Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han: Simon Han’s debut novel scrutinizes the American dream through the Chengs, who have recently emigrated from China. The family settles in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where Patty works in semiconductors and Liang is a photographer. Their son, Jack, spends the first six years of his life in China, where his grandparents raise him until his parents are ready for him to join them in the United States. His sister, Annabel, is born in the U.S., and her relationship to China is abstract, as she has never been there but speaks Mandarin at home. Things aren’t going particularly well with 5-year-old Annabel. At school, she’s practicing manipulation on a friend, and other parents are leery of her. When she begins sleepwalking, Jack deems himself her protector. In Nights When Nothing Happened, Han explores all that can get lost in the spaces between people. A fateful Thanksgiving Day serves as the crux of the story, but the tale spans much further than that, back to the mysterious death of Liang’s mother when he was an infant, which has haunted him his whole life. While the book is driven more by characterization than by plot, Han delivers the few pivotal moments with such skill that they are jaw-droppers. Han displays incredible range as a novelist, oscillating between honest, almost tangibly real scenes, opaque dreams and refractive memories. He portrays Annabel’s and Jack’s points of view with remarkable integrity, while Liang and Patty are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, doing their absolute best for their children while grappling with their pasts. Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.
Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett: If you think you know all about the brain, think again! According to neuroscientist and Northeastern University professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett (How Emotions Are Made) in her delightful new book Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, “your brain is not for thinking.” This is the titular half-lesson that introduces this slim tome of short, informal essays, which are “best read in order, but you can also read them out of sequence.” Instead of including all the scientific specifics in the book itself (which, quite honestly, could get tedious if you’re reading for pleasure), Barrett handily moves the full explanations and references to her website, sevenandahalflessons.com, and merely includes an appendix with selected details at the back of the book. Barrett poses some interesting questions, such as “Why did brains evolve?”–busting the myth that it was for thinking and revealing that it was actually for body-budgeting, providing energy efficiency for our ancestors much like a renewably fueled car. She writes with precision and clarity as she covers topics as broad as the tricky business of comparing different species’ brains, the fact that all mammals’ brains are built from a single manufacturing plan and the difference between brains and minds. Barrett uses comparisons to everyday things and practices to help readers understand the brain’s complexity. For example, in the chapter “Your Brain Is a Network,” she likens the brain’s vast collection of interconnected parts to the internet’s network of linked devices and the intricate dispatch routes of transportation networks. As a result, interesting concepts such as tuning (strengthening the connections between neurons) and pruning (when less-used connections weaken and die off) are presented in approachable ways. Some topics are less fun but still worthy of consideration, such as the heartbreaking effects of adversity, poverty and neglect on the brains of developing children. Barrett also explains what sets our brains apart from those of other species, highlighting the things that make us human, such as social reality, creativity and communication. The brain can do a great deal of impressive things yet still misunderstand itself. On the path to better self-knowledge, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain sheds some light on our most powerful organ and its intriguing processes.
Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton: ‘Tis the season to be Dolly! In Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, the lovable, candid, tell-it-like-it-is singer shares her own story through the lyrics of her songs. While fans love Parton for her crystal-clear vocals and her charming, witty stage presence, she’s always thought of herself as a songwriter first, and this book illustrates her deep devotion to music that captures a moment or tells a heart-rending tale. As she reveals, “I write a lot from my own heart. But I also just have a big imagination. When I was young, we didn’t go to the movies, so I just created my own stories. It’s kind of embedded in me to make up songs and stories.” Chock-full of never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia from Parton’s archives, every chapter tells a portion of her biography. Using lyrics from 175 of her songs–including “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene”–she traces the journey from her Tennessee mountain childhood to her role on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” her 9 to 5 days and her bluegrass albums. As she provides a glimpse into the origins of each song, Parton notes that she has “never shied away from any topic, whether it was suicide or prostitution or women’s rights or whatever…Whatever it is, I can say it in a song, in my own way.” Parton tells her stories with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. Her book invites us to sit a spell as she weaves her enchanting storytelling web around us, wrapping us in the warm, silky threads of her voice and comforting us with her presence.
White Ivy by Susie Yang (e-book and e-audiobook available on Libby and Axis 360 apps): Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own. In Chinese American author Susie Yang’s debut novel, we meet Ivy at several different stages of life. She grows from fretful child to moody and self-loathing junior grifter. By her late 20s, she has evolved into a smooth, sophisticated adult, determined to attain her American ideal by any means necessary. Her looks and circumstances have improved, but her desperation never fully evaporates. Rather than a traditional thriller, White Ivy is a slow-burning, intricate psychological character study and coming-of-age story full of family secrets and foreboding. Ivy isn’t an outsider simply because she’s an immigrant; she stands out even within her own deeply dysfunctional Chinese American family. Their treatment of Ivy exposes the minor harms of everyday life–the tiny slights and subtle hits that leave marks that never fade. Alienation appears to be Ivy’s natural state, and this is never more clear than when she is closest to getting what she wants: popularity, respect and, most of all, a romantic relationship with her childhood crush, the beautiful scion of an old-money New England family. Despite the book’s inevitable ending, Yang allows her main character ambiguity. Ivy is strangely, uncomfortably relatable and ultimately unknowable. Her transgressions are mostly minor, yet her sometimes vicious inner monologue shows that she has the capacity for far harsher misdeeds. Perhaps that is the point–that the dividing line between ordinary wrongs and acts of true evil is razor thin. So when signs start to suggest that something very bad is about to happen, the violent act is all the more jarring. Ivy brings to mind other desperate, liminal characters, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Readers will find a lot to appreciate in this sharply observed psychological thriller.
Paper Bullets by Jeffrey H. Jackson: Although it’s been 75 years since the end of World War II, accounts that reveal the resilience of ordinary individuals in the face of the Nazi regime continue to emerge into the historical record. In Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Jeffrey H. Jackson, a Rhodes College professor specializing in European history, unearths the fascinating story of two women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, whose “resistance activity grew organically out of life-long patterns of fighting against the social norms of their day.” After 20 years of immersion in the art scene of Paris, Lucy, a photographer and writer who published under the name Claude Cahun, and Suzanne, an illustrator whose professional pseudonym was Marcel Moore, found themselves under German occupation on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. The two women had retreated there in 1937 out of concern for Lucy’s chronic health problems, posing as sisters to hide their true relationship. Jackson links the women’s involvement in resistance work to their personal experiences as artists and lesbians whose lives constantly put them at odds with expectations placed on them as the daughters of wealthy families in France. These expectations included gender identity and expression, which they explored in both their personal lives and art as a fluid spectrum between masculinity, androgyny and femininity. Jackson’s previous works include Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris, and he is adept at bringing the vibrancy of 1920s and 1930s Paris to life, including the cafes, nightclubs and personalities that were part of the thriving gay and lesbian community to which Lucy and Suzanne belonged. This carefully researched volume also includes fascinating photographs, artwork and excerpts from the women’s letters and articles. The author’s attention to detail and prodigious research skills are also on display as he recounts the saga of the German occupation of Jersey and the women’s growing determination to do something to resist. They began small enough, ripping down German posters and announcements and making graffiti. They also created their own anti-Nazi artwork and slipped subversive messages (the eponymous “paper bullets”) onto the windshields of police cars or into the pages of German-language magazines on local newsstands. Their efforts at fomenting doubt among the occupying forces escalated, eventually leading to their arrest, imprisonment in solitary confinement and a dramatic trial in which they were sentenced to death in November of 1944. Their sentence was later commuted, but they remained confined until the war ended. The final section of Paper Bullets details these women’s postwar lives. Lucy died in 1954, Suzanne in 1972. In an epilogue entitled “Why Resist?” Jackson addresses some of the issues that led to the women’s commitment to the cause of freedom. Their story, he notes, “invites us to look at a history of the war from the bottom up, to think about the complexities of ground-level responses to conquest.” Impeccably researched and meticulously sourced, Paper Bullets is a welcome and timely portrait of courage and creativity.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans: Racism is an insidious beast. It can find its way into any situation, as Danielle Evans shows in the stories and novella in The Office of Historical Corrections. Evans emerged as an important voice in American literature with her 2010 debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and she once again demonstrates impressive artistry and humor as she chronicles shocking episodes of discriminatory behavior. In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop for a replica of the Titanic, but she never gets to work the museum’s princess parties because, her boss says, of historical accuracy: There were no Black princesses on the Titanic. In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student poses for pictures in a Confederate-flag bikini and is surprised by the pain it causes Black students. Other stories dig deeper, such as “Anything Could Disappear,” about a Black woman forced to care for a 2-year-old Black child who is deliberately left next to her on a bus by the child’s white caregiver. Not every story deals with race, as with the funniest story, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” in which a “genius artist” stages public apologies to the women he has wronged. However, most stories do, and the sharpest piece is the title novella, about a government agency that adds emendations to incorrect placards at historical sites, a job that becomes surprisingly dangerous. As a child, the novella’s protagonist consoled a Black friend who had lost a debate tournament, declaring her a better debater than her white competitors. “But it’s never going to be enough,” replied the friend. Evans’ book shows that that painful truth hasn’t disappeared.
We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper: The true crime genre has been so successful in podcasting that one might forget it originated in publishing. Becky Cooper, formerly of the New Yorker, has already drawn comparisons to In Cold Blood with her true crime masterpiece, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence–and for good reason. On a winter night in 1969, Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in the Harvard anthropology department, was brutally murdered in her Boston apartment. Aspects of the crime scene suggested that her murderer may have had some knowledge of ritualistic burials. For decades, rumors suggested that a powerful archeology professor killed her. Cooper, herself a Harvard graduate, finally decided to find out. Over the course of 10 years, Cooper turns over every stone trying to identify Jane’s killer. She perseveres mightily in her investigation, driven in part by the way she identifies with the quirky, complicated victim. This identification may draw in readers who see themselves in Jane, too. But for others, the author’s embrace of a stranger who died 50 years prior may never quite gel. The book is strongest when we’re empathizing with Jane–her romantic foibles, grappling with sexism within academia–rather than with the author. For aspiring journalists, Cooper’s impressive work in We Keep the Dead Close is a masterclass on how to do investigative reporting. She dug deep into archival research and interviewed most everyone involved in the case, drawing uncomfortable information out of her sources with particular skill while still withholding judgment. Along the way, the narrative ventures down rabbit holes and zigzags from Cambridge to Hawaii to Iran to Labrador. Cooper’s 10-year investigation is a meandering one that may drag on for readers who want a neat and tidy resolution. For everyone else, there’s so much to chew on in We Keep the Dead Close. The resolution, when it comes, is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.
The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): In his 12th novel, Jonathan Lethem returns to speculative fiction to tell a provocative tale of an isolated Maine peninsula after an apocalypse. In this particular apocalypse, known as “the Arrest,” some mysterious process has incrementally disables the world’s supply of gasoline, pixels and gunpowder. There’s no TV, no internet, no internal combustion engines, no firearms. This is a challenge for all the residents on the peninsula, but it is especially hard for Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, known as Journeyman, who once had a successful career as a Hollywood script doctor but now works as a butcher’s assistant and a bicycle deliveryman, pedaling in the shadow of his younger sister, Maddy, a local communal farmer. The peninsula’s isolation is enforced by a surly group of tribute-demanding bullies called the Cordon. Are they keeping outsiders out or insiders in? In there life, civilization or, better yet, electricity beyond their barricades? Busting past the Cordon comes Peter Todbaum in his nuclear-powered vehicle called the Blue Streak. Peter is Journeyman’s former Yale roommate and movie-making collaborator, and he arrives hoping to rekindle his estranged relationships with Journeyman and Maddy as well as his lifelong movie project, Yet Another World, a dystopian, apocalyptic love story. He comes bearing an endless supply of the rarest of rare–brewed coffee. He first enthralls and then alienates almost everyone with his endless stories and fabrications. And this is just the beginning. Lethem is a beguiling and very smart writer. Told in short, breezy chapters, The Arrest vibrates with sharp, satiric observations and layers upon layers of strange, often funny mashups of popular 1970s and ’80s end-of-the-world books and movies. Ultimately, Lethem’s plot resolves itself, but in ways that do not fully satisfy. This is deliberate. As his fans know, Lethem often plays a deeper game. There are some answered and many unanswered questions in The Arrest–so many that Lethem seems to be suggesting that even at the end of days, the familiar shapes of stories are insufficient, and life itself offers fewer resolutions than we hope for.
I’ll Be Seeing You by Elizabeth Berg (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): “This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.” So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don’t be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse–generous gifts of poetic insight, close observance, vulnerability, honesty, humor and grace. Berg’s father, a tough U.S. Army “lifer,” is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while his wife of more than 67 years tries to cope. Though he’s always been autocratic and demanding, Berg’s father unconditionally adores his wife. “She was the place where he put his tenderness,” Berg writes. Eventually, his gradual descent into dementia, along with his wife’s advancing age, force the couple to move from their longtime home into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility. Berg and her sister try to negotiate and navigate this upheaval with their parents’ best interests at heart, but complications arise. Their father is increasingly confused and isolated, and their usually even-tempered mother becomes angry–an understandable reaction to her two-pronged grief over losing her husband to dementia and leaving a beloved home. “My mother was enraged,” Berg writes. “Her heart was breaking because her house was being taken from her, which is to say that her life was.” From the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011, short diary entries focus mainly on the events of Berg’s aging parents’ lives, as the author and her sister step in to be their parents’ loving–and often frustrated–family caregivers. “It’s hard to know how to rescue someone. It’s hard to know how to help them in the way they need to be helped,” she writes in one entry. Such rueful reflections are blended with an appreciation of ordinary moments, making each entry a story in miniature–cameos of the joys and pains of family life, and the challenges and rewards of caregiving for loved ones. Readers familiar with Berg’s novels know that her stories wonderfully encompass the comforts of beauty and wry humor, but they never sugarcoat life’s hard truths. The same is true of I’ll Be Seeing You, which mines the wisdom hidden in difficult times. “Life is a minefield at any age,” Berg writes. “If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”
Memorial by Bryan Washington (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): It sometimes feels like romantic relationships are becoming harder and harder to navigate. Meeting someone, getting to know them, constantly finding ways to communicate about everything, searching for common ground, trying and failing to move forward or take a leap of faith–it’s all exhausting. The routine isn’t entirely disheartening, though, and to the most curious of minds, it can be fertile ground for analysis and creation. So it is with Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, a celebratory lamentation of modern love. The novel follows two men who are in love with each other. Through a major miscommunication, Benson, a Black day care worker in Houston, ends up living with his boyfriend Mike’s Japanese mother, who doesn’t seem all too happy to be the guest of someone she has never met before. Mike, on the other hand, is a chef who must travel to Japan to help his father, who is dying of cancer, through his final days. As the novel begins just before Mike’s departure, the two men are unsure of their path forward together. This classic will-they-won’t-they scenario gives Memorial a timeless feel, but by placing two gay men at the center of this familiar setup, Washington poses fresh questions about contemporary romantic relationships with quiet grace. From the intermittent use of text messages and shared photographs to the mastery of a decade of slang, his writing is invigorating, reminding the reader of the realities every human must face and how we’ve all learned to communicate them. Memorial is more than just a love story–though it is a very good love story. It’s this generation’s response to centuries of love stories, to a whole history of them. It’s what is coming; it’s what is here.
