The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez: The best science fiction stories create a bridge between ambitious, precisely calculated genre concepts and the deep, emotional truths that unite us all. Keeping the balance between intricate sci-fi backdrops and delicate matters of the heart is a high-wire act that only succeeds with tremendous care, passion and narrative grace. In his debut novel, The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez has announced himself as a graceful, spellbinding storyteller with the gifts to pull it off. The Vanished Birds charts, in its carefully selective way, centuries of human history and advancement, ultimately catapulting us into a future carved out of glittering corporate-run space stations and far-flung starships that zip through folds in spacetime. It’s into this future, where time is as much of a commodity as any physical good, that Jimenez drops Nia Imani, a woman whose job as captain of a time-folding ship means she’s constantly losing time. Months of travel for her mean years lost on either side of the journey, and this constant sense of detachment has left her unmoored. Then she meets a mysterious boy who fell from the sky onto a distant planet, a boy with a gift for music who could also be destined for much more. Together, they find a bond neither dreamed possible, but powerful forces also want the boy, and a struggle lies ahead. Though Jimenez’s prose feels right at home in a universe of interstellar travel and space station settlements, The Vanished Birds soars highest when the author is navigating the complex emotional avenues through which much of this deeply human story unfolds. The book never fails to deliver the science fiction goods, and fan of high-concept leaps will be satisfied, but the book’s emotional core is what makes it fly. The Vanished Birds strikes a breathless balance between the conceptually dazzling and the emotionally resonant, and it’s in that balance that a bright new voice in genre fiction is born.
A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris: Fresh from an unexpectedly complicated job in Mexico, Lizbeth Rose is shepherding a mysterious crate from her native Texoma to the nation of Dixie when her train derails and her cargo is stolen. As the only member of the crew left alive and in fighting condition, she attempts to infiltrate the small town of Sally, with the unexpected aid of some old friends from Mexico. Lizbeth must now find her missing cargo, outwit a mysterious order of white supremacists and seek vengeance for the deaths of her crew members. And she must do so in Dixie, accompanied by a Russian wizard pretending to be her husband, and without her precious guns. A Longer Fall, Charlaine Harris’ sequel to An Easy Death, is just as gritty as its predecessor. Harris’ prose is blunt and uncomplicated, matching Lizbeth’s general sensibility, and lending the novel a welcome readability. This straightforward style meshes well with the first-person narration, implying that the protagonist is relating events in her own words as she remembers them. Each character is filtered through Lizbeth’s biases, resulting in a refreshingly direct story, albeit one in which everyone uses roughly the same cadence and vocabulary and some of the plot twists are foreshadowed into predictability. The most remarkable aspect of A Longer Fall, though, is the fluency of Harris’ alternate history. Her fractured United States features references to Alexei Romanov’s hemophilia, Russian and Coptic Orthodox theology and the racial dynamics of the Reconstruction-era American South, to name a few. While Texoma communities tend to write their own rules, both Dixie (the former South) and the Holy Russian Empire (California) operate under established hierarchies. In Dixie, these structures are founded on gender and race, while the Holy Russian Empire’s society revolves around religion, genealogy and magical ability. Lizbeth encounters these systems as an outsider both to these specific cultures and to the idea of a firmly hierarchical social structure in general, and her difficulties making sense of them form the central obstacles in both An Easy Death and A Longer Fall. Well, except for the people who keep trying to kill her, of course.
A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen: For Moira, it starts at a concert. Her concert, actually; she’s a beloved pop star, known as MoJo, and she’s on stage at Madison Square Garden when news of a flu-like outbreak called multi-generational syndrome (MGS) sends her fans into a panic. Moira follows the crowd into the streets of New York City and recognizes her chance. The world may be ending, but this is her shot at freedom from her overbearing father. Rob and Sunny find themselves in quarantine after Rob’s wife, Elena, is fatally injured during a riot. Rob can’t bring himself to tell Sunny her mother has died, and he spends each subsequent day wrestling with the resulting lies. Krista is watching over her dying boyfriend–a victim of the MGS pandemic–when opportunity literally knocks on her door. She chooses life and joins a group fleeing to save themselves. These four survivors come together in San Francisco, an unlikely group fused by Moira’s pending nuptials, Krista’s role as an event planner and Rob’s desperation to keep his daughter at his side. A Beginning at the End, the second imaginative novel by technical-and sportswriter-turned-novelist Mike Chen (Here and Now and Then), examines the hysteria of a world where some adopt an “every individual for him-or herself” attitude. Relationships fall apart as most of the world’ remaining population wrestles with a PTSD-like condition. Even against a science fiction backdrop, humanity is the center of Chen’s post-apocalyptic tale. Krista banks on her clients’ desire to find some joy in the midst of a bleak world. But the real hope comes from the characters’ desires to hide their pasts–and then their willingness to reveal their true selves to one another as they seek something worth living for. “I’m out here because I love people, and that’s the American Dream today. We mourn, we rebuild, we respect the things we have,” explains one of the men who helped Moira flee her pop-star past, effectively summarizing the crew’s ongoing hope. Chen’s fast-paced tale is an optimistic look at how our humanity can bring out the best in us, even in the darkest times.
