gestures. You might think you know how romance novels end, but this was one of those books I couldn’t put down at night, even though I really should have been asleep–I wasn’t sure if things would turn out the way they always do. The slow-burn journey to love makes it all worth it. -Anjuli Sastry Krbechek, producer, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders
  • The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (physical book available at the library): This novel tells a fictionalized tale about a very real woman: Belle da Costa Greene, one of the “it” girls of the turn of the 20th century. As the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan, one of the richest and most powerful men in America at the time, Belle crisscrossed Europe acquiring rare art and manuscripts for Morgan’s personal library. She also led a glittering social life in the upper echelons of Gilded Age New York. But the whole time, Belle was keeping a huge secret: She was “colored,” in the parlance of that time, and passing for white. Authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray imagine how Belle navigated a world she wasn’t born into, why she chose to pass, and what the cost of keeping that lifelong secret might have been. -Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent, NPR’s Code Switch
  • Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): There are many reasons why Harjo is the first Native American to be named United States poet laureate–and only the second person to hold that post for at least three terms, and they’re all on display in this book. More than a straightforward memoir, this is a biographical survey that focuses on the people, poetry and music that shaped Harjo’s life. It’s also a spiritual guide for those who want to learn how to forgive, move forward and focus on the positive things in life. -Gabino Iglesias, book critic and author of Coyote Songs
  • The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber (physical book available at the library): For many families, paying for college is one of the biggest financial decisions they’ll make. But the process to do it–navigating financial aid, applying for scholarships, just figuring out how much a semester will actually cost–can be extremely opaque. Journalist Ron Lieber, who writes a personal finance column for The New York Times, offers families a behind-the-scenes look at college costs and insights on how to game the system to pay less for higher ed. -Elissa Nadworny, correspondent, NPR Ed
  • The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. (physical book available at library): This book broke my heart in a necessary way. It’s spectacular. A poetic queer love story and an excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation, it deserves every accolade. At the center are Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers, and an older enslaved man, Amos, who takes on the role of preacher as a way of securing some semblance of safety and power. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while being brutally unsparing about the system they live under and the desperate compromises they have to make. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • Putting It Together by James Lapine (physical book available at library): “Art isn’t easy” is a lyric in Stephen Sondheim’s song “Putting It Together,” from the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical he wrote with James Lapine, about pointillistic painter Georges Seurat. And that point is made over and over in Lapine’s remarkable book of the same title. Part memoir and part oral history, Lapine chronicles the creation of this landmark musical, with brutal honesty. While the collaboration was ultimately successful, the birthing process was often painful, as conversations in the book reveal. The book is truly a must-have for anyone interested in theater and how it’s put together. -Jeff Lunden, contributor, NPR’s Culture Desk
  • Radha & Jai’s Recipe for Romance by Nisha Sharma (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Radha had a panic attack and tanked the biggest kathak dancing competition of her life, and now she’s back at Princeton Academy with one last chance. Jai is the incredibly handsome captain of the Bollywood Beats dance team, but he’s got his own troubles. He understands Radha’s aversion to public performance and recommends that she choreograph the dance team’s Winter Showcase. But the school’s director knows that the seniors won’t win the Showcase if Radha doesn’t dance the lead role. Can she do it? Reader, I laughed, I googled words and I wept as I finished the book in the wee hours of the morning. It was a beautiful thing to witness both Jai and Radha find their joy. -Alethea Kontis, author and book critic
  • Ramadan Ramsey by Louis Edwards (physical book available at library): Louis Edwards takes us on a delightful journey from his hometown New Orleans to the Middle East, through the eyes of a boy in search of his identity. Ramadan is born of a forbidden romance between Mustafa, a Syrian immigrant, and Alicia, a young African American woman, who fall in love over a bag of chips at the corner store. Mustafa’s family whisks him back to Syria before he knows about his son. Ramadan endures much hardship, including a hurricane, before embarking on a global quest to meet his father. Edwards taps into how places, and secrets, shape our lives. -Debbie Elliott, correspondent, NPR’s National Desk
  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby (physical book available at library): S.A. Cosby is a master of gritty, propulsive crime fiction, and his latest novel is a jolt to the heart. This moody and bloody Southern Gothic thriller marries the skillful action and plotting of Lee Child with the atmosphere and insight of Attica Locke. At the center are two battle-scarred, middle-aged men, one Black, one white, who know their way around trouble. Though they were in-laws, they’re virtual strangers suddenly brought together when their adult children are gunned down in cold blood. United in grief and determination, they’ll do whatever it takes to get rough justice for their murdered sons. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • Real Estate by Deborah Levy (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): This final volume of British writer Deborah Levy’s bracing autobiographical trilogy finds her wondering, on the cusp of both 60 and empty-nesthood, how and where she wants to live. Her career finally took off in her 50s after she left her husband, which gives her some leeway, though not quite enough to afford the “un-real estate” of her dreams. But this book isn’t really about dream houses or house lust. Levy’s multilayered, playful musings concern a different sort of property ownership–of one’s own life. The point, she reminds us, is to create a life for yourself in which you feel most at home. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • Red Island House by Andrea Lee (physical book available at library): Shay, the lead of this lyrical novel, is a Black American intellectual and expatriate newly married to Senna, an older, wealthy Italian man. When Senna builds his dream house in a remote part of Madagascar, he says it’s for her, but they both know it’s really his fantasy. So they alternate between a good life in Italy and lengthy, destabilizing interludes on the island, where Shay is thrust into the awkward role of plantation mistress while her husband plays the white lord of the manor. The novel offers fascinating glimpses into class, culture and Malagasy society–territory that Lee knows intimately–alongside gorgeous writing. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): If you like fantasy, you’ve probably read 500 versions of the same story–noble hero overthrows a corrupt monarch and promises to rule the land with a just and even hand. But what happens next? When the rebellious outsider becomes the most powerful person in the kingdom, will they still be able to tell what justice looks like? In this book–the sequel to 2020’s Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko follows her characters into that second phase, where suddenly they have to confront the painful contradictions of having the last word–or at least seeming to. -Leah Donnella, supervising editor, NPR’s Code Switch
  • Remember by Lisa Genova (physical book available at library): This is a long-overdue user’s manual for memory. In a year where it felt like we were all collectively losing our marbles, it is a salve. Genova introduces us to folks who have no ability to remember, folks with impeccable memories who can’t forget, and to normals like us who forget to do things like take out the trash but remember every lyric to the 1996 hit song “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. Genova reassures us that forgetting is normal (famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma once forgot his $2.5 million cello in the back of a cab!). She also reminds us that who we are is largely based on the memories we’ve kept and–just as importantly–the things we’ve forgotten. -Lauren Migaki, senior producer, NPR Ed
  • Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): When the COVID-19 pandemic hits, Malian is visiting her grandparents on a Wabanaki reservation. Now sheltering with them away from her parents and her school in Boston, she struggles with her own isolation and pandemic-related stress. It is in Malian’s grandparents’ stories that she learns how the people of her Indigenous community have always taken care of one another, through the government boarding schools and forced adoptions that tore Native American children from their families, and now COVID-19. Written in verse, this middle-grade novel shows us the pandemic through a child’s eyes and helps remind us that responsibility and caring for one another is something we all can do. (For ages 8-12) -Juanita Giles, Executive Director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival
  • Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule (physical book available at library): As people protest, counterprotest and counter-counterprotest the removal of Confederate statues in Virginia and other Southern states, and argue over the relevance of a 156-year-old war, Ty Seidule’s book provides an important and engaging history lesson. Seidule cuts down myths about the Confederacy and about Robert E. Lee, and makes it clear to anyone who doubts that their cause was deeply racist and wrong. The fact that this book is written by a Southerner, an Army veteran and a onetime Lee acolyte–a story Seidule weaves through the book, too–makes it all the more powerful. -Scott Detrow, correspondent, NPR’s Washington Desk
  • The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel (physical book available at library): A lifelong fitness freak, who’s embraced everything from martial arts to mountaineering, the author applies the same rigor to her analysis of her quest for a mind/body connection, which contains the sort of psychoanalytic layers, self-deprecating charm and ambitious complexities her fans have come to expect. -Neda Ulaby, correspondent, NPR’s Culture Desk
  • Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow (physical book available at library): Early in her affecting memoir, Kat Chow writes, “It is not incorrect to say that for years, the way my family grieved my mother was to avoid acknowledging her altogether.” Seeing Ghosts is a corrective to that silence, wherein Chow writes her mother “into being” and excavates her family history. A founding member of NPR’s Code Switch, Chow’s interest in race, identity and cultural history drives her memoir’s larger project, tracing her family from southern China to Hong Kong, Havana and the United States. The result is a meditation on what we owe our ancestors, generational grief’s root system and the melancholia of loss. -Kristen Martin, writer and book critic
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (physical book available at library): Fresh off of winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich follows up with The Sentence, an intimate novel that’s a bit offbeat, yet filled with mordant humor. The story spans one year, from All Souls’ Day 2019 to All Souls’ Day 2020, in the life of Tookie, a Native American woman in Minneapolis. Tookie’s fresh out of prison and working at Birchbark Books–the same store Erdrich owns in real life–when she finds herself having to fend off a stubborn spirit as the novel coronavirus begins to wreak havoc in the country and the killing of George Floyd sparks outrage in their city, then the world. -Keishel Williams, book critic and editor
  • Seven Days in June by Tia Williams (physical book available at library): Eva and Shane meet when they are damaged teens on the same high school campus. They both have been traumatized by abuse–and the need to shrug off their trauma. The two become confidants and lovers for seven magical days their senior year–and then Shane disappears. Eva is devastated. Twenty years later, both are hugely successful authors. An awards show brings them together again; there’s passion–and a lot of wariness. Tia Williams does a great job of plumbing the hesitancies of emotionally gun-shy people and satirizing bougie Black literary life in this wonderfully adult romance. -Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent, NPR’s Code Switch
  • Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim (physical book available at library): When a princess discovers she can do forbidden magic, her evil stepmother curses her and turns her brothers into cranes. “The Six Swans” has long been one of my favorite Grimm fairy tales, and Elizabeth Lim’s reimagining of it does not disappoint. It takes all the tropes–the princess in disguise as a kitchen wench, the enchanted brothers, the kindly prince–and twists them just enough to make them fresh, rendering this retelling more nuanced and compassionate than the original tale. -Caitlyn Paxson, book critic
  • Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen (physical book available at library): This is not your typical little mermaid! In Skin of the Sea, debut author Natasha Bowen brings to life West African myth, religion and history in an action-packed, nail-biting story about Simi, a Black mermaid tasked with collecting the souls of enslaved people who are thrown into the sea during the crossing from Africa, and granting them safe passage. But Simi is only supposed to pick up the souls of dead people. When she saved a living boy, she sets in motion the wrath of vengeful gods and has to face the truth and trauma about the slave trade. This is a great novel about power and who deserves to have it. -Keishel Williams, book critic and editor
  • Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford (physical book available at library): Ashley Ford’s riveting memoir is an honest, heartbreaking story about her father’s incarceration and the resulting family trauma. Her story is about race and family and about how the choices we make, plus those forced upon us, can complicate the trajectory of our lives. Ford writes with a refreshing and riveting candor. This book is not only a coming-of-age Midwestern tale with all the typical concerns about body image and mother-daughter tension, but also a sharp commentary on the harsh realities of growing up as a Black person in Indiana. Ford also gives us an important glimpse of how prison shapes the daughters left behind. -Asma Khalid, White House correspondent, NPR’s Washington Desk
  • Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be by Nichole Perkins (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Nichole Perkins is a master storyteller like no other. This collection of intimate essays showcases her warm, inviting, provocative voice as she opens up about facets of her life and personality you might not have known from her podcasting or other writing. On one page, you’ll find yourself thinking about your formative life experiences and what it might take to be more fully and unapologetically yourself, and on the next you’ll feel like you’re out with a friend hearing about the latest hilarities of dating. Enjoy breezing through this book and don’t be surprised when you wish for more once it’s over. -Kelsey Page, senior associate, NPR’s Audience Relations
  • Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (physical book available at library): Rivers Solomon’s previous books were set in outer space and the depths of the ocean; this book takes root in the nightmarish soil of the contemporary United States. Vern, a pregnant Black teenager on the run from a cult, gives birth to twins alone in the woods. She raises her children while stalked by a threatening presence she thinks of as “the fiend.” But something even more transformative than pregnancy is happening to Vern’s body, causing turbulent illness and superhuman powers by turn, and she and her twins set out on a dangerous journey to find help and understanding. -Amal El-Mohtar, book critic and co-author of This Is How You Lose the Time War
  • The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam (physical book available at library): This book is an incisive satire about faith, technology and intimacy in the modern world. When three close friends (two of whom are a couple) form a startup to create customized spiritual experiences that help the masses connect, it has the ironic effect of blowing their relationships apart. What’s especially thorny is that while the algorithm and research that make the tech work belong to South Asian American Asha, her charismatic white husband is the star the media and investors want to see. Tahmima Anam’s novel is a thought-provoking skewering of startup culture specifically–but because Americans revere tech and its leaders, we all share in those sins. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • The State Must Provide by Adam Harris (physical book available at library): Did you go to an HBCU? And did you ever, like author Adam Harris did, travel a few miles or even a few blocks away to a state-funded predominately white institution (PWI) and wonder why the library was so much bigger, the books so much newer or the gym so much better? Harris retraces the history of the funding strategies that all but ensured that historically Black college and universities would never compete on a level playing field. What he uncovers is shocking but not surprising: States would spend millions to keep institutions segregated and HBCUs underfunded but wouldn’t spend that same coin to actually improve their facilities. It sounds like a harsh meal, but it’s food for thought–and a call to action to anybody who cares about educational equity. -Michel Martin, host, NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered
  • Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous by Suzanne Park (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Feisty Sun-Hee Song is a 17-year-old Korean American influencer who ends up in a digital detox camp after a slightly PG-13 moment goes viral. She’s forced to spend a month in the cornfields of Iowa among celebrities with no digital devices whatsoever–except the burner phone she smuggled in. Sunny’s in the running for an exclusive influencer contest, and she actually has a shot! But the other competitor is the meanest girl in camp, who has 10 times Sunny’s following. And is maintaining her social status worth risking her adorable budding romance with the farm family’s youngest son? An absolute joy to read. -Alethea Kontis, author and book critic
  • The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris (physical book available at the library): This is an American saga about a small Georgia community trying to find its footing after emancipation and the trauma of the Civil War. Two young freedmen, brothers from a local plantation, are hiding out in the woods, trying to avoid their obstinate former master until they can make their way north. They find unlikely but steadfast allies in the eccentric white family who own the land. It’s a thoughtful, emotional and humane story and a surprising page turner full of twists and turns. The issues this book raises feel strikingly resonant right now. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Summer is supposed to be fun, right? But when developers threaten Wes’ close-knit community, he gets yanked into the controversy. In Chrystal D. Giles’ delightful, humorous and empowering debut novel, Take Back the Block, tensions are raised as the reality of gentrification is brought to the forefront. Wes is torn as neighbors, friends and family take sides, arguing about what is to be gained, and lost. Though the last thing he wants to be is an activist, Wes wonders if maybe he has something worth saying. (For ages 8-12) -Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius
  • Taste by Stanley Tucci (physical book available at the library): This is the perfect morsel of a book if Stanley Tucci has ever made the list of your dream dinner party guests. Tucci warmly and generously serves tales of the meals that accompanied laughter and heartbreak throughout his life, cooking tips you’ll marvel that you once lived without and countless recipes made more flavorful and elegant by their simplicity. There’s his infamous Negroni, the only tomato sauce you’ll ever need and every imaginable improvement on pasta. Crucially, if you ever do find yourself across the table from Stanley Tucci, for the love of all things culinary, don’t you dare cut your spaghetti. -Elena Burnett, production assistant, NPR’s All Things Considered
  • That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (physical book available at the library): Irish author Kevin Barry has never shied away from the dark side, but he’s always had a touch of the romantic underneath his hard-boiled prose. In his new short story collection, he casts a wide net, writing about a varied cast of people–some hardened by life, some still vulnerable–living in western Ireland. He evokes the landscape of the human heart beautifully, but his greatest accomplishment is his understanding of the ways our collective psyche works. There’s not a bad story in this collection, and it’s as accomplished a book as Barry has ever written. -Michael Schaub, book critic
  • These Precious Days by Ann Patchett (physical book available at the library): Ann Patchett, beloved writer, bookstore owner and friend to many, gives readers more reasons to love her with this new essay collection. The centerpiece is the title essay–a tribute to Sooki Raphael, Tom Hanks’ longtime personal assistant and an artist whom Patchett befriended and helped in the difficult final years of her life. (Sooki’s soulful painting of Patchett’s dog adorns the book’s cover.) This isn’t the only essay that moved me to tears: There are lovely pieces about Patchett’s three fathers (biological and two steps); about what opening her Nashville bookstore has meant to her; and about the intimations of mortality induced by her induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This heartwarming book reminds us to make the most of our precious days. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall (physical book available at the library): This creative and creepy thriller kept me up all night. As a digital archaeologist, young, bright and inquisitive Michaela pieces together a person’s life story from the artifacts they hold dear, transforming them into a supercharged, high-tech scrapbook. Now she’s tasked with helping an older woman obsessed with memorabilia make a record of her own life before the memories slip away. But just as she’s getting started, that client is found dead with a plastic bag over head. Though a note points to suicide, there’s plenty of room for doubt, and Michaela is determined to find the truth no matter the danger. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan (physical book available at the library): Broken into sections on caffeine, mescaline and opium, this book might (briefly) persuade you to switch to decaf or change how you look at that cactus in your neighbor’s yard. But the heart of this book is an old magazine article Pollan wrote when he was a gardening columnist during the mid-’90s War on Drugs. He had colorful poppies in his backyard and wondered whether he could homebrew an opium tea. What could possibly go wrong? Now that attitudes toward drugs have become a bit looser and with the benefit of 2021 hindsight (hello, Purdue Pharma!), it is well worth picking up a copy for that section alone. It’ll get you thinking, in that gentle Michael Pollan way, about where society draws the line between good/bad, natural/synthetic, challenging/threatening. -Liz Baker, producer, NPR’s National Desk
  • The Three Mothers by Anna Malaika Tubbs (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Reams of material have been written about Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. But Anna Malaika Tubbs looks at the lives of their mothers. We discover that though their paths were very different, all three women were instrumental in shaping their sons’ lives. Louise Little was an activist, Berdis Baldwin encouraged her son’s creativity, and Alberta King gave young Martin lessons in faith and social justice. All three mothers ended up outliving their sons. Their stories add needed dimension to the ones we thought we knew. -Emiko Tamagawa, senior producer, NPR’s Here & Now
  • Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): This winningly titled baker’s dozen is bookended on one end by the title tale, which was first published in 1966, and on the other by a powerful new story. Written in 2020, “The Great Escape” checks in on Hilma Wolitzer’s longtime recurring couple–melancholic Howard and garrulous Paulie–at 90, just as the pandemic hits New York. Like her novels, Wolitzer’s stories delve into the vicissitudes of love and marriage with wisdom, wit and warmth. But brace yourself for the last one, which masterfully demonstrates literature’s power to move and console. -Heller McAlpin, book critic
  • Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff (physical book available at the library): When 11-year-old Bug tries to prepare to enter middle school, it’s not as easy as it seems. Bug’s best friend Moira spends her time putting on makeup and checking out cute boys, but Bug has no interest. As Bug tries to manage leaving tomboy-hood behind, the ghost of recently-gone Uncle Roderick seems to be haunting the house. But why? What is he trying to help Bug figure out? A beautiful middle-grade novel about grief, self-realization and acceptance, Too Bright to See is a heart-rending tale of Bug’s transgender journey, with plenty of creepy ghost story thrills. (For ages 10 and up) -Juanita Giles, Executive Director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival
  • Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Author Atinuke raises the bar and shows the world what a quick, funny, smart early chapter book can be. Tola lives in an apartment in Lagos, Nigeria, with her Grandmommy, brother and sister. In three perfectly paced tales, she uses her cleverness to prove to the world that size isn’t everything. Atinuke can make everyday life in Lagos accessible to any child reader. A true standout. (For ages 7 to 9) -Betsy Bird, book critic and author of Long Road to the Circus
  • The Turnout by Megan Abbott (physical book available at the library): Sisters Dara and Marie Durant run their family ballet school, with Dara’s husband, Charlie, once a student there. When Marie accidentally burns one of their studios down, a “dance mom” recommends a contractor named Derek. The bulky, leering Derek transfixes them all so that renovations go far beyond necessary, just as ballet bodies turn out far past possibility. But what hold does Derek have on Marie, and what hold does Marie have on Dara and Charlie? As the annual clock ticks down to Nutcracker Week, all will be revealed, building up to a pain as exquisite as being en pointe. -Bethanne Patrick, book critic
  • Unspeakable by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (physical book available at the library): Carole Boston Weatherford, a master of children’s nonfiction, transports readers back to Greenwood, aka Black Wall Street, not only to the day of the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years ago, but also to the days preceding the tragedy. She and Floyd Cooper paint a portrait of the thriving community, and by bringing Greenwood back to life, they make the loss feel all the more devastating. Cooper, whose grandfather lived in Tulsa at the time, was a beloved figure in the children’s literature community who, sadly, died earlier this year. Unspeakable is a fitting capstone to a career and life. (For ages 8 to 12) -Minh Le, author of Lift and Green Lantern: Legacy
  • Until Proven Safe by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley (physical book available at the library): I picked up this book with a degree of dread. Who wants to remain, even intellectually, in that claustrophobic place in which we slunk and mouldered our way through 2020 and 2021? But this book is not a hastily assembled response to the pandemic. Instead it’s a witty, charming consideration of one of our oldest and most effective responses to danger. I found it oddly comforting. -Annalisa Quinn, book critic
  • Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (physical book available at the library): Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s newest novel takes place in 1970s Mexico City, toward the start of the country’s Dirty War. At the center of the story is Maite, a 30-year-old secretary who leads a lonely, boring life amid the political tumult. She prefers to escape into romance novels and rock music. But when her neighbor goes missing under strange circumstances, Maite soon finds herself deep in a world of danger, dissidents and radical artists, all while she’s being followed by an eccentric criminal named Elvis. Pro tip: Be sure to listen to the novel’s playlist on Spotify while you read to be completely transported back in time. -Nina Fill, executive assistant at NPR
  • Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders (physical book available at the library): Tina Mains seems like an normal human teenager–except for the interplanetary beacon stuck in her chest. Pursued by alien assassins, she escapes (along with her best friend, Rachael) aboard an understaffed, broken-down spaceship called Indomitable and becomes the ultimate prize in a battle between two galactic superpowers. Since neither really wants to go back to Earth, Tina and Rachael join the Indomitable’s crew, recruit a super-team of teenage Earth nerds to round out the wildly diverse crew of misfits, and run off across the galaxy to try to save themselves, the Royal Fleet (and everyone else) from the evil Compassion. Victories begins as a kind of Midwestern, geeks-vs-bullies high school drama, ends as a modern re-skin of a classic, pulpy space opera, and in between Anders gets to spin a heartfelt and action-packed coming-of-age story about friendship, acceptance, loyalty and finding your own way in the world, all dressed in the spaceships-and-alien-assassins trappings of YA science fiction. -Jason Sheehan, author and book critic
  • Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin (physical book available at the library): When a family pulls over on the side of the road to pick watercress, the young daughter is filled with a deep sense of shame at having to pick their dinner from a ditch. But as she learns more about her family’s past, that shame transforms into a newfound appreciation. Andrea Wang’s heartfelt and nuanced intergenerational story comes to life through Jason Chin’s brilliant watercolors, making Watercress a feast for the senses. But be warned: Comes prepared with tissues. (For ages 4 to 8) -Minh Le, author of Lift and Green Lantern: Legacy
  • We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba (physical book available at the library): This essay collection outlines the immediate need for abolition of prisons and policing by explaining how these systems perpetuate violence and harm. Full of altruistic grace, accessible language and thoughtful analysis, it’s a must-read: Our future, Kaba argues, depends on recognizing how our learned punishment mindset routinely damages lives. It’s a helpful text for those new to the fight for abolition, veteran organizers and everyone in between. -LaTesha Harris, editorial assistant, NPR Music
  • We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz (physical book available at the library): Emily and Kristen, two longtime best friends, are on a backpacking trip in Chile when a hookup goes awry and a male traveler ends up dead. This is the second time they have found themselves in this predicament: overseas, traumatized and having to dispose of a body. How could this happen twice? I devoured this book and didn’t want it to end. Beneath the thrilling cliffhangers and impeccably paced plot lies a very sharp portrait of female friendship and how magical and intense it can be. -Molly Seavy-Nesper, digital producer, NPR’s Fresh Air
  • What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy (physical book available at the library): We know, in a general, macro-level sense, what happened after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Governments failed. Companies profited. But in this book, the author brings us the vivid, micro-level details of the lives of survivors. Her characters are stratified by class and country, but connected by guilt and grief. That we know another massive earthquake isn’t too far in their future only adds to the weight of Chancy’s writing. -Andrew Limbong, reporter, NPR’s Culture Desk
  • What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): This novel is as dark and poetic as it is devastating and emotionally gritty. But what makes it unforgettable is that it’s so close to the reality of immigration worldwide that it could almost be dipping its toes into nonfiction. A harrowing account of illegal migration gone wrong, this is one of those rare narratives that obliterates your belief in humanity–and then somehow manages to restore it. -Gabino Iglesias, book critic and author of Coyote Songs
  • While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory (physical book available at the library): Jasmine Guillory is the queen of charming romance novels. In her sixth book, we meet ad exec Ben Stephens and movie star Anna Gardiner, who hit it off at a marketing campaign meeting and end up falling into a just-for-cameras relationship (with some fun benefits too). Unfortunately, romantic feelings (as they always do) get in the way of this arrangement. You might remember Ben from one of Guillory’s last book, The Wedding Date–the brother of uptight Theo. The best part about Guillory’s books is revisiting these characters and guessing who will show up in subsequent novels. Guillory’s writing style is addictive, but she also tackles heavy themes. I can guarantee you’ll finish this book quickly and want to check out her other ones. -Anjuli Sastry Krbechek, producer, It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders
  • White Magic by Elissa Washuta (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): This book explores iterations of magic and witchiness including everything from the Native rituals that shape Elissa Washuta’s Cowlitz heritage to smudge sticks packaged in plastic. The book unfolds in three mesmerizing acts, like a magic show; across the intertwining essays, Washuta is drawn to magic as a method of healing from a decade of abusive relationships, alcoholism and PTSD, looking for meaning and control. Standouts include an essay about playing the classic computer game Oregon Trail as a coping mechanism, and one on her home state of New Jersey as a “land of genocidal fairy tales.” -Kristen Martin, writer and book critic
  • Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews (physical book available at the library): Oh boy, friends, do you love a publishing mystery? A young woman named Florence Darrow, down on her luck and yearning to become a famous author, is hired to become the assistant to a bestselling writer who publishes under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. Trying to break a bad spell of writer’s block, the two head to Morocco. To say any more would be unfair to your future self who will want to reread this to see what you missed, but suffice to say, this one is a thriller. Who are you rooting for? No one, who cares? Both “Maud” and Florence are deliciously difficult ladies This book is for lovers of Misery, The Talented Mr. Ripley and anyone whose speculation about the real identity of Elena Ferrante went just a smidge too far. -Barrie Hardymon, supervising senior editor, NPR’s Investigations Unit
  • Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card): Wild Rain is boldly feminist and unabashedly swoony. It’s about Spring, a Black female rancher who rescues–and then falls in love with–Garrett, a journalist passing through her part of Wyoming on assignment. In historical romances, Black men are too rarely afforded the space to be soft, sweet and supportive heroes who dote on their women and don’t mind when those women take the reins. But Garrett is all of those things, and that’s why I adored him. The way he knows when to stand up for Spring, while also knowing when to stand down, makes him all the more appealing. -Carole V. Bell, book critic
  • The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): I have a soft spot for fantasy inspired by Hungarian history, but there’s little softness in Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman, which takes Hungarian history and Jewish mythology and braids them into a complex, often brutal story. Unlikely allies, questions of identity, betrayal, nuanced exploration of identity and what it is to be a conquered people, what it is to inherit a dark legacy, survival in the face of erasure, deeply flawed protagonists, and body horror–the woods are dark and deep, my friends! And make for a compelling read. Although the ending is abrupt, this is a solid debut. -Jessica P. Wick, writer and book critic
  • Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman (physical book available at the library): This book made me–and I say this as the highest compliment–think about everything I am most afraid of thinking about. Jess Zimmerman weaves together Greek mythology about Medusa, Scylla, The Sphinx and others, with personal experiences and universal challenges, creating essays that give a framework to even the heaviest considerations: whether to have a child, what a meaningful partnership looks like, what it means to have a fulfilling life, how to want things when you’ve been taught not to. I can already tell that I will be revisiting this collection often, especially at times when I am feeling brave enough to look in the metaphorical mirror. -Kelsey Page, senior associate, NPR’s Audience Relations
  • Yearbook by Seth Rogen (physical book available at the library): What sets Seth Rogen’s book of essays apart from other books by Hollywood Famouses is his self-awareness. He’s a white Canadian stoner who knows he rode a wave of privilege into an A-list movie career. But with that privilege also comes legitimate comedy chops. He’s a masterful storyteller, sharing funny anecdotes from his childhood and his early years in Los Angeles. He also shares fantastically hilarious showbiz stories about folks like Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise. But his stories aren’t mean–he shares just enough to keep us normals entertained, but he also maintains boundaries with the reader. I love Seth Rogen’s movies, but I hope he writes more books in the future. -Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): The harrowing tale of Pheby Delores Brown begins in the 1850s when she is just 17 years old. Inspired by the real life of an enslaved woman in Virginia, Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife tells the story of Pheby and her connection to an infamous slave jail called the Devil’s Half-Acre–and the man who ran it. Johnson writes emotionally, passionately and fearlessly, blending the violence and insidiousness of slavery with the courage and strength of her characters. Throughout the story, threads of motherhood, family and sacrifice provide an anchor for hope, joy and love, making this novel a memorable journey to be discussed and cherished. -Denny S. Bryce, book critic
  • Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi (physical book available at the library): This is a story about two sisters and their complicated relationship. It’s also about coping when life gets messy and about what it takes to love your family and yourself. Mary H.K. Choi has proven yet again that she knows how to show the inside of a character’s mind better than anyone. As you witness Jayne and June navigate the complexities of early adulthood and the difficult situations they find themselves in–unstable housing, family secrets, disordered eating, cancer–you’ll find yourself wishing you could dive into their world and give them each a big hug (and maybe help them reform the healthcare system). -Kelsey Page, senior associate, NPR’s Audience Relations