To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu: Short stories in science fiction are frequently answers to questions. What if, an author wonders, an incomprehensibly powerful alien being were inspired by an ice sculpture? Or what if there were nations in cyberspace, separate and distinct from their real-world counterparts? What if a world on the brink of annihilation could be saved by a poet? Or a teacher? Each of these questions is explored in a story in Cixin Liu’s new collection, To Hold Up the Sky. These stories span three decades of his writing career, from 1985 to 2014, and although many have been published before, all are new to his English-speaking audience. As with any writer over such a long period, Liu’s style evolves from the earliest stories to the more recent ones, and yet they are all immediately recognizable as his work. In some ways, Liu’s point of view is rare among science fiction novelists of his international stature. Unlike most of his peers in the Western science fiction scene, whose worlds frequently comment on fundamental human failings or the dystopian struggles of an inconsistently ethical society, Liu’s work is suffused with an understated optimism. To Hold Up the Sky is no different. In fact, he hints at this in the foreword, where he mentions that in his writing, he is always attempting to depict “the relationship between the Great and the Small.” To him, the “Small” is all of humankind, and at this project’s core, there’s a presumption that humans are always more united than we are divided, that our communal nature is our defining characteristic as a species and that free will, along with the frailties and flaws that it allows, is essential to that collaborative instinct. (And yes, that does sound like a contradiction, but this is addressed and dispensed within one of the stories in To Hold Up the Sky.) This realistic but positive outlook is shared by a few other science fiction writers–Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Becky Chambers and Iain M. Banks come to mind–but rarely is it as essential to a speculated universe as in Liu’s prose. As a result, few writers achieve quite the same flavor of optimistic apocalypse or infuse existential dread with such a tangible thread of hope. Throughout To Hold Up the Sky, Liu brings his collections of ice sculptors and poets and computer scientists and military engineers teeteringly close to oblivion. He does so knowing that the crisis is finite, and that humanity in its feeble entirety will either survive, learn and grow, or simply…stop. And he insists that there is beauty either way. I am not certain if I agree with this sentiment. It is both too cynical and too idealistic for me. But either way, Liu is far too good a writer for me to put this book aside.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, follows main character Harold on an improbable long walk across England as he comes to terms with his failures. Similarly, Miss Benson’s Beetle, Joyce’s fifth novel, tracks main character Margery Benson as she aims to make her own unlikely journey to an island called New Caledonia in the southwestern Pacific, to track down an elusive golden beetle. In 1950, the war is over, but rationing and shortages continue in London. Margery is a lonely 40-something soul, teaching home economics to snarky high school girls. When the girls go too far in making fun of her, Margery snaps and flees the school, snatching a pair of lacrosse boots in fury and frustration, an act that reminds her of her long-deferred goal of finding the golden beetle of New Caledonia. But it’s a preposterous dream. Margery has no academic credentials, no passport, no knowledge of New Caledonia and no money. Nevertheless, she persists, planning her journey and interviewing assistants. What follows is an epic, obstacle-filled journey from London to Australia and at last to New Caledonia, which in 1950 is a French colony. Margery and her assistant, Enid Pretty, arrive on the island woefully underprepared for the final part of their quest. Miss Benson’s Beetle balances the light–including comic moments that highlight the discrepancies between stolid Margery and flighty Enid–with the dark, such as Margery’s trauma-filled youth. As with Harold Fry, the main character’s inner journey is the real one. Margery finds human connection she didn’t know she was missing and, through that connection, a deeper purpose in life. The novel also has a marvelous, economical way of contrasting the drab gray of postwar London with the vivid colors, sounds and smells of New Caledonia. Joyce’s fiction has been slotted into “uplit,” a publishing term for novels that contain some dark moments but ultimately offer an uplifting ending. For readers who seek escape, Miss Benson’s Beetle is just right.
Cary Grant by Scott Eyman: Film historian Scott Eyman takes a fresh look at a movie legend in the sparkling biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Drawing upon extensive interviews and archival materials, including the star’s personal papers, Eyman shows that Grant (1904-1986), king of the romantic comedy and the very definition of dashing, was a man of contrasts forever troubled by his working-class past. Born into a poor household in Bristol, England, Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach, did not have a happy childhood. His father was an alcoholic. His depressed mother spent decades in an institution, while Grant was told that she was dead. At 14, he engineered his own expulsion from school in order to chase a career in show business. From stilt walking, acrobatics and pantomime in English music halls to American vaudeville revues and the Broadway stage, he didn’t stop until he’d landed in Hollywood. In 1932, Grant made his first big film, Blonde Venus, with Marlene Dietrich. By 1939, he was a full-blown star. Absent-minded scientist (Bringing Up Baby), wisecracking socialite (The Philadelphia Story), ice-cold government agent (Notorious)–there was no bill he didn’t fit. During the late 1940s, Eyman writes, “Grant had first crack at nearly every script that didn’t involve a cattle drive or space aliens.” But Grant’s past seems to have left him permanently scarred. Although he maintained a suave public persona and was widely cherished by friends and fellow actors, the truth about him was, of course, more complicated. As the author reveals, Grant has a reputation for stinginess and self-absorption and could be a mean drunk. On set, he was often anxious and tense. Eyman’s consideration of the inner conflicts that drove Grant results in a wonderfully nuanced study of his life. Along with the star’s many marriages and bitter divorces, Eyman explores the rumors surrounding his sexuality and his LSD use, recounting it all in clean, unaffected prose. He mixes Grant’s personal story with several decades’ worth of Hollywood history, and his film analyses are eye-opening. Grant was “a man for all movie seasons.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
The Kidnapping Club by Jonathan Daniel Wells: Urbane and bustling, New York City is often considered the epitome of “Northern-ness.” However, in the decades before the Civil War, the city’s interests were very much in line with those of Southern cotton farmers. Through its finance, insurance and shipping industries, New York probably profited from slave labor more than any other city in the country. The city would do almost anything to appease the Southern states, even if it meant sending its own citizens into slavery. The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells is an eye-opening history of antebellum New York. Wells, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, meticulously details two of New York City’s dirtiest secrets: the city’s illicit backing of the illegal transatlantic slave trade and the Kidnapping Club that helped reinforce it. From the 1830s until the start of the Civil War, and with the support of the city’s judiciary, vigilantes in the Kidnapping Club as well as the police abducted Black New Yorkers on the pretext that they were escaped slaves. With little or no due process, hundreds of men, women and even children were snatched, jailed and then sent south. The broader effects of New York’s illegal slave trade were even more horrific, resulting in the abduction, enslavement and frequently death of hundreds of thousands of West Africans. There are many villains in this thoroughly researched and fascinating history, including police officers Tobias Boudinot and Daniel Nash, Judge Richard Riker and Mayor Fernando Woods. Yet The Kidnapping Club is more than a story of villainy. It’s also a history of heroes, including David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist who put his body between the victims and their snatchers; Elizabeth Jenkins, who fought against segregated transportation over a century before Rosa Parks; and James McCune Smith, an abolitionist and the first African American to hold a medical degree. Most important of all, The Kidnapping Club restores the names of the abducted: Ben, Hester Jane Carr, Isaac Wright, Frances Shields, John Dickerson and countless others whose lives were destroyed and humanity erased–until now.
Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): Debut author Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduces us to detective Lillian Pentecost and her right-hand woman/chronicler, Willowjean Parker, a mid-1940s pair that resembles a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Their investigation into the murder of prominent New York City matriarch Abigail Collins–found with her head bashed in inside her late husband’s locked-from-the-inside study–almost takes a back seat to the intrepid detectives themselves. Willow grew up with a traveling circus, and Lillian suffers from multiple sclerosis, making them as instantly intriguing as any classic detective tandem, whether it be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or the aforementioned Wolfe and Goodwin. Written with witty prose, Fortune Favors the Dead is often humorous and fun–nowhere near the stuffy analytical voice of Dr. Watson. Instead, with its cast of suspects (all conveniently listed at the start of the book to help readers keep track), it has the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery, and there’s a delightful dose of noir thrown in for the more hardcore pulp fiction crowd, too. All the tried and true methods of detection are evident here, as Willow follows cagey suspects (including a mysterious medium/spiritualist and a cynical university professor) around the city and interviews everyone from the family of the deceased to the waitstaff. There’s even a local police detective who begrudgingly accepts Lillian’s involvement in the case against his better judgment, a la Inspector Lestrade. Oh, and that case they’re working on? It’s as mysterious and fun a caper as you will ever read, with plenty of misdirection and intrigue to keep you guessing. You don’t need a clairvoyant to realize this duo will be around for years to come.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Jess Walter’s first novel in eight years arrives with the weight of high expectations. His last, Beautiful Ruins, was a surprising and well-deserved bestseller. His previous fiction–including crime novels, a 9/11 tale and short stories–were rapturously reviewed. In The Cold Millions, Walter tries another mixed genre, the Western historical novel, and shows he is a master at investigating the “hobo” world of 1909. The star of the book is Spokane, Washington, a “boomtown that just kept booming.” It is here, amid skid row poverty and mansions of wealth, that 19-year-old rabble rouser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn intersects with two orphaned young men, Rye and Gig, who are the protagonists of the story. The book is uneven, however, and falls short of the romanticism of Beautiful Ruins. There is fine detail on dark anarchy and dank jail cells, but unlike Walter’s funny version of Richard Burton in Ruins, Flynn is so focused (one might say didactic) as to be wooden. Her leadership of the dismal class struggle becomes repetitive. Rye and Gig are callow, and even though Gig is a book lover and Rye a striver, they don’t fully inhabit their space. Readers may be far more interested in the villain, a robber baron named Brand, and a smart circus performer named Ursula the Great. When these two are cavorting, The Cold Millions shines. Walter has devised some fantastic set pieces, including a riot that leads to a dreadful scene of jail overcrowding. The freedom of the road, the lawlessness of the police, the spectacle of a few cynical power figures making life miserable for the huddled masses–it’s all enlivened by Walter’s vivid writing. A reader can feel the rails rattling under the trains that thunder through the mountains. A new life, the 20th century, is roaring into being. As Rye thinks to himself, “History is like a parade.” Forget the book’s shortcomings; it’s good to have Jess Walter back.
Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour: Mila has spent the past four years in the foster care system. Now that she’s turning 18, she can’t be placed with another foster family, so she’s stunned and humbled to receive a placement as an intern with a couple named Julia and Terry, who have raised dozens of children on their idyllic farm tucked between the mountains and the sea. Alongside two other interns, Mila will tutor the younger children and contribute to the daily workings of farm life, tending the crops, learning about flowers and taking harvests to the nearby farmers market. Mila quickly becomes close to her student, 9-year-old Lee, beneath whose quiet demeanor lies a traumatic history. The two also bond over their shared distrust of the ghostly figures who seems to haunt the farm at night. The farm’s other residents seem to relish their mysterious presence, but Mila and Lee aren’t ready to welcome them in. Even as Mila settles into her new life, she worries that she doesn’t really belong on the farm. She becomes increasingly unsettled when disturbing tokens from her old life begin to show up on the doorstep of her cabin. Watch Over Me is an unusual ghost story in which the ghosts are both metaphors and characters in their own right. Printz Medalist Nina LaCour effectively blends contemporary perspectives on psychological themes, including abuse, childhood trauma, guilt and grief, with a setting and a narrative that seem to exist somehow outside of time. As the story opens, Mila is at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood. Her regrets over events in her youth and her longing to have had a more secure childhood like those Julia and Terry’s adoptees enjoy is poignant and palpable. Simultaneously, however, as her deepening relationship with Lee causes her to want to be the best teacher she can, Mila begins to craft a vision of her future that wouldn’t have been possible without the farm. Richly atmospheric and both haunting and hopeful, Watch Over Me is a rewarding novel about a young woman on the brink of a new life.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: The phrase “worst-case scenario” calls to mind extreme situations, like being on a hijacked plane or a bridge during an earthquake. But perhaps more realistically, most worst-case scenarios are mundane. They’re quieter and less violent. They might even happen while we’re on vacation. Such is the premise of Rumaan Alam’s novel, Leave the World Behind. White parents Clay and Amanda leave Brooklyn for a gorgeous vacation rental home far out on Long Island. Their kids are thrilled about the pool, less thrilled about being isolated in the woods with no cell service. Their respite has barely begun, however, when the house’s owners, wealthy Black couple George and Ruth, appear at the door in the middle of the night. There’s been an epic blackout in New York City. Something seems very wrong, and the older couple thought they should get out. At first, Amanda is annoyed that their vacation has been interrupted. How bad could a blackout really be? And couldn’t this rich couple just go stay in a hotel? But then eerie occurrences begin to happen where they are, too. It’s clear something terrible is happening. Alam’s brilliance is less in what he reveals and more in what he doesn’t. Fear of the unknown ratchets up the reader’s anxiety, and yet Leave the World Behind unfolds slowly for a thriller. The internet and TV are down, and cell phones won’t work, so information about the crisis is scarce. “I can’t do anything without my phone,” Clay laments. “I’m a useless man.” Trying to reassure the children and each other, the two couples hit the expected notes for grown-ups in a crisis: We’ll be fine. The government will have everything under control. We’re safe here. None of this turns out to be true. Leave the World Behind is certainly timely in the era of COVID-19, but it’s also relevant for anyone who has questioned our society’s dependence on technology or our unwavering faith in the social contract. The characters second-guess their beliefs about safety and security. Readers who are safe at home–maybe?–can’t help but do the same.