To the Edge of Sorrow by Aharon Appelfeld: To the Edge of Sorrow, Aharon Appelfeld’s novel about a band of Jewish refugees hiding from German patrols in the forests of Ukraine, could have been just another World War II story of strikes and counterstrikes, bullets exchanged and bombs exploding. But thankfully, Appelfeld instead gives readers an up-close, deeply moving story of characters haunted by grief and loss yet buoyed by courage and hope in the most adverse conditions. The novel follows the group’s day-to-day efforts to survive, seen through the eyes of the young narrator, 17-year-old Edmund. Haunted by his forced separation from his parents and from his non-Jewish girlfriend after the relentless advance of German soldiers, Edmund find uneasy comfort among this resistance group. Guided by a somewhat reluctant leader, Kamil, the group initially strives simply to endure. Searching for food, medicine and shelter is the focus of their everyday existence. They raid local villages and farms to gather only what they need, leaving behind enough for the innocent farmers and families they’re robbing. The only luxury the group affords itself is the few books confiscated along the way, books whose words offer inspiration, comfort and faith. But the Germans are always close behind and are determined to root them out, forcing the group deeper into the mountains of Ukraine. Infrequent reports over a stolen transistor radio and contact with other refugees are the group’s only real links to developments in the war and their place in it. It’s only upon learning that the Germans are shipping Jews by train to death camps that the group’s mission changes to one of attack and rescue. Edmund eventually earns his place as a soldier within the group’s ranks and participates in the raids. Nevertheless, most of the story revolves around the group itself, composed of stalwart victims of persecution who display enduring compassion for each other as well as relentless faith in humanity. The author of more than 40 critically acclaimed books, Appelfeld (1932-2018) weaves a memorable chronicle of those who sought to persevere at the height of one of the world’s worst moments.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Storyteller par excellence Isabel Allende brings to life an epic saga in A Long Petal of the Sea. During the Spanish Civil War in 1938, medic Victor Dalmau aids the fight against ruthless General Franco by tending the wounded under the worst possible conditions, while Roser Bruguera, a young piano student, becomes the lover of Victor’s soldier brother. After Victor’s brother is killed and the Franco-led fascists gain control of Spain, Victor and Roser, fearing even greater atrocities, join the sea of desperate refugees fleeing to France. There, they are detained under horrific conditions in a camp by the sea. To escape their precarious status as refugees, Victor and Roser marry without love to gain passage on Paulo Neruda’s Winnipeg, the real-life ship that carried more than 2,000 Spanish refugees to a new life in Chile in 1939. Over the next 55 years, and through the rise and fall of another cruel dictator, Victor and Roser build a life together in South America, based first on shared loyalty, and later on something more. Against a backdrop of violent political and social upheaval, the lives of Allende’s characters quietly unfold in unexpected ways that prove both riveting and satisfying. Allende, a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, explores what it means to live in freedom and under tyranny, to feel displaced and at home. As with Allende’s bestselling novel House of Spirits, subtle touches of magical realism add richness to the story. Although Allende writes of political events and personalities from distant lands and decades in the past, readers may feel a very real sense that these events have much to say about the world today. Some may find hope in Victor’s and Roser’s abilities not just to survive such dark times but also to eventually heal and thrive. For those familiar with Allende’s earlier work, this novel will not disappoint. For those new to Allende’s writing, A Long Petal of the Sea will prove a captivating introduction.
Almost Just Friends by Jill Shalvis (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Jill Shalvis is back with the fourth installment of her contemporary Wildstone series, Almost Just Friends. Just like every other book she’s written, you can count on this one to make you feel good. Shalvis has a knack for creating charming characters who are vulnerable yet strong. They’re likable, relatable and possess the ability to face any challenge head-on. On her 30th birthday, at a celebration she neither asked for nor wanted, the reality of Piper Manning’s life rings true: She is responsible for “gathering and keeping all us misfits together and sane.” That’s her friends talking, but the same goes for her family–Piper is the glue that holds them together. She’s raised her siblings, build a career as an EMT and has started refurbishing her grandparents’ lake house. Once she sells the valuable property, she’ll finally have the money to pursue her dreams of becoming a physician’s assistant. But change is scary. Despite the responsibilities Piper has had for over half her life and now her yearning for the next chapter, taking the first step is harder than she thought. And despite all the planning, hoping and wishing she holds close in her heart, falling in love doesn’t factor into the chaos of her life. Then she meets Camden Reid, a secretive DEA agent and Coast Guard reservist. Camden, a man in search of an anchor but with no interest in romance or love, finds Piper to be both a conundrum and irresistible. He’s drawn to her strength and vulnerability (which we’ll call the “Shalvis specialty”), and Piper challenges him more than anything he’s ever experienced. Almost Just Friends is the message we need for this new decade: Everybody struggles with change and challenge and hardship, but if you’re brave and take a leap of faith, you can be happy.
Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Over the past 50 years, Zora Neale Hurston has been restored from nearly forgotten to a canonical writer, in no small part due to the efforts of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. One of the seminal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston is most known today for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and for her nonfiction works of black history and folklore. But before she published those books, she honed her craft by writing short stories. Between 1921 and 1937, Hurston published 21 stories, some widely anthologized but many virtually lost–until now. Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick collects all 21, including eight “lost” stories, for the first time in one volume. Editor Genevieve West located the recovered stories in periodicals and as unpublished manuscripts, and the hallmarks of Hurston’s distinctive writing are on full display: her use of rural black dialect, the wickedly sly humor she finds in day-to-day life, the folkloric underpinnings of her many tales. The world Hurston re-creates is a circumscribed African American world, where white characters are relegated to the sidelines and rarely figure into the consequences of the plot, if they appear at all. The agency that Hurston affords her community is one of the defining delights of her art, which explores identity, class and gender within the African American experience. Many of Hurston’s stories take place among the denizens of rural Eatonville, Florida, also the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God and the actual community where Hurston grew up. Other stories are set among urban landscapes, particularly in Harlem, where the fledgling writer moved in 1924. West points to “The Back Room,” one of the recovered stories, as unique among Hurston’s work for its depiction of what she calls “New Negro” life during the Harlem Renaissance. “The Conversion of Sam,” another found story, is an early effort written before Hurston’s own move to New York. It has a less defined urban setting but nonetheless depicts a migrant’s experience and explores familiar Hurston themes of sexual attraction, courtship and the interplay between men and women. As with any collection of stories, quality varies greatly, but these narratives comprise a rich tapestry of Hurston’s matchless vision and talent. After this period as a short story writer, Hurston mostly turned her attention to novels and to the indelible folklore collections she assembled. These would prove the bedrock of her literary reputation, but these early stories are also a welcome and illuminating component of her legacy.
Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino: In 1898, the American Baptist Publication Society called Wilmington, North Carolina, “the freest town for a negro in the country.” By November 10 of that same year, Wilmington had devolved into perhaps the most dangerous place for black people in North Carolina, if not in America. David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy explores in gripping detail the efforts of white supremacists to overturn black political and social power in Wilmington and to eliminate black citizens by any means necessary. One long-held view of the November 1898 events in Wilmington is that they were race riots. Zucchino digs deep into archival records, interviews locals’ descendants about their relatives’ involvement in the events and discovers that there’s simply no evidence that race riots fomented by black people against white people occurred. Instead, he uncovers evidence that on that November day, white men had been buying guns, vowing to remove Wilmington’s “interracial government and black officials by the ballot or the bullet.” Zucchino carefully outlines the roles that black people held in Wilmington’s government and explores why white people were bothered by what they called “Negro rule” when black people held only a small portion of elected positions in the city. With dramatic opening sentences (“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads.”), Zucchino creates a suspenseful atmosphere as he unfolds the stories of white supremacist Democrats who would stop at nothing to, as they saw it, take back Wilmington. The results of these events “inspired white supremacists across the South…Wilmington’s whites had mounted America’s first and only armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black with impunity…They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.” Wilmington’s Lie is a riveting and mesmerizing page turner, with lessons about racial violence that echo loudly today.
Naked Came the Florida Man by Tim Dorsey (e-book available on the Libby app): Naked Came the Florida Man, the newest novel by Tim Dorsey, is a crazy read from start to finish, and I mean that in a good way. The novel–part comedy, part thriller–follows the latest exploits of Dorsey’s oddball duo of Serge Storms and his sidekick Coleman on a meandering trek across the Sunshine State, with no real end goal in mind. And that’s just part of what makes this book so fun. Longtime Dorsey fans already familiar with Serge and Coleman’s antics will have the distinct advantage of knowing what to expect heading into the novel (but they won’t be able to rekindle the feeling of discovering the intrepid pair for the first time like new readers). Admittedly, the misadventures and seemingly aimless wanderings of Dorsey’s characters take a bit of getting used to, but once you do, you’ll be all too eager to go along for the ride. What starts out as a simple tour of the state’s historic graveyards (complete with fascinating lessons about the state and its people that you probably won’t find in tourist brochures at the state line) turns into a series of escapades resulting in Serge’s unique brand of vigilante justice. Between tombstone rubbings, the pair intervene in a so-called pastor’s scheme to bilk needy seniors out of their money through shady reverse-mortgage deals, exact punishment on a man filming birds that explode after consuming Alka Seltzer tablets and help save a young football player from a greedy pirate. If that’s not enough to pique your curiosity, Dorsey peppers the novel with Serge’s one-of-a-kind social rants on anything that comes to mind, from tangents in internet comment threads and why the U.S. cares about soccer to the length of receipts from drug stores. At one point, Serge even admits to being completely “off his rocker” and adopts a ferret as an emotional support animal. A former reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune until 1999, Dorsey has shirked his commitment to serious recounts of the day’s top events in favor of over-the-top tall tales and wacky characters like Serge and Coleman. They’re a lot more fun.
Followers by Megan Angelo: Is it too early to declare Megan Angelo’s debut one of the best novels of 2020? Maybe. Even so, it’s probably one of the funniest and most hopeful dystopian stories you’ll come across this year. Set in 2015 Manhattan and in a fictional community in 2051 California, Followers tells the story of three women who are all social media influencers and reality TV megastars of their time. When Orla, a wannabe author who blogs about celebrity gossip, ends up with a roommate named Floss, a shameless fame chaser, they concoct a scheme to use the public’s collective obsession with famous people to their advantage. This is in 2015, when living without social media and smartphones is far more daunting for these young women than the seemingly unlikely concern of surviving without access to clean water. But then comes the spill. Bringing back long-forgotten memories of Y2K hysteria, Angelo presents a future in which Apple and Instagram no longer exist. The internet as we know it is gone, but this advanced civilization nevertheless functions with self-driving cars, robots, networks and devices. Society is still obsessed with celebrity, and Floss’ daughter, Marlow, is its new star. Living in the government-created community of Constellation, where everyone is filmed 24/7 for the rest of country’s viewing pleasure (and as a corporate marketing tool), Marlow begins to realize that maybe she has a choice–one that connects her back to Orla in the most surprising way. Even if you aren’t a fan of science fiction or reality TV, Followers delivers a shrewd look at human relationships, habits and obsessions. Of all the doomsday scenarios out there, perhaps it won’t be too bad if this one comes true after all.
