Know My Name by Chanel Miller: This memoir is powerful, starting with the title. For a long time, the author’s identity was known to the public only as “Emily Doe”–the young woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, who at the time was a member of the Stanford University swim team. Now Chanel Miller, a 27-year-old woman from California, identifies herself as Doe. In Know My Name, she introduces us to the person who got lost amid labels like “victim” and “survivor”–the person who’s also an artist, a writer, a sister, a daughter. She is more than this terrible thing that happened to her, yet it has shaped her life irrevocably. She eventually learned the details of her own assault from reading about it online. Miller drags the reader through everything as she lived it including facing Turner’s lawyers in the courtroom as they tried to convince the jury that she’s an untrustworthy drunk. The time-consuming legal process is emotionally battering, and Miller’s pain emanates off the page. Turner served only 90 days in jail; most survivors of sexual assault never see their perpetrators brought to any justice. “The real question we need to be asking is not, Why didn’t she report, the question is, Why would you?” she writes. This memoir is a heavy one. But one hopes it will educate people about the terrorism of sexual violence and bring comfort to those still suffering in silence. In her victim impact statement, which went viral when published by BuzzFeed in June 2016, Miller wrote, “To girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you.” And with Know My Name, she has proven exactly that.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (e-book available on the Libby app): As graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins contemplates which book to choose in his university library, he muses that reading a novel “is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at that particular game.” That’s certainly the case when the author in question is Erin Morgenstern, who mesmerized readers with her breakout debut, The Night Circus, and now returns with her highly anticipated second novel, The Starless Sea, a grand fantasy about books, the power of literature and storytelling. The mysterious book Zachary ends up choosing features him as a character and leads him on an epic quest, first to the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade in New York City and ultimately through a secret doorway to a subterranean realm where he finds pirates, an Owl King, fairy tales, a story sculptor and “an underground trove of books and stories beneath their feet.” Think Harry Potter for book lovers and grown-ups. (Zachary’s favorite drink is a sidecar, and he falls in love during his adventures.) There are literary references galore, as well as an undertone of video games. “Is that Zelda for Princess or Fitzgerald?” Zachary asks at one point. The response he receives: “Little bit of both.” Paralleling Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a nonfiction ode to books, libraries and librarians, The Starless Sea is a fictional journey dedicated to stories and storytelling. Both are lively, inventive titles chock-full of book-centric quotes. This hefty novel requires imaginary leaps and careful attention to stories and characters that wind their way in many different directions, but Morgenstern–now proving not once, but twice, what an adept literary juggler she is–manages to weave a multitude of strands together into one mighty-magical tale.
The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon (e-audiobook available on the Libby app): It’s hard to believe that there are stories about the hunt for Nazi war criminals yet to be told. Numerous books and films already exist and seem to cover everything that can be said on the matter. So it was with some reservation that I approaced reading Joseph Kanon’s new novel, The Accomplice, which promised a hunt for one such war criminal. Fortunately, Kanon’s skill as a master storyteller quickly allayed my fears. The Accomplice is a fast-paced, emotionally charged novel. While the subject matter is familiar–there were moments of “I’ve heard all this before”–Kanon’s characters were so well-drawn and authentic in their portrayal that it was easy to put those early doubts behind. Kanon’s riveting story takes place some 17 years following Nazi Germany’s downfall at the end of World War II. He begins by introducing us to Max Weill, a Jewish concentration camp survivor fixated on the atrocities at Auschwitz, where he was imprisoned, and on the man who terrorizes his every waking moment, Otto Schramm. An assistant to Josef Mengele, who oversaw gruesome experiments on camp prisoners and selected those to be sent to the gas chamber, Schramm is believed to be dead at the outset of the novel. But Max believes otherwise. With Max critically ill from a heart condition, however, his obsession of bringing Schramm to justice falls to Max’s nephew, a CIA desk jockey named Aaron Wiley. Initially, Aaron is reluctant, believing there’s nothing to be gained by dredging up old wounds. But Aaron ultimately concedes, propelling him to chase leads to Buenos Aires where he encounters (and falls in love with) Schramm’s daughter, who may be more devious that she lets on. Kanon, who previously wrote the critically praised spy thrillers Detectors and Leaving Berlin, uses taut prose and sly dialogue to dial up the intrigue and tension to satisfy any reader, including skeptics like me.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (e-book available on the Libby app): Talia Hibbert knows how to pack a book full of fun, sexy and whip-smart characters, and Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a pitch-perfect example of her talents. The first in the Brown Sisters series, this book introduces us to Chloe Brown, a well-to-do black woman with fibromyalgia. After a close call with death, Chloe decides it’s time to get her life together and makes a list that she hopes will bring some excitement to her life. Enlisting the help of her dreamy, tattooed landlord, Redford Morgan, Chloe sets out to check all of her boxes on her list. Hibbert’s books are a master class in inclusivity. Not only does she often include black women as the romantic lead, she also portrays mental illness with the utmost care. Her characters’ experiences with depression or bipolar disorder are believably and respectfully depicted. She works to make sure that the characters have more than a story that solely focuses on their illnesses, showing that romance and passion are for everyone. Hibbert peppers in witty and incredibly sultry banter between her characters. Chloe and Red’s interactions are delectably sweet and will leave you smiling to yourself as they verbally spar with each other. Their conversations are effortless and believable, and flow with increasing ease as they get to know each other. The natural development of Chloe and Red’s relationship is a testament to Hibbert’s character work and excellent plotting. She excels in the slow build of intimacy between the two as they discover that despite their differences, like Red’s tattoos and Chloe’s fondness for prim cardigans, they can’t get enough of each other. When sparks, fly, readers will want to cheer out loud. Hibbert’s stunning dialogue and stupendous prose are on full display in this powerhouse of a romance.
The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams (e-book available on the Libby app): Lyssa Kay Adams hits a home run with The Bromance Book Club, a contemporary romance about a husband and wife who learn to reconnect using the power of romance novels. Due to an unexpected pregnancy and their subsequent marriage, Gavin and Thea Scott never had a chance to enjoy being newlyweds. After each lackluster intimate encounter between them, it becomes clear to Thea that something needs to change. At home with twin toddlers and a husband whole MLB career took off like a rocket, Thea very much feels like a single mom. When Gavin is home, he’s a man she doesn’t really recognize. When she brings up divorce, Gavin realizes he’s had his head in the sand for too long. He’s determined to save his marriage and make Thea feel loved and appreciated. Enter the Bromance Book Club, a romance book club made up of Gavin’s fellow athletes who see romance novels as a way of understanding and improving their communication with women. The setup may seem farfetched, but it’s too charming to resist. The men think their current book club pick, Courting the Countess, may hold the secret to Gavin and Thea getting their groove back. Readers who enjoy a heartfelt second-chance romance, especially between a married couple, should get their hands on this book immediately. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful, single and unattached twenty-somethings finding love, but the added stress of running a household with troublesome twins fully and truly embodies the romantic complacency that can happen in long-term relationships. A first love is a beautiful ting, but how do we make that love last when life dishes out so many curveballs? Adams creates a cringe-worthy look at modern romance with Gavin being too busy and Thea being too exhausted to do more than just go through the motions. It feels a little too real in the best way possible. Gain is a likable hero whose cluelessness gets called out by not only his wife, but by his fellow book club bros too. There are some wonderful scenes of introspection as the men break down romantic scenes in romance like “the grovel” or “the big misunderstanding,” comparing where they’ve messed up in life and how romance can teach them to be better communicators. And as Thea regains control of her life and finds her voice, her arc becomes a wonderful and empowering lesson that it’s never too late to change course and make adjustments for the sake of your own happiness. The Bromance Book Club is truly a novel for dedicated romance fans. Readers will be delighted at all of the meta winks and nudges to the genre we love so much. I can’t wait to see what the Bromance Book Club will read next and how it’ll help shape their next happily ever after.
Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren (e-book available on Libby and Overdrive apps): Boy meets girl. Boy woos girl. Boy wins girl. Boy…sells girl out, and then flees the country, never to see her again–until 14 years later, when their paths cross once more. Twice in a Blue Moon starts off simply enough: small-town California girl Tate Jones visits London with her grandmother. Vermont farm boy Sam Brandis is in London with his grandfather, and in a meet-cute lovingly borrowed from E.M. Forster and an acclaimed Merchant Ivory film adaptation, the pairs swap rooms so the ladies can have “a room with a view.” The view includes the hotel’s garden, where Tate and Sam meet nightly to stargaze and flirt, and to share their dreams and secrets. Tate’s secret is a doozy. She’s the daughter of Ian Butler, the world’s most idolized actor. As a little girl, her red carpet images were recognized around the world. But when she was 8, her mother–heartsick about her husband’s blatant, unrelenting infidelity–took Tate and left the spotlight behind. Back in her tiny hometown, they buried their pasts, adopting the last name Jones. Only a handful of people know Tate’s true identity, and Tate shares it with Sam with all the overflowing trust of a girl in love for the very first time. But when she steps out of the hotel to find a waiting mob of paparazzi–tipped off by a well-paid “trusted confidante”–she gets her first broken heart, and resolves to be more careful about ever loving again. Fast-forward 14 years. Tate, having used that unwanted reveal to launch an acting career, is about to start filing a role that could push her onto the A-list. The pressure has doubled, since a supporting role will be filled by her superficially doting, micro-aggressive father. Worst of all, she’s totally blindsided to show up on location and meet the screenwriter: Sam Brandis, writing under the pen name S.B. Hill. Pulling it together to give the screen performance of a lifetime will be hard enough, but when the cameras stop rolling and she has to write her own life’s dialogue, Tate grapples to find answers, inner strength and possibly forgiveness. The best-friend writing team known as Christina Lauren never fails to delight. Twice in a Blue Moon is funny and engaging, whether Tate is bantering with her bestie, or navigating an awkward love scene with her adorable co-star. It also rings true on the low notes. Tate’s genuine heartbreak over her secret’s exposure comes both from being betrayed by Sam, and her personal sense of having betrayed her mother and grandmother’s trust. Her lack of faith in her own judgment–and in men, in general–requires Tate to reach deep to find the strength and conviction she thinks she lacks. It’s a strikingly poignant note, and makes her journey toward trusting herself, and determining who else is worthy of her trust, all the more meaningful. Some might quibble that Tate gives her trust back to Sam a little too quickly. But it’s hard to argue with a character who has fought this hard to figure out what she wants, and who finally finds the courage to go and get it.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): When we meet Victor Tuchman, the patriarch of New Orleans-based novelist Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours, he’s as good as dead. Which is just as well, since everyone agrees Victor is a monster. Now he languishes in comatose purgatory while the whole family is called home. Well, not home exactly, but to Victor and his wife Barbra’s condo in New Orleans, where they’ve lived for about a year. Nobody is sure why they left Connecticut, but it probably had something to do with Victor’s criminal activity. Not that anyone knows what that activity is–except maybe Barbra. One family member has questions. Alex, their daughter who lives in Chicago, is a tough-minded, recently divorced attorney who gave up on a relationship with her parents years ago. But news that Victor is near death stirs in Alex a primal excitement. In a rare show of optimism, Alex has convinced herself that once her father is dead, her mother will spill the tea on the Tuchmans’ secret history. Gary, Alex’s younger brother, has been living in New Orleans for several years and has no idea why his parents stopped honoring the decades-long unspoken agreement to stick to their own corners of the country. Gary, who is going through a marital crisis, just happens to be in Los Angeles on business when he gets the call. He promises his mother he’ll find a flight home soon but can’t manage to force himself onto a plane. Weaving together a riotous assortment of threads–the stories of three generations of Tuchmans as well as a smattering of other characters pulled into their orbit–Attenberg tenderly mines their family history and massive dysfunction not for clues as to what created the monstrous Victor but for what a monster can create in spite of himself. Her characters–flawed, defensive, overwhelmed and frequently endearing–fizz off the page. Their inner lives coalesce beautifully into a funny and heart-stirring tribute to the nutty inscrutability of belonging to a family.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes: Ill-suited to the stultifying environment and prospects of England, Alice jumps at the chance to escape to America by marrying Bennet, the wealthy, handsome son of a coal-mine owner. However, soon after arriving in Bennet’s small town in Depression-era Kentucky, Alice realizes that problems in her marriage, a controlling father-in-law and small-town gossip are equally suffocating. When Eleanor Roosevelt creates a mobile library system as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, Alice volunteers to become one of the librarians on horseback to escape her father-in-law’s house. As a librarian, Alice joins four others: unconventional Margery, who lives by her own rules; boisterous Beth, who has eight brothers; Izzy, the library organizer’s pampered daughter, who wears a leg brace and has a beautiful voice; and Sophia, a black woman who risks backlash to work for the mobile library, in violation of the state’s segregation laws. Together, these women and their horses face hardship and danger to bring books and information to the poverty-stricken backwoods of Kentucky. In return, they find companionship and fulfillment. The library’s future is threatened, however, when Margery and Alice step too far outside the accepted norms of society, angering the powerful patriarchy of the town. Jojo Moyes, bestselling author of Me Before You, has written a wonderful novel based on the real-life Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. Moyes’ research is evident, as her writing completely immerses readers in the world of a small, Depression-era coal-mining town–the class structure, the ignorance and the violence, as well as the overwhelming beauty of the surroundings and the strength of character required to survive. Moyes has written unforgettable characters who come alive on the page. All five women, but especially Alice and Margery, are written with such depth that readers may wish they, too, could join this tight circle of remarkable women. A heartwarming page turner, The Giver of Stars is certain to be Moyes’ next bestseller and should not be missed.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando are driving out of Manhattan after a terrorist attack. What sounds like the opening of an urban myth is actually the zany plotline of “Escape from New York,” one of 19 tales in Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories, Grand Union. These masterful tales impress, engage and occasionally infuriate as Smith brings her dazzling wit and acute sensitivity to bear. These stories are ready to grapple with the complex times we live in. If anything serves this collection best, it’s the humor that runs through the stories like a lazy river. All genres are Smith’s to play with, from fables to science fiction to a realistic conversation between two friends. Even the few weaker efforts still brim with ideas and intelligence. No subjects are off-limits, from an older trans woman shopping for shapewear in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” to a young mother remembering her sexual escapades in college in “Sentimental Education.” Smith uses the third-person plural to fine effect in one of the collection’s best, the parable “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” which explores global politics without ever mentioning a politician or country by name. Smith has explored the complexities of families and friendships in an urban setting over the course of five award-winning novels. Those themes are reflected in the delightful “Words and Music,” in which the surviving sister of an elderly pair of siblings sits in a Harlem apartment, reminiscing about the music that shaped her life, and in “For the King,” in which two old friends catch up over a decadent Parisian meal. Grand Union is bookended by two stories of mothers and daughters–one a vignette, the other a ghost story, both with a depth that far outweighs their brevity, something that can be truthfully said for each of these stories.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), says she thought she was done with Olive–until her beloved character “just appeared” to her again. And how grateful Strout’s readers will be that she did. In 13 interlocking stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, Olive travels through old age in her own inimitable style. She’s called an “old bag” by more than a few townsfolk, but she is loved by those who have, over the years, come to appreciate her honesty and complete lack of pretense. In one story, Olive shares her fear of dying with Cindy, who cared for Olive’s late husband, Henry, and who may be dying of cancer herself. Olive reminds her that Cindy’s husband and sons, as well as Olive, will be “just a few steps behind” her if she does die. A few years after Henry’s death, Olive befriends widower Jack Kennison. Each has a child who doesn’t really like them, and both are lonely. They marry–to the dismay of Olive’s son, Christopher–and go on to enjoy eight years together. Olive lives through some health scares, first totaling her car after confusing the accelerator with the break, then suffering a heart attack in her hairdresser’s driveway. When Olive is assigned round-the-clock nurse’s aides–the story “Heart” poignantly portrays Olive’s growing dread of being alone–two of the aides are especially kind to her. One is the daughter of a Somali refugee, the other is a Trump supporter, and Olive surprises herself by befriending them both. Strout possesses an uncanny ability to focus on ordinary moments in her characters’ lives, bringing them to life with compassion and humor. Her characters could be our own friends or family, and readers can easily relate to their stories of love, damaged relationships, aging, loss and loneliness. Each phase of Olive’s life touches on a memory, real or imagined. Olive, Again is a remarkable collection on its own but will be especially enjoyed by those who loved Olive Kitteridge. It’s a book to immerse oneself in and to share.
