Seven Days in June by Tia Williams (physical book available at the library; contemporary romance): “Grown women knew better than to attach themselves to time bombs. Teenage girls couldn’t wait to be ruined.” So writes Tia Williams, author of the smart and steamy Seven Days in June. The “grown woman” is Eva Mercy, a 32-year-old romance novelist and single mom in Brooklyn. The “time bomb” is Shane Hall, a literary novelist and former paramour who unexpectedly reappears in Eva’s life at a book festival. The Black literary world doesn’t know that Eva and Shane were teenage lovers–or that they’ve been communicating to each other through their books for years. Seven Days in June is a slow burn as Shane and Eva attempt to heal old wounds, their love affair made all the more delicate by Eva’s history of abandonment. Chosen family is a strong central theme in the novel, and characters like Eva’s spunky daughter, Audre, and book editor, CeCe, bring warmth to the pages. But this isn’t a light romance by any means, especially during flashbacks. Shane entered foster care as a child and is now in Alcoholics Anonymous. Eva has a history of self-harm, and an early scene depicts an attempted sexual assault. In addition to addressing mental health concerns, Seven Days in June portrays the daily difficulties of having an invisible disability. Eva has experienced migraines since she was young, and she still struggles to manage them without revealing her pain to the world. But Williams never uses Eva’s illness to inspire pity or to cast her as somehow weak. It’s refreshing to see a character whose disability is fully developed and integrated into the narrative from start to finish. Through this gripping love story, Williams reckons with family histories and shows the power in rewriting our origin stories. She lays bare what happens when we are “fearless enough to hold each other close no matter how catastrophic the world’ becomes. Readers will feel as attached to these characters as Eva and Shane are to each other.
How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (physical book available at the library; African American history): Clint Smith’s gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read about places where the story of American slavery lives on. This vital book originated in poetic meditations on the memorials of the Confederacy after Smith’s hometown of New Orleans removed many of those statues in 2017. Smith began visiting some of the sites where enslaved people once lived and worked. He took the guided tour at Monticello that focuses on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. He traveled to New York City to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. He toured Louisiana’s notorious state prison at Angola, where formerly enslaved people were often held on the flimsiest of charges and forced to labor in its vast agricultural fields as part of the post-Reconstruction effort “to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system.” At each stop, Smith’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and his response to the site give readers a visceral sense of place. He also reports on his conversations with tour guides, employees and other visitors. At Monticello, one person shares her journey of learning and unlearning history. It’s quite moving. But at other locations, the guides and visitors are less willing to acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on our country or the intentional romanticization of the Confederacy. At Angola, there’s almost no acknowledgement that the land was worked by enslaved people as a plantation before it was converted into a state prison for mostly Black prisoners. The reader feels “the prickled heat” Smith experiences as the only Black person attending a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. There, Smith is an open, polite, somewhat nervous listener. Even in print, he doesn’t call out the people he speaks with. But ever the educator and poet, he lets the Confederate states’ own avowals destroy the animating myth of the Lost Cause. Smith has an appreciation of nuance. He wields few cudgels here. And yet, How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia.
The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe by Tricia Springstubb (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): Eleven-year-old Loah Londonderry lives in a ramshackle house with an “alarmingly crooked turret.” Her classmates regularly dare each other to peek into her house’s windows, and Loah usually responds with a timid wave. Loah’s mother, an ornithologist, is doing fieldwork in the Arctic, so Loah is being looked after by the Rinkers, a brother and sister who are “old, scrawny, and white as napkins.” Miss Rinker is strict, but her brother, Theo, the purveyor of bedtime gummy bears, is Loah’s favorite. Loah’s mother has been gone for 67 days (and counting) when their turret-topped home comes to the unwelcome attention of Mr. Wayne J. Kipper, the local housing inspector. Then an accident lands Theo in the hospital just as Loah learns of her mother’s plan to go off the grid and risk a dangerous solo pursuit of the rare bird that is Loah’s namesake. When all seems truly lost, Loah is befriended by a rangy, outspoken homeschooler named Ellis. The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is an appealing coming-of-age story with broad emotional range. Author Tricia Springstubb writes with a deft hand, and her moving and complex third-person narration contains frequent humorous asides to the reader. The novel is set against a lush backdrop of the natural world, full of the calls and movements of the birds that Loah’s mother has devoted her life to studying. Readers will learn about arctic terns, hairy woodpeckers and chickadees, and there’s even a supporting turn at a critical moment by the family of vultures who live in the turret. This book is a lovely reminder of the importance of paying attention to nature and protecting the creatures that share our world.
Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; family drama):Golden Girl is Elin Hilderbrand’s 27th novel, an especially astonishing number considering that she explores the same rich terrain of Nantucket and the surrounding areas in almost every one of her books. A reader might be wary of the author becoming formulaic, but Golden Girl is surprising, delightful and–dare I say?–quirky. Vivi Howe is a Nantucket-based novelist who has found significant commercial success even as critical acclaim eludes her. “Vivi had legions of loyal readers, but she’d never quite captured the interest of the serious reviewers,” Hilderbrand writes. “They had called her first novel, The Dune Daughters, ‘three hundred pages of word salad.'” Vivi is on the verge of tasting the adoration of critics for the first time when she’s struck and killed by a car while jogging. Killing off the main character just a few pages into a book is somewhat unorthodox, but it’s just the first of many interesting choices Hilderbrand makes. The next twist is that Vivi’s Hermes scarf-wearing guardian angel grants her a 75-day window to watch the aftermath from a perch above. Vivi is also allowed to use three “nudges” to influence the outcome of events. The remainder of Golden Girl explores what happens to the family and friends left behind, as fragile bonds are tested and long-buried secrets come to light. Vivi’s three children deal with grief in different yet equally destructive ways, while her ex-husband questions his decision to leave Vivi for a much younger woman years before. The book is filled with Hilderbrand’s trademark gorgeous scenes and delicious dialogue. But Golden Girl also explores the author’s own place in the literary pantheon, often with a wink and a nod to the reader. In one scene, as Vivi is watching an interaction and wondering whether to use a nudge, she says, “I’m the novelist here…Let’s give it another couple of chapters.” Like Vivi, Hilderbrand is commercially successful but doesn’t always get her due as an immensely talented writer. Golden Girl will help change that. It is funny and heartbreaking, and even though it’s in some ways a departure for Hilderbrand, the novel still offers plenty of that Nantucket air to keep you turning pages.
The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; popular fiction): When we ask questions about life, it’s often the why that most unsettles us: why bad things happen, why we didn’t get that job or marry that person–and when the time comes, why we die. Even though that last question kicks off The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, Marianne Cronin’s first novel brims with so much life. Lenni Pettersson is terminally ill and perceptive in the way of 17-year-olds who’ve experienced more trauma than most people their age. She meets 83-year-old Margot Macrae in a memorable first encounter that turns comically conspiratorial: Lenni covers for Margot while Margot’s engaged in pulling something out of a large hospital rubbish bin. They’re both alone in the hospital, and each woman soon realizes that she’s found a kindred spirit. Captivated by Margot’s long and storied life, Lenni concocts a creative scheme. They will make paintings of pivotal moments from their lives, one for each of their combined 100 years, as a way to chronicle their stories and transport themselves away from the reality of hospital beds and surgeries. As they paint, their creative body of work begins to surprise them, as well as their fellow artist patients and excited art teacher, Pippa. With the encouragement of hospital chaplain Father Arthur and a favorite nurse, Lenni and Margot press on through memories both painful and breathtaking. With love and tenderness on every page, this imaginative novel is a joy to read. British novelist Cronin captures all the emotions and desires of these two tenacious women as they relive their pasts in order to make something permanent and leave their mark. Her easy prose sings with real warmth, candor and humor. Small in scope but large in humanity, this novel illuminates the steadying force of a heartfelt connection. Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; popular fiction): Following the success of her recent novels The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones & The Six, author Taylor Jenkins Reid has amassed a legion of fans that could put those of her titular heroines to shame. Readers have giddily gobbled up Reid’s romps through the glitz and glam of bygone Los Angeles and have been waiting with unbridled excitement for her next novel. In Malibu Rising, Reid capitalizes on her winning formula to create another bona fide hit, this time spinning a decadent family drama that revolves around a single life-changing day in 1983. Every year, the four Riva siblings throw an epic end-of-summer bash, notorious for its excess and hedonism and the A-list guests who attend. This year, however, the party will be notable not merely for the debauchery on display (though there will be plenty of that) but also for the family drama, as some of the Rivas’ closely guarded secrets come to light. With the Riva mansion reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes come morning, it’s safe to say that nothing will ever be the same after this blowout. As Reid ushers readers through this fateful day, we spend time with each of the Riva siblings: Nina, the hyper-responsible eldest sister and famed surf model whose husband left her for another woman; Jay, the superstar surfer who appears to have it all but whose life is secretly falling apart; Hud, a kindhearted and gentle photographer whose new girlfriend is undoubtedly going to make some waves; and Kit, the youngest and perennially overlooked sister who itches for a chance to shine on her own merit. Reid provides additional depth and nuance by intertwining the siblings’ 1983 narrative with a timeline that traces the tragic relationship of their parents, June and legendary singer Mick Riva Malibu Rising is packed with plenty of scintillating scandal, but Reid cultivates real empathy for her characters, who form the tender heart that beats at the novel’s core and are its greatest achievement. Malibu Rising is a juicy, irresistible book that will sweep readers away.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): Effective satire is steeped in truth. Zakiya Dalila Harris spent three years working in the blindingly white world of New York City book publishing, and in her debut novel, she leverages that experience to get the details right about the precarious and awkward life of an African American editorial assistant whose dream job turns into her greatest nightmare. Brilliantly positioned at the intersection of satire and social horror, The Other Black Girl incorporates subversively sharp and sly cultural commentary into an addictive and surprisingly dark tale of suspense. Raised in suburban Connecticut and a graduate of the University of Virginia, Nella Rogers has spent a lifetime being the only Black girl in predominantly white spaces. But she’s grown tired of the cautious calculations and compromises she must constantly make at Wagner Books, as well as the microaggressions she’s expected to overlook, just to tread water in her theoretically high-status yet low-paying entry-level post. Nella carefully chose Wagner for its racially progressive track record, having published a literary masterpiece that was written and edited by Black women decades before. But by the time Nella arrives, those women are long gone. After two lonely and frustrating years as the only Black girl on the editorial staff, Nella is harboring high hopes that her first Black female colleague might offer relief from this sense of isolation. Nella’s optimism turns to trepidation, however, when it appears that her eager new co-worker, Hazel-May McCall, may be undermining rather than bolstering Nella’s position in the department, papering over offenses to get along and get ahead. Even worse, anonymous notes start to appear, warning Nella to get out while she can. Soon, Nella’s living out a racial allegory reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s powerhouse social horror blockbuster Get Out or Alyssa Cole’s gentrification thriller, When No One Is Watching. There are also shades of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age in keenly observed scenes of awkward interracial interaction. But Harris displays a distinctive style all her own. With a flair for metaphor and a carefully calibrated surrealist perspective, she stops just short of over-the-top, as in this claustrophobic internal narrative: “What concerned me more were the things I couldn’t name: the things that were causing me to buzz and burn. That made me want to flee not just my home, but the tightening constraints of my skin itself.” Thoughtful, provocative and viscerally entertaining, The Other Black Girl is a genre-bending creative triumph.