Hill Women by Cassie Chambers: As a child, Cassie Chambers spent many nights with her grandparents and aunt deep in the mountains of Owsley County, Kentucky, because her young parents were university students who couldn’t afford day care. “I was at peace in this holler in the hills,” Chambers writes, describing the time she spent helping her family of tobacco sharecroppers while her parents earned degrees at Berea College. Destined to be compared to Hillbilly Elegy and Educated, Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains is a quietly moving, powerful memoir in which Chambers shares her family’s story while praising the fortitude, intelligence and strength of Appalachian women. Unlike Tara Westover’s parents in Educated, Chambers’ parents deeply understood education’s importance, imbuing Chambers with a fierce drive that led her to Yale College, the Yale School of Public Health, the London School of Economics and Harvard Law School. She recounts moments of homesickness and feeling like an outsider, such as when her mother expressed concern about her spending habits at Yale, and Chambers shamefully told her, “You don’t understand. Everyone has a Burberry scarf.” Ultimately, Chambers returned to Kentucky to practice law and help domestic violence survivors, often meeting clients in gas stations, Dairy Queens and other fast-food restaurants. She notes that this experience has been “a powerful reminder about the importance of telling women’s stories” and that “when given the right tools, support, and environment, these women are capable of changing the world.” Chambers has also ventured into politics since returning to Kentucky. She became the vice chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, admitting that “after November 2016, I realized in a whole new way that elections mattered. It wasn’t enough to save the world one family at a time.” Never didactic or dull, Chambers is particularly skillful at sharing her family’s narrative while weaving in facts and commentary about Appalachian sociology, education, health, economics and politics. Most of all, the author’s love and respect for her Granny (married at age 15 to a man she had known for a few months), mother (married at 18, the first in her family to graduate high school or college) and Aunt Ruth (an independent woman who married in her 40s) shine through, brightening each page like a welcoming front porch light. In this age of political divisions, Hill Women offers a loving, luminous look at an often misunderstood and undervalued segment of our society.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: In Dear Edward, author Ann Napolitano deftly navigates the psychological and physical trauma of 12-year-old Edward Adler in the aftermath of a plane crash, of which he is the only survivor. He grapples with the loss of his family, his near-celebritylike status and the adjustment to living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. In his new home, Edward’s lifeline becomes his next-door neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter, Shay, and the novel follows their deepening friendship through the subsequent six years. Chapters alternate between Edward’s post-crash life and the flight itself, from its takeoff on the East Coast to its end, three-quarters of the way to Los Angeles. The novel hones in on the lives of several of the passengers, including Edward’s family–his professor dad, screenwriter mom and 15-year-old brother. There’s an elderly but curmudgeonly billionaire, a beautiful flight attendant who engages in a tryst with a passenger, a New Age Filipina who remembers past lives and an injured soldier who’s beginning to understand his sexuality. Dear Edward isn’t a page turner with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. Instead it’s a slow burn that draws you in to Edward’s interior life, the melancholia of his loss and of the fractured lives around him. Years after the crash, Edward’s healing begins to accelerate when he finds bags of unopened letters from the crash victims’ families. He is able to empathize and grieve with them, and so come to terms with his own loss. It’s hard for a novel to thoroughly capture a reader’s attention while simultaneously meditating on profoundly complex issues. In Dear Edward, Napolitano, a creative writing professor in New York and author of two previous novels, including A Good Hard Look, manages to achieve this. The delicate sparseness of her prose slowly peels back the layers to reveal a warm, fulfilling center that is a true reward for readers.
The Secret She Keeps by HelenKay Dimon (e-book available on Libby App): HelenKay Dimon takes readers back to the intriguing world of remote Whitaker Island, Washington in The Secret She Keeps. The same nosy group of colorful islanders also returns, evidence of the fact that even in a small community, away from the rush of a big city, there’s no such thing as down (or quiet) time. But it’s the killer lurking in the bushes, so to speak, that serves as a swift reminder that no matter how far you run, the past always catches up. Nearly two years after the death of his sister Alexis, Connor Rye finally relocates to Whitaker Island from Washington, D.C., to be closer to his brother and remaining family. Although the beautiful island seems serene on the surface, he’s no stranger to its shadows. Not only was Alexis murdered; someone breaks into his cabin and attacks him on his first night, giving fair warning that he needs to leave. Maddie Rhine has her own secrets–chief among them the fact that she’s on the run and living under a false identity. With the attack on Connor, it’s obvious Whitaker Island once again faces a dangerous interloper, and since Maddie’s a suspicious element, she may be in danger too. Dimon is a master at world building, and often writes heroic characters who find greatness within, rather than individuals who are weighed down with walls full of medals. Everyday heroics are just as important as strong men and women who can leap single bounds–everyday heroics keep the world going. And something is definitely amiss on Whitaker Island. That much was clear from the first book in the series, Her Other Secret, and readers get an immersion course in murder and mayhem with this second installment. In the end, The Secret She Keeps, is a complex story of love and grief, forgiveness and fresh starts. It’s a perfect story with which to wrap up the decade and forge a new path in the New Year.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (e-book available in Libby app): Briskly told and devilishly well-plotted, Such a Fun Age follows a young black babysitter and her affluent white employer in the months following a racially motivated public altercation in an upscale grocery. Although strewn with emails, tweets, blogs and texts, Kiley Reid’s game-changing debut novel is rooted in classic dialogue-driven storytelling and is a marker for precisely where our culture is today. Alix Chamberlain and her family have recently relocated to Philadelphia. Alix makes her living as a blogger, and now with an established brand, LetterSpeak, she has speaking engagements and a book contract. Emira is the babysitter for Alix’s precocious and sensitive toddler, Briar. Almost 26, Emira is frustrated by her lack of money and direction. Even more so, she fears the imminent loss of her health insurance. When a security guard in an upscale grocery store accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, a crowd gathers. A white bystander named Kelley films the altercation, then offers to send the video to the local news. Emira is mortified, but she and Kelley begin dating, while the existence of the video remains a sore point between them. When the news that Kelley and Alix had a relationship in high school comes to light, Emira feels even more uncomfortable. Despite assurances from her boyfriend and employer that they are acting on her behalf, it’s not clear who speaks for Emira and why she can’t speak up for herself. Such a Fun Age hits every not just right–from Alix’s self-righteous frustration to Emira’s ambivalence about accepting help. What takes the book to the next level is its willingness to go beyond where the story naturally leads. This is a tale without a heroine or villain; instead it’s a clear-eyed look at the complex transactional relationship that exists between mothers and nannies, while never shying away from the tender closeness that often grows between babysitters and their charges. Smart, witty and even a bit sly, this penetrating social commentary is also one of this year’s most enjoyable novels.