The Body by Bill Bryson (e-book): Bill Bryson can take any topic and spool it into the most entertaining thing you’ve ever read. He tackles diverse subjects, from hiking the Appalachian Trail (A Walk in the Woods), to, well–everything (A Short History of Nearly Everything). In his latest book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bryson divides the body’s various parts and processes into 23 chapters, with subject headings such as “The Heart and Blood,” “The Guts” and “Nerves and Pain.” Each relatively short chapter is chock-full of clear, in-depth explanations of the body and its components, focusing just the right amount of facts and attention on each area to keep the reader riveted and eager to dive into the next topic. As with his previous writings, Bryson demonstrates his gift for putting science in layman’s terms, deftly melding the most incredible statistics with wit to expose humorous and fascinating aspects of the human condition. He relates these nuggets of information to everyday life, such as when he compares a cell to a little room that is “of itself as nonliving as any other room.” Yet when combined with the busy, also nonliving things housed within its walls–such as proteins, DNA and mitochondria–life is created. Throughout the book, Bryson highlights parts of the human physique that are mysteries even to doctors and scientists. He creatively intertwines amazing medical advances, such as transplant surgery and antibiotics, with topics that are still very much unknown, such as the immune system and allergies. It’s rather humbling to realize that there’s so much we don’t know about the place that houses all of our thoughts, feelings and physical attributes. As Bryson so effectively conveys in The Body, we truly are a work in progress.
Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall: “Look, the most humane thing might be to put him down now.” That was the hoof expert’s verdict after one look at the traumatized, mistreated donkey Christopher McDougall and his family had just taken in. The donkey, which they named Sherman, had been rescued from a hoarder’s farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Since relocating from the city, McDougall and his wife, Mika, had tried their hands at keeping chickens, a stray cat and a phone-book-munching goat named Lawrence. But an ailing donkey was a whole different story. And what a story Sherman turned out to be. McDougall, author of Born to Run, believes that “movement is big medicine.” And if movement-as-medicine works for people, why wouldn’t it work for a donkey? So McDougall concocts the idea of training Sherman to run in a world championship burro race in Colorado. With help from family and neighbors, including a young man named Zeke who’s been struggling with depression, “Team Sherman” sets out to fulfill a quest of healing. Running With Sherman includes some wonderful photos of the endearing Sherman and his clan. And while you may not decide to take up burro racing yourself, McDougall’s inspiring story is not to be missed.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series. In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which has outlined a near future in which women’s freedom had been completely curtailed, celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood leaps these hurdles with Olympian ease. The Testaments is a crowd-pleasing page turner. Atwood leans in to the attractions of both her original novel, with its Scheherazade-style narration, and the TV series, with it resistance-minded heroine. The Testaments is told in the first person by three narrators, allowing for a more panoramic view of Gilead than the cloistered Handmaid Offred could provide. The voice that flows with the most relish from Atwood’s pen, and that will be most familiar to readers, is the Machiavellian Aunt Lydia. In Gilead’s patriarchal society, which categorizes women according to their function (Handmaids, for example, exist solely to bear children), Aunts are responsible for enforcing these roles. As a privileged member of an oppressed class, Aunt Lydia makes every decision with maintaining her status in mind. The other two narrators are young girls: one raised within Gilead’s walls by a powerful Commander and his wife, and the other raised in Canada as the child of Mayday resistance operatives. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that the power to bring Gilead down may be in their hands. If a book must be groundbreaking to be a true classic, The Testaments can’t be ranked alongside its predecessor. Today, the divide between genre and literary fiction is more porous, and dystopian fiction is an established genre–in large part thanks to novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. But just as The Handmaid’s Tale was a response to the backlash against the women’s movements of the 1970s, The Testaments is equally of its time, drawing from contemporary politics in ways that resonate. Atwood remains a keen chronicler of power and the way status (or lack thereof) affects how it is leveraged, and seeing her explore that issue in Gilead once again is a pleasure.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty: “To my adorable future corpses,” reads the dedication to Caitlin Doughty’s Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death. Doughty’s forthright but playful tone is apparent before you even get to the table of contents. Written as an answer book to all the questions Doughty has fielded from young and inquiring minds during her career as a mortician, author and death activist (more on that later), Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? is perhaps the most enchanting little book ever to discuss such matters as whether or not one’s body might explode if one’s final meal before being loaded into the crematorium included popcorn. Anyone with a child in their life will be unsurprised at the sorts of curious hypotheticals that are posed in this book, or at a hyper-focus on the ins and outs of the corpse. It is to her credit that Doughty not only answers those questions that would seem to fall easily within her area of expertise but dutifully chases down the science that might provide a plausible answer to the fate of an astronaut who slipped from this mortal coil while on a spacewalk. However, this book is by no means solely for death-curious children. Most if not all of the answers provided alongside the charmingly gothic illustrations will be news to the average adult reader, as well. In her career, Doughty has worked to rehabilitate a Western culture that has become death-illiterate through an increased outsourcing of the caregiving and rituals surrounding death. And as Doughty orients death as sometimes sad but normal, she touches on subjects that are of interest to adult readers who may be planning for end of life care, or helping someone else do so, such as eco-friendly, natural burial. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? (which, yes, does include an answer to that question as well) provides answers to questions both humorous and moving, bringing tiny and full-sized mortals alike to a greater comfort with and understanding of the one transition that will happen to us all.
The Institute by Stephen King: Stephen King’s The Institute is already drawing comparisons to a couple of his older works, Firestarter and It, as well as to the Netflix sensation “Stranger Things.” And with good reason–The Institute includes a ragtag collections of adolescents banding together against a common enemy, a shady organization exploiting children for their unique “gifts.” But whether King is chasing “Stranger Things” or “Stranger Things” is chasing King, the result is the same: shocking suspense and hallmark thrills. In an unexpected move, King opens The Institute with a Jack Reacher-like drifter named Tim Jamieson, who takes a job as a “night knocker” with the sheriff’s department in rural Dupray, South Carolina. It’s more than 50 pages later before we meet the novel’s true protagonist, young prodigy Luke Ellis, whose parents are trying to get him into a prestigious school where his unique intellect will be challenged. But Luke’s world is shattered when he is kidnapped from his Minneapolis home in the middle of the night by a team of highly skilled special operatives. He awakens in a room made to look like his own, though the illusion stops at the door. Once outside his room, Luke finds himself in a strange facility somewhere in Maine. He soon learns he’s not alone, as other kids, ranging in age from 10 to 16, are also being held prisoner. King conveys Luke’s confusion, shock, hopelessness and grief in convincing and heart-wrenching fashion. The concept of family separation takes on an eerie weight here, with unsettling parallels between the events of the novel and real-life images we see on the news of kids huddled under silver mylar blankets in cramped cages at the U.S.-Mexico border. In a thinly veiled comparison to callous border patrol agents, Luke’s adult captors lack compassion and are often downright cruel. But King ramps up the cruelty even further, subjecting Luke to physical and mental abuse that, at times, readers may find hard to sit through. Luke and the other kids get slapped around, are forced to receive mysterious injections that cause convulsions and are nearly drowned in a sensory deprivation tank, all to awaken the kids’ latent telepathic or telekinetic powers. The kids are promised that, if they do as they are told, they’ll have their memories wipes and be returned home to their parents as if nothing ever happened. Good behavior is rewarded with tokens to purchase snacks or even alcohol and cigarettes. Kids can even buy time on a computer, though internet access is restricted. After gaining the trust and help of one of the Institute’s support staff, Luke makes a break for freedom. His escape brings him to South Carolina, where Tim Jamieson finally reenters the story just in time to aid Luke in a final confrontation with the Institute’s baddies. King makes no effort to hide his distaste for Trump, as he takes a direct jab at him in the book’s waning pages. Political leanings aside, The Institute offers a thrilling reading experience and rousing tribute to the resilience of children and the unending fight against evil.
Clear My Name by Paula Daly: It’s evident from the first page of Clear My Name that Paula Daly’s heroine, investigator Tess Gilroy, is as adept at keeping secrets as she is at uncovering them. Between Tess and Carrie, the woman she’s trying to prove innocent of murder, we’re left with two narrators who are simultaneously sympathetic and also inherently unreliable. Add exquisite pacing and a plot with some real twists, and you have a recipe for a book bound to keep you up all night. A former probation officer, Tess is now the chief investigator for a group called Innocence UK that works to free the wrongfully convicted. Her latest case brings her back home to the small town she fled. She’s investigating the murder conviction of Carrie Kamara, a woman serving a 15-year sentence for killing her husband’s mistress. Many of the details surrounding Carrie’s case seem weak and the police work potentially shoddy, but Carrie was never able to account for how her blood was found in the victim’s home. That forensic detail was enough to see her incarcerated. Even as Tess digs into Carrie’s deeply trouble marriage and her complicated relationship with her daughter, we can sense her unease at being back home. Tess thinks she’s being followed, and she’s avoiding contact with someone from her past. The competing mysteries of Tess’ past and Carrie’s true involvement in the murder make Clear My Name feel tightly wound, with threads of paranoia woven throughout. Tess is used to false claims of innocence, and even as she is reluctant to believe Carrie, we know we also cannot trust Tess. Eventually Tess’ and Carrie’s narratives collide in a way that is genuinely shocking. The last quarter of this mystery doesn’t so much as unfold as it explodes; the tension is at a fever pitch and the final revelations are genuinely surprising. With a wonderfully executed mystery and two unreliable narrators, Clear My Name straddles the line between psychological thriller and good old-fashioned whodunit.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: Gideon Nav is not a Necromancer. She is not even one of their bodyguards, a Cavalier. So when her oathsworn enemy since childhood, the Reverend Daughter and Necromancer Harrowhark Nonagesimus, requires a skilled Cavalier to accompany her on her ambitious educational trials, brash swordswoman Gideon volunteers partially out of self-preservation, partially because of blackmail and mostly because she needs a free ride off of the planet of the damned she was raised on. Gideon and Harrow hail from the Ninth House, a dark realm fraught with bloodthirsty skeletons, fearsome nuns and crypts that house the living, dead and reanimated alike, where the haunted and actively haunting lay trapped, forgotten and rotting in the jet-black depths ruled by the iron fist of Harrow and her frightful ossified forces. Tamsyn Muir’s meticulous world building has created a realm where penitence and piety are prioritized above all else, traditions that acting leader Harrow has kept instituted to keep rabble-rousers like Gideon at bay. But for the fearless and free-spirited Gideon, who has yet to leave the Ninth House, remaining on the planet means the slow torture and inevitable death of her hopes and dreams, or she can risk a swift execution during her next escape attempt. On her most recent escape effort, Gideon’s plans are foiled by Harrowhark as usual, but this time she is offered an intriguing proposition–to escort Harrow on her journey to the First House to study towards Lyctorhood, a hallowed educational position for reputed necromancers of the Nine Houses. If Gideon accepts, she can finally leave the Ninth and its grimy ghouls behind, but she will be tied at the hip to her mortal enemy, posing as a professional cavalier in front of the rest of the Houses. If she declines, she will surely rot in the prisonlike Ninth until her death and beyond. Gideon thrives off-planet despite personal and professional challenges, practicing her swordswoman and adventuring skills and becoming accepted by the group of competitors as the solitary Harrow explores their lodgings, the mysterious and foreboding Canaan House. The girls are welcomed by Teacher, a priest of the First who is a little too lively and thrilled for the taste of the Ninth, as well as a fascinating and memorable cast of their competitors, including Dulcinea Septimus of the Seventh, whose alluring charm captivates Gideon immediately; the suspicious trio of the Third, comprised of twin sun-and-moon necromancers and a vain cavalier; and the repulsive, parasitic-like duo of the Eighth, a nephew-uncle combination who condemn followers of the Ninth as “death cult members.” So when the murders begin, it is only natural that the house most comfortable and familiar with Death itself should solve the mysteries that abound. Gideon the Ninth is worth every second of every spine-chilling page as the book moves seamlessly from science fiction to mystery-thriller and back again. The journey to Lyctorhood is soon revealed to be more nefarious and agonizing than a simple competition between Houses. The necromancer-cavalier teams realize they are stranded on the First, and things devolve into a battle royale reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None where only the strongest, bravest and smartest will endure. Gideon herself is a blazing beacon in this very dark world, where people are shackled their entire lives by tradition and fear–her extroverted nature and love for items like swords, girly magazines and an archaic pair of an item once called “sunglasses” reveal her passion for living in the moment and her open-mindedness to explore outside the parameters forced upon her by society. Compelled to accompany Harrowhark on several trials and tribulations, Gideon soon realizes that they might have more in common than she assumed, and that if they want to stay alive, they will have to move forward from the past and work together, and that maybe, just maybe, she could have had a friend–or more–all along during their dark days in the Ninth. Muir’s attention to numerology, wordplay and symbology here is beyond impressive. Each of the Nine Houses is painstakingly constructed, from their unique Necromancer personalities to the abilities of their Cavaliers and priests. The story takes place mostly in the First House, yet readers will feel familiar enough with the other realms that they can imagine the entire cosmos that Muir has created at her fingertips. Gideon is no stranger to Death, but when faced with the constructs of fear, loss and grief, she soon learns what is truly important to her in life, and that while new endeavors mean an inevitable end, endings can also mean a new beginning.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Jacqueline Woodson, who is completing her stint as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, returns to her beloved Brooklyn for her second novel for adults, Red at the Bone, which explores the effects of an unplanned pregnancy on an African American family. The story opens in 2001 at a coming-of-age party at a Brooklyn brownstone. Sixteen and outfitted in her mother’s lace dress with a matching corset, garters and stockings, Melody plans to enter the party to an instrumental version of Prince’s “Nikki,” much to her grandparents’ discomfort. But there’s another catch to both the day and the dress. At 15, Melody’s mother, Iris, was pregnant and unable to wear the carefully made dress. Iris’ own coming-of-age birthday was left unmarked, and after her dismissal from private school, the family opted to move to another part of Brooklyn where they could also join a new church. But despite the shame and disruption of baby Melody, Iris was determined to move forward, ultimately getting her high school diploma, enrolling at Oberlin College and moving, almost permanently, out of Melody’s life. Over 21 brief chapters, Red at the Bone, which draws its title from the romantic feelings Iris has for another woman at Oberlin, moves backward and forward in time, examining the effect Melody’s birth had on each character, from her disappointed but loving grandparents to her devoted father and his resolute yet fragile mother. Along the way, the reader learns more about the history of the family’s losses, from 9/11 to the Tulsa Race Riots of 1912. Kin and community have always been of primary concern for Woodson; her National Book Award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, explored her own childhood transition from Ohio to South Carolina and then New York. Her books combine unique details of her characters’ lives with the sounds, sights and especially music of their surroundings, creating stories that are both deeply personal and remarkably universal. Though Red at the Bone lacks the cohesion of Woodson’s previous work, this lyrical, lightly told coming-of-age story is bound to satisfy.
Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser: Perhaps no writer of the late 20th century has been more mythologized, or lionized, than Susan Sontag. Beautifully written and moving, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work reveals with illuminating clarity Sontag’s ceaseless quest to understand and be understood; her often arrogant and condescending manner, even to those closest to her; and her attempts to use art to fashion herself into the iconic figure she became in life and death. Drawing deeply on hundreds of interviews with Sontag’s family and friends, as well as on materials in Sontag’s restricted archives and her published and unpublished writings, Moser traces her life from her childhood and youth, to her years at the University of Chicago, and throughout her attempts to distance herself from reality by aestheticizing it in her critical essays and fiction. Sontag’s father died when she was 5, and her mother remained distant, so she retreated into books. “Reading gave Susan a way to recast reality…When she needed to escape, books lets her close the door,” Moser writes. Looking back on her childhood, Sontag revealed a theme in her journals that defined her entire work and life: “I grew up trying both to see and not to see.” Moser’s close readings of Sontag’s writings–from her earliest essays (“Notes on Camp,” “Against Interpretation”) to her failed novels (The Benefactor) and her successful ones (The Volcano Lover, In America)–reveal the theme of language’s relationship to reality. For Sontag, “language could console, and how it could destroy.” Alongside his elegant readings, Moser delves into the rocky relationships that resulted from Sontag’s inability to be alone–from her son, David, to her lover, Annie Leibovitz, to artists such as Jasper Johns and Joseph Brodsky. Sontag may have been our last public intellectual. She cast her intense gaze over art, literature, film and politics, boring into her subjects with a steely vision that revealed the many facets not only of those subjects but also of herself. Moser’s monumental achievement captures the woman who, among other things, “demonstrated endless admiration for art and beauty–and endless contempt for intellectual and spiritual vulgarity.” This brilliant book matches Sontag’s own brilliance and finally gives her the biography she deserves.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett:The Dutch House confirms what we’ve always known: Ann Patchett doesn’t write a bad book. Though the settings may differ (Bel Canto took place in South America, Commonwealth in Southern California and elsewhere), each of Patchett’s books tells a compelling, vivid and imaginative story while offering a deep meditation on human nature. The titular mansion is located in the Elkins Park section of Philadelphia. It was once owned by the VanHoebeeks, whose imposing portraits are still hanging on the walls when an aspiring real estate developer buys it after World War II. He brings with him his two children–Danny, 3, and Maeve, 7–and his wife, Elna. The house, which has fallen into disrepair, comes complete with furniture and a servant, Fluffy. Elna is horrified by the extravagance of the property and her husband’s wealth, which he’d been keeping a secret. She starts to disappear, first sporadically, then permanently. Left with their emotionally detached father, the children find that things can only get worse. In true fairy-tale fashion, a wicked stepmother and her own kids move in. Danny (the narrator) and Maeve are displaced from their home when their father suddenly dies and leaves them both almost penniless. An unshakable bond forms between the brother and sister as they survive and strive, pining for their lost home and enraged by the women who took it from them. Along the way, Patchett’s knack for aging her characters over many decades serves the story well. The Dutch House is a vast, almost preternatural property, and the characters who have, at one point or another, inhabited it are at the heart of this absorbing tale. It’s fitting and inevitable that the home eventually beckons them back.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hiram was born into “tasking”–what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls slavery in this beautiful, wrenching novel–but he has always stood slightly apart from the other people who are “Tasked” on the Virginian estate called Lockless. The son of an enslaved woman named Rose, Hiram learned early in life that his father was the Lockless master, Howell Walker. Although Hiram worked in the apple orchards and the main house, he had something the other Tasked would never dream of: lessons from the Walker family tutor. But the lessons were no gift. Howell Walker’s plan was to prepare Hiram to spend his life caring for his older half-brother, Maynard, the charmless, dull heir to Lockless. A naturally smart child, Hiram subdued his thirst for knowledge. “I knew what happened to coloreds who were too curious about the world beyond Virginia,” he says. Driving Maynard home one night from the horse races, Hiram is thinking of nothing but his “desire for an escape from Maynard and the doom of his mastery. And then it came.” Hiram doesn’t know why a strange mist comes up off the river or why the bridge falls away, revealing his long-gone mother dancing. He later learns this is Conduction, the rare ability to transport oneself on the power of memories. It’s a prized skill that recruiters on the Underground Railroad hope Hiram will put to use for their cause. They move him to Philadelphia, where he is shocked to see for the first time people of all colors mingling freely. He works to harness his gift of Conduction, while still feeling the pull of his people who have been sold and scattered throughout the South. The Water Dancer confronts our bitter history and its violence and ugliness, which still resonate generations later. Coates’ fierce, thought-provoking essays on race composed We Were Eight Years in Power and the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me. Here he weaves a clear-eyed story that has elements of magic but is grounded in a profoundly simple truth: A person’s humanity is tied to their freedom. “Breathing,” Hiram says. “I just dream of breathing.”
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman: Alice Hoffman is a brilliant weaver of magic and the mundane, as many of her novels have proven over the years. In her hands, a story we think we know, from a time we think we’ve extracted every possible detail, can become a soulful new voyage into the heart of the human condition. With her latest novel, The World That We Knew, Hoffman travels to a hidden world built amid the horrors of the Holocaust and brings forth a spellbinding tale of love, loss and what it means to endure. Hoffman’s story begins in 1941 in Berlin, where a young Jewish mother, Hanni, knows that she must find a way to smuggle her daughter, Lea, out of the city before the Nazis take notice of her. To do this, she turns to a rabbi for mystical help, only to discover that his daughter, Ettie, is more willing to help Lea through magical means. Ettie, working from knowledge she’s gained through observing her father, crafts a golem they call Ava to guide and protect Lea. Thus begins an unlikely and harrowing journey through France, where Ettie finds a new purpose, Lea finds her soul mate and Ava finds that she’s much more than a single-minded creation. In beautifully precise prose, Hoffman chronicles the experiences of these characters and those whose lives they touch along the way. Throughout the next three years of the war, each woman tries to survive while also pursuing her own process of self-discovery. Through Nazi-occupied France is an endlessly compelling place to many readers, Hoffman never takes her historical setting for granted. Rather than leaving us to lean on what we think we know, she weaves a fully realized version of the hidden parts of history, chronicling the stories of people who slipped through the cracks on their way to freedom and the emotional toll that freedom took. Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, The World That We Knew presents a breathtaking, deeply emotional odyssey through the shadows of a dimming world while never failing to convince us that there is light somewhere at the end of it all. This book feels destined to become a high point in an already stellar career.
Immortal Born by Lynsay Sands (e-book): Lynsay Sands immerses readers in the complex and exciting world of bloodsucking vampires in Immortal Born and leaves them breathless for more. The 30th book in the Argeneau series, Immortal Born introduces us to Allie Chambers, who is in a predicament. Allie has promised to raise and protect her friend’s son who has an insatiable appetite for blood. As Liam grows, so does his hunger, and Allie decides to take a desperate chance to give him what he needs. When her plan to rob a blood bank to feed her growing son goes awry, Allie is suddenly introduced to one of the most handsome men she has ever met: Magnus Bjarnesen. As Allie may be Magnus’ potential lifemate, he’s not sure what surprises him more–the amount of danger Allie and Liam are in, or how badly he wants her. Sands’ effortless character creation leaves no stone unturned as she spells out the sprawling world of the immortals and their history. With this modern take on vampire lore, Allie and Magnus become as believable and relatable as any other romantic leads. Allie is a modern-day heroine thrown into the confusing world of immortals. Readers will have no trouble identifying with Allie as she faces difficult choices and displays a refreshing, no-nonsense attitude toward survival. When faced with the ultimate choice to protect Liam, and put her heart on the line in more ways than one, Allie weighs the options with a clarity and relatability that comes from thorough character building. Magnus and his family of vampires, who prefer to be called immortals, are warm and inviting when his and Allie’s worlds are thrown together. Readers will revel in Sands’ expert, slow build of the couple’s chemistry as Allie finds herself more curious about Magnus with each passing day, and as Magnus struggles with his own desire. The intimate moments between these two characters make this book shine and romantic sparks fly. Immortal Born is a take on the vampire genre grounded in emotional realism that allows readers to imagine themselves in the characters’ shoes with ease.
Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo: Sometimes characters continue speaking to their creators long after their books have been published, prompting authors to write unplanned follow-ups. Grateful readers will reap ample rewards in Kate DiCamillo’s Beverly, Right Here, the last in what has unexpectedly become a middle grade trilogy, which began with Raymie Nightingale and continued in Louisiana’s Way Home, about three irrepressible girls who meet at baton-twirling lessons in Lister, Florida, in 1975. This installment, set in 1979, features the tough-as-nails, eye-rolling Beverly Tapinski, who is now 14. Following the death of her beloved dog, Beverly decides she’s had enough of life with her drunken mother and leaves, hitching a ride to nowhere with a good-for-not-much-else cousin. A big-hearted older woman named Iola welcomes Beverly into her trailer. Beverly slowly builds an anchoring friendship not only with Iola but with bullied, brilliant Elmer, who is about to leave for Dartmouth on a full scholarship. Life with a ragtag bunch of strangers becomes much better but is still hardly perfect as Beverly, who hates fish, ends up working in a fish restaurant and eating tuna melts every day. A tormentor named Jerome lurks on the sidelines, and Beverly desperately misses Raymie and Louisiana. DiCamillo’s genius is her ability to create such worlds without ever sugarcoating their gritty realities. “People were terrible to other people. That was the truth,” Beverly realizes. Yet amid life’s injustices, a fish restaurant waitress repeatedly urges Beverly to always dream big, and a cook named Doris stages a sit-down strike for better working conditions. In the end, although Beverly realizes she can’t run away from her past or her neglectful mother, she learns that she doesn’t have to be held back by either one. Instead, she can seek her own springboards to happiness. As Iola says, “Oh, I’m glad I needed you. I’m glad you needed me.” DiCamillo has described her trilogy as being about “becoming” and “the power of community.” Drawing each girl’s story with subtle yet bold strokes, DiCamillo delivers novels that feel both beautifully spare and deeply rich. With lovely reminders of the angels who help us all find our way in this sometimes unbearable world–as well as the enduring power of stories, kindness, hope and surprising possibilities–Beverly, Right Here completes DiCamillo’s superb trilogy, which is destined to remain a classic.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner (e-book): Late in The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s brilliant new novel, a character asks, “How do you rid yourself of a voice, keep it from becoming part of yours?” Voice is one of the central themes of this ingenious work that also serves as a commentary on the current political climate. One of the book’s three narrators is Adam Gordon, the protagonist of Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. When Adam was 8, he suffered a concussion that left him with migraines so severe that his speech became slurred. Now, in the late 1990s, Adam is a Kansas high school senior and a fierce debater who has taken part in national tournaments. Adam’s story makes clear that communication as well as voice–how people communicate or don’t, from debaters to therapists to anti-gay Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church–are as integral to the story as Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane Gordon, psychologists at an institute called the Foundation. Jane is the author of a bestselling book that some women have told her saved their marriage. Because of its success, Jane has received abusive phone calls from men, especially after her “Oprah” appearance, as well as harassment from Phelps and his crowd. Jonathan, meanwhile, struggles with his wife’s success and with his own fidelity. He left his first wife after he met Jane, and now with Jane’s career on the rise, he begins to have feelings for Sima, another Foundation psychologist, who is also Jane’s best friend. In the midst of these stories is that of Darren Eberheart, Adam’s classmate, who has committed a violent act that will have ramifications for the people around him. The importance of speech in the novel let’s Lerner comment on the state of politics, from glancing references to some people’s inability to decode irrational arguments to more direct critiques, as when he writes of a legendary debater at Adam’s school whose right-wing Kansas governorship would become “an important model for the Trump administration.” “How do you keep other voices from becoming yours?” is a key question of our time, or, for that matter, any era. The Topeka School provides no clear answers, but it memorably demonstrates how hard it can be to recognize insidious utterances for what they are.
Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik (e-book): Jessie Mihalik returns to her science fiction romance series with Aurora Blazing, as a noblewomen with secrets plays cat-and-mouse with her family’s security advisor. Bianca von Hasenberg is a woman with a lot to hide. Widowed under mysterious circumstances, Bianca fully leans into “mourning” her late husband, which grants her freedom from the strict Consortium courtly etiquette. Though she plays up the air-headed, materialistic royal role, Bianca has been cultivating a network of spies and complex digital connections for collecting intel. But her biggest secret is that she was her scientist husband’s guinea pig, and now has a modified mind and body that intercept communication signals from nearly everyone. Security Director Ian Bishop is a no-nonsense man who is loyal to the von Hasenberg family, though Bianca’s habit of sticking her nose into things where it doesn’t belong is often his biggest source of frustration. When Ferdinand, Bianca’s older brother, is kidnapped and Bianca is framed as a traitor, Ian is tasked with keeping her locked away. When she escapes, Ian chases Bianca across the galaxy as she searches for answers and Ian does his best to keep her out of harm’s way. Sci-fi romance is a relatively small subgenre and Mihalik’s imaginative series about the bonds of family amid scheming power plays feels like a refreshing sip of water after a long drought. The romance is tense, as Bianca and Ian both prefer to ignore whatever feelings they share. And with an intergalactic conspiracy as a backdrop, there is no shortage of action to rival the sizzling banter between the main couple. Bianca is an impressively strong heroine, given what she’s overcome both in childhood and marriage. The survivor she’s built herself to be is, well, totally awesome. She doesn’t need a blaster or superb fighting skills to get out of a tough situation. Instead, Bianca relies on her many connections and useful knowledge to gain the upper hand. And for romance readers who prefer the strong, silent type, Ian Bishop ticks all of the boxes. His sense of honor and duty is everything to him, but when pesky things like love get in the way, Ian must finally address how far he’ll go for his employer and his mission. Aurora Blazing is a standout, memorable book that oozes crossover appeal. Prefer action and adventure? One spaceship heist coming up! Find court intrigue and politics to be irresistible? Two ruling houses are at war, with a third desperately trying to remain neutral. Sucker for a happy ending? Well, it’s a romance, so there’s definitely that. Mihalik fills the void for every Star Wars fan who wished the franchise had more kissing.
The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys (e-book): In her stunning new novel, New York Times bestselling author Ruta Sepetys, author of Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray, turns her attention to a period rarely (if ever) covered in American young adult literature: 1950s Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco. The first part of The Fountains of Silence takes place in Madrid in 1957, as Sepetys follows four young people who are all trying to set the course for their futures through alternating chapters narrated in third person. Rafa must deal with blood every day in his job at a slaughterhouse, but blood is a part of his past as well. He is tormented by the memory of his father’s murder—which he and his sisters, Julia and Ana, witnessed firsthand—at the hands of “the Crows,” Franco’s guards. Ana, Rafa’s sister, is now a maid in a hotel and dreams of leaving Spain. She is drawn to a guest at the hotel named Daniel, a young white man from Texas. Daniel wants to be a photojournalist, a dream his father, a Texas oilman, is sure Daniel will outgrow. The fourth and final character, Puri, works with babies at a Madrid orphanage—some of whom may have been stolen from their parents. The novel depicts these characters’ lives, loves and often-difficult decisions as their paths intertwine. The second part of the book revisits all four characters nearly two decades later, when Daniel returns to Madrid after Franco’s death on November 20, 1975, and discovers a shocking secret. In an author’s note, Sepetys traces her interest in Spain to a trip she took while on a book tour, where she met readers fascinated by the past—a past that was often both hidden and painful. “I discovered that Spain is a classroom for the human spirit,” she writes. A 2011 article about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath drew her further into the country’s history. (For readers interested in learning more, the novel includes a substantial bibliography as well as a glossary.) With The Fountains of Silence, Sepetys has once again written gripping historical fiction with great crossover appeal to adult readers, combining impeccable research with sweeping storytelling.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (e-book): We already replace knees and lenses and hips with superior mechanical parts. We can implant devices to augment our abilities, from delivering insulin to stimulating the heart to beat. What happens when we can replace the whole body? Such is the question at the heart—or maybe CPU—of Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. The mechanics of the story are a bit convoluted to sum up in the space allotted, but try to follow along. In alternating chapters, four stories run parallel, one of them in the distant past (the summer of 1816, to be precise) and three in the present. The first tale is a (more or less) straight recounting of the circumstances surrounding Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The other three take place in contemporary society and concern a cryogenics facility in Arizona, a young transgender doctor who is mesmerized by an artificial intelligence specialist named—get this—Victor Stein and a recently divorced boor who has perfected a robotic sex doll. In many ways, though, the story is just a pretext for extended meditations on the meaning of love, the meaning of life and the coming “singularity,” in which consciousness can be uploaded like so many data points to be retransferred to a previously frozen human body or to a “more human than human” replicant à la Blade Runner.Surprisingly, it’s the sexbot engineer who poses some of the most cogent practical questions surrounding the possibility of cryogenic revival, including this one on inheritance: “Actually I was about to say, you can’t take it with you, but maybe you should! You drop dead. All your relatives spend the money, then bingo! You’re back! Then what?” Of course there are deeper concerns as well: What happens to the soul in the interregnum between death and reanimation? How do you love someone “forever” when forever is, quite literally, forever? What does gender mean in a replicant body . . . or no body at all? Much like its spiritual predecessor, B.F. Skinner’s 1948 novel, Walden Two, Winterson’s book occasionally sets up straw men to knock down, but also like Skinner, she may turn out to be more prophetic than she, or we, imagined.
Alexander the Great by Anthony Everitt: Greece. Bulgaria. Turkey. Syria. Lebanon. Israel. Egypt. Iraq. Iran. Afghanistan. Pakistan. In only a dozen years, Alexander the Great created an empire that encompassed large parts of what are now these 11 countries. It still seems a staggering feat–even more so now, when the United States has been fighting a war in just one of those countries for 18 years and counting. Every age since the young Macedonian king’s death at age 33 in 323 B.C.E. has come with its own interpretation of his exploits. As author Anthony Everitt notes, to one respected historian in the 20th century, Alexander was the perfect English gentleman; to another, he was the prototype of a totalitarian dictator. Of course, he was neither: He was a man of his own time and place. In Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death, Everitt, an expert storyteller, has written a riveting narrative that restores Alexander to his own context–and takes a whack at solving the remaining mysteries. Did he kill his father? Was he straight or gay? Visionary or winging it? Genius or lucky? Big-hearted or a violent drunk? And the ultimate question: What–or who–killed him? Everitt marshals the facts and makes his case. Along the way, he takes us on a spirited passage through the ancient world, from the Balkans to South Asia, with effective explanations of battles and sieges and a useful description of the ordinary Greek soldier’s experience. One conclusion is incontrovertible: Alexander was a military strategist of rare talent, defeating larger armies by brilliantly analyzing their deployments and seizing the initiative with aggression and deceptive tactics. He was helped enormously by the disciplined army that his late father (and victim?), Philip, left him. Everitt is particularly perceptive about the impact of Alexander’s charismatic parents, as well as the snake-pit royal court where he was raised. Alexander left no dynasty, but he did change the Middle East for centuries. And we still remember him more than 2,000 years later. That would have pleased him.
Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews (e-book): Ilona Andrews draws the reader seamlessly into the depths of a highly detailed, endlessly fascinating world in Sapphire Flames. The first in a new trilogy in Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series begins with Catalina Baylor as the newly minted Head of her House. Even though she’s a Prime mage with intense, unique abilities, she and her family work small investigation jobs. As a Siren, Catalina can persuade someone to do just about anything. But the longer she uses her magic on them, the more extreme their love for her will become–to the point that they will try to rip her apart to have pieces of her for their very own. When Catalina’s friend asks her for help discovering who killed her mother and sister, Catalina is faced with one of her most difficult challenges yet. To make matters worse, her teenage crush, the mysterious Italian Prime Alessandro Sagredo, is somehow involved. Readers will enjoy the lively banter and simmering attraction that Andrews adds to each of their scenes. Husband-and-wife team Andrews are known for their bold world building, and their originality shines as mages, magical creatures and assassins come alive in modern-day Houston. Andrews paints a clear path for the reader’s imagination to follow, describing the details of everything from government structures to the choreography of a fight scene. Alessandro and Catalina’s interactions, both steamy and confrontational, are full of witty dialogue and relatable inner musings. Catalina navigates the obstacles of her role and the dangers of her magic with a frankness that allows the reader to imagine themselves in her very shoes, magic aside. And her reactions to Alessandro’s cheeky commentary showcase the potential couple’s snappy chemistry. Andrews makes space for new readers, ensuring they don’t lose their way as they follow the mystery and romance that dazzles on every page, all the way to Sapphire Flames’ gripping conclusion.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Some stories are eternal, and while writers don’t necessarily repeat them word-for-word through the generations, they are capable of crafting compelling echoes that evoke both the time we’re in and the universal emotional constants of humanity. Evoking that sense of universality becomes more difficult when you’re telling a story that’s an open homage to one of the most famous and influential works of literature in human history, but in his insightful and wickedly funny way, Salman Rushdie pulls it off with Quichotte. A retelling of Don Quixote, Quichotte follows a man who, on a quest to win the heart of a daytime TV star, has redubbed himself “Quichotte” (pronounced “Key-shot“) and committed his life to the pure pursuit of what he calls “The Beloved.” To aid him in his quest, he imagines a son called Sancho, and the two journey together on a road trip through a half-imagined, enchanted version of the American landscape, staying in hotels where the TV is always on. Quichotte and Sancho’s story is woven through a metanarrative, as Rushdie reveals that their story is actually being imagined by a man who writes spy novels under the pen name Sam DuChamp. DuChamp and Quichotte’s stories are both, in their ways, tributes to Cervantes’ epic quest for love and acceptance, full of journeys to redemption and understanding in a world that seems to have gone mad around them, and it’s in this metafictional journey that Rushdie’s already witty and precise prose really comes alive. By structuring Quichotte as a narrative within a narrative, he’s given himself an inventive way to say something about a world obsessed with everything from reality television to hacktivism. Quichotte is a story of breathtaking intellectual scope, and yet it never feels too weighty or self-serious. Like Cervantes, Rushdie is able to balance his commentary with a voice full of tragicomic fervor, which makes the novel a thrilling adventure on a sentence-by-sentence level and another triumph for Rushdie.
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri: In 1988, when she was 8 years old, Dina Nayeri and her younger brother fled Iran with their mother, a doctor, who had received death threats from the government’s moral minders because of her activism as a Christian convert. They went first to Dubai, then were refugees in Italy before being granted asylum in the U.S. and arriving in Oklahoma. In her well-received second novel, Refuge, Nayeri wrote a fictionalized account of her experiences. In The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, her first work of nonfiction, Nayeri offers a searing, nuanced and complex account of her life as a refugee and of the experiences of other more recent refugees from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. The stories are terrifying, disheartening, sometimes uplifting and definitely worth reading and meditating on. One of the most illuminating sections of the book is called “Camp.” In 2017, seeking to revisit her own experiences of exile, Nayeri volunteered in a refugee camp in Greece, where she served and talked to many refugees. It wasn’t all bleak. “People think of a refugee camp as a purgatory, a liminal space without shape or color. And it is that. But we kept our instinct for joy,” she writes. Still, it was a place of soul-destroying indignity and waiting. Refugees aren’t allowed to work. They’re not welcome at local schools. Young men entertain themselves by fighting. Then there are the government bureaucracies that certify some refugees’ stories as “believable” enough for asylum and others not so much. Through her narrative, Nayeri makes vividly clear the Catch-22 of the process, especially for those asylum-seekers who are poorer, less educated and more desperate. Nayeri is not really an ungrateful refugee, as her title suggests. She writes about how as a youth she was driven to excel in order to escape her identity as a refugee. She went to Princeton, Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, as she points out, refugees are expected to be grateful in ways that deny their experience of loss, of leaving a place or a family they deeply love. In Oklahoma, for example, Nayeri realized that her education in Iran had been far better and more rigorous than her classes in the local school. Yet she was expected to say everything here was better. It wasn’t Nayeri is neither a journalist nor a polemicist. She’s a storyteller who invites our moral engagement. She doesn’t write directly about the situation at the U.S. southern border, but an engaged reader will certainly infer the stark human costs of our current official attitudes and policies.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott: Debut author Lara Prescott’s parents gifted her with a gold mine. First, she was named after a character in her mother’s favorite book and movie, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Then in 2014, her father sent her a newspaper article about how the CIA secretly helped publish and distribute editions of the novel in the late 1950s, using it as political propaganda to try to turn Russians against their government. Prescott spent years researching this bizarre saga, ultimately turning her knowledge into richly imagined, thrilling historical fiction. The result, The Secrets We Kept, uses multiple narrators to deftly show how this drama unfolded on opposite sides of the world. Readers learn how Pasternak came to write Doctor Zhivago, a Nobel Prize winner that his government refused to publish, and how his mistress Olga Ivinskaya both inspired parts of the novel and helped get it published outside the Soviet Union, despite unimaginable costs to both herself and her children. As Prescott’s fictionalized Ivinskaya explains, “I was the person who ushered his words out into the world. I became his emissary.” Readers also take a deep dive into the clandestine world of literary spycraft through a host of characters, including a pool of female CIA typists (who occasionally serve–quite delightfully–as collective narrators). Several of these women are spies, like Sally Forrester and newcomer Irina Drozdova, whom Forrester trains. In addition to the sheer drama of the situation, the historical details and office politics are intriguing. Think “The Americans” meets “Mad Men,” with a dash of Soviet literature. Indeed, this is a whirlwind of storytelling. With a bevy of themes that include the monumental power of words and literature, governmental attempts to suppress citizens and craft political propaganda, women’s ongoing struggle for equality, and the suppression of gay and lesbian rights, this novel could have easily become either heavy-handed or perhaps confusing. Never fear, because in Prescott’s supremely talented hands, the result is no less than endlessly fascinating, often deliciously fun as well as heartbreaking. The Secrets We Kept is a dazzling, beguiling debut.