The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall: American cookery rests squarely on the shoulders of the late, great James Beard. After all, the man’s foundation and prestigious culinary awards, named in his honor, are considered the gold standard for recognizing the best chefs, restaurateurs and food writers working today. His life and experiences are extremely well-known and have been written about extensively. Yet in his new book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, John Birdsall–a gastronomic expert in his own right, having twice won a James Beard Award–gives foodies a fresh, intimate look at James Beard. He writes with candor, wit and vibrancy, as if Beard himself is speaking through Birdsall’s pen, retelling his colorful life and inviting us into his world. And Birdsall doesn’t mince words, delivering a raw, revealing look into how and why Beard had to tread cautiously as he navigated the world as a closeted gay man during the often unforgiving 20th century. Birdsall’s strength as a food writer shines, with mouthwateringly descriptive prose about cuisine peppered throughout the book, such as the smoked and glazed “swaddled ham” that Beard’s mother would bring along on their trips to the Oregon seashore: “The ham was salty and pungent. Its smokiness and moldy specter would linger as the first taste on the coast.” He also provides touchstones to what was going on globally, including both World Wars, the World’s Fair of 1939, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the civil rights movement, giving context for the major events that affected Beard’s life. The Man Who Ate Too Much is meticulously researched. Additionally, Birdsall’s insightful style allows readers to feel Beard’s successes and failures, highs and lows, and revelations and discoveries as they become deeply familiar with the family, friends, colleagues and rivals who impacted his life. Food lovers will rejoice at this new portrait of one of America’s all-time culinary greats, cheering for Beard’s shining legacy and empathizing with his disappointments.
Eleanor by David Michaelis: Fueled by 11 years of research, the new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by David Michaelis, New York Times bestselling author of N.C. Wyeth, is both compelling and comprehensive, making use of previously untapped archival sources and interviews. It seems no accident that Michaelis chooses as his leading epithet this quote from the nation’s most formidable and longest serving first lady: “I felt obliged to notice everything.” In the same way, her biographer, who actually met Roosevelt when he was just 4 years old, trains his careful attention on virtually all aspects of her incredible life and times to craft a fast-moving, engrossing narrative. Eleanor follows its subject from birth to her death in 1962. Michaelis sets the stage by providing a list of principal characters, then presents Roosevelt’s life in seven parts designed to reflect the myriad roles she played in her transformation from an awkward child into a force of nature. Roosevelt’s life journey took her from a shy, often ignored child, whose mother shamed her with the nickname “Granny,” to a dynamic first lady and then a “world maker” when, as one of the country’s first delegates to the United Nations, she spearheaded the adoption of the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history. Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was entwined with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor was so intrinsically linked with the New Deal and World War II, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she was born in 1884 and was almost 36 years old when the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. That was one year before the summer when FDR contracted polio, altering both their lives in profound ways. Michaelis never neglects the politics and history that marked the life of this remarkable, fascinating woman. At the same time, his impeccable storytelling and seamless integration of dialogue and quotations allow him to create an intimate, lively and emotional portrait that unfolds like a good novel. The book is also meticulously sourced, with nearly 100 pages of notes and a 30-page bibliography that’s of interest to historians as well as general readers. One of the pleasures of this biography in Michaelis’ firm grasp of the material and his ability to sprinkle the text with anecdotes and tidbits that capture Roosevelt’s personality, complex private relationships and public accomplishments. We learn, for instance, that as first lady she traveled 38,000 miles in 1933 and kept up this grueling pace, logging 43,000 miles in 1937. He writes, “Never before had a president’s wife set out on her own to assess social and economic conditions or…visited a foreign country unaccompanied by the President.” Roosevelt once reflected, “You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best you have to give.” As America faces another challenging period in its history, there may be no better time for readers to turn to the life of one of our nation’s truly great leaders for inspiration.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: The future we face under climate change is often presented as a progression of sterile facts: The world’s oceans are likely to rise by X meters by the year 2100. Global average temperatures are going to increase by Y degrees over the next 30 years. There will be Z millions of climate refugees seeking new homes. The problem with these numerical descriptions of a hellishly hot future is that they often ignore the human toll of climate change. Not so in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, The Ministry for the Future. Robinson’s view of climate change is deeply personal, inescapably human and utterly horrifying. The Ministry for the Future frames the story of humanity’s future around the formation and future-history of an international organization of the same name. Established in 2025, its mission is straightforward: It must advocate for the future of the Earth and the creatures that make their homes here. What this means, in practice, is trying to mitigate–and bear witness to–the human toll of catastrophic climate change. Robinson structures his story as a series of oral histories, eyewitness accounts of a changing world. While this technique isn’t new, it is unique in both the number of different accounts Robinson chooses to follow and the type. Robinson doesn’t focus on the macro or the micro; he focuses on it all. While the novel opens with the account of the sole survivor of a killer heat wave in Lucknow, India, it doesn’t stay there. It ranges from international politics (Is geoengineering a viable solution? What would happen if a single country unilaterally decided to engineer a solution to rising temperatures?) to the stories of individuals dealing with PTSD, forced migration and heat waves, among other things. The Ministry for the Future isn’t really a book for folks who are used to (or longing for) grand space operas and tales of cosmic exploration and action. Although Robinson’s prose is evocative, the book isn’t exactly exciting. Robinson’s writing is sparse, and what plot that exists within the pages of this book is often obscured by its structure. Much like the future, The Ministry for the Future doesn’t lay itself out in a straight and orderly fashion. Despite its occasionally dry tone, Kim Stanley Robinson’s take on our future is one of the most moving pieces of climate fiction written in a very long time. Well researched and beautifully written, this book is a thought-provoking (and sometimes even hopeful) read for anyone looking to the future and wondering what’s coming next.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton: With The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, British writer Stuart Turton kept readers guessing Agatha Christie-style as they investigated a mystery with a time- and body-hopping detective named Aiden Bishop. In The Devil and the Dark Water, Turton presents readers with another cat-and-mouse game, but a vastly different setting: A galleon that sets sail from the Dutch East Indies in 1634, bound for Amsterdam. The Devil and the Dark Water artfully combines intriguing characters, fascinating historical details and a seafaring labyrinth of twists and turns–not to mention a demon named Old Tom. There is never a dull moment in this 480-page whodunit, but readers will be thankful not to be physically aboard for the grueling journey. As passengers arrive, a leper suddenly shouts that the voyage is doomed, and then burns to death. What more could possibly go wrong? As the ship’s constable notes, the “crew is comprised of malcontents, murderers, and thieves to a man.” One passenger may be able to get to the bottom of the strange curse and ensuing foreboding events–and deaths–that follow. Unfortunately, detective Samuel Pipps is locked in the brig without knowing what crime he is accused of, leaving his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, to investigate. A trio of women (the captain’s wife, daughter and mistress) are also sleuthing, adding a refreshingly feminine twist to this Sherlock Holmes-styled mystery. Turton’s characterizations dovetail nicely with his careful, clever plotting. Meanwhile, he uses history to his advantage, adding dollops of commentary on women’s rights, class privilege and capitalism that lend the novel a contemporary vibe. As talk of Old Tom’s powers ramp up, passengers wonder whether the ship’s misfortunes may be supernatural, and which unfortunate soul will be Tom’s next target. Steadfast Hayes remains convinced that “There were only people and the stories they told themselves.” With no end of stories aboard this ill-fated galleon, and even a touch of romance, possibilities abound. Meanwhile, a ghost ship lurks in the distance, and a huge storm wreaks havoc. History and mystery lovers alike will delight in the heart-racing escapades of The Devil and the Dark Water.
The Searcher by Tana French: Much like her previous standalone novel, The Witch Elm, Tana French’s The Searcher meanders its way into a mystery with a deliberate patience. Cal Hooper is an outsider in his rural Irish town, and before he can be ensnared by a missing person case, Cal–and by extension the reader–must get his footing in his new community. It’s this nuance, a signature of French’s writing, that makes this novel more than just a mystery; it’s also an exploration of rural poverty and the closely intertwined lives of people who are just trying to scratch out a living. Cal is a former Chicago detective burned out from his job, licking his wounds after his divorce and struggling to reconnect with his adult daughter. His decision to move to Ireland and fix up a ramshackle farmhouse feels impulsive, but Cal is almost immediately centered by the beautiful landscape and by the kindness of his neighbors. Gossip gets around though, and soon Cal finds 13-year-old Trey Reddy on his doorstep. Trey’s 19-year-old brother Brendan has vanished and Trey believes that he’s been met with foul play. The Irish police, and indeed Brendan’s own mother, believe Brendan left of his own volition. The Reddys are poor, Brendan didn’t make it into college, and his girlfriend recently broke up with him. With few prospects, it’s reasonable to assume that he fled to Dublin like many teens before him. Trey’s insistence rattles something in Cal, however, and as he begins a quiet investigation into Brendan’s disappearance, he realizes that his tiny community is full of secrets and people who don’t want Brendan found. French scrapes away at the idyllic landscape of rural Ireland and reveals the vices that plague every village and town, including drugs like methamphetamine. As the book progresses, Cal’s idyllic country adventure begins to rot around the edges. What sets The Searcher apart from French’s earlier novels is its depiction of how deeply intertwined the residents of the village are–with young people leaving the area, farms struggling and poverty and drug use plaguing the area, each person is somehow dependent on his or her neighbors for survival. This is not a place where Cal can bury his head in the sand. Evocative and lyrical, The Searcher is a mystery worth reading slowly to savor every perfectly rendered detail.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: In V.E. Schwab’s genre-bending 17th novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the reader first meets Addie as she is fleeing a life she doesn’t want, one that has been chosen for her by her parents. In the year 1714 in Villon, France, 23-year-old Addie is being forced to marry a widower from her village whose children are in want of a stepmother. Instead of submitting, Addie runs. “She doesn’t slow, doesn’t look back; she doesn’t want to see the life that stands there, waiting. Static as a drawing. Solid as a tomb. Instead, she runs.” She also prays to the old gods, as her friend Estele, the village witch, has taught her. Estele warned her never to pray to the gods that answer after dark, but as dusk bleeds into night, Addie accidentally conjures just such a god, whom she will come to know as Luc. He promises Addie of “time without limit, freedom without rule” in exchange for her soul. Only after the deal is struck does Addie understand the secret cost of this arrangement. She can live for a thousand years if she likes, but nobody will ever remember her. Until one day, in New York City in the year 2014, she walks into a bookstore and, for the first time in 300 years, someone does. It’s a twist that changes everything she thought she knew about her future and the decisions that await her. At the heart of this novel is a meditation on legacy, time and the values each person uses to guide their path. Freed from a life’s traditional arc of aging and transitions, the indefatigable Addie must proactively decide how she wants to spend her days and which sacrifices are worth her soul’s survival. This is a hopeful book from an author who is known for dark, violent stories, which makes it both a delightful surprise and a balm in difficult times.
Missionaries by Phil Klay: Phil Klay, who gave us the National Book Award-winning collection of short stories Redeployment, follows up with his first novel, Missionaries, about America’s unofficial war on Colombian guerillas, militias and drug cartels. The novel, staggering in scope, follows four lead characters. Mason is a U.S. Army Special Forces operative turned liaison to the Colombian military who’s looking for a sense of purpose after serving long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lisette is a foreign war journalist who has spent years covering the down and dirty horrors on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere. Juan Pablo, Mason’s attaché in Colombia, laments his role as mercenary. And Abel, a lieutenant in the Los Mil Jesus militia, saw his family butchered as a child but somehow managed to survive to take up his own position of power. Before launching them on their eventual collision course, Klay introduces the foursome in alternating chapters over the first half of the book, diving years into the past as each character reflects on their lot in life. None of them really chose their path, but each is resigned to accept it one way or another. Even when they have a chance to walk away from it–to start fresh, as with Mason and Lisette–they are seemingly incapable of living a quieter, safer life. Klay’s vividly descriptive yet lyrical prose keeps their stories interesting, though the novel is at its best when events cascade into occasional bursts of graphic violence. Klay, an Iraq War veteran, progressively ratchets up the unease throughout, which serves as a cautious warning of more intense violence to come. Missionaries offers a starkly realistic view of a war-torn region only hinted at on the nightly news that, at times, makes Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s troubles pale by comparison. At the same time, the novel provides a powerful glimpse of the psychological toll of war and a close look at people’s desperate attempts to find their place amid utter chaos.