Much Ado About a Widow by Jenna Jaxon (e-book available in Libby app): Lady Georgina Kirkpatrick would love a reason to not marry the loathsome Lord Travers as her father has decreed. She just wasn’t expecting to be kidnapped mere weeks before the planned wedding day. And she certainly wasn’t expecting to be kidnapped twice. After escaping her captors–er, her first (and worst) set of captors–she’s swept away against her will again, but this time into the custody of Robin Kerr, Marquess of St. Just, her brother’s best friend. His intentions are chivalrous, even if his methods are infuriating. As a woman alone, traveling with only her maid and temperamental spaniel, Rob knows that Georgie needs his protection to keep from falling back into her (original) kidnappers’ clutches, whether she’ll admit it or not. And if protecting her means locking her into a cabin on his ship and sailing her to his castle in Cornwall, that’s what he’ll do. What he doesn’t expect is to find her company shifting from an aggravation to a torment of quite a different sort as the fiery-haired, fiery-hearted widow sparks a desire in him like nothing he’s ever known. Unfortunately, Rob isn’t the only man that Georgie has driven into a state of madness. As their journey progresses, they’ll be chased by her irate father, her bewildered but indignant brother, a slew of hired hands deputized into capturing her and–most sinisterly of all–Lord Travers, who orchestrated the first kidnapping himself to compromise Georgie so thoroughly that she’d never be able to escape him. No pirate could ever be more hounded than Rob for this treasure he’s stolen, but as the passion between them strengthens and grows, his love for her becomes something he’ll defy any authority to protect. And Georgie herself, who starts out the story so listless and resigned, bowing to her father’s authority and certain she’s buried any hope of love with her late husband, finds a new, maverick drive to seize this second chance at happiness. She even proves willing to fight–with kicks, curses, flying chamber pots and a feisty dog–against anyone who tries to take it away. There’s a delightful cheekiness to Jenna Jaxon’s playful Regency adventure, a refusal to take the rules and dictates of family and high society all that seriously. Jaxon doesn’t shy away from displaying how vulnerable a woman was in that time and place–an undesirable suitor could manipulate her into an unwanted match, or her family could have her committed to Bedlam for being contrary. But while the dangers are real, Georgie’s response to them is charmingly cathartic as she shows that even a woman with precious little autonomy over her courtships or her fortune can still have her own mind and make her own choices. With humor and heart, Jaxon shows that love–and a liberated woman–will always find a way.
The One for You by Roni Loren (e-book available in Libby app): Roni Loren brings her emotional The One Who Got Away series to a close with The One for You, a rollercoaster friends-to-lovers romance between two childhood best friends whose lives were forever changed by a traumatic event. Kincaid Breslin and Ashton Isaacs were best friends until their prom night turned to tragedy when Graham, Kincaid’s boyfriend and Ashton’s friend, was killed in a school shooting. Consumed by their shared grief, Kincaid and Ash shared a single night together, a mistake that fractured their relationship for years. Over a decade later, they are unexpectedly reunited in their hometown, haunted by memories of that night. In the years since, Ash moved away and became a successful author. Kincaid stayed in her hometown, putting on a brave face as she pursued a career in real estate. When Graham’s parents begin planning to sell their much-loved bookstore, both Kincaid and Ash find themselves fighting for the same cause with a metric ton of baggage waiting to be addressed. Ash and Kincaid’s road to romance is fraught with tension, unaddressed feelings and PTSD. The story switches between past and present, showing readers how the attack created a fragmented before and after for the survivors. Loren ably handles every emotional, heartbreaking layer of The One for You. Ash and Kincaid have built walls upon walls around themselves to avoid addressing their trauma and the guilt they feel for sleeping together while in mourning. Kincaid is a woman who denies her own fragility in the most heartbreaking ways, a master of plastering on a smile, denying herself chances to grieve. Meanwhile, Ash adopts the persona of an affable nerd, and his world travels make it easier for him to forget the terrible events of his past. Reunited by the memory of Graham and wanting to help out his parents, they quickly hand-wave away their years of silence. But as the time they spend together becomes more frequent, simply ignoring what happened between them, as well as the death of Graham, becomes unavoidable. There is truly something special about Loren’s writing and the way she handles the all-too-real realities of gun violence. Devoted fans of the series will find this finale bittersweet; it packs an emotional punch with a hard-won happy ending, but the realization that there are no more books for us to enjoy is a hard pill to swallow. Though Loren most likely has something fantastic on the horizon, The One for You and its predecessors aren’t romances readers will soon forget. Loren has easily created one of the most memorable contemporary romance series of the last decade.
Potions Are for Pushovers by Tamara Berry: Eleanor Wilde is back in Potions Are for Pushovers, a new installment in Tamara Berry’s series that finds the village witch running low on funds and dodging raindrops as her aging thatch roof gives way. Her not-entirely-legitimate business selling elixirs to the townsfolk would be almost enough to keep her afloat, but when neighbor Sarah Blackthorne turns up dead–from poison, no less–Ellie must find the culprit, less as a matter of justice than to keep her own doors open. Berry has fun with the contradictions at play in Ellie’s life: She’s a fraud, taking advantage of her friends and neighbors, yet they love and accept her as one of their own. Her boyfriend is flush with cash, but she turns down his offers of help even as her roof collapses. The village and its townsfolk are a conundrum as well: the story is contemporary, but the rural English setting makes things feel old-fashioned, adding to the overall charm. When a young girl defies her mother and basically apprentices herself to Ellie without so much as asking permission, it’s not only funny but also moves the story forward in unexpected ways. For a witch with no real powers, Ellie still has some connection to the paranormal via her dead sister, with whom she communicates. Their exchanges can be humorous but primarily serve as more serious, grounding subplot to a story that otherwise bubbles along like a hot cauldron.