Ship in a Bottle by Andrew Prahin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; children’s picture book): Poor Mouse. She lives with Cat, and needless to say, there are…problems. As Andrew Prahin’s Ship in a Bottle opens, Cat stalks Mouse in a series of very funny vignettes: “Mouse wanted to eat gingersnaps. Cat wanted to eat Mouse. Mouse wanted to enjoy the ship in a bottle. Cat wanted to eat Mouse.” In each image, Cat is always around the corner, eyes wide, a consummate predator. One day, Mouse takes her living situation into her own hands. She slips into the ship in a bottle and blows Cat a raspberry. Cat angrily shoves the bottle out the window and into the water below, and suddenly Mouse is free. So begins Mouse’s journey over land and water to find a safer home. Yet her “exceptionally pleasant” and peaceful adventure soon becomes distressful, thanks to selfish, cookie-obsessed rabbits, hungry seagulls and a huge, scary storm. Fortunately for Mouse, she eventually finds some kind new neighbors. Prahin masters the story’s execution on every level. He knows when to make the text short and clipped with perfectly dry comic pacing (“Cat wanted to lie in the sun. And eat Mouse.”) and when it should flow with rich imagery: “Near dawn, Mouse looked out upon an expanse of quiet trees and grass nestled among the towering buildings.” Prahin’s palette practically sparkles with warm, lemony yellows and carnation pinks juxtaposed against the sage shades of Mouse’s fur and the surface of the river. The dappled light on the water at the start of Mouse’s journey is particularly striking. All of the creatures’ body language and droll facial expressions (especially single-minded Cat) are entertainingly spot-on. Mouse’s persistence pays off in more ways than one, making this a satisfying story for anyone who, like Mouse, has “dreamed of a better life.”
Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Evie used to believe in love. She has bookshelves full of romance novels to prove it. But she’s recently realized just how naive she’s been. After all, her father’s affair and her parents’ subsequent divorce are irrefutable evidence that, in real life, love stories always end in heartbreak. When Evie tries to get rid of her romance novel collection, a strange encounter leaves her with two things: the address for the La Brea Dance Studio and unnerving visions of exactly how other couples’ love stories will end. As Evie tries to discover the source of her visions, she makes her way to the dance studio, where she finds herself entering a ballroom dance competition with a boy named X. Despite her best efforts and better judgment, Evie begins to fall for X, and her growing feelings for him prompt her to wonder whether love is such a terrible idea after all. Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing will break readers’ hearts and put them back together again several times. Evie and X are both healing from their own tragedies while also balancing family expectations with their personal needs and desires. Teen readers will relate to the authentic and sometimes messy way they navigate these journeys. Excellently developed secondary characters add richness and depth to Evie’s experiences as she tries to reconcile her cynicism with her undeniable feelings for X–all while dealing with the new configuration of her family and her unwelcome visions of heartbreak. Evie’s “best friend forever,” Martin, encourages her to work out what’s causing her visions even as he struggles to work up the courage to ask out Evie’s sister, Danica. Meanwhile, Cassidy and Sophie (Evie’s “other best friend forever” and her “other other best friend forever”) navigate their new romantic relationship with each other. Both romances fuel Evie’s cynicism but remind her how happy relationships can be. Evie’s parents do their best to protect their daughters from the fallout of their divorce, making it clear that adults don’t always get it right, even when they have the best intentions. Yoon delivers this captivating story of first love with beautiful prose, clever dialogue that swings between laugh-out-loud funny and wildly insightful, clear respect for the complexity and nuance of her teen characters’ perspectives and emotions–and just enough magic to make it all truly unforgettable.
The Coming Storm by Regina M. Hansen (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): For more than a century, thanks to L.M. Montgomery’s series that began with Anne of Green Gables, readers have associated Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI) with a spirited redhead named Anne Shirley. First-time author Regina M. Hansen stakes her own PEI literary claim via another ginger-haired girl, Beatrice MacNeill, known as “Beet.” Like Anne, she’s determined and sharp-witted. Unlike Anne, she discovers one fateful night in 1949 that she can see ghosts. It’s the specter of Beet’s beloved older cousin Gerry who comes to her, soaking wet and playing an eerie tune on his fiddle. Beet realizes he must have died at sea and that he’ll never meet his son, Joseph, born that very night. Alas, this is not the last time Beet experiences deep sorrow in Hansen’s historical fantasy, The Coming Storm. It’s also not the last time something strange happens in her world, as ancient folklore and workaday reality collide. The sea and its unknowable allure are central to Hansen’s story, as is PEI itself. The author’s descriptions of the island’s wet sands, foggy nights and dramatic cliffs create a spooky atmosphere that elicits a delicious sense of creeping dread. This dread takes hold of Beet after the arrival of Marina Shaw, who claims to be a cousin of Gerry’s and expresses her outrageous intent to take little Joseph back to Boston with her. Beet can’t understand why Marina remains so unsettlingly serene in the wake of any objections. And what about the unearthly music she keeps hearing riding on the breeze? Certainly the sea stirs up strange winds, but this feels… different. Hansen moves the story back and forth in time, skillfully introducing characters who share their own bizarre sea stories with Beet. As the days and pages pass, the danger to Joseph grows, and a supernatural threat looms over Beet’s island home, all of which contribute to the slowly building suspense. The Coming Storm is an intriguing, often thrilling tribute to the bonds of love and friendship. It’s also an eloquent ode to the wild beauty of PEI and a testament to the power of facing what confounds us.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; family drama): At the beginning of Steven Rowley’s third novel, The Guncle, Patrick O’Hara’s life is a little too quiet. Only a few years ago, he was a sitcom star with his own catchphrase who was recognized wherever he went. Now he has exiled himself to Palm Springs, California, seeing no one. But then Patrick’s sister-in-law, Sara, dies after being ill for three years. Sara was Patrick’s best friend in college before she married his brother, Greg. At the funeral, Greg reveals his addiction to painkillers and asks if Patrick will take his kids for the summer while Greg goes to rehab. Patrick resists, finding the notion preposterous, but after a surprising moment of connection, he and his niece and nephew agree on the visit. Patrick’s not quite equipped to parent the bereft 9-year-old Maisie and 6-year-old Grant, who in turn are mystified by their GUP’s life. (GUP: Gay Uncle Patrick, soon amended to “Guncle.”) Rowley spins Grant’s first terrified encounter with Patrick’s fancy Japanese toilet into a lovely, funny scene, and such comic misunderstandings pepper the novel. Maisie and Grant take Patrick’s snark, zingers and pop culture-laden wit literally, repeatedly reminding their uncle that they don’t understand what he’s talking about. Patrick tries to bring color and light into his niece’s and nephew’s lives, aiming to serve as an exuberant Auntie Mame, but he’s grieving, too. When he begins to share his memories of Sara and to ponder his midlife self-exile, he connects more deeply with Maisie and Grant, which allows him to consider returning to his old life and to rethink his own sibling relationships. The Guncle does wonderful work with its youngest characters. Patrick’s exchanges with Grant and Maisie are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, even as they reveal two kids at different stages of development and grief. The novel’s light touch extends to its secondary characters, including Patrick’s neighbors and old friends. Never going too dark, The Guncle is a sweet family story that offers an unexpected yet inevitable ending.
The Cot in the Living Room by Hilda Eunice Burgos and Gaby D’Alessandro (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; children’s picture book): Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep. Like Burgos herself as a child, the narrator must share a bedroom–and her big sister snores!–so she’s jealous of her family’s overnight guests and the attention they receive. “It would be so much fun to have the whole living room to myself!” she declares, not fully grasping that for children like Lisa, whose grandmother cleans offices, or Edgardo, whose mother plays music gigs that last until the wee hours of the morning, it’s not that simple. Being separated from their families and sleeping on the unfamiliar cot affects each overnight guest differently. Raquel asks to keep the light on, while Edgardo discovers that the narrator’s mother doesn’t know his favorite lullaby. The narrator nonetheless maintains that the situation is unfair until one night when the cot isn’t occupied and she sleeps on it herself. Suddenly, she realizes how scary it is to try to fall asleep in a strange, dark room, and her newfound empathy helps her to come up with a creative way to comfort Raquel the next time she comes to stay. Gaby D’Alessandro’s warm illustrations depict the family’s home as a safe and welcoming place. City buildings appear through the windows and on blocks of the colorful quilt that’s depicted on the book’s bright, decorative endpapers. Both Burgos and D’Alessandro are Dominican American, and D’Alessandro incorporates subtle cultural details, such as floral paintings and a Carnival mask displayed on the family’s living room walls. Burgos, author of the middle grade novel Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle (2018), writes in spare, evocative prose that makes the narrator’s journey of personal growth feel natural and genuine. Text and art work in harmony to create a portrait of a close-knit community where neighbors help one another through small but meaningful acts and where hard work is a way of life. The Cot in the Living Room beautifully captures the gifts we receive when we open our hearts to others.
The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): It’s been a year since Clara lost control of her powerful magic and accidentally killed her best friend, and she still lives in fear that her powers will hurt someone again. Her magic just seems drawn to the people she loves–with disastrous consequences. Clara is an Everwitch, a rare witch who can access the magic of all four seasons. While her peers at the Eastern School of Solar Magic are at their most powerful in spring, summer, fall or winter, Clara’s powers rotate and change with the seasons, and her fear of her own magic is starting to cause her to fall behind at school. In The Nature of Witches, witches are key players in the global fight against climate change and atmospheric disruption, especially since shaders (people who don’t have magic) insist on developing and exploiting places on the planet that should remain wild. As an Ever, Clara should be a singularly powerful witch, destined to be indispensable in the intensifying struggle to calm the raging atmosphere. But Clara is stuck, too scared to train the way her teachers want her to but conscious of the grave responsibility an Ever holds. The environmental situation is worsening, and Clara must decide whether to join the fight for the planet or take the drastic step of relinquishing her powers forever. When she’s paired with a new training partner, the calm and gentle spring witch Sang Park, Clara begins to see a way to trust herself and her powers again. Rachel Griffin’s debut YA novel is a fascinating blend of climate fiction, fantasy, boarding school novel and romance. Clara’s trauma and fear are well developed, and her backstory makes her extreme resistance to forging relationships or using her magic understandable. The connections Griffin builds between the natural world and the witches’ magic are fresh and intriguing. The book’s looming sense of danger comes from the chaotic environment, one in which the climate crisis has worsened significantly, rather than from a traditional antagonist, which leaves more room for Clara’s interiority and growth. YA fantasy connoisseurs may be able to predict a few revelations about Clara’s magic, as well as some story beats along the way, but the near-future setting and the witches’ ancient earth-magic practices are exciting and immersive. Steeped in love for the natural world, The Nature of Witches is a new spin on familiar themes that readers will find inspiring and satisfying.