Awesome Satiric Novels at the Jacksonville Public Library

Satiric novels can be so many different things. They can be bitter and angry or gentle and warm. They can be cruel to their targets or fond of them, or somewhere in between. To be satire, a novel has to use humor, irony, and exaggeration to critique something or someone, but that leaves a lot of room for tonal variety

And of course, satiric novels can have so, so many different subjects. They can criticize politics, academia, a particular social class, or certain attitudes about race. They can critique widely known subcultures, such as sports, schools, political campaigns, or workplaces. Satiric novelists seem to have great fun critiquing writers and readers.

In spite of their differences, it’s safe to say that satiric novels all excel at making readers think while they laugh… and laugh while they think. Even if the laughter is more of a pained wince, satires are comedic in nature. They set out to surprise and delight with their insights into the absurdity of humans.

And they set out to make readers see the world in a new way. They expose hypocrisy, mendacity, and ignorance. They make us rethink our opinions, beliefs, and self-conceptions. Many satires also show great fondness for human nature, even as they point out its flaws.

Here are some great satiric novels available at the Jacksonville Public Library as physical books:

  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty: What stands out about this book is, first, the amazing sentences, and second, the opening section where the main character appears before the Supreme Court. This book is jaw-dropping and jaw-droppingly good. The story is complicated and involves the narrator’s relationship with his father who was killed in a police shoot-out and the fact that the narrator’s California town was removed from the map and he wants it back. His solution to this problem is…well, there’s a reason he has to appear before the Supreme Court. This book is wild in the best way and is a hilarious, biting satire of America and American attitudes toward race.
  • Moo by Jane Smiley: Moo is a fun entry in a notable subcategory within satiric fiction: the academic satire. Jane Smiley’s 1995 novel takes place in a large midwestern agricultural school known as “Moo University,” probably based on Iowa State. The novel features a large cast of characters, including students, faculty, staff, and administration. Smiley tells their stories with energy and humor. She also addresses many social issues, including environmentalism, capitalism, feminism, and more. It’s a large, sprawling, immersive novel that entertains you, makes you laugh, and makes you think.
  • Straight Man by Richard Russo: The academic satire sub-genre is so fun, here’s another one! Straight Man is set at West Central Pennsylvania University and takes place over the course of a week. William Henry Devereaux, Jr. is the interim English Department chair who is proud to be bad at his job. He finds his department at risk because of looming budget cuts. In response, he stumbles on the idea of threatening to kill one of the campus geese until the budget problems are resolved. The story is ridiculous, very funny, and surprisingly charming and warm.
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: Interior Chinatown satirizes Hollywood, pop culture, and racial stereotypes. Willis Wu plays the role of “Generic Asian Man” but aspires to be “Kung Fu Guy.” To be a generic hero–to break out of stereotyped roles–seems way beyond reach. Charles Yu uses both the format of a screenplay and the second person point of view, making this an unusual reading experience. The novel experiments, but it also immerses readers in the world of Chinatown and in the world of aspiring actors. It brilliantly combines emotional warmth and sharp cultural critique.
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: This is a wonderfully entertaining novel as well as a satire of gothic literature and those dangerously obsessed with it. Catherine Morland falls in love with Henry Tilney and visits his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Rather than seeing the Abbey for what it is, Catherine is convinced the place harbors mysterious secrets. That’s what always happens in gothic novels after all, right? The novel gently mocks naïve readers while also telling a charming coming-of-age story.

Next time you want a book that will make you both laugh and think, give one of these novels a try!

Best New Physical Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks at the Library: November 2, 2021

  • King of the Blues by Daniel de Vise (physical book available at the library): When B.B. King died in May 2015, the world lost an artist whose distinctive style shaped several generations of musicians. Eric Clapton called King “the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” but as journalist Daniel de Vise points out in his absorbing new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, King’s journey to such acclaim was never easy. Drawing on extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of King’s inner circle, including family, friends and band members, de Vise chronicles King’s life from his birth into a sharecropper family in Mississippi, to his parents’ split, to his early years being raised by his grandmother. King loved gospel music and sand in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, bust most gospel groups didn’t have a guitar. One of his ministers taught King three chords on the guitar, and when he turned 16, King bought the fire-red Stella that would kick off his journey to becoming a master of the instrument. Soon enough, King left Mississippi for Memphis and became an international star. As de Vise points out, though, King always looked over his shoulder at the poverty and scenes of racial injustice out of which he had grown, incorporating those deep feelings of loss into his music so that his listeners could feel his sorrow as be bent the blues through his guitar strings. King of the Blues is the first full and authoritative biography of King, and it accomplishes what all good music books should: It drives readers to revisit King’s music and savor it again.
  • The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski (physical book available at library): Major League Baseball fans, you just won the lottery. In The Baseball 100, noted sports writer Joe Posnanski presents 880 pages of sheer baseball bliss, discussing the history of the game by examining the lives, obstacles and achievements of his nominations for the 100 greatest players of all time, including MLB stars and players from the Negro Leagues. It’s a true masterwork, and his writing is so good that it’s likely to engross even those who know nothing about the sport. Avid baseball fans will easily become absorbed in these pages, and when they reemerge, they’ll be all too ready to debate Posnanski’s rankings. He’s prepared for this, writing, “I stand firmly behind them, and I expect you to come hard at me with vigorous disagreements. What fun would it be otherwise?” In fact, the author even teases, “I have a list of more than 100 players who could have made this list. I think I’ll save them in case the Baseball 100 ever needs a volume 2.” Perhaps he’d better start writing now.
  • Archangel’s Light by Nalini Singh (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Nalini Singh pens an enthralling read in Archangel’s Light. Young warrior angels Illium and Aodhan are committed to putting the world to rights after a devastating supernatural war. Their archangel, Raphael, directs Aodhan to help rebuild the territory of China, which separates him from Illium, his oldest and dearest friend. But when Illium is sent to support the venture as well, the friends have an opportunity to confront new evil as well as old hurts. There’s a chilling mystery at the center of the story–a hamlet of 50 people seems to have vanished into thin air–but the relationship between Aodhan and Illium drives the narrative. As Singh explores the strain that mars their connection, it’s impossible not to root for the pair to find their way back to each other’s hearts and souls–and into a new intimacy. This 14th romance in Singh’s Guild Hunter series is engrossing, entertaining and filled with tender emotion.
  • Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card): Nnedi Okorafor’s singular voice is on full display in the sci-fi thriller Noor. Anwuli Okwudili is a Nigerian girl who was born with deformities in her legs and one of her arms, intestinal malrotation and only one lung. After a car accident further limits the use of her legs and gives her debilitating headaches and memory issues, Anwuli gets a whole raft of biomechanical body enhancements. Viewed as half human and half machine, she flees her village after killing several men who attacked her and tries to stay ahead of a reckoning she knows is coming. A leading voice in the subgenre of African futurism, Okorafor’s power on the page is confident, vivid and uniquely her own. Her examination of technology’s influence on health, nature, local communities and so many other parts of life is as precise as it is disturbing. Noor is a cautionary thriller, told with exuberance and conviction.
  • You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy (e-audiobook available on the Libby app with your library card): In this book, New York Times contributor Kate Murphy delivers tips on how we can improve our listening skills, stop getting sidetracked and focus on the present. In a brisk and lively narrative, she talks with professional listeners (including a CIA agent and the production team of NPR’s “Fresh Air”) and checks in with psychologists and sociologists for insights into the process of listening. A rewarding selection for reading groups, Murphy’s book offers numerous discussion topics, including technology’s impact upon communication and the human need for connection.
  • All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Wanda M. Morris’ debut novel, All Her Little Secrets is a multilayered, atmospheric thriller with subplot atop subplot. It’s really hard to even scratch the surface while discussing it. The main characters are Atlanta corporate attorney Ellice Littlejohn, a Black woman who is the lead counsel for a thriving transport company; her brother Sam, a ne’er-do-well who skates very close to the edge of legality, and sometimes over the edge; her auntie Vera, once a ball of fire, now laid low by advancing episodes of dementia; and CEO Nate Ashe, a Southern gentleman who might be looking out for Ellice’s interests but who also might be a corrupt businessman attuned to the optics of displaying a minority woman in a position of power. Then there is a murder, and another, and it becomes next to impossible for Ellice to determine who is in her corner. Examinations of racism, sexism, ageism and classism abound, making this a very timely read, in addition to being a wonderful debut.
  • Silverview by John le Carre (physical book available at the library): When John le Carre passed away in December 2020, he left a gift behind for his readers: Silverview, one last novel from the master of espionage. The story goes that le Carre began work on the book nearly a decade ago, but it was held for publication as the author “tinkered” with it. The tinkering paid off. Silverview is one of his best works, an intricate cat-and-mouse tale in which just who is the feline and who is the rodent is up in the air until the final pages. Julian Lawndsley has recently moved to a small town by the sea, and taken over the running of a local bookstore. When he meets Polish émigré Edward Avon, Julian is virtually bowled over by the larger-than-life demeanor of the elderly white-haired gentleman. Together they hatch a plan to expand Julian’s store. Meanwhile in London, British intelligence has launched an investigation into a long-ago incident in Edward’s life, one that suggests he may still be in the spy game. If this is true, it’s anybody’s guess who his employer might be, for it is certainly not the home team. Not that the home team could even remotely be considered the good guys, mind you. But I suppose treason is treason, irrespective of the morality of the players. Perhaps even more world-weary in tone than the le Carre books that preceded it, Silverview will make readers look askance at the sort of things their countries do on the world stage.
  • The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): “The Arctic had a way of reminding you that your life was unimportant, expendable, and easily extinguished,” writes Nathaniel Ian Miller in his stellar first novel. He knows this harsh environment all too well, having lived there as part of the annual Arctic Circle artist and scientist expeditionary program. During his residency, he happened upon a century-old hut where a hermit once lived on an otherwise uninhabited fjord. The discovery inspired Miller to write a fictional account of the man’s life. The result, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, seems so authentic in both detail and slightly archaic narrative voice that it’s easy to forget it’s not an actual memoir. Growing up in Stockholm, Sven Ormson dreams of polar exploration and reads not only famous, heroic accounts but also all of the “terminally dull voyage narratives” he can get his hands on. At age 32, he sets out for Spitsbergen, a Norwegian archipelagic isle in the Arctic Circle, where he begins working in a dangerous, soul-sucking mine. Before long, a horrific accident leaves him disfigured and “resolved to spend [his] life alone” as an Arctic trapper. And he’s hardly a gifted trapper. Thus begins a truly walloping tale of solitude and survival told in visceral detail, a combination of Miller’s wild imagination and his beautifully precise prose. By design, the novel is so full of lengthy descriptions that a certain amount of perseverance is required of the reader. But Sven is an insightful yet comically ironic narrator, and there is often great excitement in his story, including “ice bear” attacks, near starvation, northern lights and the haunting sounds of calving glaciers. The arctic landscape is mostly barren, but Sven encounters a parade of quirky yet meaningful characters who appear, disappear and sometimes reappear in his life. He also offers a surprising amount of social commentary, touching on corporate greed, the plight of workers, the tragedy and senselessness of war, the rewards of canine-human-relationships, the necessity of intellectual pursuits and more. Although The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven is a vastly different book from Peter Heller’s The Guide, these two novels may appeal to the same audience: readers who love exquisite nature writing and crave no-holds-barred, extreme outdoor adventures. Miller goes one step further, however, by imbuing his novel with an unforgettable narrator who asks essential questions of human connection, a remarkable achievement for a novel ostensibly about solitude. What makes a family? What makes a devoted friend? What makes a great life? Like the arctic landscape itself, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven is beautifully stark and unimaginably rich, a book that will long be remembered by its lucky readers.
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (physical book available at the library): Readers first fell in love with Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, a gentle reflection on the titular character’s life and parental influence during an extended hospitalization. In Oh William!, it’s been years since Lucy left her first husband, William. But despite the many affairs he conducted during their marriage and her own affair that prompted her departure, they remain each other’s confidants. As the novel opens, Lucy has been widowed for a year after the death of her second husband, David. She explores her grief throughout the book, but her devotion to William also demands her attention. As in each of Strout’s novels about Lucy, her narration is nearly a stream of consciousness. The novel’s lack of chapter breaks reinforces its interior nature and invites readers to immerse themselves in Lucy’s ruminations. As Lucy contemplates her lasting bond with William, she considers their marriage and the ways their relationship has affected their daughters. It isn’t always clear whether Lucy likes or respects her ex-husband, but her tie to him is unbreakable, her curiosity about him unwavering: “I wondered who William was. I have wondered this before. Many times I have wondered this.” Likewise, William turns to Lucy, rather than to his current wife, when his sleep is disrupted by night terrors involving his late mother. And it’s Lucy he seeks when he confronts a secret his mother kept from him. Pulitzer Prize winner Strout is a master of quiet, reflective stories that are driven more by their characters than by events. Her fans will find plenty to love as Lucy and William set out to explore his family history. At each step, Lucy contemplates her relationships to the people around her. Though she often feels invisible, her ties to William, their daughters and the strangers they encounter remind her that she has a place in the world.
  • The Chancellor by Kati Marton (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): The key to Angela Merkel’s extraordinary political achievements lies in her beginnings. The first half of her life was spent in East Germany, where she withstood the pressures of a police state. She learned that freedom of thought and action cannot be taken for granted. As the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Merkel also believed in the importance of love as expressed by deeds, not just words, and in serving others. Although she became a brilliant physicist, she had wide interests and was quietly ambitious. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, she welcomed the chance to pursue politics in a united Germany. In The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, former NPR and ABC News reporter Kati Marton explores the public and very private life of the woman who served for 16 years as the head of the German state, which now generally reflects Merkel herself: stable, moderate and civil. Marton, who spent her childhood in Hungary during the Cold War under a totalitarian regime, is a perfect choice to write Merkel’s biography. Merkel’s rise was spurred on by a combination of self-control, strategic thinking, passive aggression and luck. In 1991, she assumed a cabinet position in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s newly unified Federal Republic of Germany. In 1998, however, after a political scandal, she publicly opposed his continuing in office. When she became chancellor in 2005, she did not bring specific policies to the office. Instead, she brought a belief in Germany’s permanent debt to the Jews; precise, evidence-based decision-making; and a loathing for dictators who imprison their own people. At an event for volunteers who had helped with refugee settlement, Marton asked Merkel which single quality sustained her during her long political life. Merkel responded, “Endurance.” Marton’s beautifully written, balanced and insightful biography should be enjoyed by anyone interested in global politics or a fascinating life story.
  • Little Thieves by Margaret Owen (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Vanja Schmidt has never led a charmed life. From a young age, she was forced to work as a maid at Castle Falbirg, where she suffered everything from petty cruelty to unspeakable abuse at her employers’ hands. Even Vanja’s friendship with Princess Gisele left her with more scars than support. So when Vanja saw a chance to swipe a magical string of pearls that she could use to steal Gisele’s identity, she seized it. After a year of posing as Gisele and continuing her covert crime spree, Vanja’s latest theft earns her a deadly curse from the goddess Eiswald. If Vanja can’t find a way to make up for her crimes in the next two weeks, the curse will turn her into the same precious gemstones she’s been stealing. To make matters worse, Eiswald sends her shape-shifting daughter to keep an eye on Vanja, there’s a frustratingly talented young detective hot on her trail–and the real Gisele is still out there, furious at Vanja’s betrayal. This colorful cast is the best part of Little Thieves, and author Margaret Owen pursues every opportunity for her strong-willed characters to clash, banter and bond with one another. Whether they are scheming over breakfast sausages or teaching knife tricks to orphans, the characters’ vivid personalities always shine through. Owen dedicates Little Thieves to “the gremlin girls,” and Vanja wears that descriptor as the honorific it’s intended to be. Vanja’s heists are clever, her insults are creative and her vulnerabilities are striking. She’s a complex protagonist, and Owen expertly demonstrates how her devious personality is simultaneously a flaw, a strength and the direct result of her past experiences. The compassion and sensitivity Owen displays toward Vanja will easily earn her a place in the hearts of all her fellow gremlins. Amid the book’s plentiful action scenes and witty repartee, Vanja also offers biting commentary on power and privilege. Characters wield authority over one another–whether through divine magic, mortal law, the threat of violence or familial obligation–and these power imbalances shape every interaction and drive the novel’s many intertwining conflicts. Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.
  • Bad Girls Never Say Die by Jennifer Mathieu (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in Bad Girls Never Say Die, a feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 classic, The Outsiders. It’s not quite the equal of Hinton’s grand slam, but Mathieu’s spin makes for a home run of a read. Evie Barnes is a self-described bad girl living in Houston in 1964. She joins her “tuff” girlfriends in skipping school, smoking and drinking. When Evie is attacked and almost raped by a drunk boy at a drive-in movie, she believes her bad-girl status has been cemented. No good girl would put herself in a position where she could get hurt by a boy, right? Wrong. Diane, the epitome of a good girl, stops the assault but unintentionally kills the boy. This sends Evie and Diane on a police-dodging odyssey of unexpected friendship as they discover what it really means to be a bad girl. The threat in Mathieu’s novel feels more existential than in Hinton’s. Yes, a young man attacks a young woman, but Mathieu also doubles down on the horrors that women face every day. In a moment of catharsis, Evie reflects, “It seems like if you want to really love and feel and breathe…you’re labeled trash. Or bad. Especially if you’re a girl.” Of course, that threat, which is the true antagonist of the story, has a name: patriarchy. And Mathieu knows its. It’s why every female character in the book is imbued with depth and purpose, no matter what side of town they’re from or how old they are. They’re all fighting the same cultural force that is determined to keep them down. Best known for Moxie, another YA novel about young women fighting “the man,” Mathieu offers another rallying cry in Bad Girls Never Say Die and proves it’s good to go bad.
  • Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth Lilly (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): The excitement of family gatherings is at the heart of Let Me Fix You a Plate: A Tale of Two Kitchens, inspired by Elizabeth Lilly’s childhood trips to see her grandparents. The book follows a girl, her two sisters and their parents as they visit their Mamaw and Papaw in West Virginia, then their Abuela and Abuelo in Florida, before finally returning to their own home. Lilly’s energetic illustrations capture details the narrator observes. At Mamaw and Papaw’s house, she sees a shelf of decorated plates, eats toast with blackberry jam and helps make banana pudding. Abuela and Abuelo’s house is filled with the sounds of Spanish and salsa music, and the girl picks oranges from a tree in the yard and helps make arepas. Lilly’s precise prose contributes to a strong sense of place. “Morning mountain fog wrinkles and rolls,” observes the girl in West Virginia, while in Florida, “the hot sticky air hugs us close.” Lilly’s line drawings initially seem simple, almost sketchlike, but they expertly convey the actions and emotions of every character, whether it’s Mamaw bending down to offer a bite of breakfast or a roomful of aunts and uncles dancing while Abuelo plays guitar. Like a cozy cuddle from a beloved family member, Let Me Fix You a Plate is a warm squeeze that leaves you grinning and a little bit breathless.