The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross: A long time ago, amid circumstances that no one seems so sure about anymore, a small Jewish village in Poland fell off the map of the world. Surrounded by thick forests, Kreskol has existed in a self-sustained bubble of peaceful isolation for decades, thereby missing the best of human civilization–like electricity, indoor plumbing and the internet–as well as the worst, namely the Holocaust and the Cold War. It is surprising, then, that what brings this peace crashing down isn’t an epic catastrophe but rather something as mundane as a marital dispute. When young Pesha Lindauer disappears, everyone suspects foul play by her husband, Ishmael, who is also nowhere to be found. Having no means to further investigate the scandal, the rabbis convince young Yankel Lewinkopf, an outcast and an orphan, to find his way to the nearest town and inform the authorities of the suspected crime. Yankel leaves reluctantly, only to return three months later in a helicopter with gentiles who are less interested in solving the crime than in immediately thrusting Kreskol into the 21st century. First-time novelist Max Gross is funny, insightful and mysterious in sharing what is essentially a coming-of-age story not only for Pesha, Ishmael and Yankel, each of whom realizes that they can choose to lead a different life, but also for an entire village that’s at once suspicious of and fascinated by the inundation of money and modern conveniences. The Lost Shtetl is a fascinating combination of adventure, laughs and heartache, perfect for fans ofMichael Chabon.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (e-book available on Libby or Overdrive app with library card): Readers will be riveted by powerful world building and deep characterization for the entirety of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. Right from the start, the story is on the clock. The Convergence, an alignment of Sun, Moon and Earth, approaches, and Serapio, a boy from a far-off land, brings magic and doom with him to his mother’s homeland of Tova. As the characters make their way toward Tova for the Convergence, the narrative perspective shifts constantly between Serapio, the Sun Priestess Naranpa and a sea witch of sorts named Xiala. While there are a few twists and turns to the plot, Roanhorse paints her story in broad, easy-to-follow strokes, the action serving almost as backdrop upon which to paint her world and to enrich her characters. As perspectives change, so do the rhythm and meter of the text, matching the mannerisms and personality of each character. When Xiala is guiding the narrative, her brash, blunt nature creates shorter, more direct sentences. People characterized by Xiala are often summarized by their physical characteristics first, their emotional resonance second. This shift in narrative tone and theme is most notable when Serapio is in the hot seat. Blind, brooding and by far the most powerful character, Serapio offers a perspective that often clashes with others’ views of him and his surroundings. This attention to detail in character voice creates an engaging story that keeps the reader in the moment through shifting narrative lenses. The world of Black Sun is well-built and clearly inspired by the Pre-Columbian Americas. Roanhorse has constructed a world of multiple regions and religions, intertwined by their roots, culture and money (cocoa, in the Mayan fashion) but split by their beliefs. Each character has a different perspective on the story’s events; a relational diagram displaying where the characters agree, disagree and agree-but-do-not-quite-know-it would have to be three-dimensional and incorporate multiple referencing lines, mirroring their real-life relationships. Roanhorse’s humanization of Black Sun‘s characters creates genuine connection for the reader, even with the Sun Priestess, despite any lack of sun-star divination skills the reader might have. Also, this book has extremely cool magic. Crows eat people, the sun goes dark, and the ocean sings with its children–wild forces of creation running rampant on small to massive scales. (There’s something incredible about reading “THE SUN WENT DARK.” It paints a remarkable pictures.) Truly, the fact that this review has only now gotten to this aspect of Roanhorse’s fantasy world demonstrates Black Sun‘s multifaceted appeal. Black Sun has one drawback: It is clearly the start of a series, and ends like it. Readers looking for an open-and-shut story will not find it here. As referenced before, the story is a set piece for the characters to interact with the setting and each other, but there is plenty of fascinating interplay and world-building to keep readers engaged and entertained from start to finish.
A Time for Mercy by John Grisham (e-book available on Libby and Overdrive apps): With nationwide calls for police reform and defunding, literary giant John Grisham’s novel A Time for Mercy is undoubtedly timely, as it explores the ways that violence committed by or against law enforcement officials can complicate the pursuit of justice. Jake Brigance–the hero of Grisham’s 1989 debut, A Time to Kill–is court-appointed to represent 16-year-old Drew Gamble in the shooting death of his mother’s boyfriend, deputy sheriff Stu Kofer. There’s no question that Drew pulled the trigger, but Jake faces an ethical challenge over whether the shooting was justified. Drew contends that he shot Stu in self-defense after believing Stu had killed his mother. Drew, his younger sister and their mother lived in constant fear of beatings by Stu, who often returned home in a drunken stupor. Jake only wants to handle preliminary matters for the Gamble case until a permanent public defender can be appointed. But deep down, he realizes he’s the best chance the Gamble family has. With public sentiment and fellow police officers standing behind Stu and his family, Jake’s efforts to keep Drew from being tried as an adult and facing possible execution put him at odds with the community. While there are lulls during some of the legal procedural bits, Grisham’s mastery of the courtroom thriller is never in question. As usual, he presents as smooth a read as you’ll ever experience. The dialogue is sharp and pointed, layered with genuine emotions that make the characters pop off the pages of this morally complex story.
Mad at the World by William Souder: John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the promise of wealth beyond the veil of desolation and the wretched impossibility of such a promise. Steinbeck’s other epic, East of Eden, illustrates the ragged desperation of human nature, wreaking destruction rather than carrying hope. William Souder’s bracing Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck vividly portrays the brooding and moody writer who could never stop writing and who never fit comfortably in the society in which he lived. Souder, whose biography of John James Audobon was a Pulitzer finalist, traces Steinbeck’s love of story and storytelling to his childhood. As a teenager, Steinbeck immersed himself in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which he translated later in life, and in adventure tales and classics such as Treasure Island, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment. This early reading gave him glimpses into the shadowy corners of the human heart and provided him with models for telling tales of people engaged in heroic struggles against the injustices of their eras. Steinbeck was a born storyteller, a writer who was not happy unless he was working, a novelist a bit out of step with his times (many of his social realist novels appeared during the innovations of modernism) and a reticent man who would rather write than talk publicly about his writing. Steinbeck’s greatest virtue, according to Souder, was his “ability to live inside other cultures, other races; he brought people to life who were otherwise invisible and voiceless.” The first Steinbeck biography since Jay Parini’s more psychological John Steinbeck: A Biography (1995), Mad at the World vibrantly illuminates the life and work of a writer who is still widely read and relevant today.
How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi: In this book, we’re introduced to recent high school graduate Amir in an airport interrogation room, as he recounts the last year of his life to very patient Customs and Border Protection agents. During senior year, two of Amir’s longtime bullies discover his secret relationship with Jackson, a sensitive football player, and demand that he pay them off with money he earns online. When they get greedy, Amir feels trapped, afraid of revealing his sexuality to his conservative Muslim family. With logic that only a desperate teenager could make sense of, he makes a run for it and finds himself in scenic Rome. Ahmadi blows through the entirety of Love, Simon in this setup, and thank goodness, because once the familiar signposts of the trope fall away, the story really shines. Amir explores his identity and desires along with his new surroundings. He makes older queer friends who teach him about Nina Simone and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” takes Italian lessons and parties into the wee hours of the morning. His new friends become a chosen family of mentors whose help any young outsider would be happy to have on their journey to self-discovery. The relationships Amir builds with these characters are truly the highlight of the novel. Amir can be a frustrating protagonist, but Ahmadi authentically depicts the growing pains of a young queer person reconciling his sexual orientation with the expectations of two communities–LGBTQ and Muslim. The result is occasionally awkward but always brimming with sincerity. “It’s such a privilege, you know?” Amir reflects. “To get to be yourself, all of yourself, in this great big world.”
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman: British TV presenter, producer and director Richard Osman adds “novelist” to his resume with The Thursday Murder Club, an imaginative and witty whodunit set in the luxurious Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, England. Solving cold-case murders isn’t an activity listed in the retirement community brochure, but it’s quite popular with a quartet of whip-smart resident septuagenarians–Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron–who are dedicated to the cause. The group meets in the Jigsaw Room; the time slot is “booked under the name Japanese Opera: A Discussion, which ensured they were always left in peace.” Little do they know that Coopers Chase developer and owner Ian Ventham has built the place with ill-gotten money, and he’s got plans to expand while, er, taking care of some criminal-underworld related issues. When Ventham’s business partner Tony Curran, a talented builder and prolific drug dealer, is murdered, the club seizes the opportunity to work on something fresh and exciting (even if their help isn’t necessarily welcome). Not long after, there is another murder, plus the discovery of human bones that don’t belong in the cemetery where they were found. The investigation’s urgency ratchets up accordingly–and the number of viable suspects increases, many of them right there in Coopers Chase. Through some hilariously masterful manipulation, the group unearths clues and teases out witness testimony, no small thanks to Elizabeth’s impressive network (she just possibly might be a former spy) and the club members’ talent for using stereotypes about the elderly to their advantage. Joyce, the group’s newest member, chronicles the club’s hijinks in her diary with a tone of hesitant glee, and also muses on motherhood, mortality and romantic love. Osman’s careful attention to the realities of life in a retirement village ensures that The Thursday Murder Club is a compassionate, thoughtful tribute to a segment of the population that’s often dismissed and ignored. It’s also an excellent example of the ways in which a murder mystery can be great fun.
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): “Being a citizen of the United States, I had thought, meant being an equal member of the American family, a spirited group of people of different races, origins, and creeds, bound together by common ideals,” writes Laila Lalami. “As time went by, however, the contradictions between doctrine and reality became harder to ignore. While my life in this country is in most ways happy and fulfilling, it has never been entirely secure or comfortable.” Lalami is an American citizen. She earned that title in 2000, eight years after she came to this country to earn her doctorate at the University of Southern California. She is also a Muslim woman and a native of North Africa. She may have passed the United States’ citizenship test with ease, but because of the markers that identify her as an immigrant, Lalami’s citizenship is often treated as conditional. In Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, Lalami examines the ways in which people of color and people who live in poverty are often treated as less than. It’s the first work of nonfiction for Lalami, a novelist who won an American Book Award and became a Pultizer finalist for The Moor’s Account. In this new work, Lalami blends analysis of national and international events with her own personal narrative. For example, a woman at one of the author’s book events asks Lalami to explain ISIS. Would a white writer of a novel set in an earlier time be asked to explain the Ku Klux Klan, she wonders. Conditional citizenship means being seen as representative of a monolithic group, rather than as an individual. These citizens are often asked to explain their entire ethnic groups to white people, Lalami writes. Conditional Citizens is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by its detailed source notes and bibliography, but in this gifted storyteller’s hands, it never feels like homework. Lalami braids statistics and historical context with her lived experiences to illustrate how unjust policies and the biases that feed them can affect individual lives.
Tools of Engagement by Tessa Bailey (e-book available on the Libby app):Tools of Engagement is the third and final book in Tessa Bailey’s contemporary Hot & Hammered series, and it’s every bit as fun and sexy as her readers have come to expect. Wes Daniels and Bethany Castle’s story has been building over the series, and it finally comes to a head when he signs on to help Bethany flip a house for a television competition. Wes is a man after my own heart, with his “winging it” approach to life. When his sister needs a break after separating from her husband, Wes flies to New York to care for his 5-year-old niece. He takes on a job with the Castle family’s construction business and begins to work with Bethany, a perfectionist home stager who’s trying to get her family to take her seriously. Her type-A, anxiety-driven personality is the perfect foil for Wes’ easygoing, earnest appeal for connection. She’s seven years his senior, which is a great plot device in developing the attraction between the two main characters. The key elements of a Bailey rom-com are certainly present: snappy dialogue, likable characters and red-hot chemistry. But it’s the plot that makes this romance feel perfectly of the moment, and readers quickly learn that the house the main couple is flipping isn’t the only thing that needs a little overhaul. It’s hard to be perfect all the time, and Bethany embodies every modern woman I know who juggles career and relationships, self-confidence and vulnerability. Wes is a very lovable hero, stepping up to care for his niece while fighting his own insecurities from bouncing around different foster homes when he was younger. He, too, has to find the perfect balance of self-reliance and vulnerability. This is such a timely story for an era of quarantining and social distancing, when families have had to reconfigure their own tools of engagement, learning how to shift gears and work from home, entertain less personal space or even take on new tasks like cooking and homeschooling. Bailey’s characters face their fates with good humor and hope, which is a good aspiration for her readers. I think she’d also like to know that, as usual, I laughed out loud while reading her book…and I may have even snorted.
Adrianne Geffel by David Hajdu: Depending on one’s perspective, a work of art deemed avant-garde is either a welcome innovation or a stinging repudiation of the status quo. Few people are indifferent. And no avant-garde artist provoked more extreme reactions than Adrianne Geffel, the fictional pianist at the center, or perhaps it’s better to say the periphery, of Adrianne Geffel, music critic David Hajdu’s debut novel. The reason periphery is a tempting word here is because the reader rarely hears directly from Geffel. Hajdu has structured this clever work as an oral history, the unnamed author of which has long known about the “idiosyncratic American pianist and composer” active in the 1970s and ’80s, whose works inspired a Sofia Coppola film and a George Saunders story and who had a neurological condition that prompted “auditory hallucinations.” She “heard music almost all the time.” This book is an attempt to figure out what happened to the “Geyser on Grand Street,” as a SoHo newspaper dubbed her, who disappeared in the mid-1980s at age 26. A portrait of Geffel slowly emerges through interviews with people who knew her–from her parents, who fed baby Adrianne formula in part because they could buy it at a discount, to her teachers at Juilliard and a classmate who insinuated himself into Geffel’s life to latch on to her fame. The result is the literary equivalent of negative space in art: creating a picture of a subject by focusing on surrounding details. Hajdu does this to entertaining effect, even when some of the interviewees’ stories wander and slow the narrative momentum. He has fun satirizing figures in the music world, among them teachers who think students should get into prestigious schools through connections because it’s more “convivial” that way, critics who use their interview with the author to plug their books, and prominent publications that report on trends in music long after the trends have become passé. Adrianne Geffel is an uncommon treat: a smart parody that even detractors of the experimental are likely to welcome.
Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots: Fresh and funny, Hench exposes the inner lives of superheroes, villains and sidekicks with all their mundane vulnerabilities. Anna Tromedlov is a struggling, hapless temp who “henches” for evil villains. When she is badly injured during a battle between the forces of good and evil, she finds herself broke, broken and unemployed. So she does what she does best: runs the numbers to discover the extent of damage caused by those supposed do-gooders. Anna’s database goes viral, and she is soon employed by Leviathan, a mysterious and powerful villain who uses Anna’s expert skills in collecting and collating data to bring down superheroes by the numbers. They’re targeting one superhero in particular: Supercollider, who caused Anna’s downfall and, ultimately, her rise. Familiar tropes are turned upside down in this fast-paced caper, and no one is perfect. Superheroes carelessly cause damage while fighting for justice. The villains are more efficient and professional than the so-called “good guys.” Even the downtrodden Anna, who becomes a dangerous asset when she wields her database skills, continues to wrestle with self-doubt despite her success. Toronto writer and journalist Natalie Zina Walschots deftly choreographs the dynamic skirmishes between superheroes and villains, who sport suitably fabulous names like the Electric Eel, Glassblower, Quantum and Auditor. (Guess who gets the latter title.) While there is some bloodshed and gore, the attention falls mostly on the often humorous dialogue and commentary by Anna and her cohorts. Wry observations about the corporate world, our litigious society and how our chaotic lives are ruled by dry-cleaning tickets and family obligations are sprinkled throughout. Rousing and irreverent, Hench is an entertaining adventure that challenges the stereotypes of heroes, villains and the humble temp.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, profound novel Jack will not be for every reader. First of all, it’s a slow read. It has fewer than 300 pages, and if it had a vigorous plot, you’d rush through it in less than a week. Instead, you’ll find yourself spending much longer in the tangled, contradictory thoughts of John Ames Boughton–the titular Jack. You’ll want to stop and consider the foolish and wise things he thinks. You’ll wonder why he seems so eager to defeat himself. If you allow yourself the time, you could easily spend a month reading and thinking about Jack, about old-time Christian debates regarding grace, redemption and love. Second, there’s the whole moral problem of Jack. You’ve seen him and felt him in the midst and at the edges of Robinson’s previous novels in the widely hailed Gilead cycle: Gilead, Home and Lila. He is the prodigal son of Reverend Robert Boughton of Gilead, Iowa. Since boyhood, Jack has had a shameful talent and urge for petty theft. Now, much older and out of prison, he flops in a single-occupancy hotel on the white side of segregated St. Louis just after World War II. At the beginning of the novel, he finds himself locked in a whites-only cemetery after hours, where he meets a young Black woman named Della Miles who has come there because Jack once praised the place to her. In the mysterious darkness, they talk about poetry and Hamlet and the coincidence that they are both children of ministers. He is aware of the shame that will result from her being discovered there. He wants to protect her. Yet he tells her he is the Prince of Darkness. You wonder if he is joking or really believes it. Third is the question of Della. She is young, smart and from a good Christian family. She teaches English at the local Black high school. She is the beloved daughter of an esteemed Baptist bishop in Memphis. The risk to her and her family’s reputation in associating with Jack could be devastating. So why in the world would she fall in love with Jack? What does it even mean that she believes she has seen his holy human soul? These are just a few of the spirit-boggling questions a reader will encounter by dipping into Robinson’s glorious new novel.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik: Nebula Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Naomi Novik returns with the can’t-miss fantasy of fall 2020, a brutal coming-of-power story steeped in the aesthetics of dark academia. The Scholomance school in Wales has a very specific purpose: Uphold the balance of good and evil, and prevent the latter from running rampant. The evil here takes the form of the maleficaria, monsters that think teenage wizards coming into their own are particularly tasty snacks. The solution was to create the Scholomance, a place where the teen wizards can congregate and harness their powers while simultaneously drawing the maleficaria into one central location. Not everyone survives, and that’s before graduation day, when seniors must battle their way past the hordes of demons and monsters as a way of “passing” their education. And you thought your high school experience was rough. El is a student at the Scholomance with an affinity for dark magic. While her acerbic personality is enough to keep people at arm’s length, the possibility that her magic could grow into a magnificent display of villainous sorcery is a close second. To further cement her role as a school outcast, El is biracial and struggles with not identifying enough with either her Welsh mother or her Indian father. She was distant from her father’s side of the family while growing up, but her brown skin still keeps her from being fully accepted by her mostly white European classmates. Her magic and her identity prevent her from fitting in, making her compensate with a sharp tongue and standoffish attitude. If you’ve been searching for the antiheroine of your dreams, El is a strong contender. There is something so cathartic about being in El’s mind, seeing the world through familiarly jaded and angry eyes. The thought of being able to wield her power even just for a second, and the confident way she nurtures and uses her abilities are the vicarious experiences many restless readers will appreciate. Do not be fooled by the book’s high school setting and the presence of teen wizards, as this is very much an adult fantasy novel (if the demons who feast on teenage wizards wasn’t a clear giveaway). The twisted trial by fire endured at the Scholomance by its students is the only solution that’s been proven to control the maleficaria, but the scales are tipping and El worries there could be disastrous consequences. But there is lightness amidst the viscera in El’s growing friendship with Aadhya, an Indian American student, and the bickering beginnings of a romance with the popular, do-no-wrong Orion. It reminds readers that at the end of the day, these people are trying to deal with the complexities of hormones and emotions and identity…if they could forget about the monsters trying to kill them for five seconds. A Deadly Education is a wild ride that never ceases to yank the rug out from under readers. El is a heroine you want to root for over and over, while still worrying about what all this means for her future. Will she embrace the darkness and become the evil sorceress she was born to be? Or will she guide her magic down a different and more surprising path? It’s not a question easily answered, especially in a world that takes no prisoners and requires a high price from its magic users. As a reader, nothing is more thrilling than discovering an author blessed with boundless imagination. A Deadly Education will cement Naomi Novik’s place as one of the greatest and most versatile fantasy writers of our time.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman: Fredrik Backman’s gift for portraying the nuances of humanity is well known to his many loyal fans. With Anxious People, Backman once again captures readers’ hearts and imaginations. An armed, masked robber attempts to hold up a bank in a Swedish city. But as the thief approaches, the apathetic young teller is unmoved. It’s a cashless bank, the teller says. Doesn’t the would-be robber know that? Well, no. The robber doesn’t. As police arrive, the robber rushes into the street, through the nearest open door, up a set of stairs and into an apartment’s open house. When the potential buyers and real estate agent see the thief, they assume they’re being held hostage. Backman describes these events with a light touch, making clear early on that, though there’s a crime at the heart of this story, his novel is much more than this series of events. Father and son police officers Jim and Jack try to understand how a bank robber slipped, unnoticed, from an apartment full of people. As the officers interrogate the witnesses, Backman reveals glimpses of each character’s past. Anxious People could reasonably be called a mystery, but it’s also a deeply funny and warm examination of how individual experiences can bring a random group of people together. Backman reveals each character’s many imperfections with tremendous empathy, reminding us that people are always more than the sum of their flaws.
Monogamy by Sue Miller: Any story told quickly, without the chill or warmth of accumulated details, becomes a cliche. For example: After 30 or so years of a relatively happy marriage, a woman wakes to find her husband dead beside her. Her grief is nearly unbearable until, at his memorial, she discovers he had been having an affair. She becomes angry. What then? We’ve heard this tale a couple of times, and that is one way to summarize the story Sue Miller tells in her 11th novel, Monogamy. The best approach to this unbelievably good novel, however, is to avoid summary altogether and simply urge readers to read–and reread–the book itself. Here is a taste of what a reader will find: The long marriage of Annie and Graham is a second marriage for both. Each has a past that captured and shaped them. Graham, who co-owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a passionate, needy, generous man who clasps his past–his ex-wife, for example–more closely than Annie does hers. It’s not irrelevant that Annie, a thoughtful person and a good-not-great photographer, views the world through her own lens and keeps any boisterous turbulence at a bit of a distance. Annie and Graham really do love one another. But the past is always up for reevaluation. So is our understanding of ourselves and others. Miller is excellent at conveying and illuminating the inner lives of her characters, and she remains one of the best writers at depicting the day-to-day normality of desire. Events occur in this novel–normal sorts of things–and Miller’s attention, her descriptions and the tempo at which she reveals them help us feel these events truly and deeply. She has found in Monogamy probably the best expression of her longtime interest in sociograms, an exercise to demonstrate how lives intersect and influence each other. Among the relationships of the characters in Monogamy, there are reverberations upon reverberations. How great is Monogamy? If this is not Miller’s best novel, it is surely among her very best. One measure of that is how the experience of it deepens with each reading.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: “It is my belief,” writes Piranesi, the protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s new novel of the same name, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” Clarke’s first novel since 2004’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi centers on a strange, haunting world and features a main character whose earnest goodwill is piercingly endearing. The House, composed of hundreds of huge rooms filled with statues and wild birds and containing an ocean’s four tides, is so vast it may as well be infinite. Piranesi spends his days fishing, drying seaweed to burn for warmth, tracking the tides and cataloging the features of each room of the House in his journals. Twice a week, he meets with the Other, the only living person Piranesi has ever known. The Other is obsess with finding and “freeing the Great and Secret Knowledge from whatever holds it captive in the World and to transfer it to ourselves,” and the guileless and devoted Piranesi has been his cheerful collaborator. But just as Piranesi begins to lose faith in the Knowledge, a discovery leads him to question his own past. From this point, the novel is almost impossible to put down. The reader reflexively mirrors Piranesi in his quest to interpret the clues revealed to him by his beloved World. Stripping this mystery back layer by layer is a magical way to spend an afternoon, reading narrative motifs like runes and studying Piranesi’s journals as if they are the religious texts they resemble. Piranesi hits many of the same pleasure points as Jonathan Strange–Clarke’s dazzling feats of world building, for one. But at one-third as many pages, Piranesi is more allegorical than epic in scope. With their neoclassical verve, certain passages recall ancient philosophy, but readers may also see connections between Piranesi’s account and the unique isolation of a confined life–whether as a result of a mandatory lockdown during a global pandemic, or perhaps due to the limitations caused by a chronic illness, such as Clarke’s own chronic fatigue syndrome. Lavishly descriptive, charming, heartbreaking and imbued with a magic that will be familiar to Clarke’s devoted readers, Piranesi will satisfy lovers of Jonathan Strange and win her many new fans.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: Don’t be deceived by the brevity of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, What Are You Going Through. Like its National Book Award-winning predecessor, The Friend, this exquisite portrait of female friendship, aging and loss packs more insight into its barely 200 pages than many serious novels twice that length. The novel’s unnamed narrator is a writer whose middle-aged friend, dying of cancer (“fatal,” as she prefers to say instead of “terminal”), asks her to serve as a companion in the New England rental house where she plans to end her life with a “euthanasia drug”–even as she confesses that “you weren’t my first choice” for this challenging assignment. Over the course of the succeeding weeks, with a “new intimacy that made secrets and lies intolerable,” and that at various moments is touching, profound and even wryly humorous, the women bond over shared stories of their lives, old movies, music and fairy tales, in something the narrator’s ex-partner observes “does sound a little like a sitcom. Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.” Borrowing the opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier–“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”–Nunez confronts the reality of death without succumbing to despair. Whether she’s summarizing the improbable plot of a serial killer potboiler or recounting a conversation between the narrator and a “once beautiful woman” at the gym, she’s an economical, graceful storyteller. She also touches lightly but provocatively on subjects like climate change, the #MeToo movement and the malign influence of Fox News on one elderly woman’s psyche, then eases her story along almost before we realize it. Sooner than she would like, the narrator faces the reality that what she’s come to think of as a “fairy tale” will end, and that, paradoxically, “the saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass. And I’ll be alone.” It’s a good bet that most readers will share that same wistful feeling when they reach the novel’s final page.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith: Written with precision, lyricism and compassion, I Talk Like a River is a story about stuttering drawn from author Jordan Scott’s personal experience. A boy is ashamed of his efforts to produce words and the resultant facial contortions: “All They see,” he says, referring to his classmates, “is how strange my face looks and that I can’t hide how scared I am.” The boy’s father recognizes that his son has had a “bad speech day” and takes him to a place where they can be quiet. At the river, the pair watches the water as it churns yet is “calm…beyond the rapids.” Pulling his son close, the father points to the water. “That’s how you speak,” he says. Illustrator Sydney Smith uses thick, impressionistic brushstrokes that dazzle as he represents the boy’s roiling interior world. In one gripping spread about the boy’s fear of public speaking, we see the classroom from his point of view. Students stare, their faces indistinct smudges of paint, the entire room distorted by the boy’s panic. But at the river–where Smith showcases the mesmerizing play of light on water in a dramatic double gatefold–the world becomes clearer. Smith also plays visually with some of the book’s figurative language. The boy cites elements from nature as examples of the letters he finds most challenging to pronounce (P, C and M). Smith incorporates them into a striking spread in which pine tree branches, a shrieking crow and the outline of a crescent moon cover the boy’s face. Without providing pat answers or resorting to sentimentality, I Talk Like a River reverently acknowledges the boy’s hardship. Scott’s story is as much about observant, loving parenting as it is about the struggle to speak fluently, as the boy’s father generously equips his son with a metaphorical framework to understand and even take pride in his stutter: “My dad says I talk like a river.” This is unquestionably one of the best picture books of 2020.
Pine Island Home by Polly Horvath: Stories of orphans making it on their own and finding family are a staple of children’s literature, and Newbery Honor author Polly Horvath’s Pine Island Home has an old-fashioned feel. It’s a comforting coming-of-age tale about four sisters whose missionary parents are killed in a tsunami. Their great-aunt Martha agrees to take them in, but when Fiona and her younger sisters, Marlin, Natasha and Charlie, arrive on Pine Island, they discover Martha has just died. The sisters move into her house anyway. Determined to keep her family together, Fiona negotiates with Al, the eccentric and often inebriated writer who lives on the property adjacent to Martha’s He agrees to pretend to be their guardian in exchange for beer money and dinners cooked by budding chef Marlin. Horvath is a master at creating winning characters, and each sister emerges as a distinct individual. In particular, Fiona is a study in resilience, shouldering the burden of financial responsibility and the insistent emails from their great-aunt’s attorney. The girls’ efforts at self-sufficiency are appealing, as are the cast of townsfolk and the bucolic setting, as the sisters discover that families can be created in surprising ways.