Four Hundred Souls by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; audio nonfiction/history): A heartfelt chorus of voices composes a well-researched community mosaic of Black American history in Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain’s Four Hundred Souls (14 hours). The book is divided into five-year periods that span 400 years of the Black American experience, and the audiobook transitions between each section via layered, echoing voices for a haunting, emotional effect. Eighty-seven narrators comprise the full cast, including the authors of some of the essays and poems as well as other notable voices such as journalist Soledad O’Brien and actors Danai Gurira and Leslie Odom Jr. The performances are straightforward or theatrical as appropriate, but they’re always engaging, and the variety of voices and styles sustains the listener’s attention. Offering the best of education and entertainment, this epic audiobook enhances Kendi and Blain’s transformative history project through the sense of humanity that only a person’s voice can convey. Listeners will learn and be moved, and will no doubt listen more than once.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; historical fantasy): Adapting classic works of literature is always challenging, not least because the adapting author must decide how much novelty is appropriate. Too much and fans will shun it out of pique; too little and they’ll shun it out of disinterest. This dilemma is only heightened when the book in question is as widely read as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And yet, in The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo perfectly strikes that balance of the new and the familiar. Retold from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, amateur golfer Jordan Baker–here recharacterized as a wealthy Louisville missionary family’s adopted Vietnamese daughter–the familiar contours of Fitzgerald’s tragedy are warped with a hazy dash of demonic and earthly magic. The result is an utterly captivating series of speakeasies, back-seat trysts, parties both grand and intimate and romances both magical and mundane, all spiraling through a miasma of Prohibition-era jingoism and entitlement toward its inevitably tragic conclusion. Vo is a remarkable writer whose talent for reviving Fitzgerald’s style of prose is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke channeling Jane Austen in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But it is Vo’s additions to Gatsby’s original plot that truly shine. By foregrounding Jordan’s and Daisy’s perspectives rather than Nick’s, she recasts a story about the consequences of male overreach as one about the limitations of female and non-white agency. This is further complicated by Jordan’s inability to remember anything of her childhood in Vietnam before she was brought to Kentucky. She sees herself as American, the daughter of the Louisville Bakers, but neither her white peers nor the Vietnamese immigrants she meets agree with her. For both Jordan and Daisy, magic can offer some surcease, but only to a point. In the first scene of the book, for instance, when the two women go flying through Daisy’s house with a magic charm, they must return demurely to the couch when Daisy’s husband comes home. Throughout the book, the women’s choices are constrained by those of the men surrounding them. Even magic, whether a charm, an enchantment or a potion (which are always consumed as cocktails), can only win them a brief reprieve from the decisions others make for and about them. In this alternate America, the fear of demons is consistently paralleled with the fear of immigrants. Magic is unavoidable in Vo’s West and East Egg, but although it may be consumed by those at the center of American society, it emanates from those at its periphery. To its consumers and connoisseurs, it is valuable precisely because it is foreign, while those who create and practice it are ostracized and hated for precisely the same reason. The fetishization of earthbound magics is reminiscent of the real-world fascination with traditions like folk medicine, and even demoniac, the psychotropic beverage derived from demon’s blood that several characters drink, could represent any number of exoticized vices prized by the American wealthy. There are lessons here for those of us living in the mundane reality of the 21st century, just as there are in Jordan’s commentary on the ways her agency is constrained as a Vietnamese American woman. The Chosen and the Beautiful, like the novel it retells, is as much a tragedy as it is a social commentary. The reader will likely know how Daisy’s story ends, but Jordan is in the spotlight here, and her story is just as captivating, if not more so. By putting her in the foreground, and highlighting the voice among Fitzgerald’s core characters that was the least heard, Vo has transformed The Great Gatsby utterly.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; contemporary romance): After her blockbuster debut novel, Red, White & Royal Blue, author Casey McQuiston returns with another queer romantic comedy–with a time slip twist. One Last Stop is a delightful speculative tale that follows August Landry, a somewhat cynical mystery lover who finds the ultimate puzzle in Jane, a punk-rock lesbian she keeps encountering on the subway. August was raised by her single mom, who was obsessed with the disappearance of her brother, August’s uncle. Their loving but co-dependent relationship is complicated, to say the least. August sees New York City as the perfect place to strike out on her own, a bastion for loners and cynics like herself. But the city has other plans, and August immediately finds her people in the form of three supportive and vibrant roommates. The only thing that’s missing is romance, which she doesn’t expect to find anytime soon. Then she spills coffee on herself on the Q train, and like a knight in shining armor, Jane approaches with a red scarf to hide the offending stain. August knows that moments shared with strangers on public transit are fleeting, but she can’t stop thinking about Jane and whether she’ll ever run into her again. Well, she does–again and again–because Jane is stuck. A queer activist from the 1970s, Jane has been displaced in time and is now trapped in the same car of the same subway line, with limited memory of who she was or how she wound up there. All she has are the contents of her backpack. It’s a surreal and scary situation, but at least there’s August, the tenacious and cute woman she keeps meeting. Attraction inevitably grows between them, but how can you fall in love with someone who isn’t from your time and is literally stuck on the subway? It’s a problem August is desperate to solve. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling in NYC during the warmer months, you’ll recognize the particularly fervent summertime energy that One Last Stop exudes. The air is thick with humidity and endless possibilities. McQuiston infuses charm into every detail, from the creaks and hisses of a subway train pulling into a station to the shine and grandeur of the New York skyline. This is a book of hope and love and self-discovery. August is just this side of prickly, and she possesses a cautious sense of reservation. Deep down, she’s scared of being disappointed by those she lets into her heart. She’s a perfect foil for Jane, who is unapologetic and confident. Every scene between them will make the smile on your face grow wider. The speculative twist of a time slip adds angst to August and Jane’s seemingly meant-to-be pairing, giving One Last Stop higher stakes and making it feel more propulsive than other city-set contemporary love stories. Bursting with heart, snappy banter and a deep respect for queer history and community, One Last Stop isn’t just another surefire hit for McQuiston. It also might be the best read of the summer.
The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; contemporary romance): In Beth O’Leary’s The Road Trip, the path to hell (and happy ever after) is paved with exes and their besties. Fittingly, their journey begins with a literal bang. Two cars collide on their way from southern England to Scotland for the wedding of a mutual friend. The bigger car is totaled, and the two vehicles’ combined five people squeeze into a tiny Mini Cooper for a discomfiting 400-mile journey with plenty of baggage in tow. The resulting carpool includes Addie and Dylan, estranged former live-in lovers who met and fell hard at an idyllic villa in France; their respective best friends, Deb (Addie’s sister) and Marcus (Dylan’s appallingly awful best friend); plus the bride’s mysterious wild-card co-worker. O’Leary is a brilliant social observer and a fearless, diabolical plotter. She arranges nuances of character, class, personality and situation for maximum chaos, placing the estranged exes in forced proximity for two painful days with Marcus, the guy who pushed them apart. Dylan is an Oxford grad and a poet from a posh, aristocratic family with flagging generational wealth; Addie is a working-class girl from Chichester who now works as a schoolteacher; and Marcus, the serpent in their garden, is a reckless, dissolute lost boy. When they met, Dylan was a guest in the French villa where Addie was working as a caretaker for the summer. Unfortunately, Addie also became the primary caretaker of her ensuing relationship with Dylan. The majority of the book alternates between the titular road trip from hell and flashbacks that highlight the origins of their dysfunction: Marcus’ frequent interference, Dylan’s passivity and Addie’s mounting frustration and insecurity. This book’s cover is deceptive, as The Road Trip is neither a romp nor a rom com. It’s an intense romance with a wildly wicked sense of humor–Sarah MacLean’s epic The Day of the Duchess meets Dangerous Liaisons in contemporary casual weekend dress. O’Leary unpacks the love story from multiple perspectives–the relationship then and now, from both main characters’ points of view–as she explores how it grew, how it faltered and what it feels like to come together after two years apart. Providing an intimate view of all the emotional turmoil that entails, this brutal but addictive second-chance romance is the relational equivalent of a 365-degree tour of a five-car pileup. Throughout the book, Marcus’ displays of dominance demean Dylan and Addie both, and Dylan barely pushes back. It may be hard for some readers to keep faith with a character who is so passive for so long. Still, O’Leary’s humor, insight and occasionally bonkers plot twists command attention all the way through, and the ending is miraculously, gloriously redeeming. The Road Trip is a romantic rollercoaster that you won’t be able to turn away from until it’s done.
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): This book is a mesmerizing, confounding and vividly rendered portrait of the thoroughly putrid institution of slavery in antebellum Louisiana. Through author Rita Williams-Garcia’s writing is exquisite, the history she so skillfully captures is ugly and therefore sometimes difficult to read. Filtered through the story of the Guilberts, a plantation-owning white Creole family who experiences both economic decline and moral decay, this novel does many things well. First and foremost, it attaches human faces, flesh and blood, to seemingly distant history and to abstract ideas such as white supremacy. It also forces readers to confront the routinely brutal, dehumanizing realities of family separation and sexual exploitation and abuse that were intrinsic to the plantation system, as Williams-Garcia brings these heartbreaking acts to life on the page. Prideful and aristocratic Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Builbert is the product of another corrupt system, the French royal court. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Sylvie was offered a choice: “convent, guillotine, or plantation lord’s wife.” She chose the latter under some duress and never fully acclimated to her fate. This layer of privilege only makes Sylvie more demanding, more entitled and more aggrieved. It’s why, many decades later, even as the plantation fails, Sylvie insists on having herself memorialized by a famed French painter like the aristocrat she was born to be. Her demand sets the novel in motion. That sense of privilege is also why Sylvie plucked her personal servant, Thisbe, from her family’s quarters like a puppy from a pound and named her after Marie Antoinette’s prized pet dog. Like a pet, Thisbe is constantly forced to shadow Sylvie, even sleeping by her feet. “You are a body,” Sylvie tells Thisbe at one point, “not a whole person.” It’s a stunning encapsulation of the novel’s white characters’ emotional attachment to notions of Black inferiority and inhumanity. The belief that Black people are less than human was fundamental to slavery, and the Guilberts will go to any length to uphold it. The racism of Sylvie’s loutish, dissolute and disappointing American-born son, Lucien, manifests with more complexity and more horror than his mother’s. He can be charming and has complicated relationships with his biracial daughter and half brother. Lucien spends most of the novel trying to find a way to save the plantation from its crushing debt. But he has also raped an unspecified number of the women over whom he has dominion, ordered forced breeding for profit, separated children from their families as a matter of course and generally handles and refers to Black people in dehumanizing terms. Lucien’s actions are bound up in his roles as the steward of the plantation and the Guilbert patriarch. The historical record shows that his actions are representative of the abuses enacted in this system by men in his position. Even at Lucien’s violent worst, his justification for doing deliberate harm is clear: “His was the act of a master pruning the vine that would kill the harvest. He did what a farmer must: rid the virulent worm that would contaminate the vineyard and cause it to bear no fruit.” Though this is a multilayered and expansive ensemble story with a significant queer romance, Williams-Garcia places villains Sylvie and Lucien firmly at its center. In an author’s note, Williams-Garcia reveals that her goal was to make them answerable for their crimes and their system of belief, because they’re the ones who deserve scrutiny. In this, A Sitting in St. James succeeds spectacularly. Williams-Garcia presents the ideals of Southern gentility and femininity as inextricable from the atrocities and unearned privilege that propped them up, thus deconstructing cultural myths about their virtue. In light of the Guilberts’ crimes against humanity, both mother and son could be fairly labeled monsters, but Williams-Garcia instead makes them appear ordinary–greedy, grasping and brutal, but human. Indeed, readers will find Sylvie’s psychology in particular to be maddening. Having lost “too much” over a lifetime, she clings to her autonomy and authority over others, desperately upholding the system that affords her a position of privilege. Other characters’ motivations remain more opaque, the result of a narrative style that holds readers at arm’s length as it focuses more on dialogue and actions rather than on personal thoughts. However, this makes rare glimpses into the characters’ minds all the more impactful. A Sitting in St. James is a multigenerational saga that brilliantly depicts Southern plantation life and systemic rot. It thoroughly exposes how oppressive hierarchical systems, including patriarchy, heteronormativity and racism, corrupt the individuals who benefit from them even as those same individuals victimize others. There’s obviously no single bad apple on the Guilbert plantation; the whole orchard and everyone who eats its fruit are poisoned.