Best New Physical Books and E-Books at the Library: October 5, 2021

  • Keep Your Head Up by Aliya King Neil and Charly Palmer (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; picture book): “I wake up with my head down,” says D. He overslept because no one woke him up, and now Dad says they have to hustle. He walks to school feeling “scrunchy” as a cloud hovers above his head. “It can still be a good day,” he says. “Any day can be good if you try.” But D faces one disappointment after another: It’s a gym day, and he forgot to wear his gym uniform, so he can’t play kickball. In writing class, he gets the laptop with the sticky space bar. When he calls out the correct answer in math class, the teacher criticizes him for not raising his hand instead of praising him for having the right answer. When he accidentally makes a mess that leads to a meltdown during show and tell, D must go to the principal’s office. Once there, his day takes an unexpected turn. Keep Your Head Up is the debut picture book by journalist Aliya King Neil, with illustrations by Coretta Scott King Award winner Charly Palmer. Throughout this touching portrait of a child doing his best to manage a difficult day, D’s feelings of frustration and discouragement are palpable and create a sense of rising tension. Palmer’s illustrations feature thick, textured brushstrokes, and his impressionistic style enhances the emotional narrative. Parallels to Judith Viorst’s classic depiction of another boy and his “no good, very bad day” are obvious, but Neil never plays D’s troubles for laughs. Instead, she explores how the supportive adults in D’s life, including his parents and Miss King, the school principal, empower him to make positive decisions when it’s not easy to do so. Reading Keep Your Head Up would be an excellent way to begin a conversation about how to process the highs and lows of life. It’s a simple and powerful reminder to not let bad days get us down.
  • The Wish by Nicholas Sparks (physical book available at the library; popular fiction): Being a titan in romantic fiction comes with some expectations. People love–or maybe even need–a good cry, and when you’re a master of romance, they expect you to deliver one. It has never been hard for Nicholas Sparks to keep this promise, but when you’ve been writing love stories for 25 years, it can be difficult to meet, let alone surpass, expectations. However, as Sparks’ many fans know, his formula for bringing such romances to life is effective because we find ourselves truly caring for his characters, in spite of any reservations or presumptions. The Wish is a typical Sparks drama, familiar in the way that an old friend is: You know what that friend will say and how they’ll say it, but there’s still the possibility that you’ll be surprised by the infinite person they are inside. The novel follows Maggie Dawes throughout 2013, the last year of her life. She is a famous photographer diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when a young man named Mark comes to her gallery in search of a job, Maggie finds a confidante in him. She begins to reflect upon and tell her story before it’s too late. In 1996, at the age of 16, Maggie’s family sends her away to avoid the scandal of her pregnancy, and she’s taken in by an aunt who’s a former nun living on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Maggie spends her days feeling helpless and isolated until she meets Bryce, the only other person her age on the island of Ocracoke. When Bryce begins to tutor her, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that despite Maggie’s pregnancy and Bryce’s military dreams, the two are destined to be together. This far into his career, each of Sparks’ novels feels like a high school science experiment: Change the variables, add this, subtract this and see what happens. And though The Wish may seem obvious at times, when put into the larger picture of Sparks’ tragically tuned arch, the reader can see how such exaggerated emotion provides life, breath and blood to these near-perfect characters. The reader may wonder how much of Sparks’ writing process is spent trying out plot options and disregarding the failures–surely a lot, as the result is faultlessly executed. Sparks know how to pull your heartstrings, and as The Wish progresses, you know when to expect the punches. This doesn’t mean, however, that you want to dodge them. And just because you’re expecting a twist doesn’t mean that one won’t still form in your stomach. It’s comforting to know that there’s still a place you can go–besides your own intricate, messy life–for a reliable cry. With The Wish, Sparks reminds us that love, as predictable as it can be, will always move you in ways you can’t comprehend. Yes, it is idyllic, it is comforting, it is sentimental, but at the end of the day, you have to suspend logic and smile. It’s how we love.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): Fans of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, All the Light We Cannot See, have waited seven years for Cloud Cuckoo Land. But where All the Light We Cannot See focused on two characters during a single time period–the lead-up to the bombing of Saint Malo, France, in World War II–Cloud Cuckoo Land pings among different eras. In this multiple-timeline story, the large array of mostly young characters includes 13-year-old Anna, an orphan working in an embroidery workshop in 1453 Constantinople, and Omeir, a farm boy who’s conscripted into the sultan’s army as it prepares to lay siege to Constantinople in that same year. Moving forward in time, we meet Zeno, son of a Greek immigrant living in post-World War II Lakeport, Idaho; and Seymour, a lonely boy in present-day Lakeport. And in the future, 13-year-old Konstance lives aboard the Argos, a spaceship that’s left a ravaged Earth for a better planet. Threaded throughout their stories are sections of an ancient (fictional) Greek text titled “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which tells the story of Aethon, who wishes he could fly to a city in the clouds “where no one ever suffered and everyone was wise.” While the changes in points of view can be dizzying at first, Doerr’s writing grounds the reader in homely but often beautiful details: Anna’s daily rounds in the walled city; Omeir’s patient work with his oxen team, Moonlight and Tree; the friendship that Zeno finds with a British soldier when he’s a prisoner during the Korean War; the comfort that Seymour takes from the forest behind his trailer; and the stories told by Konstance’s dad to keep her occupied on their journey. Anna, Omeir, Zeno, Seymour and Konstance all face great loss and danger, and the reader keeps turning pages to discover not only whether each of them survive but also how they’re all linked. This is an ambitious, genre-busting novel, with climate change as a major undercurrent. And while sorrow and violence play large roles, so does tenderness. Like All the Light We Cannot See, Cloud Cuckoo Land resolves into a well-connected plot, with threaded connections that are unexpected yet inevitable, offering hope and some surprising acts of redemption.
  • Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes by Phoebe Robinson (physical book available at the library; humor): From dubbing Michael Keaton as “Eyebrow Zaddy” to writing a treatise on barrister wigs “looking like a sad Halloween costume and smelling like Seabiscuit’s haystack,” Phoebe Robinson is as hilarious as ever in her third book, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, the first title from the comedian-podcaster-actor-host’s new Tiny Reparations Books imprint. As in her previous memoirs-in-essay, not only is the bestselling author’s work super funny, it’s also enlightening and thought-provoking. Whether she’s offering advice to aspiring bosses, dismantling the “patriarchal narrative [that] every woman…wants the same things” (especially motherhood) or explaining why the #ITakeResponsibility initiative in the summer of 2020 enrages her (“celebrities heard but did not listen to what Black people wanted and raced to put together something so shoddy and tone-deaf”), Robinson’s voice is sure and strong. Her essay “Black Girl, Will Travel” is particularly moving. She explains that, while her parents are team “#NoNewFriendsOrAcquaintancesOrWorldlyExperiences,” one of the benefits of her career is the ability to see more of the world. It can be “downright terrifying and life-threatening to travel while Black”–and the lack of movies, books, shows and ads featuring Black people abroad certainly makes it seem as if travel isn’t for Black people. But visiting unfamiliar places has changed her, and she urges readers to remember “evolving can’t always happen when we’re confined to our area code.” In “4C Girl Living in Anything but a 4C World: The Disrespect,” Robinson describes a journey of a different kind: Her own rocky path to feeling at home in and with her hair. She examines the historical and cultural influences that have shaped Black women’s feelings about their hair and details the racism, colorism and cruelty that persists to this day. It’s a memorable, meaningful reading experience dotted with hits of poetry, anger and revelation–as is the book as a whole. So slip into your inside cardigan (a la Mr. Rogers) and settle in for another rollicking and resonant Robinson read.
  • A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris (physical book available at the library; family drama): How does one sum up the arc of a long life? That’s the intriguing question Joshua Ferris poses in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, a poignant, bitingly funny exploration of how a life that’s riddled with defeat may turn out, after all, to be profoundly meaningful. Inspired by the death of Ferris’ own father in 2014, the novel tells the story of Charlie Barnes, nicknamed “Steady Boy,” an investment adviser struggling in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse whose ambition is matched only by the number and magnitude of his professional and personal debacles. Charlie is a bundle of contradictions–an ethical money manager in a world of charlatans, and someone whose endlessly inventive mind conjures up bizarre moneymaking schemes that are distinctive only for their consistent failures, like a flying toupee called the Original Doolander or the Clown in Your Town, a franchised fleet of party clowns. But when, at age 68, Charlie is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he’s forced to confront his mortality and come to terms with a chaotic family life that has included five marriages–four of which ended badly–and has caused the bitter estrangement of his two eldest children. His youngest son, Jake, the only Barnes sibling who remains close to his father, is a novelist who takes on the project of chronicling Charlie’s “perfectly failed life.” From moments of rollicking humor to episodes of deep pathos, Jake strives to capture his father’s utterly ordinary, strikingly tumultuous biography with as much fidelity to the facts as he’s able to muster while keeping it “honest, but respectable.” In addition to its autofictional component, A Calling for Charlie Barnes contains a strong metafictional element, as Jake comments frequently and incisively on the challenges of storytelling, even assuming the mantle of unreliable narrator almost with a sense of pride: “Like reliability exists anywhere anymore,” he writes, “like that’s still a thing,” reminding the reader of “the power you have when you control the narrative.” Ferris’ control of his own narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for the frequent wicked curveballs he delivers with evident zest. A Calling for Charlie Barnes has plot twists as manifold as its protagonist’s cruelly dashed dreams, but when Steady Boy’s story reaches its end, it’s a reminder of how little we know about the ones we love and the fact that even the humblest life story encompasses unfathomable depths.
  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (physical book available at the library; historical fiction): “I guess you haven’t had your adventure yet,” 18-year-old Emmett Watson tells his 8-year-old brother, Billy, who responds, “I think we’re on it now.” And indeed they are, having set out in Emmett’s powder-blue 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser, planning to head west on the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental roadway. In light of their father’s recent death, their unlikely goal is to track down their mother–who abandoned them years ago–at a July 4th celebration in San Francisco. After mesmerizing legions of readers with the story of Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced in 1922 to spend the rest of his life in an attic room of a grand hotel in A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles takes to the open road in his superb, sprawling, cross-country saga, The Lincoln Highway. Although this great American road trip is quite a change of pace and scenery, Towles continues to transport readers, immersing them just as completely in the adventures of the Watson brothers as he did in the seemingly claustrophobic lives of Count Rostov and his young sidekick, Nina. Like Nina, young Billy is a creative, intelligent and essential companion to his older brother, and like Rostov, Emmett has had his own brush with the law. As the novel opens in June 1954, Emmett has just been released from an 18-month sentence in a juvenile work camp, having landed on “the ugly side of luck” in a manslaughter case involving a teenage bully. Soon after the Watson brothers start their quest, however, their grand plans are upended by two friends of Emmett’s from the work camp, Duchess and Woolly, who “borrow” the Studebaker and head to New York–forcing Emmett and Billy to stow away on a freight train and head east in hot pursuit. Packed with drama, The Lincoln Highway takes place in just 10 days, with chapters narrated by a variety of characters. Towles’ fans will be rewarded with many of the same pleasures they’ve come to expect from him: a multitude of stories told at a leisurely pace (the novel clocks in at 592 pages); numerous endearing and sometimes maddening characters; and pitch-perfect plotting with surprises at every turn. As if that weren’t enough, the novel is chock-full of literary references: a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation that sets the brothers off on their journey; allusions to The Three Musketeers (Emmett, Duchess and Woolly); a memorable Black World War II veteran named Ulysses; and scenes reminiscent of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, The Lincoln Highway is Towles’ unabashed love letter to books and storytelling. Late in the novel, a character tells Billy, “There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye…than a well-read copy of one of his books.” Towles has created another winning novel whose pages are destined to be turned–and occasionally tattered–by gratified readers.
  • A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris (physical book available at the library; humor): A journal is typically a writer’s innermost private thoughts, which should be beyond a critic’s purview. Many lives have mundane periods, so it seems unfair to deduct points for lack of action. And when the author of the journal is humor writer David Sedaris, the book critic wonders how many of these tales are actually real. All this is to say that A Carnival of Snackery is a difficult book to talk about. Sedaris shares nearly 600 pages of his diary entries from 2003 to 2020, and the emotions they provoke run the entire gamut. Sedaris’ political musings span from post-9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a globe-trotting author, he brings an outsider’s perspective to many historical moments. But his personal entries are the more touching ones. Sedaris is best known for his humor essays, in which his eccentric Greek American family members often appear. But A Carnival of Snackery invites the reader to share his family’s heartbreak and losses, too. Sedaris’ thoughts about his estrangement from his sister Tiffany, her eventual suicide and his difficult relationship with his conservative and judgmental father (complicated by Donald Trump’s presidency) are woven among his lighter entries. There are plenty of laughs to be had as well; one of the reasons readers love Sedaris is that he’s the first person to laugh at himself. This remains true in A Carnival of Snackery, especially as the bestselling author comes to grips with his late-in-life wealth. Sedaris tours constantly to promote his books, and several entries recount jokes that audience members have shared at book signings. A few of these jokes may be considered tasteless, but many will have you giggling in spite of yourself. There is plenty in A Carnival of Snackery that longtime Sedaris fans will love.
  • The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling (physical book available at the library; fantasy): A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling. The Death of Jane Lawrence takes place in an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain. The eponymous heroine is headstrong, wonderfully smart and knows that to live independently, she must wed. It seems illogical, but finding the right man would allow Jane to continue her own hobbies and pursuits, as a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden. Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option for Jane. He agrees without too much fuss, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. She’s to spend her nights above his medical practice, while he retires to Lindridge Hall for the evening. Eventually, of course, Jane finds herself spending the night at Lindridge Hall following a carriage accident, and where she slowly and methodically uncovers the skeletons lurking in Augustine’s closet. Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent, twisted job steering clear of the obvious plot beats. There are surprises galore in the secrets these characters keep and the lengths they’ll go to conceal them. Key to many a successful horror novel is having a main character to root for, one whom readers will want to see come out of everything not only alive but also stronger. Jane is absolutely that kind of character, a beacon of light in a dark world through her sheer tenacity alone, making her exploration of Lindridge Hall a white-knuckle reading experience. Fans of Starling’s debut, the sci-fi horror novel The Luminous Dead, will find the same steadily growing sense of eeriness here, despite the markedly different setting. Jane isn’t exploring caves on an alien planet, but her journey still feels claustrophobic, almost asphyxiated by the estate’s mysterious walls. Are the horrors she senses of a supernatural nature? Or are they merely born of a man with too many internal demons? “Both” is also an option, and Starling keeps readers guessing until the very end. For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, The Death of Jane Lawrence is a must-read.
  • Taste by Stanley Tucci (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): Like il timpano, the enormous layered pasta pie that starred in the 1996 movie Big Night alongside Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, the latter’s new memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, is a gastronome’s delight. It has piquant surprises tucked inside and will leave readers both sated and wanting more. When it comes to Tucci, fans always want more. The award-winning actor and bestselling cookbook author was considered a standout guy even before his swoony Negroni tutorial video went viral at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. He’s known for scene-stealing roles in movies like Spotlight and The Devil Wears Prada, as well as in foodie films like Big Night and Julie & Julia. And like Julia Child before him, Tucci’s chef skills are as impressive as his boundless passion for eating. Such is the life of a gourmand, which he revels in and reflects on in Taste. The author takes readers on a grand tasting tour, from his childhood in Westchester, New York, to his 1980s New York City acting debut to bigger roles in major movies made around the world, where he always dined with gusto. Tucci is quite opinionated about food. There are also dramatic renderings of memorable conversations, like the gasp-inducing time a chef told him, “I make a stock…of cheese.” He shares serious stories as well, like the pain and grief he and his family felt when his late wife, Kathryn, died in 2009, and their joy and hope when he married Felicity Blunt in 2012. He writes, too, about his recent cancer diagnosis and treatment, a grueling experience during which he had a feeding tube and worried “things would never return to the way they were, when life was edible.” Thankfully he is now cancer-free, and via the artfully crafted recipes Tucci includes in Taste, readers can join him in celebrating food and drink once again. Under his tutelage, they might even dare to construct and consume their own timpano.
  • The Neighbor’s Secret by L. Alison Heller (physical book available at the library; thriller): Cottonwood Estates seems like an idyllic neighborhood to raise a family in. It’s affluent, populated by overworked dads and over-involved moms, and thanks to the gossipy monthly book club, everyone knows everyone else’s business. In The Neighbor’s Secret, author L. Alison Heller scratches away at this suburban facade to reveal secrets that are slowly bringing the small community to the verge of collapse. Through brief, interstitial passages, the reader learns that not only is a murder about to be committed, but also that another one was covered up years ago. The question remains: Who are the killers? Annie is harboring a secret from 15 years ago and worrying that her eighth grade daughter, Laurel, might be destined to repeat it. Laurel is acting out, getting drunk with friends at the annual Fall Fest and keeping secrets from her ever-vigilant mother. Jen is similarly worried about her young son, Abe, with good reason: Abe has been expelled from school and diagnosed as a sociopath. Jen struggled with fear of her own son and guilt over her abilities as a parent, all while hiding his diagnosis from the teachers at Abe’s new school as well as from her friends and neighbors. Finally, there is Lena. A widow and empty nester, Lena watches the neighborhood but keeps apart from it socially. She understands that nothing in their peaceful community is what it seems. When a vandal begins targeting homes, the petty property crimes set off a chain of events that will end in one explosive, deadly night. Heller excels at the complex characterization required to engage readers, resulting in a book that’s truly impossible to put down. The myriad anxieties her characters feel–fear for their children, their reputation, their community–are entirely relatable. A sense of dread and foreboding permeates the narrative. We know a murder is coming; Laurel, Abe, and Lena all seem on the verge of imploding. With such a wonderful buildup and a truly surprising finish, The Neighbor’s Secret is a delight to read.
  • Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (physical book available at the library; family drama): Jonathan Franzen, one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life, does not disappoint with his terrific new novel, Crossroads. The story opens just before Christmas 1971 and centers on the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in new Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. The head of the family, Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, a middle-aged associate pastor, is frustrated that his career has stalled, humiliated that a young, hip minister has snatched away control of the church’s youth group that he founded, tired of his wife and marriage, and enamored of a widowed parishioner. The youth group is called Crossroads, and it’s just one of the many crossroads the family arrives at throughout this big, ambitious novel. The good reverend’s wife, Marion, is well aware of Russ’ infatuations and is filled with anger and self-loathing. Their daughter, Becky, the coolest girl in high school, becomes suddenly unmoored. Their middle son, Perry, is super smart and contemptuous of others; he’s also one of the biggest pot dealers in school. Eldest son Clem, the epitome of responsibility, is on his way home from college and seeking a reckoning with the father he has so long admired. In some ways this family’s internal conflicts seem fairly typical. But as the novel progresses, we discover there are deeper histories at work. Some have to do with the basic assumptions of marriage and family life, while others reflect the tumult of the 1970s, when much of society was divided about America’s participation in the Vietnam War and young people especially struggled with issues of equality and justice for people of color and Native Americans. It is also no coincidence that the major sections of the novel are titled “Advent” and “Easter.” Each individual Hildebrandt grapples with matters of Christian faith and its place in their lives. Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.