Recommended for You by Laura Silverman: Working retail during the holiday season can be brutal, but Shoshanna is more than happy to spend her time at work as a bookseller. The independent bookstore Once Upon is her happy place–at least, it used to be. A holiday hire named Jake, who is both standoffish and good-looking, is making Shoshanna’s happy place a little more complicated than usual. Laura Silverman’s Recommended for You is a whipped cream dollop of a rom-com with an irresistible bookish setup. Silverman places several obstacles in Shoshanna’s path. Her moms are going through a rough patch in their marriage, Shoshanna is desperately trying to keep her dying car on the road, and then a competition to bring customers into Once Upon reveals the store’s poor financial state. Shoshanna charges at each problem in full attack mode, but her solo efforts are largely ineffective. Only when she leans on her friends does their collective power make waves. The bookstore staff forms a fantastic supporting cast and features in several scenes that play out hilariously. Silverman also smartly uses the bookstore’s shopping mall locale to her advantage, as her characters duke it out for table space in the overcrowded food court and draft the on-site Santa into their schemes. And then there’s Jake. Sigh. No sooner does Shoshanna meet a fellow Jewish person in her “midsize” Georgia town than she manages to offend him, then finds herself competing against him at work for a cash prize she desperately wants. The novel plays out over just one week, as the heightened circumstances of the holiday rush force Shoshanna and Jake to work together, at first begrudgingly, then as tentative friends and then…well, let’s not spoil it. Recommended for You is equally recommended for lovers of love stories and lovers of books and bookstores, as both are represented here delightfully.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante and Ann Goldstein (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Published in Italy in November 2019 (fans lined up outside bookstores to purchase their copies at the stroke of midnight), The Lying Life of Adults is the first novel from Elena Ferrante since the final installment of the Neapolitan quartet, the series that made her an international literary star, was published in 2016. Set in an upscale neighborhood in 1990s Naples, her new novel is a powerful coming-of-age story like no other. Dutiful, bookish and sweet, Giovanna is on the cusp of puberty when she overhears her father comparing her to his ugly sister. Used to receiving compliments, Giovanna is alarmed but curious, and despite her parents’ concerns, she initiates a relationship with her tempestuous Aunt Vittoria. As Giovanna learns more about her father’s background, she begins to see how her parents’ lies and treachery have impacted their lives as well as hers. Giovanna travels between areas of Naples so different, they might as well be opposing planets: from the comfortable, progressive household where she was raised with a secular education, including access to sex education, to her aunt’s working-class neighborhood, which is mired in violence, religion and superstitions, all expressed in the dialect that Giovanna’s parents forbade her to speak at home. Ferrante’s ability to draw in her reader remains unparalleled, and the emotional story is well served by Ann Goldstein’s smooth and engaging translation. The novel simmers with overt rage toward parental deception, teachers’ expectations and society’s impossible ideals of beauty and behavior. For readers who are familiar with Ferrante’s work, there will be much that is recognizable: the belief that poverty can be transcended through education, the power of a talismanic object (in this case, a bracelet that may or may not have belonged to Giovanna’s paternal grandmother) and the absurd linkage of physical beauty with purity and goodness. There is even an unattainable man who holds the promise of escape. But The Lying Life of Adults is very much its own story. Giovanna’s self-reliance and her efforts to become the kind of adult she has yet to meet will resonate with thoughtful readers.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, takes us deep into the heart of one woman’s struggle to make sense of her life and family. Gifty was born in Huntsville, Alabama, after her family emigrated from Ghana. Now she’s finishing up a Ph.D. at Stanford, studying addiction and reward-seeking behaviors in mice. She has a personal connection with her chosen subject: When she was 10, her adored older brother, Nana, died of a heroin overdose after a basketball injury left him hooked on opioids. Their mother spiraled into depression soon after. Over a decade later, Gifty brings her mother to California after the older woman shows signs of another approaching breakdown. As Gifty keeps a watchful eye on her mother and continues her research, she begins to experience the pull of the strong evangelical Christian faith of her childhood, which she’d intended to leave behind in Alabama. Gifty’s determination to better understand her family’s suffering and the tension between two opposing belief systems (faith and science) forms the heart of this empathetically written novel. As Gifty begins the final months of her experiments, the narrative shifts in time to include stories of Gifty’s father, known as the Chin-Chin Man, as well as Nana’s tragic tumble into addiction and Gifty’s single summer spent in Ghana. Gifty’s move from the tight embrace of organized faith to the wide-open questions of the sciences is depicted in exquisite detail. The casual but cutting racism of the all-white church of her childhood, the alienation she felt as a Black Christian woman pursuing a science degree and the unease with which she encounters other students in her lab are all unforgettable. Gyasi’s bestselling debut novel, Homegoing, was a multigenerational saga that traced the families and fortunes of two Ghanaian half sisters over three centuries. Despite its focus on a single family, Transcendent Kingdom has an expansive scope that ranges into fresh, relevant territories–much like the title, which suggests a better world beyond the life we inhabit.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Daisy Johnson’s control of language keeps the reader utterly engaged in her new novel, Sisters, from the story’s opening words–a list in which each item begins with “My sister is” and ranges from “a black hole” to “a forest on fire”–all the way to the final searing sentences. July and her older sister, September, have moved with their mother to the coast of England and into the old, deteriorating home where both September and her father were born. In this house, we see the ways that setting shapes everything that can, or might, unfold. We see where boundaries are and where they all but disappear. The concept of boundaries is at the center of July and September’s relationship. So much of their interaction is predicated on September’s control. Interesting, too, is the mother’s voice and perspective in this story: when we hear from her and when we don’t; what she knows and what is hidden from her view. As the novel unfolds, Johnson brings readers more fully into the complexities and contradictions of the sisters’ relationship. Where does one girl stop and the other begin? How does biology bind us? How do our actions impact someone else’s life? And how does a person find their own voice? The novel raises many questions, and even as it poses some answers through July and September’s story, many other curiosities–delightfully–remain. Sisters casts a spell, and Johnson’s ability to make her language twist and turn, to hint and suggest at something much larger, is truly remarkable.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam: Prison is a box. Once a person is trapped inside, the box’s hard lines and confines become their entire world. The box presses down on the people it holds captive and tries to destroy what makes them unique, what makes them human, all in the interests of conformity, survival and the comfort of others. In Punching the Air, 16-year-old Amal Shahid finds himself slammed inside the cold, concrete box of a juvenile detention center after a false accusation. Amal is a talented visual artist, an aspiring poet and rapper, a well-read scholar and a skilled skater, beloved by his Muslim family. He’s never fit easily into any box. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Amal and his friends got into a fight with a group of white kids at the basketball court in Amal’s gentrifying neighborhood. Amal admits to throwing the first punch, but he definitely didn’t throw the punch that put one of the white kids in a coma. That doesn’t save him from becoming the victim of an unjust, racist system that punishes him for it anyway. As Amal serves out his sentence, he tries to write and paint his way out of the box, even as the box itself–and many of those trapped inside it with him–try to break him. In spite of his surroundings, he clings to hope and saves himself by finding his truth through art and creativity. A fast-paced novel in verse co-authored by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, Punching the Air is an intimate and moving portrait of the realities and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. Amal’s first-person narration is an extraordinary achievement of characterization. His voice on the page is youthful but wise, cutting but inviting, quiet but resonant; his words read effortlessly, but that effortlessness is clearly the result of skilled effort. Punching the Air more than deserves a place among both outstanding YA novels in verse, including Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X and Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, and among YA novels that explore the intersection of race and justice, including Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Kim Johnson’s This Is My America. This is vital reading for every teen.
The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The last words Nora says to her father are “I hate you.” Moments later, she watches in disbelief as a flash flood whisks her father away, down the canyon where they’re hiking. A year ago, Nora’s mother was killed in a random shooting; now she fears she has lost her father, too. Most of all, Nora wonders whether she has lost herself and her will to survive in the brutal and unforgiving Arizona desert. Although she and her father are both knowledgeable, experienced hikers, Nora is lost and totally alone. She must face venomous snakes, scorpions, heat and thirst–and the Beast that has haunted her for the last year. As she wanders, never finding more than temporary shelter but always holding out hope of finding her father, her therapist’s voice echoes in her mind: “Focusing on what ifs helps nothing.” Nora discovers it’s the small things that cause the most hardship. A pesky braid that won’t stay put. A mesquite bean that barely offers a calorie of sustenance. The slicing pain of a stone cutting her skin. The words we say that hurt each other. A tiny bullet that can shatter lives. Nora confronts each one, continuing to focus all her effort on her next step, driving herself onward. The Canyon’s Edge begins and ends in prose, but the wall of water that sweeps Nora’s father away also shifts the narrative into suspenseful, propulsive free verse. It’s thrilling to witness the courage and fortitude Nora displays (not to mention sheer strength and will) as she battles the elements and learns that invisible demons can be the hardest to conquer. Her story will resonate with readers who understand that the key to survival is finding something to live for.
All He Knew by Helen Frost: In this luminous middle grade novel, Michael L. Printz Honor author Helen Frost mines family history to explore the little-known experiences of children in state-run psychiatric institutions in mid-20th-century America. Artistic and bright, Henry was born hearing but became deaf after an illness in early childhood. At first, Henry continues to speak to his loving older sister, Molly, as well as to his parents, but the teasing and bullying of others soon silence him. When his parents seek professional help, a school for the deaf deems Henry “unteachable,” and he is sent instead to Riverview, a deplorable institution. There, Henry develops close friendships with two other boys; despite mistreatment, he manages to maintain his compassionate nature and his humanity. Henry’s life changes for the better when, after the U.S. enter World War II, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview. Henry’s story unfolds in plainspoken yet evocative third-person free verse that brings the story’s setting to life. For instance, when he arrives at Riverview, Henry reacts most strongly to its awful smell, a combination that includes “something like potatoes / forgotten in a corner of the kitchen.” Victor’s portion of the narrative includes epistolary poems in sonnet form that add context to Henry’s experiences as well as to the time period. The relationship that develops between Molly and Victor–also told through letters–is especially lovely as the two young people work together to improve Henry’s life. Although Frost’s subject is weighty, she handles it with skilled sensitivity. All He Knew is a significant and poignant exploration of a difficult moment in American history and serves as a loving tribute to the young people whose experiences it brings to light.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: Bea hunches over the earth, burying her stillborn daughter. She’s broken with grief, even for this child she did not want, whom she couldn’t envision bringing into such a hopeless world. But there’s no time to linger, as Bea lives in the wilderness. Animals are circling, hoping to find food for their own young, and Bea’s community is about to move on. She must redirect her attention to her living daughter, 8-year-old Agnes. “They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living.” In The New Wilderness, Diane Cook deepens her study of the relationship between humans and the earth, which she previously explored in the short story collection Man V. Nature. Bea and her husband, Glen, are part of a nomadic community in a wilderness state. Life in the City was untenable, especially after Agnes became so ill that Bea was prepared for her daughter’s death. “The Community” starts out with 20 people, though its numbers fluctuate as members die and other procreate. There isn’t a lot of privacy–even young Agnes is aware of the adult’s personal lives–and community members know they must stick together, even with those they dislike. Community members submit to being fingerprinted, having the cheeks swabbed and other tests. They’re being studied, but for what, they can’t say. The wilderness feels dystopian to Bea, but it’s nearly all Agnes can recall. As they navigate a changing terrain and their own emotional landscapes, Cook incorporates the whole of human experience. The New Wilderness examines our relationships to place and to others as the Community considers its right to be on the land and whether others have any business sharing the space.
The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl: Leo and his father love their home in an old blue house right next to a majestic fir tree. It’s a rickety, scrappy home with peeling paint, a mossy roof, “leaks and creaks” and a heater that frequently breaks. And that is just how they like it. But the neighborhood around the blue house is changing, with nearby homes torn down to build modern apartments. When the landlord sells their blue house, Leo and his father must also move. Grief-stricken, they slowly acclimate to their new home by painting its interior; they even paint a picture of their beloved old blue house and its fir tree onto a bedroom wall. As they take their time unpacking their familiar belongings into their unfamiliar surroundings, their new house ever so slowly becomes more of a home. Author and illustrator Phoebe Wahl uses every tool at her disposal to carefully construct the details of her indelible characters and their world. Leo’s hair hangs down nearly to his waist, while his father sports a bearded, scruffy look. When they want to vent their anger about being forced to move, they turn on music, stomping and raging as a team: “They shredded on guitar, and Leo did a special scream solo.” (This may go down as the most punk picture book of 2020.) The blue house is cluttered but relaxed, filled with things Leo and his dad love, such as vinyl records, plants, art on the walls and a stereo with big speakers. Their delightfully unkempt yard includes a thriving vegetable garden, tall sunflowers, a trampoline and a clothesline. Rendered in watercolor, gouache, collage and colored pencil, Wahl’s illustrations are much like the old blue house itself–ramshackle and endearing, with nothing glossy about them. They are as worn-in, cozy and comfortable as the home Leo and his father leave behind and mourn. Best of all, however, is Wahl’s depiction of the tender and loving relationship between father and son. In one image, as the two sit dejectedly on a mattress surrounded by unpacked boxes in their new home, Leo leans into his father for an embrace, resting his head in his father’s lap, the gesture speaking volumes while saying nothing at all. The Blue House is an immensely satisfying picture book about a family acclimating to a big change.