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine: Identical twins Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, both named for the same minor Greek goddess, shared everything: a womb, a language known only to themselves, the red hair that set them even further apart from their peers (only 2% of the world’s population are gingers, less than the 3.3% that are twins). They also share a love of English that (and they would adore the irony) cleaved them together as much as it cleaved them apart. Long before their first adolescent stirrings, the pair fell head-over-heels for words. Daphne amassed rare ones (rebarbative, hendiadys, aposiopesis) in her notebook, the same way other kids collect sea glass or baseball cards. Laurel looked them up in their father’s massive Merriam Webster’s Second Edition. They played with words, quarreled over words, used words as both rapier and armor. Author Cathleen Schine is a keen student of both language and families, and The Grammarians calls to mind the likes of Nora Ephron or Joan Didion. It’s not every verbal stunt pilot that can bring a mid-novel excursus about the differences between Webster’s Second and Third editions to a safe landing. As for the sisters, Schine renders a note-perfect portrait of how shared DNA can foster a ferocious internal rivalry, while it renders the pair nearly impervious to attack from the outside world. When the big rift does descend, it’s a proxy war but devastating nonetheless: prescriptive grammar versus descriptive, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage versus The Chicago Manual of Style. Daphne’s somewhat hectoring grammar column, “The People’s Pedant,” has found a modest but passionate audience, and it puts her on the obverse side of a coin with sister Laurel, whose poetry celebrates the authenticity of those for whom grammar doesn’t really exist. Words are exchanged, but fewer and more rarely. As they say, the reason that our families can push our buttons is because they’re the ones who installed them. The big question becomes whether there is a dictionary sufficiently large and complex to contain the words that Laurel and Daphne need to build a bridge back to one another, or whether they will remain like their identical DNA, a double helix whose twin coils never really meet.
The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham: A good space opera can be many things. It can be funny or deeply philosophical. It can be touching, and it can be gory. John Birmingham’s latest novel, The Cruel Stars, balances all of those things, making readers laugh out loud even as it pulls them through an intergalactic battle for the soul of humanity. Hundreds of years ago, humanity faced a terror like no other: the Sturm, a cultlike subculture bent on exterminating any human with genetic or cybernetic modifications. After a bloody and hard-fought civil war, the Sturm were forced to retreat. Because they weren’t hears from for hundreds of years, many thought the Sturm had to be extinct. That is, until they suddenly executed a system-wide, coordinated attack designed to cripple both human defenses and the enhancements of any “impure” humans. Led by a group of space pirates, a young military officer, a princess, a convicted criminal and a war hero, those who survived the initial onslaught must make a stand. Their mission? Drive the Sturm back before they can carry out their goal of system-wide purification. The Cruel Stars showcases Birmingham’s remarkable mastery of scope. In just a few short chapters, he manages to paint (and then proceeds to destroy) a complex, flawed and deeply interesting version of human civilization. The grandness of this vision could be overwhelming. How, after all, can five point-of-view characters hope to encompass the entirety of a civilization or of a war? The simple answer is that they can’t, so Birmingham doesn’t try. Instead, he focuses his attention on a single planet and the Habitation satellites surrounding it. Instead of a grand, sterile view of the war, he creates a claustrophobic nightmare–well, as close as you can get to a nightmare and still have jokes. Despite the admittedly disturbing drive behind the Sturm’s crusade, The Cruel Stars manages to be deeply funny. In fact, it’s probably because of the disturbing potential consequences of the Sturm’s religious zeal that the humor works. Jokes about overly literal rhino men and space Nazis act as comic relief, breaking up the tension and letting Birmingham’s characters and universe shine. If you aren’t a fan of gore (or if you just don’t like your humor and your gore to mix, then The Cruel Stars might not be the right book for you. But for readers who loved the frenetic pacing of the first few episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” or the gritty realism of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Cruel Stars needs to make its way to the top of your reading list!
The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood: Bryn Greenwood’s quirky, page-turning love story, The Reckless Oath We Made, is mesmerizing from its opening pages to resonant end. Zhorzha Trego, called Zee, lives with her sister, LaReigne, and nephew, Marcus. She works as a waitress and makes weed runs for extra cash to pay their never-ending bills. Zee suffers from chronic pain from a motorcycle crash, and at physical therapy she meets an oddly chivalrous young man named Gentry. She doesn’t think much of him, even though LaReigne calls him Zee’s stalker. Gentry is an aircraft builder with autism spectrum disorder who speaks in Middle English and hears voices. One of the voices, the Witch, tells him that one day Lady Zhorzha will need a Champion. Ever since, Gentry has been checking in on Zee, waiting to serve his lady. While volunteering at the local prison, LeReigne is kidnapped by two white supremacists, and Zee’s life is flipped upside down. When Zee and Marcus are swarmed by journalists in front of Zee’s mother’s house, Sir Gentry steps in, thrilled to finally be of service. Zee accepts his help reluctantly, embarrassed by the state of her mother’s home even in the midst of chaos. Zee’s mother is a reclusive hoarder; Sir Gentry calls her a dragon. When the police come up short in their search for LaReigne, Zee is still determined to find her missing sister, and Gentry’s deep code of honor mandates that he follow her to whatever end. Chapters told in Gentry’s melodic, medieval voice are hypnotic and haunting, and Zee’s chapters provide an exciting contrast. The Reckless Oath We Made illuminates a life of struggle in middle America and examines how incarceration, poverty and mental illness affect families for generations.
Middle England by Jonathan Coe: As Brexit throws Britain into another protracted turmoil, Jonathan Coe once again turns his talents to documenting the state of the nation. Middle England‘s authenticity lies in its characters–reintroduced from The Rotter’s Club and its follow-up, The Cloud Circle–now in late-middle age, with grown children of their own, grappling with a country more divided than ever. Like the previous works in this series, Middle England covers a lot of ground. It moves swiftly from the election of the coalition government in 2010 to the riots of 2011. The 2012 Olympics gives us a feel-good respite of multicultural pride, but that’s quashed by the 2016 referendum and its subsequent fallout, ending in 2018. Though each chapter revolves around the storyline of its many characters, if there is a central protagonist it would be Benjamin Trotter, the focal point of Coe’s earlier works. He is now single, living in a Shropshire Mill House and toiling over a novel that has spiraled out of control. His sister, Lois, is in a dysfunctional marriage, and her daughter, Sofia, is a university lecturer who has embarked on an unlikely romance with a driving instructor, who is in thrall of his mother and her far-right views. There are many other funny and fascinating characters, too: Sofia’s gay Sri Lankan best friend, Sahan; Charlie, a boyhood friend of Benjamin’s who is now scratching out a living as a clown for children’s parties; and Doug, another old friend, now a political journalist with his own faltering marriage and activist daughter. Middle England is a hilarious, nuanced and well-observed novel that keeps the pages turning while leaving a smile on readers’ faces.
City of Windows by Robert Pobi: There are shades of Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme in quadriplegic forensics consultant Lucas Page, protagonist of Robert Pobi’s standout thriller City of Windows. Page is not quite as physically challenged as Rhyme, but as a result of a shooting some 10 years ago, he is burdened with the loss of an arm and a leg, as well as the loss of sight in one eye. Once a crack FBI field agent, Page has retreated into an academic life. And then something rattles his peaceful post-FBI existence: the assassination of his former partner by a sniper’s bullet, a seemingly impossible shot fired from a rooftop during a blinding snowstorm. Page reluctantly agrees to come out of retirement to help with the investigation of the shooting. His almost three-dimensional grasp of velocities and trajectories borders on the uncanny, and he is thus uniquely suited to the task at hand. Unfortunately, the shooting is only the first in a series of virtually impossible sniper shots targeting a member of the law enforcement community. The tension ratchets up for the reader just as it does for Page as he and his loved ones find themselves in the crosshairs. Pobi has written five other books, but this is his first thriller. It would seem he has found his calling.
Inland by Tea Obreht: It’s been eight years since Tea Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, became an instant literary bestseller. Her new novel, Inland, set in the American West at the end of the 19th century, has a similarly sweeping grasp of history, telling a boldly imaginative story of two characters bound together by their relationships to the dead. Wife and mother Nora Lark lives in an unincorporated Arizona town struck by drought. When Inland opens, her husband is out searching for potable water and her two older sons have disappeared, leaving her alone with her youngest son, Toby, and her husband’s 17-year-old cousin, Josie, known for her psychic powers. Both Josie and Toby swear the homestead is being menaced by a mysterious beast, and between the young cousins’ growing hysteria and the lack of drinking water, Nora is at her wit’s end. But how can Nora doubt their claim when she herself carries on a daily conversation with her daughter, Evelyn, who died of heatstroke as a baby? Outlaw Mattie Lurie has only the dimmest memories of childhood and the Muslim religion in which he was raised before coming to the United States. Surrounded by death for most of his life, Lurie encounters ghosts at every turn. Orphaned young, he did whatever he could to survive and, after killing a man, remains on the run. When Lurie meets up with a traveling caravan of camels and their drivers who are working for the U.S. Army, he feels a personal connection to their leader, Hi Jolly, and throws in his lot with theirs. Obreht mixes the fictional with the factual in the same effortless way she mixes the magical with the real, the beast with the human. Inland is based, in part, on the true history of the use of camels in the Southwest after the Mexican-American War significantly expanded America’s borders. Though the novel could have benefited from some streamlining, the final chapter in which the paths of Nora and Lurie finally cross is a brilliant prose poem on the interrelationship between the living and the dead, between memory and loss.
The Last Good Guy by T. Jefferson Parker: The title of T. Jefferson Parker’s The Last Good Guy refers to its protagonist, private investigator Roland Ford, who is indeed a good guy, albeit one beset by troubles. But his latest case seems pretty straightforward, at least at the outset. A teenage girl has run away, an action not inconsistent with her wild nature, and her elder sister is anxious for her safety, especially since the young girl has a 20-year-old boyfriend who is a decidedly unsavory character. But rest assured, an author the caliber of Parker will not spin a simple tale of a runaway. Instead, there is nuance upon nuance, misdirection upon misdirection, including a celebrity evangelist, the aforementioned unsavory boyfriend, an enclave of neo-Nazis and a client whose motive for finding her sister may not be exactly as she represented it. As is typical for Parker’s novels, the stage upon which the story unfolds is a microcosm of today’s America, with racism and intolerance, the escalating struggle between conservatives and liberals and the pervasive influence of megachurches and the politics espoused therein. As is also typical of Parker’s novels, it is a mighty fine read.
The Bitterroots by C.J. Box: C.J. Box’s latest thriller, The Bitterroots, follows a family that redefines the word dysfunctional: the Kleinsassers, longtime ranchers and influential denizens of remote Lochsa County, Montana. Private investigator Cassie Dewell, on retainer with a local law office, has been tasked with the defense investigation of family black sheep Blake Kleinsasser, who has been credibly accused of the rape of his 15-year-old niece. It’s pretty much inevitable that his investigation will not end well, as there is quite a bit of enmity among the family members, and no resolution to the case will be satisfying to all the players. The evidence is compelling, with a positive ID from a DNA sample and Blake’s statement that he cannot remember any of the events of the night in question. Yet when Cassie ramps up the investigation, she is stymied at every turn by the Kleinsasser family, to the point of being jailed on trumped-up charges. Clearly someone is invested in derailing the investigation and seeing Blake put away for a very long time, irrespective of his guilt. Box is in top form here, gilding his reputation for finely crafted suspense novels of the New West–a place you wouldn’t necessarily want to live but that is endlessly intriguing to read about.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (e-book): In Elizabeth Macneal’s debut sensation, an aspiring artist traverses the fine line between destruction and creation. In 1851 London, Iris works long hours in a doll-making studio. Trapped into an apprenticeship beside Rose, her unhappy twin sister, Iris plots to build a new life in which she is free to paint while Rose runs her own shop. Iris also hopes to gain a position stable enough to help the toothless street urchin Albie, who sews doll clothes for the studio and becomes like a little brother to her. When up-and-coming artist Louis offers to give Iris painting lessons–in exchange for her modeling for a painting he wants to enter into the Great Exhibition–she feels that she’s one step closer to making her plan succeed. But little does Iris know, a lonely taxidermist named Silas has his own designs for her. Chapters interweave like the finest lace, as Iris, Rose, Albie, Louis and Silas each take a turn in the spotlight. They are trapped in an intricate web of desire and obsession, the passions that can make or break art. Iris risks stability in her desperation for artistic freedom, Rose’s chronic regrets pull her away from Iris, and Albie wants a new set of teeth so badly he almost betrays his benefactress. While Louis rebels against the academic standards of the time, depicting fleeting moments in his pre-Raphaelite paintings, Silas is dead-set on preserving his specimens for all time. Does art break down or build up ideals? Or both? London’s splendor as well as its squalor come alive in visceral detail, and Macneal’s attention to artists’ processes spans the extremes from ecstatic joy to macabre revenge and everything in between. The Doll Factory isn’t just inspired by the Victorian era; it takes Thackeray’s social satire and Rodin’s natural forms and molds them into a stunning portrait of a modern heroine.