Best Physical Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks at the Library: September 29, 2021

  • Fuzz by Mary Roach (physical book available at the library; Nonfiction: Animals): Animals do the darndest things–just ask bestselling author Mary Roach. After writing about the science behind human cadavers, space travel and life as a soldier, she turns her attention to criminals in the wild in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. This book is such a rich stew of anecdotes and lore that it’s best savored slowly, bit by bit. Roach doles out surprising true tales from her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations, such as the story of a woman who returned home to find a leopard in her bed watching TV, or one about bear bandits in Pitkin County, Colorado, who tend to prefer premium brands of ice cream like Haagen-Dazs over brands like Western Family, which they apparently won’t touch. Roach also tackles deeply serious topics in Fuzz, such as the death and destruction caused by certain wandering elephants, or bears whose DNA needs to be traced in order to track down one who killed a person. But no matter the situation, Roach approaches it with contagious enthusiasm, gifting readers with sentences like this one about a tourist lodge in India: “I love this kind of place, love the surreal decay of it, love the clerk who does not know where breakfast is served or even if breakfast is served, love everything, really, except the rat turds on my balcony.” As Roach marvels at this wild world, she brings home the fact that, as one expert put it, “When it comes to wildlife issues, seems like we’ve created a lot of our own problems.” Roach is never one to proselytize, however, jokingly calling herself “Little Miss Coexistence” as she challenges herself not to set a trap for that roof rat pattering on her deck. Nonetheless, Fuzz will open readers’ eyes to a myriad of animal rights issues, and possibly change their attitudes about how to approach them. When it comes to handling pesky rodents and birds, for instance, Roach concludes, “Perhaps the model should be shoplifting. Supermarkets and chain stores don’t poison shoplifters; they come up with better ways to outsmart them.”
  • The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny and Robert Bathurst (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app; mystery): Louise Penny tackles social unrest in a post-pandemic world in The Madness of Crowds (15 hours), the 17th novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. Part whodunit, part cultural commentary, this latest installment finds Gamache at a crossroads between his personal ethics and the requirements of his position. The audiobook is performed by Robert Bathurst, who has lent his voice to several of the most recent books in the series. Bathurst’s narration is calm and collected yet also earnest, reflecting the blend of emotion and professionalism that Gamache embodies as an investigator. While Bathurst’s voice is subdued, it is also engaging, bringing the story’s mystery, relationships and ethical introspections to life in a straightforward but heartfelt way. He also provides a variety of voices for the wider cast of characters, keeping the plot moving through the flowing cadence of conversations. Positioned at the intersection of science and humanity, The Madness of Crowds draws in its readers with murder but keeps them listening through its challenging moral conundrums. It’s perfect for listeners seeking both captivating intrigue and insightful reflection.
  • The Dressmakers of Auschwitz by Lucy Adlington (physical book available at the library; European history): Clothing can accomplish many things. It can bestow group identity or express individuality. Creating it can be both an artistic outlet and drudgery. It can reflect the highest standards of craftsmanship or be as simple as sewing a seam. It is both performance and practicality. And, as we learn from Lucy Adlington’s The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, clothing can be a lifeline out of hell. It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely (or hideous) juxtaposition than a fashion salon in Auschwitz. But there it was: a fashion studio and workshop literally yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners. Author and costume historian Adlington discovered the “Upper Salon” while researching a book on the global textile industry during World War II. Established by the larcenous and amoral Hedwig Hoss, wife of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoss, the salon’s official mission was to provide beautiful, haute couture clothing to the wives of top-ranking Nazis, female SS guards at the camp and, foremost, Frau Hoss herself. The salon’s other purpose was to provide a safe haven for the enslaved female laborers who, under the supervision of Marta Fuchs, a Jewish prisoner from Slovakia, cut, sewed and altered the outfits that would adorn their tormentors. Adlington does an excellent job of telling the story of Marta and all the other women whose lives were spared because they had the skills to work in the comparative safety of the Upper Salon. She also provides the greater historical context of how the Nazi government viewed fashion as both a powerful propaganda weapon and an important tool for funding the Holocaust. This information is helpful in understanding the journeys these designers, seamstresses and cutters took to Auschwitz and the Upper Salon, and overall Adlington weaves historical information into the individual dressmakers’ stories well. But the most powerful lesson from The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is how the bonds of friendship, family and skill allowed these women to survive with humanity while resisting the brutality around them.
  • Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick (physical book available at the library; American history): As the familiar story goes, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s iconic general, led the Colonies to an improbable victory over the crushing British monarchy and its oppressive taxation. But according to Nathaniel Philbrick in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s real challenges as a leader began after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south and anti-Federalists everywhere (even in his own Cabinet), Washington set out just months after his 1789 inauguration on an uncomfortable, arduous tour of the shaky new union he felt compelled to unite. In the late summer of 2018, in a time hardly less politically fraught, Philbrick, his wife and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, embarked from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the former president’s footsteps. Inspired by Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck–who wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”–Philbrick expected “a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure” that instead “proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined.” Visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, or paraded through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strode into town wearing a simple brown suit (the new president had a feel for political theater), Philbrick delivers the details. He explains how Washington became “the father of the American mule,” debunks myths about the first president’s wooden teeth and enriches facts with help from local archivists, librarians, curators, docents and even the descendants of those who were there. But Philbrick keeps one foot in, and a respectful perspective on, the present throughout, assessing hazards then–such as when Washington’s horses fell off a ferry–and now–such as when Philbrick’s own sailboat nearly capsized in a vicious storm on his way to Newport, Rhode Island. In this book, Washington emerges as the complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader that his newborn country desperately needed. The quantity and quality of the details Philbrick gathers as he straddles past and present make this an extraordinary read.
  • Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (physical book available at the library; crime fiction): Somewhere near the end of Colson Whitehead’s tragicomic Harlem Shuffle, I found myself giggling in spite of myself. What was happening on the page was horrible, but it was hilarious. It was hilarious in the way that the comeuppance of the white supremacist clowns at the end of “Breaking Bad” was hilarious. The clowns in Whitehead’s story probably didn’t deserve their fate quite as much, but when they underestimated who they were dealing with, their fate was sort of sealed. Indeed, like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” Harlem Shuffle acknowledges a sense of morality and an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics. Whitehead’s Ray Carney is one of those rare people who can walk the line between crooked and straight and live to tell the tale. By day, he’s a genial Harlem furniture salesman. By night, now and then, he fences “gently used items.” He is a genuinely devoted family man, not just to his smart, sensible wife and adorable kids but also to his cousin and childhood bestie, Freddie. Everyone knows a Freddie. He’s the perennial problem; he’s the one who gets you into the trouble you can’t even imagine. Yet you can’t quit Freddie, because he’s charming and he’s handsome and he’s stupid, and most of all, he’s blood. Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Whitehead presents the reader with the levels of rottenness in early to mid-1960s New York City. There are heists and stickups and beat downs, as well as the hypocrisy of the Black upper crust who think Carney is too dark-skinned to join their club. There’s the tiresome regularity of racist police violence and the protection money paid to the cops and local hoods with lovely monikers like Miami Joe, Cheap Brucie, Yea Big and Louie the Turtle. Downtown, the rottenness is carried out in pristine office towers built by rich white folks who own not only the buildings but also the machinery of the city itself. Carney gets caught up in all of it thanks to a smidgeon of criminal DNA he inherited from his dad and, inevitably, Freddie’s fecklessness. At the end we see the chasm from which the World Trade Center’s twin towers will rise, the fruit of a deal between more compromised New York mucky mucks. Sic transit gloria mundi says the author. Thus passes worldly glory. Harlem Shuffle is yet another Colson Whitehead masterpiece.
  • Unbound by Tarana Burke (physical book available at the library; memoir: social science): Before she was the world-famous creator of #MeToo, the movement that sparked a reckoning with the mistreatment of women, especially women of color, Tarana Burke was a community organizer and journalist. Her experience as a reporter will be no surprise to anyone who reads Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, her unflinching, open-hearted, beautifully told account of becoming one of the most consequential activists in America. Burke was molested by a neighborhood boy in the Bronx when she was 7. Over the years, despite the presence of several loving adults in her life, Burke was repeatedly sexually assaulted. “I was a grown woman before I truly understood the word rape and was able to relate it to my experience,” she writes. “Language like rape, molestation, and abuse were foreign to me as a child. I had no definitions and no context. Nobody around me talked like that.” In spite of her trauma, Burke writes with humor and gratitude about her experiences. She delves into the rich history of her family, led by a granddaddy who “believed in celebrating Blackness in as many ways as possible” and a mother who was a devout Catholic. In school, Burke was both academically gifted and an agitator who spent time in the principal’s office. A high school leadership program led Burke to Selma, Alabama, where she laid the groundwork for #MeToo after realizing there was an utter lack of programs to support and protect young women as they spoke their truth about sexual abuse. Burke also writes honestly about her reaction to #MeToo becoming a viral phenomenon on social media in 2017, initially without her knowledge or participation. After spending more than a decade traveling around the country, conducting workshops and speaking on panels about surviving sexual assault, she worried social media would water down or misuse her work. Ultimately Burke realized that “all the folks who were using the #metoo hashtag, and all the Hollywood actresses who came forward with their allegations, needed the same thing that the little Black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed–space to be seen and heard. They needed empathy and compassion and a path to healing.” Unbound is not just a thoroughly engrossing read. It’s also an important book that helps us understand the woman who has been so influential as our country struggles to acknowledge women’s trauma.
  • The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): After writing four YA novels featuring contemporary realism and romance, Robyn Schneider is throwing her outsiders-in-love antics back–way back. In The Other Merlin, Schneider makes her first foray into fantasy, retelling the legend of King Arthur for today’s teens. The first book in a planned trilogy, it contains enough mystery, sex, mistaken identities and scandalous clashes of class and nobility that it could be titled Bridgerton: Knights of the Round Table. The titular “other” Merlin is Emry, a highly skilled teenage wizard who spends her days performing special-effects illusions on the sly at her local theater while her father, the O.G. Merlin, trains her less talented twin brother, Emmett. After Merlin vanishes, the king sends a request for Emmett to take Merlin’s place at court. But when Emmett is incapacitated by a spell that backfires, Emry decides to fill in for her brother, chopping off her hair and binding her chest to look the part. She wants to ensure that her family stays in the king’s good graces, but she also sees an opportunity to nurture her talents, since girls aren’t allowed to learn or practice magic. Meanwhile, Prince Arthur has just pulled that silly sword out of the stone. This stuns his family, who don’t think much of Arthur’s love for books and gardening, not to mention his buddy-buddy relationship with an unfairly dishonored Lancelot. When Emry arrives, the three become fast friends. They form a team of outsiders who are trying to grow into the best versions of themselves, fate be damned. Can Arthur be a good king if he defies his father’s wishes? Can Lancelot be a knight if he loves another man? Can Emry be a great wizard like her father even though she’s a woman? As she explores the answers to these questions, Schneider reworks the classical hero’s journey through an unapologetically feminist lens. Though her author’s note mentions working on The Other Merlin in 17th-century libraries, Schneider is hardly precious with her source material. She maneuvers deftly through conversations about gender, sexuality and equity in a medieval setting that feels grounded and relatable. Is any of it canonical? Probably not, but who cares! In a world filled with wizards, spells and glowing magical swords, why can’t everyone by bisexual? It certainly makes for more interesting love triangles, which are plentiful. Arthurian legend, after all, is basically a centuries-old soap opera, so why not make it extra soapy? Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin is the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.
  • All These Bodies by Kendare Blake (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): It’s 1958, and a serial killer is targeting the Midwest. Their crimes are dubbed the Bloodless Murders, because the victims are all found exsanguinated. The police are baffled by the absence of blood at the scenes, as well as the lack of any signs of struggle. When the Carlson family is murdered in the small Minnesota town of Black Deer Falls, local police find a teenage girl, Marie Catherine Hale, in the Carlson home, drenched in their blood. They arrest her and charge her as an accomplice, certain that she couldn’t have carried out the murders on her own. But Marie is unwilling to talk to investigators. Instead, Marie offers to tell her story to the sheriff’s son, Michael Jensen, an aspiring reporter. Thoughtful and unassuming, Michael is a receptive ear for the tale Marie has to tell, even if both a tenacious prosecutor and the townsfolk resent him for it. But as Michael begins to fall for Marie, he struggles to be both her confessor and her savior. All These Bodies is narrated by Michael, so readers only see Marie through his eyes. Her confession is rife with deflections and uncertainty. It’s clear that she has experienced trauma, though she never reveals its details and is generally spare with information about herself. Readers will more readily connect with Michael’s best friend, Percy, who supports Michael’s dream of escaping their small town, even though he knows it will mean losing him. The two share a deep bond, and Percy is vehemently protective of Michael, sometimes at a great personal cost. Author Kendare Blake is best known for her paranormal horror novel Anna Dressed in Blood and her dark fantasy series, Three Dark Crowns. All These Bodies, a historical mystery with touches of gothic fiction, crime and the paranormal, is a notable departure for her. Blake is sparse with historical details, which keeps the story moving but can also make its 1950s setting seem arbitrary. However, her depiction of Marie’s misogynist treatment by the press feels both accurate to the period and ripped from contemporary headlines. Readers who enjoy mysteries heavy with ambiguity and light on straightforward, spelled-out solutions should plan for Blake to keep them reading well past bedtime.
  • The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): In a return to the fantasy genre of her Newbery Medal-winning The Tale of Despereaux, author Kate DiCamillo spins the tale of a young girl named Beatryce, who is discovered in a monastery barn in the company of an unlikely source of comfort: a frighteningly ornery goat named Answelica. Feverish and crying, Beatryce is found by a kindhearted monk named Brother Edik, who has foretold that a child “will unseat a king.” Because the prophecy specifies that the child will be a girl, the message “has long been ignored.” So begins the marvelous story of Beatryce, Answelica, Brother Edik and Jack Dory, a lively and illiterate orphan. Brother Edik learns that Beatryce’s mother taught her to read and write, a rarity at a time when even boys aren’t often taught such skills. Meanwhile, the king and his henchmen are trying to track down Beatryce. The story quickly becomes a suspenseful, fast-moving tale of female empowerment and an ode to the written word and the power of love, all told in DiCamillo’s signature heartfelt style. DiCamillo is often at her best when writing about animals, and Answelica is an unforgettable wonder as memorable as Winn-Dixie the dog and Ulysses the squirrel. In the beautifully spare prose that has become one of her hallmarks, DiCamillo poses big questions, such as “What does it mean to be brave?” and invites readers to discover their own answers. The Beatryce Prophecy is full of dark forces, but hope and love prevail, and Beatryce comes to understand that the world is “filled with marvel upon marvel, too many marvels to ever count.” Two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall brings DiCamillo’s ragtag band of characters to life in joyful, energetic black-and-white illustrations. She establishes the powerful bond between Beatryce and Answelica from the start in a radiant mangerlike scene that wouldn’t be out of place on a holiday greeting card. The book’s medieval atmosphere is underscored by a series of illuminated letters that begin each chapter, and additional decorative flourishes throughout remind readers that this is indeed a special tale with a distinctive setting. The Beatryce Prophecy is certain to be cherished. “What does, then, change the world?” DiCamillo’s omniscient narrator asks. The answer is as masterful as DiCamillo and Blackall’s creation: “Love, and also stories.”
  • The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Martin Aitken (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): The first thing you’ll notice about award-winning Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star is how big it is. At almost 700 pages, it’s a book that takes up considerable real estate not just on the nightstand or in a bag but also within the mind, demanding a particular kind of mental stamina. It’s August on the southern coast of Norway, and a big, bright celestial object has appeared in the sky. No one knows what to make of this new star. There are speculations from scholars and experts on its sudden presence, but could there be more to this phenomenon than just science? The title’s biblical innuendo is on point. Knausgaard not only directly and indirectly philosophizes about Jesus, Satan, purgatory, sin and resurrection but also uses these touchstones to inspire the characters whose various points of view fill these pages. There isn’t just one story to follow in The Morning Star but several, as the narrative bounces from one captivating, relatable, likable character to another. Amid these characters’ experiences in love, marriage, teenage angst, career disappointments, mental health and global warming, the novel progresses with an unflagging consideration of the roles and significance of living and dying. In this way, The Morning Star feels at once about nothing and everything. Knausgaard is more interested in using the novel’s considerable length to introduce loose ends instead of neatly tying them up. Then again, for those who have read Knausgaard’s previous work (such as his six-volume My Struggle series), this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. The Morning Star is dark, eerie, mesmerizing, and, yes, totally worth its size.
  • Daughter of the Morning Star by Craig Johnson (physical book available at the library; mystery): Daughter of the Morning Star, the 17th book in Craig Johnson’s riveting mystery series, proves that Sheriff Walt Longmire does his best work on the page, even compared to the acclaimed Netflix adaptation of the series, “Longmire.” Longmire walks a fine line, serving the predominantly white populace of Absaroka County, Wyoming, as well as the members of the Cheyenne Indian Nation who live on the local reservation. When Chief Lolo Long of the Cheyenne Tribal Police asks for his assistance in investigating death threats against her niece, Jaya Long, the standout star of the Lame Deer Lady Stars high school basketball team, Longmire’s penchant for justice makes it easy to say yes. With the help of his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, Longmire begins an intensive investigation that he believes is tied into the disappearance of Jaya’s older sister, Jeanie, a year ago, Jeanie was with friends on her way back from a party in Billings, Montana, when their van broke down. While repairs were being made, she wandered off, never to be seen again. Longmire and Bear take the usual route of interviewing all of Jeanie’s contacts, hoping to find something the police or FBI missed. Some of the witnesses are helpful enough; some, not so much. A farmer, Lyndon Iron Bull, claims to have seen her singing in a snowstorm and warns of an ancient Cheyenne legend known as Wandering Without, “a spiritual hole that devours souls.” Writing from Longmire’s point of view for the entirety of this fast-paced mystery, Johnson uses crisp prose and sharp dialogue to create a sense of immediacy as the investigation moves toward its inevitable, thrilling conclusion. The case also allows Johnson to incorporate horrifying statistics about how young Native American women are substantially more likely to be murdered, to be sexually assaulted or to commit suicide than the national average. Longmire knows that what happened to Jeanie and what’s threatening Jaya lie anywhere along that spectrum, and that’s what scares him. As readers, you’ll be scared too.
  • The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief and questioning? In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki explores how we find meaning in the world and why each of our voices matter. As the novel opens, young Benny Oh’s father dies suddenly and violently. Benny’s loss and confusion is palpable, made all the more difficult by the voices he begins to hear emanating from all the objects around him. These voices are a burden, weighing Benny down with the emotional resonance of all things, from a silver spoon to a pair of scissors. He doesn’t know what to do with this information, and neither do the people around him. As Benny follows these voices and begins to sneak out of school, his mother, Annabelle, struggles to understand her child, even as she grieves and hoards. Annabelle’s job is to monitor the news, and her home bursts with plastic bags full of old newspapers and CDs, as well as her own piles of clothes in need of folding, unfinished craft projects and so much more. Ozeki’s brilliance is to never let Annabelle’s pile overwhelm the reader, offering glimpses of it only through Annabelle’s and Benny’s eyes, who in their grief often have trouble registering the tangible reality around them. As Benny and Annabelle try to find ways to be in and make sense of the world, questions of communication, loss and connection emerge. Ozeki’s prose is magnetic as she draws readers along, teasing out an ethereal and haunting quality through an additional narrator: that of a sentient Book, who speaks with Benny and helps to tell his story. The Book’s observations are beyond a human’s scope, with a universal objectivity blooming from a communication matrix among all books, like a mycelial network. Benny and Annabelle are characters you’ll never stop rooting for. They’re worthy of readers’ love as Ozeki meditates on the nature of objects, compassion and everyday beauty. After reading, you’ll be eager for this book to find its way into other readers’ hands.