My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh (e-book available on the Libby app): Eva Leigh puts inspiring, forthright female characters at the forefront of her delectable romances, and Lady Grace Wyatt is no exception in My Fake Rake, the first of a new series. But first, Leigh introduces us to a disparate group of boys who, while in a Regency version of detention, form a lifelong bond and will eventually call themselves the Union of the Rakes. One of their number is Sebastian Holloway, a bookish and handsome anthropologist who becomes a close friend of Lady Grace. Grace could care less what others think of her fascination with amphibians. With scholarly friends like Sebastian by her side, she doesn’t need the approval of the ton. However, things change when she’s suddenly faced with the task of finding a husband. Enlisting Sebastian to play the part of her suitor, she hopes to catch the attention of Mason Fredericks, a dreamboat fellow scholar. Like many stories with this plotline, you’re left on the edge of your seat as you wait for Sebastian and Grace to discover their feelings for one another. With a keen eye for pacing, Leigh takes the reader along for the sensual ride, immersing them into Grace and Sebastian’s intimate friendship as they discover feelings that simmer just below the surface. Leigh excels at giving appropriate modern and relatable touches in a historical romance. Grace’s deep intelligence and Sebastian’s social anxiety hook you in and transport you to their time with ease. And the other rakes, such as the scene-stealing Duke of Rotherby, possess sensitive qualities that humanize each man and complement the passionate and engaging female characters. With down-to-earth characters and an enthralling friends-to-lovers storyline, My Fake Rake is a hard one to put down.
Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard: Set in a small town obsessed with the occult, Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard launches a promising new series and delivers an airtight police procedural with deeply macabre elements. This is a read-in-one-sitting book that will refresh readers who are potentially burned out on the genre. With a Salem-esque history of killing suspected witches, the spooky little town of Burning Lake, New York, has turned its link to the dark arts into a tourist attraction. When a high school teacher is stabbed to death, homicide detective Natalie Lockhart turns her attention to a disaffected student who might have ties to a coven of teen witches. As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, Natalie is also working on a cold case of nine Burning Lake residents who went missing over the years, with only strange graffiti and creepy fetishes made of dead birds left behind. While Trace of Evil utilizes paranormal themes like witchcraft, it remains firmly grounded in reality, never crossing the line into a supernatural thriller. What we get instead is a procedural that expertly balances three mysteries at one time with tight plotting and enough clues and red herrings to keep the most experienced of mystery readers conjuring up theory after theory. And truly, Blanchard doesn’t need to utilize the supernatural to make her novel chilling. From the deeply disturbing aspects of the nine disappearances to the teenage obsession with witchcraft, the terror here is tied to people who feel so detached from the world around them that they normalize horrifying violence. Adding to the perfectly executed mysteries and the real-world terror is Blanchard’s careful world building. This is the first book starring Natalie Lockhart, but she appears on the page like a friend readers have known forever. She is the lens through which we view her small town, and she adds an element of empathy to characters who might otherwise feel unsympathetic to the reader. Then there’s the frisson of forbidden tension between Natalie and her boss, a subplot that promises to unwind later in the series. It may seem like a lot to balance within one novel, but Trace of Evil delivers all of these elements without a single misstep.
Anyone by Charles Soule: It seems every new generation gets to witness at least one incredible technological advancement. Something as transformative as the internet or as wondrous as the telephone often redefines life as we know it forever. In Anyone, comics writer-turned-sci-fi scribe Charles Soule builds a world around a similarly staggering invention, but it’s his interest in the people who create it, use it and profit from it that captivates the reader. If you could transfer consciousness to another body, would you be ready for the consequences? Gabrielle White, a brilliant and determined researcher, is at the end of her rope. Out of funding and losing confidence, she has one last chance to prove that her work to cure Alzheimer’s disease hasn’t gone to waste. When she flips the switch on the laser array in her backyard laboratory, something miraculous happens. For an hour or so, she transfers her consciousness into her husband Paul’s body and back again. Knowing that her financial backers would kill for this technology, Gabby must find a way to keep it a secret while she figures out how to reveal it to the world and ensure that it’s hers. Twenty-five years later, the introduction of “flashing” has changed the course of world history. Annami is a secretive loner with a chip on her shoulder. By day, she’s a brilliant engineer at Anyone, the company that oversees consciousness transfer worldwide. By night, she moonlights as a dark share, lending her body as a vessel for criminals to take over for a fee. When a dark share deal goes bad and she loses everything, she takes matters into her own hands to fight the evil that flashing has brought to the world. It is impossible to write about Anyone without first acknowledging the depth of thought and structure Soule has put into flash technology and its potential impact on the world. In chapters written from Annami’s point of view, small details reveal how consciousness transfer affects international relations, criminal operations, military aid and more. However, flashing takes a personal toll on everyone in the story. Annami and the characters she interacts with are all direct victims of Gabby’s invention, and Soule’s Blade Runner-inspired cityscape is full of fascinating, often broken people searching for answers. This gritty future is especially interesting when compared to Gabby’s chapters, which juxtapose perfectly against Annami’s. While Gabby by no means has an easy time of it (some of the troubles she runs into during flash technology’s infancy are gut-wrenching), the promise of a new future that will be better for millions contrasts beautifully with the actual future, where we see that even the purest intentions can be warped into pain and suffering. In today’s world, we are given glimpses of possible futures impacted by vast technological advancements. But we don’t often consider the costs that might come with those futures. If we really could be anyone, would we want to?
Thin Ice by Paige Shelton: A title like Thin Ice immediately connotes danger, and New York Times bestselling author Paige Shelton delivers in every way. A sense of dread persists from the opening page to the novel’s surprising conclusion, with an overall tense mood and an all-too-real terror felt by the book’s protagonist, Beth Rivers. Beth is also known as Elizabeth Fairchild, the famous penname under which she writes popular thrillers. When we first meet her, Beth is on the run from a violent encounter–a kidnapping by an obsessed fan and a dramatic escape. Her flight takes her to the remote village of Benedict, Alaska, where she hopes to elude her assailant, who is still at large. Beth’s scars, both internal and external, are real. Internally, she suffers from an overriding fear that even though she has put hundreds of miles between her former and new lives, she may still be in danger. Externally, there is a ragged scar on her head incurred during her escape, serving as a constant reminder of her close brush with death. Shelton methodically introduces Beth to a wide-ranging cast while swiftly ramping up the tension. It’s not yet winter, but Beth’s Alaskan environment is already harsh, cold and remote. While most of the people she encounters in the village appear to be supportive and caring, she can never quite let go of her suspicions that any one of them could mean her harm–or worse, expose her real identity. With more memories of her ordeal threatening to return, Beth takes on a new role as the community newspaper’s only reporter and thrusts herself into an ongoing investigation of a local death. New secrets and questions abound, leaving Beth to wonder if she has escaped one threat only to have fallen into another. Thin Ice is the first in a series from Shelton, who is best known for her Scottish Bookshop Mystery cozy series. But there is nothing cozy here, only danger.