When These Mountains Burn by David Joy: Stories about drug addiction and the emotional toll it exacts on both the addict and their family members are inherently tragic. But in the hands of a master storyteller, they can be unforgettably powerful as well. Such is the case with David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn. Joy follows up his Southern Book Prize-winning novel, The Line That Held Us, with a tale fraught with brutal consequences and heart-wrenching loss. All the stages of grief are given ample space here: shock, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 forest fire in the North Carolina foothills, the novel swiftly introduces widower Raymond Mathis, whose 40-something son, Ricky, owes $10,000 to his drug dealer. If Raymond doesn’t cover his son’s debts, he’ll have to bury Ricky instead. Raymond ultimately gives in, makes the trade and brings Ricky home, only for Ricky to steal all the painkillers in the house to support his habit. At his wit’s end, Raymond boots Ricky out, and this is the last time he sees his son alive. At the same time, junkie Denny Rattler, a Cherokee man who is with Ricky when he dies, is roped into doing the bidding of Ricky’s drug dealer. Raymond and Denny are on a collision course with far-reaching ramifications, but with a brutal drug kingpin and the Drug Enforcement Agency ramping up the pressure, finding a way out is more difficult than either Raymond or Denny could have thought. The novel moves at a brisk pace as it alternates points of view between Raymond and Denny. But what stands out here isn’t the story–harrowing though it is, this tale has been told before–but rather Joy’s unflinching and gritty depiction of his fully realized characters, from their raw loss to their helplessness and rage to their final acceptance. Joy has thoroughly captured their experiences in vivid, memorable prose that burns to be read.
The Less Dead by Denise Mina (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The Less Dead by Denise Mina opens with a personal crisis that explodes into a compelling thriller. Glasgow-based physician Margot Dunlop is facing down the chaos in her life: her adopted mother has recently passed, she’s broken up with her boyfriend, her best friend is being stalked and she has just found out she’s pregnant. Trying to make sense of her world, Margot reaches out to the agency that facilitated her adoption to get in touch with her birth mother, only to learn that she was murdered shortly after Margot’s birth. From here we descend into the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Margot’s mother was a sex worker and heroin addict, her murder left unsolved by a police force that considered her subhuman. Margot meets her aunt Nikki, also a former sex worker and addict, and learns that her mother’s case was far more complex than a trick gone wrong. Nikki believes that her sister was killed by a corrupt cop, and has received threatening letters that provide details only the killer could know. Margot isn’t sure she wants to be involved in the case, but she isn’t given a choice when the killer begins stalking and harassing her as well. Mina’s novel stands out in a genre that commodifies the dead bodies of women. Her characters are nuanced, complicated and never stereotypes, and her portrayal of the world of sex work isn’t lurid or voyeuristic. Furthermore, Margot is not the middle-class savior some would mistakenly believe that these women need. And although Margot’s mother was a victim of a violent crime, Mina juxtaposes her murder with the stalking of Margot’s best friend, Lilah, showing that women are subjected to violence by the men in their life at every socioeconomic level. As Margot seeks justice for her late mother, she’s introduced to a community of women, some still addicts, some still sex workers, who protect and care for one another, even as they are shamed and shunned by society at large. The Less Dead is at once a gripping thriller and an examination, and vindication, of a group of women who are often faceless, unsympathetic victims.
Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (e-book available on the Libby and Overdrive apps): Jennie Fields’ Atomic Love scrupulously captures both the minute (you might say “atomic”) and panoramic elements of the early Cold War. At ground zero: a female physicist, an FBI agent and a possible spy. Each has been broken, physically, emotionally or both, by World War II. They form a triangle, which brings to mind the symbol of a fallout shelter. Rosalind was the lone woman on the University of Chicago team that constructed the first controlled nuclear reaction, but in 1950, she’s unhappily selling jewelry at a department store. During her wartime service, she fell hard for Weaver, a British team member who awakened her intimately and then dumped her. As the novel begins, Weaver, “the cartoon of a good-looking man” with a “dimpled Cary Grant chin,” injects himself back into Rosalind’s life. FBI agent Charlie suspects Weaver of selling secrets to the Soviets, and he enlists Rosalind’s help to unmask her former lover. Surely among the most patient FBI agents in recent fiction, Charlie is a complex character who has repressed most feelings, though he feels a strong attraction to Rosalind. Tortured as a prisoner of war, Charlie was left with one hand so disabled that someone else must help knot his tie. When Rosalind tends to his tie, it is an intimate gesture. In Rosalind, Fields has created an anxious yet gutsy heroine who carries her Shakespearean name with aplomb. Growing up, science was her religion, yet she is horror stricken at the destructive power of the atom bomb she helped unleash. Inspired by such female scientists as physicist Leona Woods and the author’s own mother, Atomic Love is as much about undercover work as it is about women’s passions.
The Switch by Beth O’Leary (e-book available on the Overdrive and Libby apps): Leena Cotton was on the fast track in corporate London, where she was the youngest senior consultant at Selmount Consulting. But after her beloved sister dies, Leena loses her footing. Panic attacks are threatening to derail her career. She’s placed on a mandatory two-month sabbatical. At the same time, Leena’s grandmother Eileen is feeling lonely and lost after her husband left her for their dance instructor. Life in the village of Hamleigh is slow, and Eileen finds herself ranking the available men. (Typical pros include “own teeth” and “full head of hair,” while cons range from “tremendous bore” to “always wears tweed.”) Clearly, Leena and Eileen need shaking up, and they agree to switch homes for several weeks. Eileen–whose own London career dreams were cut short when she got pregnant so many years ago–eagerly moves in with Leena’s colorful roommates. She is immediately struck by how disconnected Londoners seem; the tenants in Leena’s apartment building don’t even know each other’s names. She begins an effort to bring the community together, particularly the lonely, isolated older residents. Meanwhile, Leena is adjusting to just how connected Hamleigh is. Everyone knows each other’s business–and has an opinion about it. When Leena volunteers to help with the annual village celebration, she must navigate the meddling of Hamleigh’s longtime residents. She also reconnects with a childhood friend who is now a single father and the village’s most eligible bachelor. Leena finds herself wondering whether she can trade her fast-paced London lifestyle for the village, where memories of her sister are everywhere. Despite the bucolic setting for much of the story, Beth O’Leary’s second novel is brisk and engaging. Her writing is warm, funny and oh-so-British. The characters she creates feel real–especially the older residents of Hamleigh, who are hilariously cranky and nosy but never lapse into caricature. In this time of increased isolation, The Switch offers a hopeful reminder to reach out to our neighbors with an open mind. It’s a cozy, lovely story about how community matters more than ever. “These people. There’s such a fierceness to them, such a lovingness,” Leena says. “When I got here, I thought their lives were small and silly, but I was wrong. They’re some of the biggest people I know.”
Letters From Cuba by Ruth Behar: Even before Nazi Germany invaded in the fall of 1939, Poland was a dangerous place to be Jewish. Determined to earn a living and raise his family in safety, Esther’s father fled to Cuba, but after years spent working as a street peddler, he can only afford to bring over one family member by the winter of 1937-38. Esther convinces the family that she should be the one to go and leaves her mother, grandmother and siblings for a long and frightening journey across the ocean. She arrives in Havana’s steamy shipyard clad in a woolen dress and stockings and is finally reunited with Papa; together, they travel to his small village of Agramonte. Once she has settled in, Esther helps her father peddle his wares. Showing fortitude and resilience, she begins to use her creative talents to sew dresses to sell in order to raise the money to bring the rest of their family to Cuba. Traveling the streets of Agramonte with Papa, Esther readily makes new friends in her new and unfamiliar country. Although Cuba is a safer place for Jewish people than Poland, Havana is still rife with anti-Semitism, embodied in the cruel Mr. Eduardo, who seems intent on bringing Hitler’s hatred to Cuba. Esther’s determination to learn about the cultural traditions of her new home and to share her own traditions with her new friends provides a striking and empowering counterpoint. Through hard work, patience, talen and the kindness of others, Esther and her father endure and eventually thrive, remaining undaunted in pursuit of their goal of reuniting their family. Letters From Cuba is told through Esther’s letters to her sister, Malka, in Poland, and author Ruth Behar creates a compelling narrative voice for Esther. She’s a preteen girl with a mature sensibility born out of the heavy burden she shoulders as she immigrates and raises the funds to reunite her family. Readers will root for Esther as she matures in her new country and keeps her dream alive. Behar shines a light on the harsh and unjust reality of life for Jewish people in Poland during this time while succeeding in filling Esther’s story with warmth and hope. Letters from Cuba‘s themes of friendship, family, faith and openhearted acceptance give this historical novel timeless resonance.
Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh: Moments after laying eyes on Lady Jessica Archer, Gabriel Thorne decides that she is the woman he will marry. But this isn’t love at first sight. It’s not even like at first sight. Freshly returned to England to make a long overdue claim on his title and estate, he’s staying incognito, getting the lay of the land, when Jessica sweeps into the nondescript inn and asserts a superior claim to the private sitting room he’s reserved. He’s unimpressed with her arrogance. She’s unimpressed with his rudeness. Love is definitely not in the air, but matrimony…is? Gabriel will need a wife by his side to manage the family drama he came to England to resolve. The right sort of wife–imperious, irreproachable, from the right family with the right upbringing, manners and connections. And Jessica, commencing her sixth (or possibly seventh–she’s lost count) season in London, is more than ready to settle down. While she’s always been praised as a “diamond of the first water,” encircled by a constant throng of smitten admirers (think of that barbeque scene from Gone With the Wind when all the men beg to be allowed to fetch Scarlett O’Hara’s dessert), she’s done with drifting through life. She has a plan to pick a groom that is every bit as practical as Gabriel’s plan to pick a bride. Then they meet in the proper society setting, Gabriel makes his intentions clear–and everything goes off the rails. Jessica realizes, suddenly and deeply, exactly what she does and doesn’t want. And a strictly proper courtship, complete with stifling social calls, stiff dances and a constant evaluation of the assets that she brings into the match, is definitely on the “no” list. It doesn’t matter that she is highly valued on the marriage mart when her value has nothing to do with who she truly is inside. She demands that Gabriel find a way to romance her as a person. She doesn’t ask for love; if anything, she shies away from using that word. But she does demand to be respected for who she is rather than for her bank balance or her pedigree. Up until that point, I was enjoying Balogh’s Someone to Romance as a stately, engaging dramedy of manners with lots of high-society escapism and the juicy fun of Gabriel’s family secrets. But when Jessica throws down that gauntlet, I started to really love this book. I admired Jessica’s strength and resolve, her determination to chart out her future on her own terms. And I was incredibly moved by Gabriel’s response to it–the tiny, deeply personal gestures with which he shows his growing esteem and trust. The happy marriage they build together is worlds away from the practical, businesslike matches they both anticipated at the start of the story, and yet it resolves in the sweetest of all imaginable happy endings. This is a love story that earns the name on every level, not just for the love the hero and heroine find but also for the love you’ll feel for everyone involved by the time you reach the final page.
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri: “A patchwork story is the shame of a refugee,” Daniel Nayeri writes in Everything Sad Is Untrue. Nayeri’s patchwork story forms a stunning quilt, each piece lovingly stitched together to create a saga that deserves to be savored. Everything Sad Is Untrue is the mostly true story of Khosrou, who becomes Daniel, and the two lives he has lived in just 11 years. First, there’s his life back in Iran, where his family was wealthy, where he went hunting for leopards and where his parents’ veins were filled with the blood of divinity. Then there’s his life now, in Oklahoma, where he has to learn to survive the bus ride home, where his mother has to learn to survive her new husband and where he realizes his memories of his first life are slipping away. In the voice of his younger self, Nayeri casts himself as Scheherazade, with readers as his king; we hold his life in our hands. Should we believe his tales? His classmates in Oklahoma don’t. No one believes that the smelly kid who is too poor to pay for lunch in the cafeteria once lived in a beautiful house and dined with the prince of Abu Dhabi. Even Nayeri admits his memory is shaky. Was that really the prince of Abu Dhabi? It’s hard to know when you’re a kid who’s just escaped a religious death squad by fleeing to a foreign country. The stakes here are life and death, not only for young Daniel and his family during their journey but also for Nayeri the storyteller, who stands before us in “the parlors of our minds,” spinning tale after tale. To stop reading is to condemn him to a death of indifference. But Nayeri is a gifted writer whose tales of family, injustice, tragedy, faith, history and poop (yes, poop) combine to create such an all-consuming experience that reacting with indifference is simply not possible. A deeply personal book that makes a compelling case for empathy and hope, Everything Sad Is Untrue is one of the most extraordinary books of the year.
His Truth Is Marching On by Jon Meacham: It’s been only a few months since the death of civil rights giant John Lewis, and though eloquent tributes from leaders like Barack Obama have attempted to sum up his legacy, it will ultimately fall to future generations to fully assess his contributions to the cause of racial equality in America. One of our most prominent contemporary historians, Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, offers an appreciative early assessment in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. Meacham frankly admits that his book makes no attempt at a full-scale biography of Lewis. Instead, he focuses on the tumultuous period from 1957 to 1966, when Lewis rose from obscurity in a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, to national prominence in the civil rights movement. This “quietly charismatic, forever courtly, implacably serene” man was motivated by a fierce commitment to nonviolence and above all by his unswerving attachment to the vision he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of a “beloved community”–in Lewis’ words, “nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth.” As Meacham describes it, Lewis’ path to attaining that vision was marked by arrests (45 in all); savage beatings, like the one he received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965; and moments of profound frustration as he fought to overcome the fierce opposition to his quest. But there were also moments of triumph, not least of all when he shared the stage with Dr. King at the August 1963 March on Washington and, as Meacham writes, “spoke more simply, but from the valley, among the people whose burdens he knew because they were his burdens, too.” Meacham makes a persuasive case for his claim that “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.” At a moment when events have once again forced Americans to confront the evils of racism, His Truth Is Marching On will inspire both courage and hope.
The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis: Lindsey Davis’ eighth Flavia Albia novel, Grove of the Caesars, finds modern resonance in ancient Rome. With her husband away tending to a family emergency, Albia has her hands full just dealing with her household, perennially under renovation and thus a big draw for unscrupulous contractors. The discovery of a clutch of ancient scrolls leads to a search for their provenance, in the hope that they’ll fetch a good price at auction. This domestic fuss and bother is upended when a body is found in the sacred grove of Julius Caesar, and workmen reveal that it is not the first. To bring a serial killer to justice, Albia must work alongside Julius Karus, an arrogant member of the Vigiles (the firefighters and police of ancient Rome) who appears content to accept easy answers wherever he finds them. There is so much to unpack in this story, which balances a truly grim series of crimes with several funny subplots, often intermingling them in surprising ways. Two young enslaved boys gifted to Albia’s household witness the killing and disappear; what starts as an odd bit of comic relief ends in a mix of tragedy and tenderness. Albia herself continues to be a treasure, grateful for her place in society because it was not always such, but willing to disobey nearly any order if her curiosity is piqued. Davis fills her stories with meticulous research, and the details make for such rich reading, we would likely follow Albia on a day of errands and light entertainment with no crime to speak of. But it’s thrilling to watch her follow a line of inquiry and connect the dots that others fail to see, so we can be glad that she rarely fails to find trouble and charge headlong toward it.