The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs: Caroline Shelby’s life has been turned upside down. First, scandal destroys the promising clothing designer’s budding career in New York. Then, Caroline’s close friend dies suddenly, leaving her the legal guardian of her friend’s two young children, Flick and Addie, a task for which she feels totally unprepared. With nothing to keep her in New York, Caroline drives cross-country with her two grieving charges to Oysterville, Washington, the hometown she left years earlier and to which she never envisioned returning. There, she finds her family and town both familiar and changed. She must also face her first love, Will, who married her then-best friend, Sierra. Returning to the fabric shop where she discovered her love of design, Caroline slowly begins to rebuild her life and career and even discovers her mothering skills. She also assuages her guilt in failing to help her late friend by creating the Oysterville Sewing Circle, a group for women who’ve experienced abuse. With The Oysterville Sewing Circle, Susan Wiggs tackles the painful subject of domestic violence in a life-affirming way. While Wiggs doesn’t shy away from addressing abuse in its myriad forms through the stories of the women in the sewing circle, a central theme of this novel is the healing power of family and community, and especially women supporting one another. Furthermore, as a resident of one of the Puget Sound islands, Wiggs writes with an intimate knowledge of the area, which makes her fictional town of Oysterville come alive on the page. Readers will long to visit and meet her characters in the local shops. Author of over 50 novels, including the Lakeshore Chronicles, Wiggs has written another compelling novel that will grab readers’ hearts, hold their attention and leave them with a sense of hope.
Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center: Some people work to live, but Cassie Hanwell lives to work. Her job as a firefighter–and an extremely good one at that–gives her a sense of purpose that nothing else ever has. With grit and unwavering determination, Cassie has worked her way up the ranks of the Austin, Texas, fire department, earning the respect and admiration of her male colleagues. She’s even the first woman to win the department’s prestigious Valor Award. But on the evening of the award ceremony, an impulsive decision, triggered by an encounter with a blast from her past, may jeopardize everything for which Cassie has worked so hard. With her career on the line, Cassie agrees to transfer to an old-school fire department on the outskirts of Boston, where she’ll have to prove herself to her new squad, who have made it clear that there’s no room for a “lady” in their fire station. The only person who doesn’t ignore her or treat her with outright hostility is a fellow newcomer, known as the Rookie, who proves to be a different kind of problem–because Cassie decided a long time ago that she would never fall in love, no matter how considerate or attractive or good a cook he might be. There’s no way her career can survive another scandal, but as she spends more time with the Rookie–and begins reconnecting with her estranged mother–Cassie can’t help but wonder if she should let her past go up in flames and make room for something new. Katherine Center’s latest novel is an emotionally resonant and deeply satisfying love story that features a resilient and courageous heroine with legitimate traumas and obstacles to overcome. Center is a pro at creating characters that readers will root for every step of the way. While Cassie’s happy ending is never truly in doubt, she puts in the work to get there, and it feels well-earned and richly rewarding. Hopeful and heartwarming, Things You Save in a Fire is a moving testament to the power of forgiveness and love’s ability to heal, even in the face of life’s worst tragedies.
The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (e-audiobook): Lisa Lutz’s new novel, The Swallows, is fast-moving, darkly humorous and at times shockingly vicious. The battle of the sexes within its pages couldn’t be more compelling. The book opens as teacher Alexandra “Alex” Witt reluctantly begins a new role at the prestigious Stonebridge Academy, a boarding school in Vermont. Alex isn’t one of those teachers whose passion for the profession overrides all else. She doesn’t hate it, but she doesn’t love it. After losing a similar position following a scandal at her previous school, she’s just happy to be employed at all. She doesn’t hate or love her students either, although they would be easy to hate after one of them hides a dead rat in her desk on the first day of class. Alex responds by assigning them five questions: What do you love? What do you hate? If you could live inside a book, what book? What do you want? Who are you? What she gets in response is both surprising and mysterious. Many of the anonymous responses cite something called the Darkroom. It’s not long before Alex begins to match the students to their replies and discovers the school’s secret hierarchical pecking order, ruled from the top by a group of students known as the Ten. Student Gemma Russo quickly emerges as the second most important voice in the story as Alex convinces her to stand up for herself and the other girls on campus against their male counterparts, resulting in a wildly creative and hilarious episode. Lutz delivers a frantic, morbidly funny story about what happens when girls are no longer willing excuse bad behavior as “boys will be boys.”
The Warehouse by Rob Hart (e-book): Reading The Warehouse is a kind of nightmare. Its near-future dystopia seems startlingly plausible; the split-narrative structure goes round and round like a Lazy Susan; and Rob Hart’s prose feels as densely claustrophobic as the living conditions he has constructed for the disenfranchised millions now working for the Warehouse, the hideous corporate giant (read: Amazon, a few clicks down the road) that has so benevolently, inevitably and horribly rescued the world’s ruined economy. The novel doesn’t even bother with character development. Why should it? The only thing that matters in this book is the vastness of the nightmare. For this purpose, cardboard will do just as well as flesh and blood. The three main persons in the story (I want to call them “assets”) would literally rather die than be developed. First, there’s ordinary poor sod Paxton, who can’t pay his bills, so he gets on the bus to one of the Warehouse’s mega-centers, passes the entry exam and starts his job as a security officer, color-coded uniform and all. Second, there’s the smart, anti-establishment terrorist Zinnia, who also passes the exam and decides to enlist Paxton’s help to get the dirt on the Warehouse and bring it down. And then there’s the third figure of Hart’s novel, the only one who speaks to us in first person: Gibson, the founder and supreme leader of the Warehouse. It’s Gibson who transcends the book’s cynicism. As an up-to-date incarnation of the beatific, ruthless redeemer archetype, Gibson elevates The Warehouse to the zone of indispensable satire and dark spiritual inquiry, the space where Dickens, Kafka, Orwell and Koestler reign. These titans of the genre have shown us what it looks like when evil wears the mask of goodness, how it feels when our salvation asks us to abandon all hope and what happens to us when the shining light of progress becomes an all-consuming darkness. I hope they don’t make a movie out of this book. It’s already impossible to wake up from.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal: While the condition generally known as “Minnesota Nice” might seem to imply an unmitigated kindliness, it is more aptly described as passive aggressiveness made palatable by a virtually transparent veneer of civility. This is not to say that hearts of gold fail to beat beneath that veneer, but it might take an ice drill–or a clever wordsmith–to bust through the permafrost. In The Lager Queen of Minnesota, J. Ryan Stradal ventures back into the kind of kitchen that made his debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a success–and from there into the ever-evolving world of beer culture. Early on, the reader gets the sense that sisters Edith and Helen Magnusson were not particularly close during their youth, and that condition is dramatically exacerbated when their inheritance favors one over the other. Hopscotching back and forth between the sisters’ stories over the years, Stradal lays out the triumphs and tragedies that have kept the siblings apart, as well as the story of the granddaughter/great-niece who might be their bridge to reconciliation. Elder sister Edith comes across as an archetype of Midwestern sense and sensibility: modest, hard-working, self-deprecating, stoic and just a bit too straight-laced to enjoy life to the fullest. When her pies are touted in the press as the best in the state, she regards the ensuing notoriety as a distraction, if not an impediment. Helen, on the other hand, plays grasshopper to her sister’s ant and revels in her ability to transform her parents’ estate into a brewery that markets “the second-bestselling Minnesota-brewed beer in Minnesota.” Her husband, in a moment of inspiration, crafts the tag line that propels the brand to stardom: “Drink lots, it’s Blotz.” But as fans of Falstaff, Rheingold, Schmidt, Esslinger’s, Jax and others have ruefully noted, chilled and frothy heads oft turn warm and flat, and the fictional Blotz goes plotz. With decades of silence and unspoken resentment separating Edith and Helen, it may take something stronger than a stein of stout to reunite them, and Stradal artfully keeps the suspense brewing for over 300 pages. With apologies to McCann-Erickson’s wildly successful campaign for Miller Lite (you know the one: “Tastes great, less filling”), this book tastes great, is quite filling and never bitter.
Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty (e-book): The invitation seems a bit silly to Abigail Sorenson: attend an all-expenses-paid retreat on an island off the coast of Tasmania to learn about a self-help book. But it’s an opportunity she can’t refuse, even if she does expect a catch in the form of a sales pitch. This retreat isn’t about any old self-help book. The invitation promises to reveal the mystery behind The Guidebook, a tome Abi has received by mail, one chapter at a time, for 20 years. The first chapter arrived when Abi was 15, just before her slightly younger brother, Robert, also 15, disappeared. Although the events didn’t seem to be connected, they’re inextricably bound in Abi’s mind. So what’s the worst that could happen? The retreat might be a sales pitch scam, or it could solve the mysteries that have defined Abi’s life. Abi couldn’t have predicted the retreat’s reveal, and the experience stays with her as she returns to life in Sydney. Abi begins to reflect on her life, the end of her marriage, the fact that she runs when she’s dubbed a happiness cafe. Has her light attitude toward life been an effort to turn from the gravity of her experiences? The Guidebook examined another meaning of the word: “Of course, gravity is not a thing. It’s just a way of describing the fact that things fall.” Perhaps Abi has been resisting that fall for decades. Bestselling young adult novelist Jaclyn Moriarty brings her unfettered imagination and buoyant sense of humor to Gravity Is the Thing. She explores difficult subjects, such as the loss of a sibling, with a light touch. As Abi accepts and invitation to re-examine her life, readers may laugh, cry and even reflect on their own paths of discovery.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: The trope of a doe-eyed, innocent waif wandering a spectacular wonderland is well-worn by authors of classic fantasy and science fiction, but the magic that Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves in her 1920s-set historical fantasy, Gods of Jade and Shadow, immerses the reader in a fairy tale like no other. The author of Signal to Noise and The Beautiful Ones is known for celebrating remarkable heroines of Mexican heritage, and her protagonist Casiopea Tun certainly does not disappoint. Casiopea is a star-crossed Cenicienta who refuses to let fate, mysticism, prophecies and other such rubbish dictate her life. Scorned and neglected by her wealthy family because of her supposedly bastard heritage, she opts for curiosity and wit over lashing out against her cantankerous grandfather, Cirilo Leyva, and dangerously spoiled cousin, Martin. When the imaginative Casiopea opens a mysterious locked chest in Cirilo’s bedroom a la Pandora, she unleashes the bones of one of the gods of the underworld: the stoic and dryly humorous Hun-Kame, former (and self-titled “rightful”) Lord of Xibalba. After learning that she is inextricably bound to Hun-Kame until he is able to defeat his treacherous brother, Vucub-Kame, and that she and Martin will play important roles in the battle for the crown, the simultaneously sheltered and exploited Casiopea embarks on a cross-country, darkly whimsical adventure to both restore Hun-Kame to the throne and regain her independence. Casiopea is not a damsel in distress, but rather a young woman coming of age in a time where music, myth, art and exploration thrum colorfully around her, and her affinity for poetry and storytelling, gleaned from her deceased father, keeps her motivated and hopeful. Casiopea explores what it means to live on the fringe–she is neither Tun nor Leyva, of Middleworld nor Xibalba, country girl nor flapper of Mexico City’s Jazz Age renaissance–while learning about love and loss, grief and greed, strength and perseverance. Unlike her namesake in Greek mythology, she is far from vain, possessing instead resourcefulness and a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Casiopea encounters demons, succubi, monsters and sorcerers along the way, from Tierra Blanca to the Black Road–settings that glimmer like the Mayan obsidian and jade that the gods are so fond of. The book also includes bleak but nonetheless vivid depictions of Xibalba itself, a nightmarish hellscape home to dangerous, but wondrous, beings. Readers will be floored by Moreno-Garcia’s painstaking attention to detail. Her descriptions of the emotionally charged interactions between realistic human characters and otherwordly gods, witches and demonic forces are unforgettable, as are the fairy-tale and folktale aspects of the plot. As Hun-Kame and Casiopea grow closer, physically and psychologically, the two experience and share what it truly means to live–and die. When Casiopea enters her new life, she is assured that “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh (e-book): What if someone you loved died and left you a letter plus a few important items? And the letter turned out to be a to-do list for vengeance? And those things were not mementos, but rather a gun, a counterfeit passport and some cash? In Beijing Payback, California college student Victor Li and his sister, Jules, are stunned when their father, Vincent, a beloved owner of three Chinese restaurants, is murdered. In short order, they discover the aforementioned bizarre and alarming contents of their father’s safe, and a mysterious man named Sun–who knows all about their dad, though they had no idea Sun existed–shows up, ready to assist Victor in going to China to exact revenge on Vincent’s behalf. It’s a dangerous, quite possibly fatal undertaking (for one thing, Victor’s a college athlete, not an assassin), but he ultimately decides to fulfill his dad’s wishes for one reason: Their comfortable life in suburban America wasn’t due solely to proceeds from the restaurants but from profits earned by the global crime syndicate his father and a few friends founded in post-Mao China. This is not a typical realizing-your-parents-are-flawed story, to be sure, and debut author Daniel Nieh really goes for it, packing in action, suspense, drama, plus some humor and sexiness, too. The author’s background in Chinese-English translation serves him well, as skillfully employed language throughout evokes Victor’s ties to his Chinese heritage and reinforces his ability to move between cultures as he tries on various personas: basketball player, suave dude, loyal friend, family member…and righteous bad boy? Drunken college parties give way to terrifying, blood-spattered encounters as the stakes grow ever higher, and Victor must reckon with the truth about his family’s past and its implications for his future in this entertaining, colorful debut.