This Is Happiness by Niall Williams: Imagine a single sentence worthy of its own page. This Is Happiness opens with such a line, reporting that it has stopped raining. Why, you wonder, does this declaration deserve its own page? Especially in a novel about an ordinary Irish village called Faha. Things have not gone irreversibly wonky in Faha, nor is the town enchanted like Brigadoon. It rains a lot in this village, because (to adapt James Joyce’s words) rain is general all over Ireland. When the rain stops, it’s news. The narrator of the tale is Noel Crowe, called Noe. An old man when we meet him, Noe is looking back on a stretch of surprisingly rainless days from when he was a teenager in the late 1950s or so. At that time, Faha was clamoring about its new electricity, and Noe befriended one of the workers, an elderly man named Christy who was lodging with Noe’s kindly grandparents. The beauty and power of Irish author Niall Williams’ writing lies in his ability to invest the quotidian with wonder. A truly peerless wordsmith, he even makes descriptions of gleaming white appliances and telephone wire sing. Readers will never forget the scene in which Christy and Noe get drunk in a pub and try to ride home on their bikes, nor Noe’s first kiss in the balcony of a movie house, an experience he endures from the fast-living sister of the girl he has a crush on. The book is hilarious among its many other virtues. Check this book out now and savor every word of it. Its title says it all: Plunging into This Is Happiness is happiness indeed.
Anything for You by Saul Black: The moment you think you have the latest Valerie Hart thriller figured out, Saul Black takes the narrative in a new and stunning direction. Exquisitely plotted, this police procedural unravels with the deftness and striking prose that the author’s fans have come to expect. The plot of Anything for You hinges on the personal dysfunctions of two women who occupy vastly different spaces–one a homicide detective and one a killer–but feel remarkably alike in their intelligence and canny ability to read others. Valerie Hart is a seasoned homicide investigator with the San Francisco Police Department, and she’s working to stifle her self-destructive tendencies in order to make her marriage work. She’s even contemplating having a child; it’s an idea that terrifies her as much as it excites her. Valerie’s latest case is an example of how her personal life and work have become toxically entangled: She once had an intimate relationship with the victim, prosecutor Adam Grant. Grant was brutally killed in his own home, with his wife barely surviving the attack. At first, it seems a cut-and-dry case in which a former inmate with a grudge against Grant is the perpetrator. But as Valerie digs deeper she learns that both Grant and the ex-con were linked by a mysterious person known only as Sophia. Valerie knows she should remove herself from the case due to personal conflict, but she’s too invested to let go. There’s an icy self-awareness and a self-deprecation to both Valerie and Sophia that helps them transcend typical femme fatale stereotypes. Black gives Sophia, in particular, a complex and sometimes unsettling back story that makes her feel like more of an anti-heroine than a villainess. By the time Valerie is closing in on her quarry, we are so invested in both of these characters, and in the incredibly intricate plot, that it is almost a disappointment to see the mystery solved. Black blends nuanced characters, immersive prose and complex plotlines so skillfully that it feels practically magical. When Valerie and Sophia finally meet face-to-face, readers will be breathless with anticipation and the promise of secrets being revealed.
The Innocents by Michael Crummey: Award-winning poet and novelist Michael Crummey’s work draws imaginatively from the history and landscape of his native Newfoundland. The Innocents, his fifth novel, is the riveting story of an orphaned brother and sister whose relationship is tested by hardship and isolation in 19th-century coastal Labrador. Ada and Evered Best live in a cove in the far northern province. Their home is a stretch of rocky coast with a simple shelter, and they survive with only the most rudimentary information passed down by their parents. The siblings support themselves by catching and salting cod, which they trade for supplies twice a year, as well as by tending a small garden and trapping the occasional animal for meat. The repetition of the changing seasons defines the pair’s existence–the breaking of the ice at the end of the long winter, the return of the cod, the annual gorging on the sweet berries that grow wild farther inland. As the years pass, their relationship changes. Crummey found the inspiration for the novel from an archival passage by a traveling clergyman who met an orphaned brother and sister living in a remote northern cove. When the clergyman approached them, the boy drove him away at gunpoint. Crummey has transformed this fragment into a richly fashioned story told with great sensitivity–one that is as credible as it is magical. The Innocents reminds us of all the reasons why we read–to understand, to imagine, to find compassion and to witness the making of art.