You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): High drama isn’t just soap opera star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez’s day job, it’s also her life in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola. After getting her broken heart splashed over all the tabloid covers, she’s restrategized and plans to lead a man-free, drama-free, scandal-free life while tackling the juicy title character role in a high-profile telenovela adaptation. As down as she’s been, surely there’s nowhere to go but up—or so she thinks, until her first bold step forward into her new leading lady life ends on . . . well, not exactly a sour note but certainly a coffee-splattered one. For Jasmine, this first meeting with her co-star, the gorgeous and aloof Ashton Suárez, is not exactly ideal. But for the reader at the start of this smart and engaging madcap romance, it’s certainly a lot of fun! Considering the usual telenovela twists, the story is actually surprisingly down-to-earth. (There is an evil twin, but alas, it’s just a plot thread on the show.) A few situations are dialed up for laughs, such as the infamous coffee incident during the meet-cute, but for the most part, Jasmine and Ashton face realistic challenges as they deal with their careers, their personal relationships and their blossoming feelings for each other. Jasmine, who is adored but rarely understood by her loving, intrusive family, has the habit of falling too hard and too fast for anyone who makes her feel wanted. Ashton, grappling with a long-held secret, has the opposite problem as he hesitates to let anyone close. Both struggle to balance the success they crave versus the lack of privacy that comes as its price. And while they do have a steamy affair, it includes its share of roadblocks as they work to figure out at each stage how intimate and exposed, in every way, they’re willing to be. Their love story is dramatic but it’s also sweet and complex, as layered and grounded as the characters themselves. Daria fills the story with palpable warmth and affection, not just for her hero and heroine but for the dual worlds they inhabit: the film industry and the Latin American community. If you enjoy behind the scenes peeks, the story includes plenty of fun details about the nuts and bolts of a working set. (A key character is the set’s intimacy coordinator—a newer role on film sets but one that is, thankfully, becoming increasingly common.) And if you appreciate a media landscape that embraces diversity, you’ll love the chance to explore how Jasmine and Ashton carry their heritage with them, determinedly carving out opportunities not just for themselves but for all the gifted, undervalued Latinx performers searching for a place.
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: The second, much-anticipated installment in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy delivers on its promise of high-energy necromancy and cryptic conundrums. The Reverend Daughter, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, has been transformed into Harrow the First, Ninth Saint to Serve the Emperor. But Harrow the Ninth has been forever altered by her battles in the previous book, Gideon the Ninth, which is told from the point of view of Harrow’s now-deceased cavalier, Gideon Nav. As the mystery unravels aboard the Emperor’s ghostly space station, Muir’s seamless, inventive writing brings us dreamlike, labyrinthine plots, fantastical timelines and the continuation of secrets so surreal that readers will forever question who truly holds the power in this precarious but beautiful universe. As one of the Lyctors sworn to protect the Emperor, Harrow follows her lord to increasingly terrifying locations as he flees the mysterious Resurrection Beasts—horrifying creatures who ceaselessly attack him and his increasingly weary and rebellion-prone Lyctors. Whereas Gideon’s story focused on spellbinding swordplay and fleeting crushes on dangerous temptresses with unexpected identities, this book hones in on the very marrow of Harrow—the bone adept’s fears, desires and personal history. Harrow was created by her parents’ morbid sacrifice of all of the Ninth House’s children, and she feels the need to stay true to her roots, always donning the skeletal face paint typical of the Ninth House, practicing her necromancy until her sleepless eyes nearly bleed and remaining nemeses with the narcissistic, ruthless Ianthe Tridentarius, who consumed her own sister and cavalier in her thirst for Lyctorhood. The one piece of herself that Harrow has left behind, however, is any memory of or feeling for Gideon Nav. Harrow’s unbearable grief has forced her to carve the cavalier from her heart and mind. As the perspective fluctuates from a mysterious second-person narrator to an omniscient, unbodied narrator, readers will wonder if Harrow is being haunted, and by whom. Readers familiar with Gideon-and-Harrowhark, Harrowhark-and-Gideon will revel in the new dangers that threaten the Emperor and his Saints, all of which could only be conjured from the depths of Muir’s wild imagination: the River, an eerie, dangerous experience composed of both insurmountable amounts of energy and a void from which it’s nearly impossible to return; the Body, a vision of Harrow’s one true deceased love who proffers questionable advice and is most definitely not of this world; and a host of revenants, resurrections, hallucinations, illusions, ghosts and—of course—skeletons. Muir reprises her attention to numerology, mythology, classic literature and intricate, complex secrets, as well as special appearances from the spirits of cavaliers and necromancers recently and historically lost. As secrets spill like the vibrant innards of terminated cavaliers’ corpses, Harrow and the Lyctors must struggle to stay alive as the true price of the Emperor’s power comes to light—and perhaps, justice.
My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Laura Lippman does not feel bad about her neck. Like, at all. In fact, she writes in My Life as a Villainess, “I have decided, at the age of 60, that I am a ***damn knockout.” She is, objectively, but that statement’s about more than her appealing physical self; it’s a celebration of finally shedding decades of societally induced self-consciousness about food and her body. The essay in which it resides, “The Whole 60,” with its “positivity, damn it” vibe, is a fitting kickoff to a smart, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable, always witty collection of essays. Some are new, some previously published, and together they offer an overview of a very special life so far. Lippman is aware of and thankful for said specialness, and she acknowledges her good fortune often. She adores her brilliant cultural-phenomenon-creator husband, David Simon, known for TV shows “The Wire” and “Treme,” et al. She loves her charming 10-year-old, who made Lippman a mom at 50; is fiercely grateful for a dazzling nanny named Yaya; and treasures her friends, even if she’s pretty sure she isn’t such a great friend to them sometimes. Before she was known for her critically lauded crime novels (her Tess Monaghan series, 12 books and counting, plus 10 standalones), Lippman was a newspaper reporter for 20 years. In “Waco Kid,” she writes of her early career struggles as a newly minted reporter adjusting to the alien Texas landscape, aghast at endemic racism but also thrilled at her burgeoning love of movies. Her later years as a reporter in her beloved city of Baltimore honed her prodigious writing and editing skills, but she’s still pissed that her growing off-the-clock career as a novelist was held against her (as opposed to male colleagues, who were praised for similar endeavors). In “Game of Crones,” she’s hilariously ticked off about menopause, too, and drops trash-talk and name-drop tidbits here and there like so many tasty, snappy breadcrumbs. There’s also a lovely remembrance of Anthony Bourdain (“Fine Bromance”) and a paean to a double boiler (“Revered Ware”), a cookware-as-tribute to her late father, who was also a journalist. With its “gleefully honest” hits of humor and willingness to take a close look at some discomfiting truths, it will come as no surprise to Lippman’s fans that My Life as a Villainess is an engaging read—an intrepid investigation of the author’s inner landscape and a raucous, no-holds-barred visit with that friend you admire for her candor, passion and unabashed nostalgia for 1980s fashion.
The Hollow Ones by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro: The FBI and the supernatural are familiar bedfellows in pop culture. For starters, there’s Fox and Mulder in “The X-Files.” Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child gave us Agent Pendergast. Now there’s the welcome addition of FBI agent Odessa Hardwicke and occult investigator John Silence in The Hollow Ones, the new novel from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Odessa is thrust into a bizarre mystery after she and her partner, Walt Leppo, chase down a random spree killer to a New Jersey home. But after killing the suspect in an exchange of gunfire, Leppo suddenly tries to kill the man’s 9-year-old child, and Odessa is forced to fire on and kill Leppo. In a decidedly twisted turn, Odessa “sees” something she can’t explain leaving his body. Remanded to desk duty while the Bureau investigates her shooting of Leppo, Odessa is, somewhat conveniently, tasked with cleaning out the desk of retired agent Earl Solomon, who is dying. Solomon urges Odessa to contact John Silence, a man he’s worked with before, to assist her in the case. Silence—who is based on one of Lovecraft disciple Algernon Blackwood’s characters by the same name—is an enigmatic and mysterious man who seemingly knows everything about Odessa and the threat she is pursuing, which he refers to as a Hollow One, a body-hopping entity addicted to the thrill of experiencing death. The authors ferry us back and forth in time. Silence is hundreds of years old, thanks to an ancient curse, and is responsible for setting the Hollow One loose in the world. It’s a bit complicated, but suffice it to say there’s a good bit of world building behind the strange goings-on, which all leads up to a modern-day, high-stakes pursuit by Odessa and Silence to capture the entity before it can do more harm. Hogan and del Toro previously collaborated on the Strain trilogy, a popular series turned short-lived TV show, and The Hollow Ones has TV series written all over it. At the very least, it promises to be the first in a new series of literary adventures, and that’s a good thing, as Silence is a fascinating character you’ll want to see again.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson eloquently traced the lives of the 6 million Black Americans who fled the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. Never once in that 640-page book did she mention the word racism. “I realized that the term was insufficient,” she explains. “Caste was the more accurate term.” Her latest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is a much anticipated follow-up and couldn’t be timelier. In it, she examines the “race-based caste pyramid in the United States,” comparing this sociological construction to two other notable caste systems: those of India and Nazi Germany. “As we go about our daily lives,” Wilkerson writes, “caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.” Wilkerson’s comparisons are profound and revelatory. Chapters describe what she has identified as “the eight pillars of caste,” the methods used to maintain this hierarchy, such as heritability, dehumanization and stigma, and control of marriage and mating. In addition to such insights, including how immigrants fit into the caste system, what makes this book so memorable is Wilkerson’s extraordinary narrative gift. Highly readable, Caste is filled with a multitude of stories, many of which are tragically familiar, such as those of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. The story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. is particularly shattering. Returning home on a Greyhound bus after serving in World War II, Woodard asked the driver to allow him to step off the bus to relieve himself, but the driver refused. When Woodard protested, the driver called the police and had him arrested. The police chief, in turn, blinded the returning soldier with his billy club. Stories like these are painfully informative, making the past come alive in ways that do not beg but scream for justice. That said, Wilkerson is never didactic. She lets history speak for itself, turning the events of the past into necessary fuel for our current national dialogue. Dismantling the caste system is possible. Wilkerson points out that Germany did it after World War II. But in the meantime, “caste is a disease, and none of us is immune.” If you read only one book this year, make it Caste, Wilkerson’s outstanding analysis of the grievances that plague our society.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: In Akwaeke Emezi’s brief, remarkable second novel for adults, the reader knows from the start that the central character, Vivek Oji, is dead. After riots in the marketplace of their Nigerian town, Vivek’s mother discovers his naked body placed “like a parcel, like a gift” at the family’s doorstep. Why was he killed? Who killed him? Who was he? Answers emerge incompletely, surprisingly and in fragments as the novel progresses and casts its spell. “I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was,” Vivek says from somewhere outside life. “Every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.” One of the brilliant aspects of this novel is how Emezi makes a person’s invisibility visible. As a child, Vivek is bright, beautiful and by turns violently angry and girlishly shy. He is often beset by fugue states during which his body is present and his consciousness vanishes. Vivek’s family is loving but unable to comprehend him. His extended family is populated by “Nigerwives,” women from India, the Philippines or Sweden who are married to Nigerian men. Outdated sexual traditions and identities—multiple wives for Nigerian men and a sanctified horror of gay people, for example—still prevail in these families. After being forced to leave university, Vivek spends more and more time with the daughters of his extended family. These daughters are of a new generation and seem to understand and protect him. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But, Emezi implies, it takes a culture and its mythologies to erase a child. The Death of Vivek Oji is a profound exploration of the boundaries of personal, sexual and cultural transition.
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay: No one writes as lovingly about quirky, messy and sometimes heartbreaking families as Hilary McKay, whose Binny, Exiles and Casson Family series are rightfully beloved. Although McKay’s most recent books (a historical novel and a fairy-tale collection) are also special, fans will be pleased to discover that she has returned to her roots with The Time of Green Magic—this time with a little magic added, to boot. Eleven-year-old Abi is not exactly thrilled that her father is getting married again. Sure, she gains two stepbrothers, 14-year-old Will and 6-year-old Louis. But she also loses a lot of space and privacy, as well as her beloved Granny Grace, who has lived with Abi since her mother died and uses this moment of change as a chance to finally return to her beloved Jamaica. So when the fledgling family needs to move to a new home and Abi discovers a mysterious, ivy-covered house that seems just perfect for them, she dares to hope that it might be a chance for a new beginning. Almost immediately, though, strange things start to happen. Abi, always a passionate reader, finds herself a little too immersed in the books she picks up. Little Louis starts to get nighttime visits from a furtive feline friend who quickly grows out of control. Meanwhile, Will is discovering a different sort of magic altogether: the bewitching power of first love. In telling the story of how magic unites these new siblings, McKay’s novel recalls classic gentle fantasies like L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe novels or Edward Eager’s Half Magic. But the world of McKay’s book, with its blended family, globe-trotting mother and subplots about bullying and reluctant readers, also feels rooted in and relevant to the contemporary moment. Of course, one thing that will never go out of fashion is the love between family members. The Time of Green Magic depicts the tentative formation of a family with tender sweetness and aching authenticity. Readers will be particularly gratified to see how stories and writing bring this new family together, whether via the stories that Abi’s dad tells at bedtime or the letters Granny Grace sends from Jamaica. It’s a joy to spend time with another memorable set of characters from this talented author.