A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis: A body falls from the Tarpeian Rock, a looming structure that overlooks the ancient Roman Forum. People assume it’s a suicide, but a woman insists she saw someone push the victim. When an investigation is called for, Flavia Alba is ready to help. A Capitol Death is a traditional whodunit set in ancient times, but if feels remarkably fresh. Author Lindsey Davis (Pandora’s Boy) balances grit and frivolity with ease. Flavia feels like the love child of Philip Marlowe and Carrie Bradshaw–she’s on the case, observing and reporting with care, but keeps a running line of saucy commentary on everyone throughout. This death would hardly raise a fuss were it not for the Imperial Triumphs, a sort of war parade/street fair hybrid set to take place. The dead man organized the entire affair and made plenty of enemies in the process, on top of being widely disliked in general. Flavia researches the case and then comes home to the drama of her home, still under construction, with ever-changing staff and their own drama. Stolen moments with her husband, and their snappy repartee, are sweet side trips. Her childhood as a British orphan gives Flavia an acute awareness of class and difference. She can gently mold herself to fit in almost any situation and draw people into her confidence. The story builds with numerous twists toward a thrilling conclusion, but much of the pleasure comes from the deep, realistic world Davis has created and the people who inhabit it.
Chances Are… by Richard Russo: When you’re 66, like the three longtime buddies in Richard Russo’s latest novel, you’ve got lots of events to look back on. One of the most devastating events in the lives of these three men is the driving force of Chances Are…–a surprising work that is as much a mystery as a meditation on secrets and friendship. The friendship began at Minerva, a Connecticut college, in the late 1960s, a time when nervous young men wondered whether their draft number would draw a tour of duty in Vietnam. The three college buddies, all of them on scholarship, met when they were hired to sling hash at dinners for Theta house, the least rebellious sorority on campus: Lincoln as server because he was the most handsome, Teddy as cook’s helper, Mickey as dishwasher. Each man comes from a lower-class background, which Russo describes at length in a long prologue. Lincoln’s mother lost most of the family fortune after her parents died. She then married Wolfgang Amadeus Moser, known as Dub-Yay, a domineering man who ran a copper mine. Teddy was a bookish sort who suffered a basketball injury in high school that had lifelong repercussions. Mickey, a construction worker’s son, dislike school but was passionate about rock music. One of the common bonds the three men forged at college centered on Jacy Rockafellow, a child of privilege engaged to another child of privilege, a law student named Vance. Jacy’s engagement didn’t stop the three “hashers” from falling in love with her. Then, in 1971, tragedy strikes. At Lincoln’s family’s house in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, Jacy joined the three men for a farewell Memorial Day weekend. But Jacy disappeared and was never heard from again. Now, as the 2016 presidential campaign begins, the old friends gather at the Chilmark house for a September get-together before Lincoln, now a commercial real estate broker, reluctantly sells the property. Much has changed in their lives, but one thing hasn’t–lingering questions about what happened to Jacy that weekend. Fans of Russo’s work will know what to expect from Chances Are…, including the many scenes of male bonding and the colorful dialogue. If some of the material is familiar, the book is nevertheless a moving portrait of aging men who discover the world’s worst-kept secret: You may not know the people you thought you were closest to.
The One Who Stays by Toni Blake (e-book): Toni Blake tells the perfect story for a summer afternoon in The One Who Stays. Cancer survivor Meg Sloan runs her late grandmother’s inn on small, quaint Summer Island. She’s content with her world and her relationship with Zack Sheppard, a local fisherman who casually drops in and out of her life. But while anticipating a momentous birthday, she wonders if she’s been settling instead of fully living life. The arrival of charming younger handyman Seth Darden emboldens her to consider what she really wants–perhaps something and someone different altogether? Blake’s leisurely pace provides a sense of slowed “island time” in this lovely, heartwarming romance with a little sadness to balance out the sweet.
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson: Joshilyn Jackson’s newest novel weaves a wicked tale right from its opening pages. When a mysterious and charismatic woman named Angelica Roux shows up at a suburban book club in a small Florida town, Amy Whey has a sinking feeling that a bomb is about to drop on their cozy lives. Roux get the liquor flowing and slips the reins from Charlotte, the book club’s leader and Amy’s best friend. As the women relax, Roux starts a seductive game–an adult version of “Never Have I Ever,” in which each woman shares the worst thing she’s done in the past week, then month, then year and so on. The women are giddy with the newness of Roux’s game and her feral flirtation. When a married woman confesses to kissing another man, Amy worries that her neighbor is messing around with Charlotte’s husband. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Roux somehow knows a terrible secret from Amy’s past, and Amy thinks Roux has shown up to trap her. Amy has worked hard to rebuild her life. She has a loving husband, a quirky teenage stepdaughter named Maddy and a baby to dote upon. But as Amy’s past threatens to collide with her present, she is forced to play Roux’s dangerous game. After the party had ended, Roux starts to chip away at Amy’s cool exterior, demanding hush money for the secrets she keeps. But Amy reveals herself to be shrewder than she seems, and she’s determine to keep her family and new best friend from knowing what’s buried deep in her heart. Things get even stickier as Maddy cozies up to Roux’s son, Luca, who seems like the type of boy to break Maddy’s heart, or worse. When Roux sets a deadline for the hush money, Amy decides the only way to get out is to beat Roux at her own game. With excellent pacing, clever character development, fun plot twists and a palpable setting, Never Have I Ever is a binge-worthy read. Jackson brings her first thriller to the table this summer, and you don’t want to miss it.
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (e-book): Ruth Ware’s homage to The Turn of the Screw is filled with all of the best gothic elements: an unreliable narrator, an isolated setting, creepy children and a house that functions as its own menacing character. Part epistolary novel, part psychological thriller, The Turn of the Key is compulsively readable and will keep readers guessing until the very last page. Rowan Caine worries that the live-in nanny job she’s secured may be a little too good to be true. The pay is outstanding, the residence is a beautiful estate in the Scottish Highlands, and the parents want her to start right now. Almost immediately her fears are validated. Her charges, 8-year-old Maddie and 5-year-old Ellie, are fractious and have already burned through several caregivers. The home, Heatherbrae House, is a “smart home,” where every convenience is controlled by an app named “Happy” and every room except the bathrooms are monitored by security cameras. Left alone with two mutinous charges and a house that can be controlled remotely is enough to stretch Rowan to her last nerve. Those elements are certainly chilling enough (especially when the “Happy” app nightmarishly malfunctions), but Ware expertly weaves in a supernatural element as well. Already fraught, Rowan begins experiencing strange events, like the sound of someone pacing in the supposedly empty, walled-off space above her room, and when objects start going missing or moving seemingly on their own. Then there is the story of a small girl who tragically died of an accidental poisoning in the house decades earlier. A rational person might quit, but as the novel progresses, we learn that Rowan has secrets of her own, ones she certainly doesn’t want her employers uncovering. All of these twists and turns might feel unwieldy in the hands of another writer, but Ware is adept at managing multiple plot threads and using them to shock her reader. The beauty of The Turn of the Key is in how it takes the tropes central to the gothic genre, like the isolated haunted house, and gives them a 21st-century spin while still managing to feel fresh and surprising to even the most gothic-averse reader. Straddling the line between horror and thriller, this novel will delight fans of both genres.
Is There Still Sex in the City? by Candace Bushnell (e-book): The answer to the titular question of Candace Bushnell’s new book is an emphatic no, not really. There is divorce in the city. There are $4,000 facials in the city. There is still a tight-knit group of ride-or-die girlfriends in the city. But sex? Not so much. In this amiable follow-up to Sex and the City, the iconic 1990s bible for single-girl life in Manhattan, we check in with Bushnell as she closes out her 50s. (How is this possible?) She is living on the Upper East Side, with a fixer-upper home in a Hamptons beach town she calls the Village. She has divorced, lost her mother and is settling into late middle age as a single woman with two large poodles. Even after a series of bestsellers, she struggles to pay the bills. It’s not what Bushnell planned for her life, and one can understand her occasional dip into melancholy. “It didn’t used to be this way,” Bushnell writes. “At one time, fiftysomething meant the beginning of retirement–working less, slowing down, spending more time on hobbies and with your friends, who like you, were sliding into a more leisurely lifestyle…They weren’t expected to exercise, start new business ventures, move to a different state, get arrested, and start all over again, except with one-tenth of the resources and in many cases going back to the same social and economic situation that they spent all of their thirties and forties trying to crawl out of.” The effervescent Bushnell still has the ability to make readers laugh too with her casually dry one-liners. “Middle-aged madness had moved on and I was in a good place,” she writes. “I was doing the stuff they always tell middle-aged people to do. I was ‘staying active,’ ‘eating healthy,’ and I wasn’t drinking ‘too much.’ I always made sure to fill up my rose glass with ice.” Toward the end of Is There Still Sex in the City?, Bushnell starts dating a dashing guy she refers to as My New Boyfriend (or MNB–girlfriend loves an acronym). It is a perfectly satisfying arc in this, the companion to a book that defined love and friendship for a generation of women. One can’t help but root for her.
The Lady in the Coppergate Tower by Nancy Campbell Allen (e-book): Nancy Campbell Allen gives Rapunzel a steampunk twist in The Lady in the Coppergate Tower. Medical assistant Hazel Hughes knows she has some minor healing powers, but her world changes overnight when a stranger arrives in London claiming to be her uncle and that her previously unknown twin sister needs Hazel’s special talents in Romania. Doctor Sam MacInnes isn’t willing to let his lovely employee stray far from his sight, as he suspects her “uncle” might have malevolent intent. Their journey via submarine engenders a new closeness between Hazel and Sam, and Allen creates a fun and fantastical world to visit in this kisses-only romance.
The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams: Bestselling author Beatriz Williams skillfully sets a story of love and sacrifice against the backdrop of war in her fascinating new novel, The Golden Hour. In 1941, the island of Nassau, Bahamas, “is terrible for gossip,” recently widowed Lulu Randolph admits. “It’s the favorite pastime. Everybody seems to be knee-deep in each other’s dirty business.” As a society columnist for Metropolitan magazine in New York, Lulu is tasked with getting close to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the former was once king of the United Kingdom and is now governor of the island), for whom Americans have “an insatiable appetite.” Using her journalistic skills and social etiquette, Lulu succeeds in befriending the duchess, Wallis Simpson. As Lulu grows closer to the royal couple, who are long suspected of being Nazi sympathizers, she gleans deeper insights into their complex web of political, racial and financial intrigue. When real-life philanthropist Harry Oakes is found murdered on the island in 1943, the duke takes a particular interest in the case. Lulu, meanwhile, has fallen deeply in love with Benedict Thorpe, an English botanist and intelligence agent in the war. After Thorpe is captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a German prison camp, Lulu journeys to London, determined to help regain his freedom. Williams alternates Lulu’s story with that of German baroness Elfriede von Kleist and her love affair with Wilfred Thorpe in the early 1900s, linking the generations together. Readers will be spellbound by Williams’ elegant prose, fascinating characters and unforgettable settings while fully engrossed by the novel’s dual plots.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power (e-book): An all-female dystopia with rich language and intricate characters, Wilder Girls offers a taste of something new is a sea of predictable YA apocalypses. Almost two years have passed since the Tox, a mysterious disease, first ravaged the bodies of the girls and teachers at Raxter School for girls, an isolated island boarding school. Now there’s only a fraction of them left, and they’ve learned to adapt to the new additions to their bodies–gills, silver scales and second spines–and to the changed environment of the island in order to survive. Their most sacred rule? Never break quarantine, never go outside the fence. But when Hetty’s closest friend, Byatt, has a flare-up and goes missing, following the rules becomes the last thing on Hetty’s mind. She will do whatever it takes to get to Byatt, even if it means putting herself in even more danger. But when she ventures past the fence, what she finds on the other side may not be what she expected. In our current cultural and political climate, it’s refreshing to find a young adult novel that showcases and celebrates the enduring strength of women, even in the face of unimaginable hardship. First-time author Rory Power is particularly adept at illustrating the dynamics of female friendship, as well as exploring queer romantic relationships. All of these relevant topics, set against a stark and high-risk backdrop, make Wilder Girls stand out from the crowd and practically demand to be read.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (e-book): A veteran of New York Magazine, Esquire and Elle, author Lisa Taddeo opens Three Women, her compelling debut, with stories about her mother: the beginnings of her mother’s life as a woman, with all the complexities that accompany the teenage years, when society views women as reaching the height of their sexual power. She closes with her mother as well, this time describing the end of her life as Taddeo cared for her in the hospital. While this may seem like a strange decision for a book that concerns itself with female desire, it’s quickly apparent to even the casual reader that Taddeo doesn’t shy away from the unspoken, the uncomfortable and the shadow sides of sexuality. This is by necessity a ruthless book as it explores the half-concealed aspects of not only the female sex life but also the inner and secret lives of women. The three women in question cut across lines of class, age and experience. Maggie’s story begins as a teenager in a working-class family in North Dakota, receiving provocative and confusing texts from an English teacher that build alarmingly and irresistibly. Lina is an Indiana housewife, firmly middle-class, unfulfilled and anxiety-ridden amid toddlers and a sexless marriage, when she reconnects with an old boyfriend over Facebook. Enigmatic Sloane is comfortably upper-class and considers herself highly in control of her sexual agency, until difficult memories surface, consequences arise, and she begins to question the line between male desire and her own–whether she is subject or object. Three Women is merciless, impossible to put down and so revealing as to be uncomfortable. As the women share themselves, you find yourself reflected. It’s a multifaceted work that changes as you turn it, casting light in unexpected corners that you never before considered–and had perhaps even been guarding against.
Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch: What comes to mind when you hear the word Appalachia? Whatever it is, it probably won’t be the same after you read this engrossing, sometimes shocking and often witty debut novel from Madeline Ffitch, who is part of the direct-action collective Appalachia Resist. Helen has little knowledge of the foothills of Appalachian Ohio when she moves there from Seattle with her boyfriend, seeking cheap land to park their camper and relocate his landscaping business. But he soon leaves to work in the oil fields up north, and Helen is left to cope with the approaching winter alone. She earns a little doing tree work with Rudy, an alcoholic loner escaping civilization who’s living in a lean-to on abandoned coal company land. He introduces Helen to Lily and Karen, a couple living on the Women’s Land Trust, where no males are allowed. Lily is expecting their first child, and when she gives birth to Perley, a boy, they are forced to move. Helen offers to let them live on her 20 acres, and while Lily cares for Perley, Helen and Karen build a “house” for the four of them, “basically livable,” though the porch leaks, the front door lets in daylight top and bottom, their toilet is a bucket, and multiple black snakes soon take up residence. In alternating chapters, Lily, Karen, Helen and Rudy share what life is like for them in this downtrodden corner of Appalachia–a hill town with a hardware store, a school, an IGA grocery store, a diner and 30 bars. They survive, barely making it through each winter by eating acorns they’ve gathered in the fall, even the ones full of grubs, for “a burst of protein.” But the outside world encroaches on their nontraditional, isolated life when, at age 7, Perley asks to go to school. Though Karen objects, calling school “regimental brainwashing,” the two mothers relent, and Perley gets his first taste of television, electricity and a real friend his age. Their situation disintegrates when social services find Perley’s living conditions unacceptable, place him in foster care and mandate that Lily and Karen come up with a “reunification plan” within 90 days. The remainder of Ffitch’s remarkable novel portrays the ways in which they try to meet that goal, bringing all their skills and wiles to bear to allow their son to come home. Ffitch’s survival saga of strong, independent women will appeal to readers of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina and the realistic novels by Manette Ansay, especially Vinegar Hill.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Though he’s abandoned the magical realism of his 2017 Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead continues to confront racial prejudice in American life. Based on a true story, The Nickel Boys is a blistering expose of bigotry in a Florida reform school in the 1960s, when the modern civil rights movement was just beginning to awaken the entire nation to the justice of black Americans’ demands for equality. Nurtured by a loving grandmother after his parents abandoned him at age 6, and with ambitions fueled by recordings of speeches by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., 17-year-old Elwood Curtis of Tallahassee, Florida, has his eyes set on college as the first step on the road to a consequential life. But after he has the bad luck to hitch a ride with a car thief, he finds himself confined to the Nickel Academy for Boys, a rigidly segregated reform school that’s home to some 600 students. Almost as soon as he arrives at Nickel, Elwood beholds a nightmare world of deprivation and cruelty. Even modest transgressions by Elwood and his fellow black students are punished by savage beatings at a building called the White House, where a giant industrial fan is used to mask the screams of the victims, members of an “infinite brotherhood of broken boys.” Some students face even worse mistreatment, their brief lives ending with burial in a secret campus graveyard and fabrications about their “disappearances.” As Whitehead reveals in a sympathetic but clear-eyed narrative, Elwood’s idealism is subjected to the ultimate test when it confronts the school’s relentless racism. Determined to expose the misdeeds of Nickel’s brutal administrators, Elwood makes a fateful choice that lays the groundwork for an emotional plot twist in the novel’s concluding pages. Whitehead pulls no punches in telling this heartbreaking story. The Nickel Boys offers optimists an opportunity to be encouraged by how far the United States has come in the past 60 years in addressing racial inequality, but a careful reading of this disquieting novel leaves one with the feeling that we still have much further to go.
The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz: A father dies mysteriously, and his daughter, too young to remember what she saw–if she saw anything–is whisked away. It takes another death to bring Billie James back to Greendale, Mississippi, when her late grandmother leaves her a dog, some money and the house where her father died. Billie’s parents–Pia, wispy blonde who later becomes a medieval studies scholar, and Cliff, a tall, black budding poet and activist–met on a Freedom Riders bus, but their bond didn’t last. In the Delta in the 1960s, interracial relationships were frowned upon. When Cliff died in 1972 while 4-year-old Billie was visiting him, Pia came for her, and they moved on. At the start of The Gone Dead, it’s 2003, and Billie has returned to the “contradictory spell of the South,” a place she barely remembers. Billie finds a sense of purpose by traveling back roads to old haunts and showing up on the doorsteps of those her father knew. Finding out how her father died (by his hand or another’s) becomes her focus, though the divide between white and black, wealthy and poor–still as stark and confounding as ever–frustrates her search. With an actor’s ear for dialogue and a directorial vision, Chanelle Benz creates characters and scenes like a playwright. Her debut novel skillfully reveals and also conceals, building tension within her characters and between the past and the present that is left largely unresolved. Chapter by chapter, each told from a different perspective, The Gone Dead spreads out like the Mississippi River’s many tributaries, showing how one person’s life affects others, even long after death. Most of the people Billie meets–Mr. McGee, the original landowner’s son who was there the night her father died; Carlotta, one of her dad’s many girlfriends; and her Uncle Dee, who lives in a former motel and drives a truck as far away from Greendale as he can only to come back–know something they aren’t telling her. This complicated place and people that molded Cliff James and gave weight to his poetry is the same place and people that became his undoing. Benz’s poetic words capture the weariness of a South still mired in old prejudices and transgressions but longing for freedom and redemption.
Buried by Ellison Cooper: The second book in the Special Agent Sayer Altair series delves deep into the mind of a monster, creating an immersive and chilling experience while following a FBI neuroscientist who studies serial killers. Following up directly where Caged left off, Buried finds Sayer recovering from a gunshot wound–and facing political fallout from her last case in which she exposed a horrible secret within the FBI. Then the gruesome discovery of a mass gravesite in the Shenandoah National Forest pulls Sayer off desk duty and back into the field, but with extremely limited resources. With only a few park rangers and two FBI agents to assist her, Sayer throws herself into the case as a way to avoid coping with her recent trauma. The bones, and one recent body, tell a macabre story: A serial killer was active in the area for eight years until 2002, only to begin killing again now. Even more troubling is the report of a missing woman whose description matches the profile of the other victims. As the case begins to build steam, Sayer is drawn into an increasingly dark and melodramatic gothic nightmare. The landscape of the Shenandoah National Forest, with its hidden mines and cave systems, becomes a character itself, as the villain emerges from the shadows to terrorize Sayer’s team, only to vanish again. Small-town secrets and long-held feuds also threaten to derail the investigation. Cooper’s focus on atmosphere gives the novel the tight pacing of a thriller, while also producing a constant feeling of unease more typically found in the horror genre. This is not the book for a cozy mystery fan. Sayer stands out in a largely whitewashed genre as a woman of color, and her awareness of how her race affects other’s perceptions of her is present but never overly evangelized to the reader. Resourceful and self-possessed, she triumphs even when the odds are stacked against her. When evidence leads her to theorize that a woman who went missing from the area years ago–and who happens to be the local police chief’s sister–may be involved in the killings, she finds herself frozen out by both the FBI and local law enforcement. By depriving Sayer of departmental resources and deus ex machina forensic breakthroughs, the narrative focuses on her brilliant profiling and detective skills, making Buried feel like an old fashioned whodunit as the reader pieces the clues together along with Sayer.
Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman: Cambria Brockman’s riveting debut, Tell Me Everything, takes place on the campus of an exclusive New England college, where six friends form a destructive connection. Introvert Malin comes out of her shell at Hawthorne College, bonding with five other students: Ruby, Max, John, Khaled and Gemma. They’re a close-knit group, but as graduation approaches, their relationships begin to unravel. Gemma drinks too much, and John is increasingly cruel to Ruby, who is now his girlfriend. Malin, meanwhile, excels academically while concealing her very dark past. The anxieties of senior year peak at semester’s end as she struggles to uphold her self-assured facade. She isn’t the only one in the circle who’s hiding something, and when a murder occurs, the six friends’ lives change forever. Narrated by Malin, whose intelligence and cunning drive the story, Tell Me Everything is an edgy exploration of loyalty and human desire. Readers in search of a true page-turner will savor this electrifying novel.
Paper Son by S.J. Rozan: “Mississippi?…I didn’t know which part was craziest: that my mother wanted me to go to Mississippi on a case; that my mother wanted me to go to Mississippi on a case; or that my mother wanted me to go to Mississippi on a case.” It’s a good question, rife with possibilities for New York City PI Lydia Chin, narrator of S.J. Rozan’s Paper Son. The case in question revolves around a distant cousin accused of murdering his father. But before Lydia and her partner, Bill Smith, can talk to said cousin, he escapes from custody, thus accomplishing the one feat that could make him look even guiltier, especially when added to the already damning evidence of his proximity to the body when found and his fingerprints on the murder weapon. The term paper son refers to Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. They were able to do this by purchasing fraudulent papers documenting them as blood relatives, typically sons or daughters, of legal Chinese immigrants. Many of those paper sons came to the Mississippi Delta, and one of them was the brother of Lydia Chin’s great-grandfather, hence the family connection. Rozan skillfully weaves this history into her narrative, adding texture and nuance to what is already a cracking good mystery.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig: It’s not easy to write the end of the world. In precise and deliberate prose, you can explain why and how your fictional world is ending, but writing something that really conjures the end–with the many cogs in the machine of civilization that have to break down, and the consequences of the failure of each one–is much harder, particularly if you’d like to do it with heart and thrills and something resembling a thesis statement about the human condition. Very few authors can pull it off, and even fewer can master it. With Wanderers, Chuck Wendig has mastered it. The story begins with a young girl walking out of her house one morning with no shoes or supplies. Her sister tries to stop her, then her father, Then EMTs and police, but still she walks. She is the beginning of an apparent epidemic of “sleepwalkers” that form a flock who walk–expressionlessly and painlessly–across the United States. In the midst of this mysterious outbreak comes a series of characters–a disgraced CDC official, a woman who built the world’s most sophisticated artificial intelligence, a rock star, a preacher on the verge of crisis and the young girl’s older sister–who all have roles to play in unraveling the mystery of what’s to come. The walkers, you see, are just the beginning, and what follows is an American epic with the soul of the nation–and the world–at stake. Wendig tells this story through several points of view, mixing not just different spiritual, political and psychological worldviews, each one as real as the last, each gripping in its way. His ability to juggle so many fully realized characters is impressive, but even more so is the astonishing power Wanderers commands in conveying what it would actually feel like if this happened in the America we live in now, complicated by deep ideological divides, disinformation and the constant chatter of social media. All of these elements work together, often in surprising ways, to create a sense of terrifying plausibility and compelling verisimilitude. The true success of Wanderers, though, is not just in its ability to show us the grim scenarios that could play out across a divided nation; it’s in its heart. Whether he’s writing about rage or faith or the faintest glimmer of light, Wendig brings a sincerity and emotional weight to his prose. That’s why the scariest parts of this book work, but it’s also why the most hopeful ones do, too.
Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh: Mary Balogh returns to her Westcott historical romance series with Someone to Honor, an emotional and sweetly indulgent romance in which first impressions aren’t always indicative of a person’s true character. Abigail Westcott and Gilbert Bennington truly get off on the wrong foot after she chastises him for working shirtless on the Westcott estate. It’s not proper, especially when there are young, unwed ladies in his midst. And this single interaction leads to a host of misunderstandings. Abigail makes the assumption that Gil is just a servant on the grounds and not the officer who helped her brother return home from the Napoleonic Wars. Meanwhile, Gil reduces Abigail’s comments to her being a spoiled and rich woman, something that deeply taps into his feelings of inadequacy given their class differences. Despite their disastrous first meeting, Abigail and Gil begin spending more and more time together, often enjoying walks around the grounds, where they have rather insightful and illuminating conversations. Gil realizes he was wrong about his assessment of Abigail. She’s a wealthy and independent woman whose life was upturned by a family scandal. Meanwhile, Abigail learns of Gil’s heroic treatment of her brother, and when he reveals a personal, heartbreaking predicament, Abigail and her brother offer to help. But that help comes in the form of marriage. Self-assured and practical, Abigail has grown accustomed to being a pariah since her father’s bigamy scandal. What she never expected was how much it would give her in the ways of freedom. With no man wanting to attach his name to her, Abigail has settled into a lovely, quiet country life in which she can do as she pleases. Gil carries lingering trauma from his military service, and while he may have earned the respect of many, he can’t shake the insecurity he feels from being an illegitimate child and growing up in poverty. A bit broody, Gil is a hero who prefers to observe and be on the sidelines, harboring an understandable distrust for upper-crust society. Balogh writes with an inescapable tenderness, in which each conversation furthers Gil and Abigail’s affection ever so slightly. There is always a softness and subtlety to Balogh’s romances, serving as a lasting reminder that love is patient and kind. Previous fans of the Westcott series will love seeing familiar faces integrated into Gil and Abigail’s romance. Though well-meaning, the Westcott family isn’t afraid to meddle and can’t leave well enough alone. With a relationship built on trust that slowly blooms with understanding, Someone to Honor is another fantastic novel by Balogh, who expertly navigates all the highs and lows that come before a happily ever after.
Deep River by Karl Marlantes: Before you read this review, look up “steam donkey” on Wikipedia. Take a good look at the picture, then return. Now you know what a major piece of equipment looks like in Karl Marlantes’ sprawling tale of immigrants, logging in the Pacific Northwest and what it all had to do with early 20th-century socialism. A doorstopper at over 700 pages, Deep River seems a work born from Willa Cather by way of Upton Sinclair. But this new book is its own animal, and it’s something of a masterpiece. The story begins at the turn of the last century in Finland, the home of the brilliant, fearless, passionate Aino Koski and her family. At the time, Finland was under Russian rule, and Aino is drawn to socialism and revolution, which she clings to even though bouts of torture whose ghastliness is only hinted at. Her commitment to Comrade Lenin only grows when she and her brothers emigrate–flee is actually a better word–to Washington. Nothing dims her zeal for the coming socialist utopia, not even her troubled marriage or motherhood. Aino brings her baby along to Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) meetings or leaves her with her brother and his wife. Marlantes, author of the powerful war novel Matterhorn, immerses the reader in the life of the Koski siblings, whose worldview is dominated by sisu, a Finnish concept of honor, dignity and inner strength. Sisu requires men and women to be stoic, to always fight for their honor and to work from sunup to sundown. Page after page is dedicated to the dangerous and grueling job of harvesting gigantic trees from old-growth forests–see “steam donkey.” The reader will be in awe of such hard labor done in the service of exploitative bosses who pay little. At the same time, Deep River bemoans the ruin of virgin forests, the pollution of pristine rivers, the fact that 100-pound wild salmon are now scarce. The book extols the love of family and friends and the beauty of the landscape even as that landscape is ravaged. Best of all, Marlantes’ new novel has more than a few moments of fun and laughter. Even combative Aino can laugh at herself. In Deep River, she takes her place beside Antonia Shimerda as one of the great heroines of literature.