American Republics by Alan Taylor (physical book available at library; American history): In 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall reviewed the history of America and concluded, “The Union has been preserved thus far by miracles. I fear they cannot continue.” Alan Taylor, professor of history at the University of Virginia and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, explores the complex and often tragic history behind Marshall’s thinking in his sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850. Contrary to popular belief, most of the Founding Fathers didn’t intend to create a democracy. Instead, they designed a national republic to restrain state democracies. Additionally, the founders didn’t agree on principles or goals for their republic, and most believed that preserving slavery was the price to pay for holding the fragile Union together. Taylor’s powerful overview explores this fierce struggle between groups and governments as settlers expanded the country westward. Any challenges to the supremacy of white men or their reliance on slavery were met with threats of secession by enslavers and their political allies. Breaking treaties with, dispossessing and killing Native Americans were commonplace, and those who spoke out against prevailing ways often suffered strong rebukes. When New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase “manifest destiny” in 1845, he justified annexing Texas and Oregon as part of a moral empire based on citizen consent, in contrast to European empires built from violent conquest. O’Sullivan overlooked a lot. For example, slavery became more entrenched and profitable as the country expanded. By 1860, the monetary value of enslaved people was greater than that of the nation’s banks, factories and railroads combined. Slavery divided the country, but racism united most white people. Even in the North, free Black Americans couldn’t serve on juries, weren’t hired for better-paying jobs and were denied public education. Anyone interested in American history will appreciate this richly rewarding book.
Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): Nothing has been the same for Hazel or her family since Mum drowned in a kayaking accident. Hazel sees danger everywhere and never leaves the house without her blue “Safety Pack.” Her little sister, Peach, knows and feels much more than she lets on. And Hazel’s surviving parent, Mama, doesn’t laugh or smile as much anymore. Worst of all, Mama has spent the past two years moving them all from one state to another, even though Hazel desperately wants to go home to California. When they land in Rose Harbor, Maine, for the summer, mama reconnects with an old friend from her childhood whose daughter, Lemon, is intent on befriending Hazel (whether Hazel wants to be friends or not). Suddenly it seems that Mama might have entirely different plans for their family than Hazel realized. Author Ashley Herring Blake’s first middle grade novel, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, received a Stonewall Honor in 2019. Her third, Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea, is a masterful depiction of what it’s like to experience a deep loss as a child and the sometimes unexpected ways that grief can manifest in young people. Blake doesn’t hesitate to vividly describe the pain that Hazel feels but also fills the girl’s story with plenty of light and comfort, whether it’s the beauty of the sea or a growing connection with someone who understands how she feels. Blake often includes LGBTQ+ characters in both her middle grade and young adult novels, and she incorporates a character’s nonbinary identity with the perfect balance of straightforwardness and sensitivity. Blake’s gorgeous prose will stir deep emotions within readers, and her descriptions of the seaside setting are full of lovely sensory details. It’s heartwarming to watch Hazel heal with help from the sea, reawakening to her dream of becoming a marine biologist. This story of a girl navigating the choppy waters of grief toward a brighter shore is heart-rending but full of hope.
Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): There’s no shortage of young adult novels in which a commoner gets involved with a royal family and/or discovers their royal lineage, but as enjoyable as this trope is, most of these novels involve British or European monarchies. Emiko Jean’s Tokyo Ever After sets a thoroughly modern fairy tale in the Imperial House of Japan. 17-year-old Izumi Tanaka has never felt like she completely belongs in her insular, mostly white Northern California town. Sure, she loves and admires her single mom, and she absolutely adores her small group of pan-Asian friends, who’ve dubbed themselves the “Asian Girl Gang,” or AGG for short. (“Think less organized crime, more ‘Golden Girls.'”). But unlike her friends, Izumi has no clear idea what’s next after senior year or why she feels so adrift. Then Izumi’s friend Noora discovers an evocative love note hidden in one of Izumi’s mom’s books, dated with Izumi’s birth year, and traces it to none other than the crown prince of Japan. Izumi is intrigued: Surely it’s impossible that her dad could be someone so distinguished, right? But when Izumi’s mom–and soon after, an entourage from the Japanese Embassy, followed closely by an entourage from the Japanese tabloid media–confirms the truth, Izumi is whisked off to Tokyo to meet the royal family she didn’t know she had. In addition to her lack of Japanese language skills, Izumi struggles with constant scrutiny from some of her particularly judgmental relatives, her hot yet chilly bodyguard and members of the press. But she is charmed by Japan’s beauty, and her father and other family members welcome her warmly, even when she makes missteps by wearing inappropriately casual clothing or choosing the wrong knife at dinner. Jean impeccably blends Izumi’s thoroughly American sensibilities with a fond and cheerful depiction of Japanese culture. Izumi and her love interest even confess their feelings to each other using waka, a traditional poetic form, instead of letters. Along with excerpts from the Tokyo Tattler and the AGG’s group text, Izumi’s vulnerable yet brash first-person narration propels the novel forward and gives it a contemporary feel despite the thousands of years of tradition underpinning her experiences. Readers in search of a witty fairy tale that delivers plenty of romance and glamour should look no further than Tokyo Ever After.
Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown (physical book available at the library; American History): Imagine that you and your family have been taken into custody. You’ve lost your home and small business. Fellow Americans have berated and beaten you. Now you’re all living behind a fence in a single room in a squalid barrack in some desolate nowhere. And the government comes to you and says, “We want you to join the Army and risk your life to fight for the United States.” It’s astounding that anyone said yes, much less thousands of people. The Japanese Americans who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment–the most decorated unit in U.S. history for its size and service length–were American patriots, and many felt they needed to demonstrate their loyalty to their country. They certainly succeeded. In this book, Daniel James Brown tackles this important story with the same impressive narrative talent and research that made his 2013 book, The Boy in the Boat, an enduring bestseller. He shares the story of issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) who fought in World War II by focusing on four young men: three from Hawaii and the West Coast who joined the 442nd, and one, no less courageous, who went to prison for peacefully resisting what he believed were violations of the Constitution. Brown takes us through the shock of the internment camps and the struggle for Hawaiians and mainlanders to overcome tensions and establish a cohesive fighting unit. The centerpieces of Facing the Mountain are the wrenching, on-the-ground descriptions of battles fought by the 442nd in Europe, most notably the uphill rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of Texans in France, in which the nisei suffered more than 800 casualties to rescue some 200 men. Many readers will feel ashamed of the bigotry these men and their families faced–but every reader will admire the resilience that allowed these soldiers to create communities within the internment camps and to play such a pivotal role in the defeat of the Nazis. Most are gone now, but their stories will live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.
When Lola Visits by Michelle Sterling and Aaron Asis (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; children’s picture book): It doesn’t take much to bring the people we love into our thoughts. We see a favorite bird, hear the punchline of an often told joke or finally taste a recipe no one else has ever been able to reproduce, and we are instantly transported. Beautiful, sweet and warm, When Lola Visits will usher readers into their own fond memories through the story of a little girl and the summer she shares with her grandmother, her lola, who visits from the Philippines. Author Michelle Sterling writes like someone in love with language, her text laden with assonance and alliteration, hyperbole and simile. Every page contains creative metaphors so precise that they’re almost tangible. From the scents of jasmine blossoms and swimming pool chlorine to newly sharpened pencils and mango jam bubbling on the burner, Sterling evokes not only lovely and yummy smells but also the ordinary, everyday smells that linger just beyond our recognition. Each description unlocks a sensory detail that draws readers further into the world of the story and the girl’s time with Lola, but also into their own warm summer recollections. Thanks to Sterling’s descriptive powers, you don’t have to have eaten mango jam or warm cassava cake fresh from the oven to know exactly how it tastes. Illustrator Aaron Asis’ artwork is an equally magical and intriguing study in contrast. He works with broad strokes of soft, breeze colors and uncomplicated shapes that often fade out, edgeless. At the same time, he delicately details fruit in a bowl, dangling kitchen utensils and the fascinating clutter that seems to accompany grandparents and other older people. (What child can resist going through Grandma’s bag in search of treats or treasures?) Noticing the illustrations’ unusual perspectives and angles feels like gazing through the open eyes of a child. Like all the best childhood memories of loved ones, When Lola Visits feels familiar, friendly and faded to perfection. It’s a little hazy with age, and a little more shimmery for the haze.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps with your library card; historical fantasy): P. Djeli Clark’s novel is the literary equivalent of a cup of lovely mint tea: a refreshing, delightful and magical mystery to enjoy while absorbing vitamin D on a crisp spring day. The fourth installment and first full-length novel of Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe series, the smooth and welcoming A Master of Djinn provides the perfect amount of fan service to engage returning fans without alienating new readers. In this fantastical version of our world, a man named Al-Jahiz tore a hole in reality in 1872, unleashing Djinn and magic across the earth. In the 50 years since, international governments have taken a variety of approaches to the new existence of the supernatural. In Egypt, magic has not only been allowed, but embraced. This decision put Egypt on the map as a world power, driving other countries (seemingly on the precipice of this world’s version of World War I) to meet for a peace summit in Cairo. The summit is only a few weeks away when a man claiming to be Al-Jahiz returned from the dead commits a series of grisly murders. Fatma, a famous agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is assigned to the case. She is one of the Ministry’s few female operatives, and her success has made her one of the Ministry’s favorite agents for difficult cases. Clark’s characters have wholesome, wonderful interactions with each other, never waiting long to address their interpersonal conflicts and always resolving on friendly terms. “Friendly” is an apt description of the book as a whole. While there is certainly conflict, tension and danger in this novel, the reader will find themselves propelled along through the book by the likeability and relatability of Fatma. Even if you guess the plot’s various twists and turns, Fatma’s endearing style, gruffness and no-nonsense approach make this novel worth reading. While this book admittedly breaks little new ground, Clark has created an engaging mystery and a vivid world with intrigue, arcane secrets and an epic climax.