Best Physical Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks at the Library: September 19, 2021

  • Matrix by Lauren Groff (physical book available at the library; historical fiction): Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, her highly anticipated follow-up to Fates and Furies, takes place almost 800 years ago, yet it feels both current and timely. Set in a small convent in 12th-century England, Matrix looks back in time to comment astutely on the world as we now know it, exploring big ideas about faith, gender, community and individualism. Abbess Marie is based in part on Marie de France, France’s earliest known female poet and one of the country’s most well-regarded literary stylists. As a teenager, Groff’s fictional Marie is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and sent to molder in an impoverished abbey. Marie soon rises to the senior position of abbess, and she transforms the convent into a thriving estate. Marie’s modifications to the abbey are guided by visions that draw imagery from the real Marie de France’s tales of courtly love. These visions are the motivation and impetus for many of Marie’s boldest innovations: the successful scriptorium where gorgeous new manuscripts are produced; the abbess house where Marie offers comfort and privacy; and the impenetrable labyrinth that girds the abbey, protecting the women who live inside. Groff brings a bold originality to Matrix and a compassion for her characters, no matter how prickly some of them may be. This is a heartening story of one woman’s vision and creativity, unthwarted and flourishing, despite all odds.
  • Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): King Harristan and his brother, Prince Corrick, have inherited a kingdom plagued by a deadly sickness, and the only cure, an elixir made from rare moonflower petals, is in dangerously low supply. As the citizens of Kandala revolt, demanding that the cure be made more widely available, Harristan and Corrick crush all dissent with cruelty and violence. Meanwhile, healer Tessa Cade and her partner, Wes, a mysterious thief, steal and redistribute moonflower petals to those in need. But as the sickness spreads, tensions rise between those who can afford cures and those who can’t. Desperate, Tessa sneaks into the castle–only to discover that Kandala’s corruption is far more complicated than it appears. In alternating chapters narrated by Corrick and Tessa, Defy the Night hits the ground running and never slows down, leaping from one charged moment to the next. From horrific public executions to tense council negotiations to shocking rebel counterattacks, author Brigid Kemmerer takes readers on a breakneck journey about power, deceit, and the price of progress. The book achieves a nuanced view of politics by depicting how individual characters impact and are affected by wider systemic issues in Kandala. Tessa sees how the poor struggle to stay alive and how their dissent transforms into revolution, while Corrick witnesses how those with power are willing to violate personal and moral boundaries to keep it. Tessa and Corrick offer opposing but equally convincing perspectives on complex ethical questions. How should a limited resource be distributed? Are some people more deserving of help than others? What makes someone worthy of living, and what justifies a death? As Kemmerer’s characters wrestle with these dilemmas, readers are sure to rethink many of their own opinions. An eventual connection between Tessa and Corrick reveals what can happen when individual people are empowered to make real, lasting change. Thoughtful, multifaceted and truly character-driven, Defy the Night is ultimately a hopeful story that shows how those who dare to envision a better future also have the power to make it a reality.
  • Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang (physical book available at the library; memoir): From ages 7 to 12, Qian Julie Wang lived as an undocumented immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. Her hunger was regularly so intense that she broke into cold sweats–which, according to her Ma Ma, meant Wang was growing and getting stronger. One classmate referred to Wang’s family not as “low-income” but “no-income.” Her world was simultaneously frightening and normal as she sat listening to scuttling cockroaches with her parents nearby. She describes childhood trenchantly in Beautiful Country, allowing readers to feel her anger, longing, loneliness and fear–and to observe her parents’ desperation. In Beijing, Wang’s mother was a published professor who spoke Mandarin, the language of intellectuals. But in Brooklyn, her mother lamented, “All these Cantonese assume that if you speak Mandarin you’re a farmer from Fuzhou.” Wang’s mother got a job sewing in a sweatshop, where “there was no day or night; there was only work.” Wang’s parents regarded her as their best hope for a future, optimistic that she would be suited to this Mei Guo, “beautiful country.” They were right to believe in her. By fourth grade, Wang wrote so well that her teachers suspected plagiarism, and now Wang has written a memoir precise enough to chill her readers. The narrative is full of sharply rendered scenes, such as one in which Wang’s mother suffers in a cold sushi factory before coming home to warm herself in front of a pot of boiling water. Wang dedicates her memoir to “those who remain in the shadows.” Indeed, Beautiful Country shines light on the childhood that continued to haunt Wang into adulthood, even as her professional accomplishments mounted. She is vulnerable in revealing her uniquely American trauma: a bruised wrist that never quite healed; a hunger that was never quite sated; a feeling that everything, at any moment, could suddenly be taken away. Wang, who is now a civil rights lawyer, is a voice we need. Readers will be grateful for the courage she has displayed in persevering and speaking up.
  • The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris and William DeMeritt (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; historical fiction): Actor William DeMeritt’s deep, measured narration enhances the elegant, evocative prose of Nathan Harris’ debut novel, The Sweetness of Water (12 hours). In the waning blood-filled days of the Civil War, Georgia farmer George Walker hires formerly enslaved brothers Landry and Prentiss to work his peanut farm–and perhaps to ease his restless soul. When George’s Confederate soldier son, Caleb, unexpectedly returns home, and Caleb’s romantic relationship with another soldier comes to light, tensions between George’s family and the town’s disapproving residents boil over. Only the cool, determined leadership of George’s wife, Isabelle, offers a path to healing. DeMeritt’s performance of this Southern cast of characters reveals an actor in full control of his range. Particularly for the male roles, DeMeritt narrates with such skill that the listener can envision some of the characters’ faces just by the way their voices sound. Amid this world of unbridled change, DeMeritt illuminates subtle yearnings, quiet dangers and a persistent sense of hope.