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps; contemporary romance): Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation is an inspired and achingly romantic reimagining of Nora Ephron’s beloved rom-com When Harry Met Sally, which famously questioned whether men and women (heterosexual pairings specifically) can ever truly be just friends. And the answer, then and now, is… probably not if they act like these characters do. Like Ephron and Jane Austen before her, Emily Henry paints a specific and nuanced picture of first impressions gone perfectly wrong in a prelude to a relationship that is nonetheless incredibly right. When Alex meets Poppy during the first night of orientation at the University of Chicago, neither one is particularly impressed. He is wearing khakis; she wears what look to him like a ridiculous costume. Alex quickly sizes Poppy up, reacting to her “neon orange and pink floral jumpsuit from the early seventies” with skepticism and disapproval. They’re sure they have little in common apart from “the fact that we hate each other’s clothes.” But it takes just one more meeting–a shared ride home to their mutual hometown in Ohio over break–for an enduring mutual fascination, fueled by those same differences, to firmly take hold. The rest is the stuff of legend or infamy, depending on your vantage point. From the perspective of Alex’s long-term, long-suffering, on-again, off-again girlfriend, Sarah, Poppy’s connection with Alex hangs over her own relationship with him like a constant threat–Chekov’s unresolved sexual tension. From the perspectives of Alex and Poppy, who are deeply committed to denying their palpable physical attraction to each other, the two are devoted best friends, almost like siblings: 95% platonic and just a tiny bit “what if.” But that pesky 5% is a killer. Poppy is continually surprised when it rears its head. Even worse, Poppy, from whose perspective the story is told, misguidedly but truly believes she’s alone in this torture. Alex is a buttoned up English major-turned-high school teacher and a surrogate father to his younger brothers. Poppy is a freewheeling former weirdo-turned-travel writer and internet personality who’s determined to make up the time she lost to bullies when she was young. Both are seemingly committed to the idea that someone like him could never want someone like her and vice versa. Partners come and go, but for over a decade Alex and Poppy keep in close touch and continue the ritual of an annual summer vacation. The first years are lean ones: She blogs about her travels; he goes to graduate school to get an MFA in creative writing and then a Ph.D. in literature. They save and scrimp and take on extra jobs to fund their budget adventures. Eventually Alex returns to Ohio to teach, and Poppy secures a dream job at a glamorous travel magazine called Rest and Relaxation (a thinly veiled version of aspirational publications like Travel + Leisure). After that, the vacation locales go upscale: a villa in Tuscany, high-end European hotels. Though the style of travel evolves, Alex and Poppy’s devotion–their heartfelt language and obsession with each other and the unspoken attraction that pulls them together like magnets wherever they roam–never changes. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry claims this type of close, sustained platonic friendship can’t be done, at least not in the way Alex and Poppy are doing it: “What I’m saying is… that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” The gorgeously written, delightfully original People We Meet on Vacation will not do much to contest that claim. It’s a wonderful tribute that puts Henry firmly on the path to becoming the millennial Nora Ephron.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): What is the shape of grief? For writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, grief takes the shape of her father’s absence: the hole he left behind when, in the summer of 2020, he suddenly died of kidney failure. In her slim memoir, Notes on Grief, Adichie pays homage to her father’s remarkable life while observing her own surprising emotions as she moves through the messy process of bereavement, completely unprepared. She writes, “How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?” By any measure, James Nwoye Adichie lived an extraordinary life. The first professor of statistics in Nigeria, he also lived through the Biafran War and had his books burned by soldiers. He was an honorable and principled man who was naturally funny. When he visited Adichie at Yale, she asked him if he would like some pomegranate juice, and his response was, “No thank you, whatever that is.” Adichie lovingly describes such details about her father, from his ease with humor to his discomfort with injustice. Upon learning of a local billionaire’s desire to take over ancestral land in their Nigerian town, he immediately looked into ways to stop him. But what is most memorable in this tribute is Adichie’s father’s love for his family and their enduring love for him. Adichie simply calls him “the loveliest man.” Processing grief is difficult enough, but Adichie learned of her father’s death in Nigeria while she was home in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. One day, they were having family Zoom calls; the next, he was gone. Arrangements had to be made through phone calls and Zoom, and the funeral was postponed for months because the Nigerian airports were closed. Honoring Igbo traditions and arranging a funeral with her siblings during a worldwide pandemic was enough to make Adichie come undone. The hole her father left behind began to fill with guilt, denial, loneliness, panic and eventually bottomless rage. A raw, moving account of mourning and loss, Adichie’s memoir reminds us there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that celebrating life every day is the best way to honor our loved ones.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (physical book available at library; popular fiction): Not every 350-page novel can be torn through in a weekend, but readers may find themselves batting away sleep and setting an alarm for early the next day to continue Jean Hanff Korelitz’s propulsive literary thriller, The Plot. Considering the success of Korelitz’s previous bestseller, You Should Have Known, which became HBO’s “The Undoing” starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, her skill at ratcheting up the tension should come as no surprise. This book is an ingenious piece of storytelling–a story within a story, two plots for the price of one. Jacob Finch Bonner is a washed-up novelist whose debut book led to a brief dalliance with literary success, but that was years ago, and he has since slipped off the radar. At the novel’s start, Jake is scraping by, teaching at a poorly ranked MFA program. When one of Jake’s students, Evan Parker, reveals the twisty plot behind his yet-to-be written novel, which Evan is convinced will be a bestseller, Jake begrudgingly concedes that literary fame surely beckons. A few years pass, and when Jake doesn’t hear anything about the novel or its author, he does some online snooping and is shocked to discover that Evan died a few months after the residency. So Jake writes the novel that never was, titles it Crib and becomes a publishing sensation. But things start to unravel when he begins to receive anonymous threats accusing him of theft. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to structure The Plot the way Korelitz has–to claim that Crib will be a surefire bestseller, and then in case we doubt her, to share parts of Crib to reveal just how good it is. But Korelitz is an audacious writer who delivers on her promises. Her next big-screen adaptation surely awaits.
Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): The bestselling author of the young adult novel Dread Nation brings her storytelling prowess to middle grade to create a story that will definitely cause you to start seeing things–namely, ghosts, but also the injustices suffered by generations of Black Americans. In this book, Justina Ireland transports readers back to the early 1920s, a time when Black Americans were fleeing the South to escape the poverty and persecution caused by the long arm of Jim Crow laws. The novel opens in rural Georgia, as 12-year-old Ophelia “Ophie” Harrison’s father wakes her up in the middle of the night and tells her to take her mother to her favorite hiding spot just beyond the tree line. From there, she witnesses a mob of angry white men burn her family’s home to the ground. The next morning, Ophie learns her father was murdered by the same mob earlier that day because he voted–and that’s how Ophie discovers she can see and speak to ghosts. Ophie and her mother flee to Pittsburgh to live with Great Aunt Rose with hopes of starting over. Rose tells Ophie that the women in their family have been seers for generations, aiding the ghosts trapped in this world so they can transition onward to the next. It’s their duty to help bring the ghosts peace so the human world can remain peaceful as well. In Pittsburgh, Ophie and her mother take jobs at Daffodil Manor, where they meet Mrs. Caruthers, the wealthy estate’s sickly, irritable matriarch, and her benevolent son, Richard. Daffodil Manor is also home to a full staff of house servants and a whole host of ghosts. Ophie gradually befriends the kind but elusive ghost of Clara, a servant whose unsolved murder occurred in the manor, which keeps Clara tied to it, unable to pass on. But Clara’s ghost can’t quite remember the details of what happened to her, so Ophie is determined to uncover the murderer as well as their motive. In doing so, she risks unearthing secrets about the dead that threaten to put the living directly in harm’s way. Ophie is a compelling, realistic heroine with a strong sense of justice and duty. The hopefulness and idealism she’s able to retain, in spite of the horrors she’s experienced and the death that surrounds her wherever she goes, ultimately become her saving grace. Through the story’s pacing is uneven at times, Ireland conceals a massive reveal so expertly that even the savviet readers won’t see it coming. In an author’s note included in advance editions of the book, Ireland writes that she wanted to explore the question, “How do we grieve when the ghosts of our loss appear in the everyday suffering around us?” This book offers a moving answer through Ophie’s unwavering sense of what is just–for both the living and the dead.
The Marvelous Mirza Girls by Sheba Karim (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): About halfway through this book, Noreen, an Indian American teenager who is spending a gap year in India with her mother, Ruby, overhears a white American girl talking on her phone at a café. “Poor people here have like literally nothing, but they’re happier than so many people in America who have, like, everything. They’ve been such an inspiration,” the girl says. Shortly after, the girl receives a verbal dressing-down that’s uniquely Indian and full of pride, serving as something of a mission statement for this novel. Noreen and Ruby have traveled to New Delhi to recharge, reconnect and find solace after the death of Ruby’s sister, Noreen’s aunt Sonia. The chic Mirzas breeze through adventures in ancient ruins, have romantic encounters with handsome men and absolutely slay at karaoke parties, all while navigating a culture that’s both familiar and foreign to them. Second- and third-generation American readers will find Noreen’s and Ruby’s experiences inspiring, and the novel’s easy charm, strong mother-daughter relationship and romantic elements recall the best moments of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” When a sex scandal erupts involving Noreen’s new boyfriend and his family, the novel embarks on a precarious tightrope walk between tradition and modernity. Through author Sheba Karim’s lens, readers see New Delhi as a complex place of refuge that’s also in need of reinvention. It’s home to breathtaking architecture, delicious food and maybe even wish-granting jinn, but it’s also a city where poverty, toxic air and even more toxic masculinity can be overwhelming. “For each thing that is true about India, the opposite is also true,” says Noreen. In other words: It’s complicated, just like The Marvelous Mirza Girls.
From Little Tokyo, With Love by Sarah Kuhn (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Rika Rakuyama loves Little Tokyo, from its ramen shops and beautiful old trees to the neon signs that cast “a wild rainbow glow” upon the street. Her appreciation for her Los Angeles neighborhood, which is marvelously rendered in Sarah Kuhn’s From Little Tokyo, With Love, is deep and abiding–even though Rika often feels unwelcome there. Community elders critique her hair (reddish and wavy), her face (freckled) and her parentage (her dad wasn’t Japanese). A classmate sneeringly calls her “half-breed,” while neighbors say she’s a “mistake” because her mother had her at 15 before dying in childbirth. Judo training helps Rika channel her understandable anger, and she’s looking forward to participating in a martial arts demonstration at the Nikkei Week festival. Her enthusiasm for fighting earns eye rolls from her cousins: Belle, the reigning Nikkei Week Queen, and Aurora, a junior princess. Though her cousins are enchanted by fairy tales, Rika is certain that happy endings aren’t real. Everything changes in a chaotic moment when the parade’s grand marshal, a movie star named Grace Kimura, locks eyes with Rika during the festivities, leaps out of her parade vehicle, runs toward the convertible Rika’s driving, whispers Rika’s name and then disappears into the crowd. In the aftermath, Rika discovers a photo of young Grace that points to a shocking secret. Grace’s co-star Henry offers to help track Grace down, and together he and Rika embark on an epic and entertaining quest across LA, falling for each other along the way. Could Rika have her own happy ending after all? The concept of fairy tales swirls through Kuhn’s novel like a refrain. Initially, it’s a taunt other characters aim at Rika, a reminder of everything she can’t have, but it becomes a quiet song of possibility that underlies her journey to self-acceptance. Her emotional maturation is realistic and moving, while her forays into romance are charming and often funny. (Henry’s biceps are apparently quite distracting.) From Little Tokyo, With Love is a hopeful testament to all we can gain by opening ourselves to people outside our immediate circle. We can find kindred spirits, learn to stand up for ourselves and create our own fairy tales–no princesses required.
Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann (physical book available at the library; family drama): J.R. Ewing, the man everyone loves to hate in the classic TV series “Dallas,” may have finally met his match. When it comes to lying, cheating and scandals, the Briscoe family in Stacey Swann’s jaw-dropping debut, Olympus, Texas, gives him a run for his money. Each character in the expansive clan has his or her own secrets, extramarital pursuits and jealous rages, making it hard to keep everything straight without a set of cue cards. To sum up the worst offenders: March Briscoe suffered a two-year exile from the town of Olympus after an affair with his brother Hap’s wife; Peter Briscoe, the family patriarch, fathered three children outside his marriage, including twins Artie and Arlo; June Briscoe, Peter’s wife and mother to Hap and March, is enamored by local veterinarian Cole; and Artie is attracted to Arlo’s former bandmate Ryan, whom she accidentally shoots while on a hunting trip. And that’s just for starters. March’s return home to Olympus sets off a chain of events as tragic as any caused by the mythological gods. Right out of the gate, March is involved in a knockdown brawl with Hap, picking up where their feud left off two years ago. No one here is innocent, likable or without secrets worth savoring, making Swann’s book all the more enticing. Cole best sums up the family’s scandalous ways when he asks June, “When’s the last time you did something without thinking?” The answer, it seems, is that none of them is guilty of overthinking anything–or thinking at all, for that matter. As the novel races from one indiscretion to another at lightning speed, fans of mythology will enjoy spotting the tragic parallels between Swann’s characters and the Greek and Roman gods. (March is clearly Mars, for example.) Swann’s prose is deeply descriptive and her characters heartfelt, but it all boils down to whether anyone in this family can get past their selfish feelings, unrestrained passions and bottled-up anger long enough to forgive each other.
Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber (physical book available at the library; family drama): The challenges of balancing money and personal happiness wend their way through National Book Critics Circle Award winner Joan Silber’s Secrets of Happiness, which begins with a startling act of duplicity and ends with acceptance and reconciliation despite the characters’ changed circumstances. The novel opens as Ethan, a gay lawyer in Manhattan, relates how his family was blown apart when his father, Gil, was named in a paternity suit by Nok, a woman he brought to New York from Thailand and with whom he had two sons. Gil’s wife, Abby, divorced him and journeyed to Bangkok to teach English, seeking serenity in the unfamiliar surroundings of Thailand, and Gil moved in with Nok after he had a debilitating stroke. Meanwhile, Ethan’s new half brother, Joe, also travels to Thailand, hoping to bribe police to release his wastrel brother from prison. After Joe’s return to New York, he falls back into an awkward relationship with a high school girlfriend who was abruptly widowed and then swindled out of inheriting her husband’s estate by his greedy family. The complex seesaw of love and finances, both offered and withheld, is explored throughout seven chapters and across four continents. Silber’s device–a secondary character from one chapter commanding the narrative in the next–is as effortless as a dragonfly skimming over a pond. The multiple perspectives bring an unexpected cohesion to the novel’s diverse cast, which includes Ethan’s boyfriend, who lives with his terminally ill former partner, and Gil’s old girlfriend, a free spirit who raises two daughters in Kathmandu, Nepal. As more connections reveal themselves, the slim threads that bind these characters take on emotional weight, exposing the ways Gil’s infidelity has trickled out into the world. But Secrets of Happiness also explores the great generosity of love that exists in families, whether we’re born into them or choose them. Rarely is a novel of moral ideas so buoyant in spirit or so exquisitely crafted.
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; family drama): In this era of domestic thrillers, a novel about a functional, loving family can feel refreshing and downright unexpected. Extraordinary circumstances severely test the bonds of one such family in Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me. Hannah Hall’s adoring husband, coding genius Owen Michaels, vanishes on the same day that his company is raided by the FBI for massive securities fraud. He leaves behind a suspiciously large duffel bag full of cash for his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey. Band for his bewildered wife, who is Bailey’s stepmother, he leaves a cryptic note with a single directive: “Protect her.” Hannah desperately wants to fulfill his request, but she also wants answers. As she searches for the truth about her missing husband and contends with the legal troubles caused by his disappearance, she also tries to nurture a stepdaughter who barely wants anything to do with her. As these events unfold in the present, flashbacks show how Hannah’s relationships have developed and offer clues about her husband’s story. Along the way, her own history also comes into play. Deep-rooted abandonment issues shape her choices in the present, and the attorney she reaches out to for help navigating these treacherous waters is her ex-fiancé. The drama gets a little thin in spots. The novel’s backdrop is a half-billion-dollar financial disaster, but despite Owen’s high-profile role, there’s no press hounding Hannah and Bailey. They primarily encounter friction from authorities, Bailey’s classmates and Owen and Hannah’s friends. Beyond that, stepmother and stepdaughter are able to maintain anonymity as a firestorm of drama unfolds around the company’s CEO. Downplaying the conflict might be a trade-off for the novel’s greater focus on character development and relationships. Hannah’s insights and epiphanies about how to parent an untrusting teenager aren’t all that revelatory, but they certainly are reminders of what’s most important. As a result, Dave pulls off something that feels both new and familiar: a novel of domestic suspense that unnerves, then reassures. This is the antithesis of the way novels like Gone Girl or My Lovely Wife are constructed; in The Last Thing He Told Me, the surface is ugly, the situation disturbing, but almost everyone involved is basically good underneath it all. Dave has given readers what many people crave right now–a thoroughly engrossing yet comforting distraction.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton (physical book available at the library; historical fiction): Through her popular historical novels, bestselling author Chanel Cleeton offers a fresh glimpse into Cuba’s tumultuous past. Her latest, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, is set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, as the island country is ravaged by conflict between Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish military. The story unfolds through the eyes of three women: Evangelina Cisneros, a beautiful socialite who finds herself in the infamous Recogidas prison after rebuffing the advances of a Spanish military official; Marina Perez, who along with her husband is aiding the revolutionaries while living in deplorable conditions at a reconcentration camp; and Grace Harrington, a cub reporter trying to make her mark at William Randolph Hearst’s New York newspaper. The women all come from wealthy families yet have chosen their own paths as they seek more than the comfort provided by their privilege. This is a recurring theme in Cleeton’s work: women turning their lives upside down to fight for what they believe in. For Evangelina and Marina, they’re fighting for the dream of a liberated Cuba. For Grace, it’s a career as a serious journalist in an era when few women (aside from Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells) could imagine working for a newspaper. Their fates intersect when Hearst places Grace on the Cuba beat, reporting from the front lines. The heart of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is ostensibly Evangelina, who is the title character and based on a real person. And indeed, her story is fascinating. She was briefly the most famous woman in New York after a daring rescue landed her stateside to advocate for Cuban independence. But Cleeton’s examination of the state of journalism at the turn of the century is an equally compelling part of this engrossing book. The battle of Hearst versus Joseph Pulitzer for the biggest circulation is fascinating. Both of their newspapers used the discord in Cuba to bolster their sales and arguably influenced the conflict more than was appropriate for a supposedly neutral press. Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.
On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed (physical book available at the library; American history): Annette Gordon-Reed opens On Juneteenth by reflecting on her conflicted emotions about Juneteenth becoming a national celebration. It is, she notes, a distinctly Texan holiday, since it commemorates the day in June 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to announce the end of legalized slavery in the United States–two months after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. It’s also a deeply personal holiday, one that Black Texans have celebrated with family and friends ever since Granger read out his proclamation. And yet, Gordon-Reed acknowledges, it’s also a profoundly American holiday, just as Texas is perhaps the most profoundly American state. This ambivalence inspires inspires Gordon-Reed to explore the significance of this holiday within the broader context of Texan history. On Juneteenth is a collection of historical essays, ranging from the Spanish conquest to the present, that investigates what it means to be Texan. Against the background of the archetypal white cowboy and the ten-gallon hat oilman, Gordon-Reed demonstrates how the history of Texas is also the history of African Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans. Indeed, slavery was integral to the formation of the Republic of Texas–as well as the state of Texas. Understanding this truth, Gordon-Reed argues, is key to understanding the role racism continues to play in Texas and, by extension, the nation. As the Carl W. Loeb Professor of history at Harvard, Gordon-Reed is no stranger to illuminating the uncomfortable truths of our past. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a groundbreaking multigenerational history of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved African American woman. On Juneteenth is written on a smaller and more personal scale than her previous work, but it is no less powerful. Gordon-Reed’s essays seamlessly merge history and memoir into a complex portrait of her beloved, turbulent Texas, revealing new truths about a state that, more than any other, embodies all the virtues and faults of America.
Lucky Girl by Jamie Pacton (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Seventeen-year-old Jane Belleweather has just won $58 million in the Wisconsin lottery. It’s a life-changing amount of money that could lift Jane out of poverty and jump-start her dreams of becoming an oceanographer. Unfortunately, because Jane is a minor, she can’t come forward to collect the prize. Jane could sign over the winning ticket to her mother, but she fears the money would only exacerbate the severe hoarding addiction her mom developed in the wake of her father’s death. Jane also considers asking her ex-boyfriend, Holden, to claim the prize. But he’s been a grade-A jerk ever since he got back from summer camp, and she’s not sure he would actually give her the money. All the while, Jane’s best friend, Brandon, a budding investigative reporter, has vowed to uncover the identity of the winner by any means necessary, complicating Jane’s attempt to conceal the truth. Ultimately, Jane must decide if she will be better off with money or without it. Jamie Pacton’s second novel, Lucky Girl, explores the myriad ways money can change people. When the winning ticket is announced, everyone ponders what they would do with such an enormous windfall, but few consider the risks associated with newfound wealth. Eventually Jane learns of the tragedies that often befall lottery winners, their lives so frequently torn apart–and in some cases ended–by the greed and envy of those around them, and this possible fate makes her decision even more complicated. The amount of money that can change someone needn’t be enormous, as Pacton skillfully reveals through Jane’s relationship with Holden. After spending a summer surrounded by rich kids at camp, Holden has suddenly become resentful of his middle-class upbringing. His dreams of wealth supersede his compassion toward jane, whose situation at home is difficult. She’s often deprived of food and sleep due to her mom’s mental illness. Yet Jane remains kind, self-assured and determined in the face of hardship. Readers who think they know exactly what they’d do if millions of dollars landed in their lap will think again after reading Pacton’s thoughtful novel.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (e-book available on the Libby/Overdrive app with your library card; historical fiction): From age 13, Marian Graves is determined to fly. “Her belief that she would fly saturated her world, presented an appearance of absolute truth,” Maggie Shipstead writes in her epic and exciting novel Great Circle. As a girl in 1920s Montana, Marian’s dream seems nigh impossible, but she bargains and sacrifices her way into procuring precious flying lessons–and so discovers an all-consuming, lifelong love of the sky. Marian’s insatiable thirst for flight, her desire to transcend societal constraints and see as much of the world as possible, drives Great Circle. Shipstead, bestselling author of Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me, sweeps readers from earth to sky and back again, across 600-plus pages and throughout multiple eras and locales, from Prohibition-era Montana to World War II Europe to present-day Los Angeles. Tragically, like Amelia Earhart before her, Marian goes missing–in 1950, during her attempt to fly around the world over the North and South poles. Her mysterious disappearance becomes the stuff of legend, another adventurer lost to the skies. Decades later in 2014 Hollywood, Hadley Baxter also yearns to soar. When the opportunity to play Marian in a biopic comes along, Hadley sees it as a chance to reignite her creative spark, dampened by years of squeezing herself into others’ ideas of who she should be. As the two women’s stories unspool–rife with ambition, desire, triumph and failure–numerous other characters come to the fore with fully realized tales. The book’s level of detail is considerable and impressive, whether Shipstead is explaining airplane mechanics, describing life during wartime or otherwise layering her story over and through history. Her nonlinear storytelling creates a marvelous pastiche of adventure and emotion as she explores what it means (and what it takes) to live an unusual life. Underpinning it all is a reverence for nature, thrumming in the forests of Montana, the jagged peaks of Alaska and the stupefying ice shelves of the Antarctic. Shipstead’s exhilarating, masterful depictions of Marian’s flights fell like shared experiences that invite readers to contemplate both magnitude and majesty. Great Circle is sure to give even firmly earthbound readers a new appreciation for those who are compelled ever skyward.
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; suspense): Chris Bohjalian blends historical fiction with a thrilling courtroom drama in his latest novel, Hour of the Witch. Its narrator’s unique voice and perspective make this a fascinating and immersive read. Mary Deerfield is a young Puritan woman who lives in Boston in 1662 and whose faith guides every aspect of her life. She’s constantly watching for signs–from both God and the devil. When her husband Thomas’ physical abuse becomes too much to bear, she breaks from tradition and makes an unprecedented request to be granted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. Mary’s decision to assert herself rather than submit to the will of her husband and the Church causes a cascade of unexpected events, the most terrifying of which is Mary being accused of witchcraft, a charge that could lead to her execution. The themes in Hour of the Witch are universal: A young woman seeks to escape her husband’s abuse and also the patriarchal culture that allows such abuse to persist. By demanding to be released from her marriage, Mary faces judgment that victims of violence from intimate partners still experience today. What makes this novel remarkable and compulsively readable is Bohjalian’s uncanny ability to capture the Puritan perspective. Mary’s manner of thinking is heavily informed by her religion and also by superstition; ultimately, she must break away from those structures in order to survive. As Mary’s community searches for supernatural evil and analyzes her every action for signs of witchcraft, true evil, in the form of Thomas’ abuse, is allowed to flourish due to his standing in the community. The reader will acutely feel Mary’s justifiable paranoia as she becomes the scapegoat for all of her community’s woes. Her fear of both Thomas and the people she is supposed to be able to trust make the tension in this novel almost claustrophobic. Hour of the Witch is at once brilliantly idiosyncratic while also recognizable. This genre-defying thriller is sure to become a staple of book clubs and a favorite of historical mystery fans.
The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonasson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; mystery): The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drag life behind and start a new chapter. The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skalar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland. But with her father recently passed away, no job and love interest to keep her in the larger city of Reykjavik, a season away is just the thing Una needs for a complete reset. At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake. When she begins to see a young girl’s visage in the residence where she’s staying and hears the ghost girl singing an old lullaby, things take on an even more ominous tone. The mystery of what exactly is going on in Skalar will hook Jonasson’s readers as much as it does Una, and the author expertly builds intrigue and suspense with each passing page. The sudden death of one of Una’s students during a Christmas musical and the disappearance of a mysterious stranger in town further complicates things. And when Una begins asking too many questions, the locals turn the tables and leave her to wonder if her alcoholism has her jumping at shadows. Known for his grittier Dark Iceland series of crime thrillers, Jonasson opts for a more moody, surreal tone in The Girl Who Died. While the novel, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, lacks his usual pileup of bodies and violence, the slow-building sense of dread and unease Jonasson creates more than compensates.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Before you read Joan He’s The Ones We’re Meant to Find, spend a moment to appreciate its cover. Featuring an illustration by Turkish artist Aykut Aydogdu, it depicts the faces of two young women who seem peacefully swathed in a blanket of gentle ocean spray as cotton candy clouds float above them. It’s the perfect way to begin He’s book, a story in which nothing is what it seems to be. Cee has been alone on a remote island for three years, unsure of her memoires and her purpose. With the help of an old robot, she collects scraps so she can built a boat and sail off to search for the only thing she is sure of: Cee has a sister, and she needs to find her. Science prodigy Kasey lives in a pollution-free eco-city, where she’s grappling not just with her sister’s mysterious death but also with the politics of saving her quickly deteriorating planet. A clue leads her to Actinium, an enigmatic young man whose skills as a scientist match her own but whose intentions are murky. He has cited Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning animated film, Spirited Away, as an inspiration for her writing, and it shows. Full of fantasy and mystery, this eco-science fiction romance is as epic as the ocean and seems destined for the big screen. He skillfully blends genres to create a cinematic Rorschach that puts both her characters and the reader to the test. At the heart of the novel is this question: If we are the cause of humanity’s problems, how can we possibly be the solution? “None of us live without consequence,” says Kasey at an emotional high point. “Our personal preferences are not truly personal. One person’s needs will deny another’s. Our privileges can harm ourselves and others.” It’s heady stuff–ambitious, pointed and deeply satisfying. The plot’s twists, turns and reveals aren’t just boxes He is checking for the sake of a formulaic mystery. Instead, they’re purposeful and in service of characters who are on the brink of something greater than themselves. Though it’s urgent and weighty, He’s sophomore novel isn’t lacking for fun. There are cute boys, high-tech marvels of the future and interpersonal drama along the way. When you reach the end, you’ll look at its gorgeous cover with new understanding. Like Kasey and Cee, there’s so much more than meets the eye.
We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker and George Newbern (e-audiobook available on the Libby/Overdrive app with your library card; crime fiction): British author Chris Whitaker creates a memorable sense of place in his novel We Begin at the End (10.5 hours), set in a small coastal California town populated by heartfelt characters in search of personal redemption. Part crime drama and part coming-of-age tale, the novel centers on three characters: police chief Walk, his childhood friend Vincent and tough-talking 13-year-old Duchess. The connections between them can be traced back 30 years, when 15-year-old Vincent killed Duchess’ aunt. In the present, their tragic stories become further entwined in “a spiderweb of hurt” when Duchess’ drug-addicted mother is murdered soon after Vincent’s release from prison. American actor George Newbern’s clear, unhurried and remarkably smooth narration proves to be the ideal match for Whitaker’s lyricism and layered plotting, evoking a deep sense of angst, tragedy and ultimately hope.
The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee (e-audiobook available on the Libby/Overdrive app with your library card; social science): A wide-ranging examination of racial inequity in America, written by the former head of a progressive think tank, might not be the most obvious audiobook choice for your next road trip. But to write The Sum of Us (11 hours), Heather McGhee traveled across the country–from coastal Washington and rural Kentucky to an evangelical church in Chicago and a Nissan plant in Mississippi–to understand the roots of white America’s zero-sum attitude toward racial equity and how this mistaken belief system damages everyone. McGhee, who narrates the audiobook, brings the same thoughtfulness to her reading as to her writing. Listeners can hear the despair in her voice as she describes the atrocities of white plantation owners and the devastation caused by predatory housing lenders, as well as her hopefulness when she introduces listeners to coalitions succeeding in confronting voter suppression. From health care policy and environmental justice to the ongoing legacy of segregation, McGhee places urgent topics in a new framework, supported by research and illustrated by stories of Black and white Americans from across the country.
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Stacey Lee has earned critical acclaim and a loyal readership for intricately plotted fiction featuring Chinese characters amid memorable historical settings, including Under a Painted Sky and The Downstairs Girl. Her new book, Luck of the Titanic, was prompted by a little-known fact: Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived, but they were deported within 24 hours of arriving in the United States. The novel opens with a mesmerizing action scene as Valora Luck, a trained acrobat, catapults her way on board the doomed ship. Although she has a valid first-class ticket, an officer has refused to let her board, claiming she lacks proper documentation and won’t be allowed to disembark in America due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But Valora is determined to join her twin brother, Jamie, who has already boarded in third class for the first leg of a journey to Cuba. They haven’t seen each other for two years, and Valora has a scheme to reunite them: She wants to convince a circus executive who’s also on board to hire them both as acrobats for the Ringling Brothers. Lee’s characters often adapt disguises, and Valora alternately poses as a mal laborer alongside Jamie below decks and as a fashionable first-class widow who turns heads with her confidence and style. As Valora navigates the highly class-conscious world of the ship, readers witness the stark discrepancies between rich and poor, as well as some of the racist behavior of its passengers. “The English love all things Chinese–silk, tea, plates–just not if it comes with a beating heart,” Valora observes. The narrative builds slowly toward the looming, inevitable tragedy. In a moment of overt dramatic irony, a well-heeled character remarks, “Imagine being afraid on such a magnificent vessel as the Titanic.” Once the ship strikes the iceberg, Lee unspools one heartbreaking scene after another as Valora, Jamie and their friends struggle to find each other and reach safety. From the start, readers are aware that two of the book’s Chinese characters will die. When one succumbs early in the disaster, the remainder of the novel becomes a superbly choreographed guessing game of who the second victim will be. Despite the hardships its characters encounter, Luck of the Titanic is anchored by its energetic and empowered heroine. This novel is an admirable and engaging addition to the annals of fictional Titanic lore.
Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Kate and Andy have always loved having crushes on the same boys. After all, what could be more fun than spending time with your best friend dissecting every glance, word and text message for hidden signs of reciprocation from the object of your mutual affection? But when their summer theater camp crush, Matt, shows up at their school on the first day of junior year, their lighthearted attraction to him suddenly becomes a little too real. As Kate navigates her feelings for Matt–not to mention the stress of the fall musical–she wonders if her friendship with Andy can withstand first love. Though Kate’s and Andy’s competing crushes on Matt take center stage for much of the book, Kate in Waiting celebrates love in all its forms, including friendship, family, unrequited attractions and new romances, Kate’s BFF-ship with Andy is fierce, flawed and extremely relatable, as is her sibling dynamic with her older brother, Ryan, and her budding flirtation with Ryan’s best friend, Noah. Becky Albertalli creates a colorful, true-to-life cast of supporting characters, from “the squad” of Kate’s theater friends to their jock antagonists. Although these tropes can be found in any teen movie, Albertalli makes them entirely her own, transforming theater kids and jocks alike into fully developed characters who blur the lines between their cliques. Fans of Albertalli’s Creekwood novels will feel right at home with Kate in Waiting, which encapsulates all the joys and anxieties of the high school experience, with special attention paid to the strange and wonderful electricity of the theater. The result will make both loyal Albertalli fans and newcomers alike give this book a standing ovation.
Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Jazmyne Cariot’s queen mother, Judair, rules with an iron fist, but even as Jazmyne joins a rebellion that’s planning the queen’s assassination, she fears that she isn’t prepared to lead after her mother’s death. Far away in a heavily guarded prison, Iraya plots an uprising with her fellow cellmates, then uses their escape to move toward her true goal: revenge on the royal family. When these two witches from warring clans discover they share a target, they must form an unprecedented alliance. By combining their power, they’re sure to succeed–if they don’t destroy each other first. Ciannon Smart’s debut YA novel is a thrilling story that unfolds against a vivid island backdrop inspired by Jamaican culture, history and folklore. Smart plunges readers into a sprawling world of fantasy and mystery that’s dripping with political intrigue, lore stretching back generations and a fully realized magic system. Chapters that alternate between Jazmyne and Iraya offer two strikingly different perspectives on the action, yet each girl’s distinct voice rings clear. Jazmyne is thoughtful, deliberate and cautious, while Iraya is spirited, passionate and impetuous. As the plot progresses, Smart offers an honest, character-driven exploration of the relationship between the personal and the political. Jazmyne and Iraya were both born into the roles they must eventually inhabit, willingly or not. Smart highlights not only their personal motivations, hesitations and emotions but also the broader societal consequences of their choices–to kill, to save, to ally, to betray. Ultimately, the narrative blurs the line between good and evil, and readers will likely find themselves rooting for different characters throughout the book. Full of twists and turns, this novel is a complex and powerful read featuring two heroines who are unafraid to venture into the unexpected.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” From the moment we read the opening sentence of Michelle Zauner’s poignant memoir, Crying in H Mart, we’re hooked. It’s a rare gift; Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence. The daughter of a white father and Korean mother in a rural area outside of Eugene, Oregon, Zauner felt closest to her mother when shopping for and eating food together. She shares fond memories of them prowling the aisles of H Mart, the Asian grocery store and food court where she discovered kimchi, rice cakes and tteokguk, a beef and rice cake soup. Growing up, Zauner found that her mother could be distant, but she soon learned that “food was how my mother expressed her love.” As a girl, Zauner traveled with her mother to Seoul, South Korea, where Zauner met her aunts and grandmother and celebrated life and family with hearty meals. When Zauner was in her 20s, she moved from Philadelphia back home to Oregon to take care of her mother as she died of cancer. As Zauner recounts her mother’s slow, painful decline, she recalls the highs and lows of their life together, often in stories of meals shared with friends and family. After her mother’s death in 2014, Zauner struggled to accept it. She writes, “Maybe we hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t believed enough, hadn’t force-fed her enough blue-green algae.” This memoir hardly ends in defeat, however. As difficult as her grief is, Zauner celebrates her mother in the very place they shared their most intimate joys, losses and pleasures: H Mart.
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew couldn’t be more distinct from her first novel, Elmet, a finalist for the 2017 Booker Prize. But this lively story of class conflict in contemporary London offers more evidence of Mozley’s talent and versatility, marking her as a writer whose work promises both thoughtful entertainment and surprises. At the heart of the novel is the city’s Soho neighborhood, where most of the ensemble cast’s members live and work. Agatha Howard, whose sizable inheritance supports the adage about all great fortunes arising from great crimes, has decided to renovate one of her extensive real estate holdings. But the neighbhorhood has long been home to London’s sex trade, so Agatha’s plan sparks a clash with a determined group of sex workers based there, led by Nigerian-born Precious and her older companion, Tabitha. While Agatha deploys her wealth and connections to enlist a politically ambitious police officer in her plan, the women take to the streets to summon popular support for their cause, even as they recognize they’re “hardly going to get Bob Geldof and Bono fighting in [their] corner.” Mozley subtly wires these characters and others, including a semiretired mob enforcer, a modestly successful actor and an ex-drug addict whose disappearance heightens police pressure on the district, into a complex network of unpredictable and intriguing connections. Whether the scene is a declasse Mayfair men’s club or a fetid cellar that affords refuge for a collection of homeless people, Mozley brings her diverse settings to life, as well as the clashing desires and ambitions of her colorful characters. Hot Stew‘s titles is an apt one, as Mozley consistently stirs in tasty ingredients and exciting spices, and keeps raising the temperature all the way to its startling climax.
Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): As an amnesiac shape-shifter, there are a lot of things Trouble does not know. They don’t know where they came from, or why the StarLeague is hunting them down and keeps calling them a dangerous escaped criminal. They don’t know the meaning of basic concepts like cows, lunch or art. But when Trouble stows away on the smuggler ship Hindsight, they make some important discoveries, including words like family, smile and home. In Sarah Prineas’ Trouble in the Stars, readers join Trouble and the multispecies crew of the Hindsight as they evade the StarLeague’s relentless General Smag and his warship, the Peacemaker. Hindsight‘s crew initially doesn’t trust their stowaway, and Trouble spends much of the book pretending to be a human boy and concealing their shape-shifting abilities. However, amid midnight snacks with Captain Astra, strategy games with the gruff lizardian Reetha and vegetarian meals with tusked cargo manager Telly, Trouble and the crew begin to bond. As Trouble’s relentlessly good nature wins everyone over, a sweet and natural family dynamic forms. Trouble’s ability to shape-shift makes them a wonderful and entertaining narrator. They take many forms throughout the book, and each results in a new set of senses and spectrum of emotion. They evocatively describe navigating by smell while in rat form and surviving the vacuum of space in the form of a blob of goo. They’re also quick to point out the quirks of the human form, such as the way human eyes leak water when they’re miserable. Trouble’s shape-shifting also introduces unpredictability to the book’s many action scenes, as they find themselves in a range of high-stakes situations that can only be solved through the clever use of Trouble’s ability. Escapes, chases and one fantastically elaborate heist keep the plot moving at a thrilling pace. Trouble is skeptical when Captain Astra tells them that the stars sing if you “know how to listen.” But as they learn more about themselves and the universe, their remarkable empathy helps them discover endless ways to listen, to see and to connect with others. Trouble in the Stars is a hilarious and heartwarming look at what it means to be human, have a home and hear the stars sing.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): Some books leave you with a feeling for which there are no words, or at least no words in English that you know of. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is one of those books. The feeling closest to what is evoked by this beautifully crafted novel is a stroll during the blue hour on the first warm evening of spring. (Surely there’s a word for that in German.) Whereabouts is narrated by a middle-aged woman who lives in a country that is much like Italy–and likely is, as the novel was written in Italian and translated by the author. The woman is unmarried and has no children. She has loads of friends and a satisfying enough career in academia. Her father died suddenly when she was young. She had a contentious relationship with her mother, who is alive but fading, and now their relationship has mellowed a bit. The narrator is neither depressed nor ecstatically happy. She tends to regard everything she sees with a cool, pleasurable equanimity. Even the most shocking kerfuffle in the novel (which we won’t reveal here) passes like a storm cloud. One of the many joys of this little book, besides Lahiri’s usual gorgeous writing, is that there’s almost no plot. The chapters are short, some less than a page, with headers like “In Spring,” “At the Register,” “At My House.” They are all about the narrator watching, listening and thinking, whether about a favorite stationery shop suddenly turned into a luggage store, how some old flame has aged (and how she ever could have loved him in the first place) or the intimacy of a manicure. Another lovely thing about the book is that you don’t even have to read its chapters in order. The novel is like a contemporary orarium, a collection of private devotions to read for insight and comfort before going to bed. Whereabouts is even physically small, just the size for a purse or a roomy pocket, to pull out and enjoy when you have a moment. It is a jewel of a book.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley and Isabella Star LeBlanc (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA fiction audio): If Angeline Boulley’s debut YA novel mesmerizes, then the audio production does so even more. In Firekeeper’s Daughter (14 hours), 18-year-old Daunis shoulders the burden of exposing the corruption in the nearby Ojibwe community. She feels like an outsider, and the tasks before her are daunting to say the least. With a low voice and even tone, Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota actor Isabella Star LaBlanc grabs the listener and reels them right in. Her serious intonation imbues small acts and observations with a meaningful, nearly ominous feeling, ensuring listeners will pay attention to every detail as they instinctively sense that danger is near. Building on the novel’s strengths as a thriller set within a unique cultural milieu, LaBlanc’s performance offers a heart-thumping, fully believable ride that will have listeners guessing, anticipating and enjoying every moment.
You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; suspense): In Caroline Kepnes’ third You novel, Joe Goldberg is ready to settle down. Volunteering at a library on Bainbridge Island, he’s keeping things squeaky clean while also falling in love with his boss, Mary Kay. Her social and family ties distract her from Joe–the real thing, staring her in the face across the circulation desk–but this time, he’s committed to doing no harm. If he gently thumbs the scales of justice (and true love) in his favor, surely that will be OK, right? Of course, this new beginning is dogged by loose ends from his last known address, loose ends that refuse to be neatly tied off. You Love Me is a wild ride, full of twists and slapstick gore. Kepnes’ novel is a metatext in some ways. Joe’s obsession with Mary Kay is true to what we know of him, and his interior monologue full of TV, music, film and book references make him a compelling antihero. Mary Kay’s relationship with a rocker from the heyday of Seattle’s grunge scene feels realistic, while her female friends are more like caricatures, overdrawn in a way that’s often hilarious. A plot thread featuring a screenplay based on Joe’s life is both a callback to Hidden Bodies and a wink at the Netflix series based on the books. Kepnes makes Joe compelling in a way that allows for some brilliant sleight of hand. Surprises seem to come from out of nowhere, and the end is truly shocking, yet there’s a relaxed flow as it all unfolds. You Love Me is more broadly funny than You; Joe’s restraint from violence does not mean the body count is low, and some of the deaths are, to put it mildly, absolutely bonkers. The reader has to wrestle with a character who is charming, funny, well read, accommodating to a fault–and also a monster. Start here if you like, but be prepared to read the whole series. It will really get under your skin.
First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami and Philip Gabriel (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; short stories): You can’t have a conversation about literary fiction of the past 50 years without mentioning Haruki Murakami, and First Person Singular reminds us why. As one of the standard-bearers of contemporary magical realism, Murakami has traveled deep into the hearts and minds of both his characters and his readers. In First Person Singular, he offers eight new stories, all told in first person–hence the title–as perhaps memoir, perhaps fiction. For example, “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” finds a baseball-loving writers named Haruki Murakami musing on his favorite team and the ties that bind us together. Murakami is always blurring lines, and here it’s left up to the reader to decide what’s real. By distorting reality, the author creates a special closeness to his audience, and he acknowledges this relationship with intelligence and grace. Murakami’s most significant (and perhaps only) shortcoming is his frequent fumbling of sexuality, which renders some of his work, to put it lightly, cringe-y. Sex is present in all of his books, whether it be tragic, as in Norwegian Wood, occult and Oedipal, as in Kafka on the Shore, or even as the basis for an entire collection, as in Men Without Women. But in First Person Singular, sexuality takes on a new meaning. Murakami is surely aware of this frequent criticism of his work, and here he toys with readers’ expectations. The story “Carnaval” is the best example of this. Its opening line, “Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest,” introduces a dated, male voice, but Murakami then subverts expectations to tell a story that’s deeper than any one person’s perspective. At the heart of this story are truly moving observations about friendship and the connection between people and art. While in the past, Murakami wrote about Watanabe of Norwegian Wood sleeping with random women, and K of Sputnik Sweetheart imposing himself on a women who is a lesbian, the older Murakami seems more intelligent and compassionate. With this collection, Murakami leverages his position as an aging man in a rapidly changing world to set an example for others: Your perspective should never stay the same, and your writing must grow until it can’t fit its container.
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade (physical book available at library; family drama): Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless? In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary. The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep. While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough? After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel. In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale–a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified–into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.