Best E-Books and Physical Books at the Library: September 7, 2021

  • Willodeen by Katherine Applegate (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): Willodeen has a straightforward philosophy when it comes to her love of animals: “the scarier, the smellier, the uglier, the better.” The 11-year-old especially loves the screechers that everyone else in her village of Perchance despises because of their appearance (hideous, with sharp teeth and claws), smell (“as ferocious as an outhouse in August”) and behavior (noisy and irritable). Still, Willodeen is convinced that screechers play an irreplaceable part in the village ecosystem and that they are just as important as any other creature, even the previous hummingbears, whose annual migration makes tourists flock to Perchance. But this year, something is wrong. Not a single hummingbear has returned to the village, and Perchance is experiencing natural disasters as well, including fires, mudslides and drought. What could have upset the balance of nature and caused these strange occurrences? Willodeen, her new friend Connor and a magically handcrafted, wholly original new creature may be the only ones who can restore order to Perchance. Along the way, they might even prove to the villagers once and for all that every creature matters. Willodeen is an endearing fable that illuminates the importance of recognizing that all living things serve a purpose in our beautifully complex world and are worthy of care and dignity. Author Katherine Applegate excels in writing animal stories, such as her Newbery Medal-winning The One and Only Ivan, that remind us of the essential role nature plays in our lives. In Willodeen, she gracefully demonstrates how this connection brings with it a responsibility to care for the environment–even its less glamorous parts–and why we should treat this responsibility as a gift.
  • In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): Nigerian American author Lola Akinmade Akerstrom’s debut novel is as much a liberating battle cry as it is a searing, multifaceted examination of the hearts and minds of Black women navigating white-dominated spaces. Told from multiple perspectives, In Every Mirror She’s Black follows three Black women whose lives intersect in Sweden due to one wealthy white man named Jonny von Lundin. Kemi, a first-generation American, is offered a lucrative position as Jonny’s marketing firm’s new diversity and inclusion adviser after a campaign’s racial insensitivity makes international headlines. Brittany-Rae is a former model now working as a first-class flight attendant, which is where she first captures Jonny’s attention and is soon swept up in a passionate romance with him that appears to be the stuff of fairy tales. Finally, there is Muna, a Muslim refugee from Somalia who is the only surviving member of her family to be granted asylum in Sweden and now carves out a living as a janitorial worker at Jonny’s company. Despite Kemi’s, Brittany-Rae’s and Muna’s vastly different backgrounds and circumstances, all three women initially believe that Sweden (and Jonny) could be the answer to their prayers and an opportunity for a fresh start, unburdened by their past and its traumas. Unfortunately, each woman soon learns that Sweden’s “utopia” poses its own set of significant challenges and that its principles of inclusivity and tolerance only extend as far as the whitewashed homogeneity of the population. For immigrants and people of color, a hidden dark side roils just below Sweden’s glittering façade, transforming the country from refuge to prison for each of these women. Akerstrom, who moved to Sweden in 2009, has crafted an absorbing, if unsettling, narrative that dissects the realities of what it means to be a Black woman in the world today. She writes with genuine empathy for her characters and sheds light on their struggles with the understanding that there is no single Black experience. Rather than shying away from or oversimplifying difficult and complex topics, Akerstrom has effectively packaged themes of racism, immigration, fetishism and otherness into an engrossing story that will enlighten its readers, regardless of their nationality or race.
  • Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; thriller): College freshman Chloe Sevre has two secrets: 1) She’s a psychopath, and 2) she’s plotting to kill frat boy Will Bachman. Chloe has no sense of empathy or remorse, but she is acutely aware of being wronged. Chloe thought Will was her friend, but he raped her when she was just 12 years old, and she’s spent years plotting her revenge. Chloe got into Adams University, the same college Will attends, by enrolling in a special study. Along with seven other students who have been diagnosed as psychopaths, Chloe will get a free ride if she agrees to group therapy and biometric monitoring. For Chloe, this is purely a means to an end–access to Will–until someone begins murdering the students in the group. Suddenly, Chloe is in a cat-and-mouse game with a killer, even as she continues with her own murderous plot for justice. While Chloe isn’t empathetic per se, she is vicariously fun to read about in a way that brings to mind Villanelle from “Killing Eve,” and author Vera Kurian gives readers two equally suspenseful plotlines to follow. First is Chloe’s mission to kill her rapist. Even though her actions are criminal and morally wrong, Will’s crime is so heinous that it’s not hard to understand why Chloe would resort to murder rather than turn to an unreliable criminal justice system. And then there’s the catch-me-if-you-can secondary plot of Chloe trying to discover who is killing members of the study she belongs to. She aligns with two other members of the group, Andre and Charles, to flush out the killer, but her companions are as untrustworthy as she is. The fact that Never Saw Me Coming has multiple characters that lie and manipulate without issue makes detecting its central killer all the more challenging. All of this adds up to a unique reading experience: Even though there aren’t necessarily any “good guys” to root for, Kurian compels her readers to be deeply invested in Chloe’s success regardless. With a satisfying (if bloodthirsty) quest for vengeance and a twisty mystery to solve, Never Saw Me Coming will tempt readers into staying up all night to get answers.
  • Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): You never know what a person might be going through. A famous novelist may be plagued by insecurity. A childhood friend who grew up in a manor house may have epilepsy. Good fortune isn’t always the panacea some would believe. Sally Rooney knows this well. Her first two novels were laser-sharp investigations into the lives of characters in their 20s and early 30s. She continues this work in her third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, an ambitious novel that deepens her earlier themes. As with Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends, the new book focuses on a quartet of characters. Alice is a novelist with mixed feelings about her early success. She says of her public persona, “I hate her with all my energy,” animosity that leads to a spell in a psychiatric hospital. After years in New York, she moves to Dublin and meets Felix, who works in a warehouse. She invites him to Rome for an event promoting the Italian translation of her book. Their relationship deepens but not without tension over the imbalances between them. Meanwhile, Alice’s university friend Eileen has become a low-paid editorial assistant. She has rediscovered feelings for Simon, who grew up in the aforementioned manor house and is deeply religious. Throughout the book, Alice and Eileen exchange long emails. Interspersed among them are disquisitions on socialism versus capitalism, political conservatism and whether the nature of beauty can survive in a social-media era. Unlike Rooney’s previous novels, parts of this one feel self-consciously artsy, with a chapter-long backstory and paragraphs that run for many pages. But on the way to its heartfelt destination, this flight is still smooth despite brief, mild turbulence. Rooney writes with uncommon perceptiveness, and her ability to find deeper meanings in small details, such as knowing how a friend takes his coffee, remains unparalleled. Beautiful World, Where Are You is a brutally honest portrait of flawed characters determined to prove “that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care.”

Best New Physical Books, E-Books and E-Audiobooks at Your Library: September 1, 2021

  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; historical fiction): Nowadays, it’s easy to find out where you came from. Just pluck out some hair follicles or scrape your cheek for some cells, send them to a lab far away, and they’ll determine your genetic makeup. Even when science reveals these secrets about our bodies, however, ancestry and heritage are still complex elements of our personal identities. In her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated poet Honoree Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than charts and graphs. Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black girl with a big family, takes center stage, and the history and intricacies of her ancestry drive the novel’s plot. We jump, sometimes dizzyingly, across space and time to trace her family line, and the result is a dazzling tale of love and loss. The story begins with a formerly enslaved man and his acceptance into a Native tribe, the first fateful moment of a vast history. Centuries later, Ailey is visited in her dreams by a “long-haired lady” who helps her to uncover their shared story. From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just Ailey’s heritage but also America’s. It’s the kind of familial epic that many Americans, particularly African Americans, can relate to, as Jeffers limns this family’s story with the trauma, faults and passions that we all harbor. Her masterful treatment of the characters and their relationships, paired with the thorough and engaging way the narrative is laid out, makes for a book that is easy to invest and get lost in–a feat for such a long, intricate work. Best yet, the novel incorporates the words of W.E.B. Du Bois throughout its 800-plus pages; those words are the story’s spine, its beating heart, its very life force. Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and will be apt in most cases, as this novel feels as important as many of Morrison’s. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey’s family.
  • The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, Louise Brealey, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; suspense): Grieving the sudden death of her husband, group therapist Mariana Andros drops everything when her niece’s best friend is brutally murdered on the grounds of a quiet Cambridge college. As more young women are slaughtered, Mariana realizes that their deaths are not frenzied acts of madness but rather a coldly calculated and purposeful series of sacrifices, with a charismatic murderer at the center. In The Maidens (9.5 hours), Alex Michaelides draws heavily upon Greek mythology to create an absorbing thriller with more twists than the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The audiobook is narrated primarily by actor Louise Brealey, who has given life to complex female characters in the audio editions of The Girl on the Train and The Silent Patient, Michaelides’ first novel. Here, she does an excellent job of conveying Mariana’s confusion, courage and determination to solve the mystery at any cost. Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s nuanced performance as the killer reminds us that monsters are made, not born, and that within even the most heinous murderer is a shattered, lonely child.
  • Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan (physical book available at the library; American history): In this engrossing biography, author and history podcaster Mike Duncan, who explored the Roman Republic in The Storm Before the Storm, illuminates the eventful life of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette is, of course, a popular hero of the American Revolution. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution broadens our understanding of his engagement in other major political movements, as well, chronicling his role in the French Revolution and the toppling of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830. At first glance, nothing in Lafayette’s early history suggests his future commitment to liberal ideals. Lafayette (1757-1834) was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier in Chavaniac, France. A son of the nobility, he lost his father when he was only 2, making him the sole heir to the family’s fortune. His mother’s death when he was 12 left him in the care of guardians who made many decisions for him, including arranging his marriage to Adrienne d’Ayen at age 16. They were a devoted couple until her death in 1807. Duncan traces the origin of Lafayette’s embrace of liberty and equality to the summer of 1775, when he first learned of George Washington and the colonists’ struggles. Politics had cut short his career in the French army, so Lafayette decided to follow this new noble cause. He managed to become a major general in the Continental Army, and by age 24, he’d earned a stellar reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. In detailing Lafayette’s long career, Duncan takes a measured approach to his subject, making excellent use of primary sources, especially letters. The author effectively balances Lafayette the man with Lafayette the public figure and helps delineate the relationship between the United States and France. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of A Hero of Two Worlds is Duncan’s exploration of Lafayette’s long and enduring popularity with Americans. (Unlike the French, the Americans never stopped loving him.) In 1824, Lafayette was invited for a visit by President James Monroe as the nation prepared for its 50th anniversary. Lafayette received a hero’s welcome, his presence reminding “local and state leaders they were a single nation with a shared past and collective future.” Lafayette was a unique and unifying figure in American history, celebrated and revered by all political parties. As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary, Duncan’s impressive biography provides an insightful look at the American Revolution that can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.
  • Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow (physical book available at the library; memoir–family & relationships): Early in her debut memoir, Seeing Ghosts, journalist Kat Chow recalls one of the times her mom made a goofy Dracula face, an exaggerated grin with teeth bared. “When I die,” Chow’s mother told then 9-year-old Chow, “I want you to get me stuffed so I can sit in your apartment and watch you all the time.” This strange request haunted Chow in the years after her mother, Florence, born Bo Moi in 1950s China, died from liver cancer when Chow was 14. Florence’s too-early death informs this memoir, which delves into the quiet devastation of Chow, her two older sisters and their father, and how the family’s grief has shifted over the years. Along the way, Chow carries on a running conversation with Florence, addressing her and asking unanswerable questions. Chow recounts both her own youth and episodes from the lives of her parents, immigrants who met and married in Connecticut and whom Chow portrays with love and candor. Florence’s playful but odd sense of humor served as an anchor for her three daughters. (She enjoyed hiding around corners, jumping out to scare her kids and then hugging them.) Wing Shek, Chow’s dad, became unable to throw anything away in the years after his wife’s death, and Chow portrays this reality with compassion, as well. Late in the book, Chow recalls recent family trips to China and Cuba, which she spent searching for truer, more complete versions of the family stories she heard as a young person. For example, in Cuba, Chow looks for traces of her grandfather’s expat life as a restaurant worker in the 1950s. As Chow’s dad likewise searches for his father’s history, he begins to face his own long-lived but unspoken grief, and we see how far the family has come in their years without Florence. Like the experience of grief itself, Seeing Ghosts is meditative, fragmentary, sometimes funny and occasionally hopeful.
  • The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; contemporary romance): The Heart Principle is easily one of the year’s most anticipated romances, as it stars a character who’s been a fan favorite ever since Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient. It’s finally time for charming, fashionable, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep to meet his match. That match is Anna Sun, violinist who recently went viral online and skyrocketed to success. But now she’s burned out creatively and emotionally, much to the dismay of her ambitious parents. What’s more, her longtime boyfriend proposes an open relationship instead of marriage. He’s surprised when she agrees, and even more surprised when Anna is actually motivated to find another partner for herself. When she comes across Quan’s profile on a dating app, she thinks he seems like a fun fling. But Quan exceeds her expectations with his supportive, sweet nature. Soon, Anna finds herself turning to Quan in stressful and upsetting situations, even more so after Anna’s father winds up in the hospital, which complicates their “casual” arrangement. Quan will instantly win over readers with his wonderful combination of bad boy vibes on the outside and an adorably gooey center on the inside. Given his litany of tattoos and his adrenaline-seeking personality, Quan is not the boyfriend Anna’s parents would have chosen for her. That sparks a hint of rebellion in Anna, who is growing tired of being the person her family, friends, boyfriend and the public expect her to be. Reading a Hoang romance often involves tears, given her knack for homing in on uncomfortable emotions and human vulnerability. The Heart Principle is no different, and it will offer much-needed catharsis to readers who can identify with Anna’s burnout and restlessness. And like Hoang’s previous romance novels, this is a heroine-centric story with intimate ties to the author’s own life experiences. (Don’t skip the author’s notes at the end of Hoang’s book!) Anna and Quan’s love story blossoms out of acceptance–both self-acceptance and being fully accepted by another person, even when plagued by thoughts of inadequacy. Those who have been fans of Hoang’s contemporary romances since the beginning will be overjoyed to finally get Quan’s story. It does not disappoint. And new readers will most likely sprint to the library to get their hands on Hoang’s other two books. That’s how much The Heart Principle lives up to the hype: Hoang has once again displayed her mastery of both complicated emotions and naturalistic, earthy eroticism.

Best New E-Books and E-Audiobooks at the Library: August 23, 2021

  • Beyond the Mapped Stars by Rosalyn Eves (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Elizabeth Bertelsen’s life is not sheltered–far from it, in fact. Growing up Mormon during the late 1870s means she is close to the land, to matters of life and death and to the complex dynamics of a polygamous household. But Elizabeth has quite literally set her sights on the stars; she hopes to become an astronomer at a time when women studying science is tantamount to witchcraft. Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars blends fiction and fact to create an adventure that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. It all hinges on a solar eclipse, the first that the Western states will experience in almost a hundred years. When Elizabeth finds herself close to the path of totality (the area on Earth where the moon will completely block the sun), she’s willing to make major sacrifices to be there to witness it. Chapters count down the days and then the hours to the eclipse, which keeps a sense of urgency bubbling as Elizabeth makes new friends and begins a tentative romance. A brother and sister whom she meets after a train robbery offer support as well as a chance for reflection; some of Elizabeth’s assumptions about them are based on the color of their skin, and she’s surprised to learn that their family makes assumptions about Mormons in a similar fashion. Beyond the Mapped Stars offers a portrait of a diverse American West that’s filled with promise, but it does so with honesty about where and from whom much of that promise was stolen. If that seems like a modern flourish, Eves makes a strong case for its basis in historical fact in her author’s note, while also revealing a deeply personal dimension to the story. The whole novel takes place amid a six-week journey by train, carriage and on horseback, during which Elizabeth finds her courage, makes mistakes and learns from them. It’s a thrill to travel alongside her. Faith, family, race and gender are the earthly concerns that draw her down from the clouds, but as Eves expertly incorporates them into Elizabeth’s life-changing summer, Beyond the Mapped Stars takes flight and soars.
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; essays): Based on John Green’s podcast of the same name, The Anthropocene Reviewed (10 hours) is a collection of essays structured as reviews of the human experience. Known for such young adult novels as The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All the Way Down, this is Green’s first nonfiction book for adults but hopefully not his last. From sublime sunsets to the unbearable feeling of mortification to odd fascinations like the Hall of Presidents and Piggly Wiggly, he makes even the most obscure topics compelling. With storytelling skills from years as a podcaster and YouTuber, Green makes for a fantastic narrator. This is a truly gratifying listening experience; only the audiobook edition offers the opportunity to be part of a melancholy World War I singalong. No matter how you know of Green, whether from his previous books, podcast, vlogs or as a YouTube world history teacher, you’ll find something to enjoy in this audiobook.
  • Yearbook by Seth Rogen (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; humor): In Seth Rogen’s Yearbook (6 hours), the Canadian writer, movie star and ceramicist tells stories only he could tell from a uniquely lived life. As a comedian and co-writer of such films as Superbad and Pineapple Express, it should come as no surprise that Rogen is a fantastic storyteller. Just how many teenagers get laughs performing stand-up at clubs that they’re too young to enter? In this book he discusses his grandparents, Judaism, summer camp, struggling in Los Angeles and–again, this should come as no surprise–drugs. There’s no shortage of bizarro Hollywood stories, but he shares them in a relatable way, in which he’s on our side, experiencing the absurdity of informing Nicolas Cage that he can’t do that iffy island accent in his film or being invited into Kanye West’s van to listen to his new album. This audiobook is a blast, with a long list of guest appearances including Rogen’s parents, Dan Aykroyd, Tommy Chong, Sacha Baron Cohen, Snoop Dogg, Michel Gondry, Billy Idol and Jason Segel.
  • More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman and Jessica Cohen (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; family drama): Award-winning Israeli writer David Grossman’s More Than I Love My Life is a complex novel about the secrets that scar three generations of women for a lifetime. Upon her 90th birthday, family matriarch Vera Novak reunites with her daughter, Nina, after five years of separation. Both Vera and Nina have committed the almost unpardonable act of abandoning young daughters–Vera when Nina was 6, and Nina when her own daughter, Gili, was even younger. The circumstances surrounding Vera’s and Nina’s departures are complex, slowly revealed and come to dominate all three women’s emotional lives. When Nina, who has spent several years on a tiny island between Lapland and the North Pole, announces that she’s in the early stages of dementia, she asks Gili, a writer and filmmaker now approaching her 40s, and Gili’s father, Rafael, formerly a film director himself, to record Vera’s story. The novel reaches its climax when the foursome journeys to the island of Goli Otok, off the coast of Croatia, once home to a notorious labor camp and reeducation center for opponents of the Tito regime in the former Yugoslavia. Vera was sent there after the death of her husband under circumstances she’s withheld from Nina all her life. In harrowing passages that alternate with the present action, Vera recalls two months of her nearly three-year imprisonment when she was marched daily to a cliff top and forced to stand in the blazing sun, her only companion a sapling she shaded with her body. Vera, Nina and Gili are memorable characters, each suffering in different but equally profound ways. Grossman effectively inhabits the consciousnesses of these women and doesn’t spare the reader any of their considerable emotional pain. He’s a sympathetic if unfailingly honest chronicler of their anguish. A reader doesn’t have to identify with the particulars of the women’s stories to appreciate how the consequences of fateful choices can reverberate down through the generations.

Best New Physical Books and E-Books at the Library: August 17, 2021

  • Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So (physical book available at the library; short stories): Generations of Cambodian immigrants and their children bring their heritage and culture to America’s melting pot in Afterparties, a bold and incisive collection of short stories by the late writer Anthony Veasna So. There’s a mesmerizing quality to these nine beautifully brash, interconnected stories filled with feisty, flawed characters living in central California. Each tale touches on themes of history, family, sexuality and identity, topics that are inextricably tied to all cultures. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” Sothy is the Cambodian owner of a donut store, which she’s named Chuck’s because she thought the American-sounding name would attract customers. She is haunted by memories of the concentration camps she survived during the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. However, a strange new source of dread appears in the form of a stranger who bears an unusual resemblance to Sothy’s ex-husband. As Sothy and her two American-born teenage daughters wonder about this stranger, they also come to a new understanding of their own complex identities as Cambodian Americans. In several stories, So handles sexuality and religion unabashedly to illuminate the paradoxes of life. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” teen narrator Ves reflects on his and his cousin Maly’s explicit sexual adventures amid preparations for the celebration of Maly’s dead mother’s reincarnation. And in “The Monks,” Rithy, who appears as Maly’s boy toy in “Maly, Maly, Maly,” is confined to a temple for a week to ensure his father’s smooth transition into the afterlife, making Rithy’s loyal duty to his unworthy father sound more like he is doing time. The author died in December 2020, leaving behind this collection as an important legacy that challenges stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans. Respecting the challenges of history while simultaneously giving voice to generations, these refreshingly unsterilized stories transcend race, culture and time. Insightful and energetic, Afterparties‘ tales about the complex communion of history and identity will intrigue fans of Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife.
  • Everything I Have Is Yours by Eleanor Henderson (physical book available at the library; memoir): How many of us married people really thought about what we promised in our wedding vows? We probably said that we would be united with our beloved “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” but we recited the words as a matter of tradition. Eleanor Henderson made those promises, too, but she’s made good on them. In her incredible memoir, Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage, she describes life with her husband, Aaron, and his perplexing array of physical and mental illnesses. Everything I Have Is Yours goes back and forth in time from when the young couple met as artsy kids in Florida to their present-day marriage with two kids and a mortgage. Along the way, Henderson rises in her career as an author and professor while taking on caregiving duties for aging parents, young children and, increasingly, her chronically ill spouse. Aaron struggles to find his footing career-wise and faces a number of mental health challenges, including addiction and suicidality. It’s clear, however, that Henderson and their children are enamored with Aaron. This family has as much love as it does pain. Readers should be aware that passages about incest are recurrent throughout the book, as well as discussions of suicide attempts. The descriptions of Aaron’s strange illnesses are vivid and unambiguous (including lesions, rashes and bleeding), and parasites, real or imagined, make many appearances. In many ways, this memoir is a compelling medical mystery, and anyone who is interested in the disputed existence of Morgellons disease will have lots to chew on here. Ultimately, this memoir is about the depth of the marital bond. Readers may wonder, why is Henderson still enduring all this? But of course, we know the answer: She deeply loves her husband. Everything I Have Is Yours is not a traditional love story, but it is a love story–one as heart-wrenching as it is heart-filling. Reading it will prompt you to give the meaning of “in sickness and in health” a good, long thought.
  • Edge Case by YZ Chin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): YZ Chin’s Edge Case is one of the first great novels to examine the grinding effect of U.S. anti-immigration policies during the Trump administration. Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. A tester at a New York City tech startup, Edwina is the only woman–and what seems like the only minority employee–among men so entitled, they can’t even see their racism and misogyny. Software engineer Marlin was planning to get his green card (which isn’t green, by the way), become a citizen and then sponsor his parents to come to the United States. But this will never happen, as Marlin’s beloved father dies early in the book. This calamity unhinges Marlin, and he leaves Edwina. In the aftermath, she struggles to understand his disappearance via messages to an unseen therapist-in-training. Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status, her looks and daily racial insults. These barbs are too overt to be called microaggressions, and they come not just from her co-workers but also from police. (They accuse Edwina of drinking booze in the open when she’s sipping tea from a cup.) She remembers when dark-skinned Marlin was pulled out of line at the airport and hustled into an office for reasons no one knows. These affronts carry an extra cargo of anxiety that goes beyond the usual hurt of racism, since Edwina knows that if she or Marlin puts a foot wrong, they could be deported. Chin, the author of the story collection Though I Get Home, is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball. Every chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love. Edge Case shows what can happen to ordinary people when they’re caught up in systems beyond their control.
  • Gone for Good by Joanna Schaffhausen (physical book available at the library; mystery): Annalisa Vega shouldn’t be investigating the latest murder linked to a serial killer, dubbed by the press as the Lovelorn Killer, who last struck in her Chicago suburb 20 years ago. Her father was the original investigator in the case and her boyfriend during her teenage years, Colin, was the son of the seventh murder victim. But Annalisa’s a detective herself now, and, perhaps seeing this as a way to help her dad exorcise his demons from never having solved the case, she dives headlong into Joanna Schaffhausen’s multilayered mystery, Gone for Good. Annalisa quickly learns the latest victim, local grocery store manager Grace Harper, was investigating the original spate of killings with an amateur sleuth club called the Grave Diggers. The similarities between her death and those of the earlier victims–all were found bound and gagged, dead on the floor of their homes–convinces Vega that Grace was closer to solving the case than even she might have thought, which prompted the killer to come out of hiding. Schaffhausen, who has a doctorate in psychology and previously worked in broadcast journalism, uses her expertise to delve into the minds of her characters, extracting their hopes, desires and fears in equal measure. The author brilliantly explores Annalisa’s emotional connections with the characters around her. She’s not only been reunited with Colin for the first time in years, but her partner on the case is her ex-husband, Nick, who is also a detective. Both situations prompt a flood of emotions that threaten to cloud Annalisa’s judgment. Chapters told from Grace’s perspective are cunningly interspersed with Annalisa’s traditional gumshoe detective work, yielding additional insights along the way. While Schaffhausen throws in a few red herrings, all the clues are there for readers if they pay keen attention. And even if readers should figure things out ahead of Annalisa, the action-packed ending and final twist are more than worth seeing Gone for Good to its finish.
  • The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): The author of several historical mysteries and a wild reworking of Jane Eyre (the Edgar Award-nominated Jane Steele), Lyndsay Faye brings considerable skills and irreverent humor to The King of Infinite Space, a contemporary reimagining of Hamlet set in and around a New York City theater. Benjamin Dane is both fabulously wealthy and kept on just this side of sanity by a slew of medications. He is the son of Jackson and Trudy, owners of the prestigious New World’s Stage. After Jackson dies under mysterious circumstances, Trudy immediately marries her brother-in-law, Claude. In mourning and struggling with his suicidal impulses, Benjamin uncovers a videotape from a paranoid-seeming Jackson, who names Claude as his murderer. Distraught, Benjamin reaches out to Horatio Patel, a friend from graduate school who left New York after the two men had a one-night stand. Horatio returns from England to console his friend and aid in Benjamin’s plan to denounce his mother and uncle at the theater’s annual fundraising gala. Benjamin’s ex-girlfriend, Lia Brahms, wants to help, but her job as a florist’s assistant keeps her too busy. Faye’s knowledge of Shakespeare extends well past Hamlet, as The King of Infinite Space name-checks characters from several of the Bard’s plays, from Ariel, the all-knowing doorman at the New World; to the meddling event coordinator Robin Goodfellow; to the three weird sisters who manage the flower shop where Lia is employed and who specialize in bouquets that heal, cure and maybe even alter the future. Lush and magical, thoughtful and provocative, The King of Infinite Space is a remarkable achievement, staying true to Shakespeare’s tragic play in ways that will surprise and delight while reveling in neurodivergence, queer attraction and quantum physics. Though the buildup is slow and Benjamin’s philosophical meanderings occasionally digressive, this is a novel to stick with for its rewards of a surprising plot and Faye’s delightful storytelling.
  • The Arbornaut by Meg Lowman (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” has a big public presence, and her latest memoir demonstrates why: She excels at bringing the natural world to life in language. The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us takes readers around the world, from the forests of New England to the hills of Scotland, from the jungles of Australia to the riverbanks of the Amazon. It also tells the story of a passionate young naturalist whose childhood collections of wildflowers and bird eggs were supplanted by mosses during adolescence until, during college, she discovered the enduring love of her life: trees. Specifically, the tops of trees, which have been historically understudied even though they compose a vibrant ecosystem that Lowman refers to as the “eighth continent” of the world. Lowman’s driving curiosity finds a productive outlet in the scientific process, which she ably describes for lay readers. Her research is full of life, energy, intelligence and determination. It’s impossible to reader about it without wanting to examine the natural world more closely! While reading The Arbornaut, I found myself staring out of my second-story windows, trying to discern whether the leaves of the “upper canopy” of my Midwestern trees differed from those visible at ground level. This is exactly the kind of response Lowman hopes for. She is dedicated to getting everyday folks into the canopies, which she argues can advance scientific discovery (more eyes collecting more data) and benefit the planet (more people dedicated to ecological preservation). Across multiple projects, Lowman’s reputation has grown within and beyond her discipline, and in this memoir, she also attends to the impact of gender on her professional experience. After detailing multiple instances of unwanted attention, ranging from innuendos to attempted assault, Lowman describes herself as a “tall poppy,” a flower that others try to cut down because it stands out. And yet, she persists, leading expeditions to the Amazon, collaborating with scientists and citizens alike and sharing her results in both technical journals and delightful memoirs. She deserves her celebrity. The Arbornaut is a book to reach for if you, like Lowman, love the natural world and want to live in it fully.
  • The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by Charlie English (physical book available at the library; European history): In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art, Charlie English, former head of international news at the Guardian, tells the tale of two art critics. The first, Hans Prinzhorn, was an art historian and psychiatrist. Employed by the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Hospital in 1919, he was given the task of cataloging and evaluating the patients’ artwork for diagnostic purposes. Prinzhorn quickly realized that these works were more than expressions of mental illness. They were art, filled with life’s horror, humanity and energy. He set about collecting more artworks from different clinics and asylums and, in 1922, published the influential book Artistry of the Mentally Ill. The second critic was a self-taught Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler. English explains that Hitler primarily considered himself an artist and thought his greatest work would be the German people. Creating “pure” German art would be key to the success of that project. Yet Hitler could not say what German art was; he could only say what it was not. And it definitely was not produced by people who were mentally ill. To prove that point, Hitler ordered an exhibition of “degenerate art,” including works from Prinzhorn’s collection, to show how “corrupt” and “insane” modern art had become. For Hitler, an unworthy life was as disposable and valueless as unworthy art. Consequently, he went on to orchestrate the murder of tens of thousands of those whose lives he deemed “unworthy,” including people who were disabled and chronically ill–and at least two dozen of the Prinzhorn artists. This is not an abstract book of ideas. The battle between these two views of art was, literally, a matter of life and death, so English uses the life and death of Franz Karl Buhler, the most accomplished of Prinzhorn’s artists, to frame his story. From master ironsmith to psychiatric patient to discovered artist, all the way to the terrifying details that led to his murder by carbon monoxide gassing, Buhler’s life and death illuminate the void at the heart of Nazism. The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is profoundly heartbreaking, unexpectedly redeeming and immensely important.
  • Both Sides Now by Peyton Thomas (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Finch Kelly feels most at home on the debate stage, and he knows winning the national debate championship could be his ticket to achieving his dreams: admission to Georgetown University and the first step toward becoming the first transgender member of Congress. But his family’s finances are falling apart, his feelings for his debate partner, Jonah, are growing more and more complicated and the topic for the championship debate will require him to argue against his own human rights. As the pressure mounts, Finch begins to lose confidence in everything he once believed. In this sharp and emotional first novel, author Peyton Thomas explores the queer high school experience through Finch, who longs to look more like the teenage boy he is and whose feelings for Jonah are causing him to question his sexual orientation. The novel also confronts racism through Jonah’s experience as a Filipino American who deals with microaggressions from debate judges and his gorgeous, Juilliard-bound boyfriend. Add in the socioeconomic woes that are never far from Finch’s thoughts, as his parents grapple with unemployment and his debate opponents’ families write huge checks to prestigious colleges, and Both Sides Now is jampacked with timely issues. Thomas doesn’t pull any punches on difficult topics and never once reduces his characters to objects of pity. Instead, he depicts teenagers who are working hard to find their places in a world that h as thrown obstacle after obstacle in their paths. The novel balances serious political conversations and scenes of moving emotional hardship with moments of comedy and a spirit of true camaraderie and respect between Finch and Jonah. Teens who participate in their schools’ debate or Model United Nations programs will especially appreciate the book’s detailed exploration of contemporary political issues, but Thomas’ witty prose, strong pacing and knack for creating vivid, dimensional characters have broad appeal.
  • Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (physical book available at the library; noir): Silvia Moreno-Garcia has a knack for re-envisioning familiar, even comforting genre territory in vital new ways, something she proved with her last novel, the incredible Mexican Gothic. In that book, Moreno-Garcia turned her gift for evolving classic tropes toward gothic tales full of spooky houses and spookier families. For her next trick, the author moves into pulp adventure territory for a novel that evokes the best conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Set in the wake of the brutal murders of dozens of student protestors in Mexico City in June 1971, Velvet Was the Night follows two lost characters in a world that seems determined to suppress their spirits. Maite and Elvis are both dreamers of a sort, in love with music and stories and adventure, though their day-to-day existences could be not more disparate. Maite wants a more exciting life; she spends here days in a dull office job, is constantly reminded by her mother that she’ll never live up to her sister’s achievements, and loses herself in the romantic adventure tales she finds at the local newsstand. Elvis longs to escape the brutality of the paramilitary group he’s been roped into. When the case of a missing woman and an incriminating roll of film enters their lives, Maite and Elvis find themselves on a winding collision course, one that could open both their eyes to the ways in which their lives might change. As always, Moreno-Garcia couches all her riffs on genre conventions within a deeply ingrained sense of character. Before we can fully grasp the many angles of the tangled, noir-tinged web she’s weaving, we must first get to know Maite and Elvis and their different forms of ache and longing. Through precise, accessible yet poetic prose, these characters instantly come alive, and when they begin venturing into Mexico City’s darker corners, we are eager to follow them. The result is another triumph for one of genre fiction’s brightest voices, a book that will keep you up late into the night–not just for its intricate plotting but also for the two souls pulsing at its core.