The Ship of Dreams by Gareth Russell: More than a hundred years ago, on her maiden voyage from the United Kingdom to New York, the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Of the 2,208 people aboard the ship, 1,496 passengers and crew died, and 712 survived. Hundreds of books and articles; many movies; two formal inquiries; several lawsuits, memoirs and interviews; and 10 suicides followed. It is a tragedy that has become a legend, a myth and a “synonym for catastrophe.” Is there still more to say? In The Ship of Dreams, British historian Gareth Russell chronicles six passengers’ histories and fates, putting such a human face on the disaster–from the shipyard workers building the Titanic in Belfast, Ireland, to the grieving crowds in New York awaiting the survivors’ arrival aboard the SS Carpathia–that he proves Titanic’s story is very much worth rediscovering. Because the Titanic carried many elite passengers, including British nobility and an American movie star, in addition to a global mix of immigrants in “steerage,” the ship has always conjured issues of class extremes. The Edwardian era, ending with the death of Edward VII and the ascension of George V, saw literal changes in the landscapes of England and Scotland, as centuries of landed gentry gave way to leaner, feistier times in an industrialized economy. Nevertheless, on the Titanic, kings of commerce like John Jacob Astor, John Thayer and Isidor Straus; a countess; and the “celluloid celebrity” Dorothy Gibson all sailed with the abundant trappings of the rich and famous, including one Pekingese dog named after China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen. Russell concentrates on six such figures, colorfully detailing their wardrobes, meals and pastimes. Through survivors’ recollections, he follows the despairing Thomas Andrews as the ship he’d dreamed of and built surrendered to the sea, and leaves open to speculation exactly what Captain Edward Smith’s last words may have been. He also rigorously debunks darker rumors, painstakingly refuting, for example, the myth that stairways were blocked to prevent third-class passengers from reaching what few lifeboats were available. Russell even reasons that having more lifeboats may not have mattered after all. Bacteria on the ocean floor may soon finish off the wreckage of Titanic, but her story, like the song, will go on. Gareth Russell does his best to tell it truly.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (e-book available on the Libby app): In surveying Britain’s social history over more than a century through the interconnected lives of 12 characters, all of them black women (save for two exceptions), Bernardine Evaristo has set an ambitious agenda for herself. Both in substance and style, her vibrant novel Girl, Woman, Other, co-winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2019, achieves that goal with a striking gallery of the lives and loves, triumphs and heartbreaks of these dozen memorable human beings and the world they inhabit. Bookended by the story of Amma Bonsu, a playwright whose drama, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, is making its debut at the National Theatre, Girl, Woman, Other follows each of Evaristo’s characters through independent, short-storylike sections, while subtly linking each portrait to provide depth and texture. Farmer or banking executive, schoolteacher or cleaning-business proprietor, the novel’s characters cut across many levels of British society, with a focus on a span of time from the Margaret Thatcher era to the days of Brexit. Some of these women wrestle with questions of sexual identity, while others must deal with incidents of physical violence and emotional abuse. Whether it’s Shirley King, whose idealism has curdled into cynicism after a lifetime of teaching high school history, or her former student Carole Williams, who fights to rise in the male-dominated world of international finance, Evaristo never stumbles in her ability to portray these figures with empathy, honesty and, at times, sharp humor. In every case, she skillfully reveals their struggles to define what it means to live meaningfully as spouses, lovers, friends and simply good people. One of the principal pleasures of Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s energetic, at times playful style. Hers is a unique sort of prose that nods in the direction of poetry in both format and occasionally in content. She dispenses with the use of some conventions of punctuation without ever sacrificing readability. This exciting, often unsettling novel succeeds by respecting both the dignity of its subjects and the intelligence of its readers.
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan: What if you entered a psychiatric hospital under false pretenses? What if the symptoms you presented–a voice that said the words thud, empty and hollow–were false? You’re seen how easy it is to be diagnosed with a mental illness. From inside, you’ll be able to observe how medical staff interacts with patients. Once you convince the hospital to release you, you’ll share your findings with the professor who arranged the study. But even then, what if it wasn’t all as it seemed? Susannah Cahalan, the bestselling author of Brain on Fire, was enchanted by the work of psychologist and Stanford University professor David Rosenhan, who created just such an experiment. Cahalan could relate to the pseudo-patients in his study. As she recounts in her first book, Cahalan was misdiagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a psychiatric illness, before doctors eventually identified that she was suffering from autoimmune encephalitis, an illness with a known physical cause. Such diseases are called “the great pretenders.” In the people who participated in Rosenhan’s study, Cahalan found another collection of pretenders and a window into psychiatric treatment. A psychologist introduced her to “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Rosenhan’s account of the pseudo-patient study, which became widely known after its January 1973 publication in the journal Science. (Half of all intro-to-psychology textbooks referenced it by 1976.) In her growing fascination, she studied how Rosenhan’s work affected modern psychiatry, including hospitals that were shut down as a result of the study and revisions that were made to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But the deeper she dug, the more questions Cahalan had. The pseudo-patients were difficult to identify, even with access to the professor’s notes. In some cases, details didn’t match, and Cahalan questioned the study’s veracity. The Great Pretender is an account of Cahalan’s own research. In addition to Rosenhan’s study, she weaves in glimpses of other similar experiments, such as Nellie Bly’s well-documented experience as a journalist going undercover in a psychiatric hospital. The book is a detailed examination of psychiatry in the decades since the publication of Rosenhan’s groundbreaking, if elusive, study.
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Following her award-winning debut, A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s The Revisioners is a passionate exploration of liberty, heritage, sisterhood and motherhood in New Orleans. In the 1920s, Josephine takes over her husband’s land after his death. The farm is flourishing, but when a suspicious white family moves in nearby, Josephine discovers too late their affiliation to the Ku Klux Klan. In 2017, Ava, a biracial single mother descended from Josephine, has just been laid off. She takes up her white grandmother’s offer to move in together, a proposal that seems attractive at first, until her grandmother begins to have violent outbursts. Sexton’s characters’ realistic interior thoughts drive the novel, revealing hidden emotions of apprehension and nostalgia. Ava and Josephine display an unusual ability to discern people’s motives; Ava has a unique perception of her mother, and Josephine understand her son’s struggle to break out from his father’s shadow. Though they experience the world at different times and though different circumstances, their worlds intersect though a shared purpose: to offer support, comfort and healing. Despite everything, Ava and Josephine hold on to hope, refusing to be bound by the constraints of their eras. The Revisioners is an uplifting novel of black women and their tenacity.
On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl: It’s 1956, and in the American West, military servicemen are returning from Korea and Japan looking for work, the fledgling interstate system is going up, and bomb tests draw Nevada tourists to watch the explosions. This is the backdrop for Shannon Pufahl’s assured debut, On Swift Horses, set in a time and place where the new and old rub up against each other, often uncomfortably. As the novel opens, Muriel has left her native Kansas for Southern California to join her new husband, Lee. Lee gets a factory job, and Muriel waits tables at the Heyday Lounge near the Del Mar race track. As she listens to the bar’s regulars, she picks up some insider horse-racing knowledge, which she chooses not to share with Lee. She also pines for Julius, Lee’s unruly younger brother. Julius, meanwhile, gambles and risks his life, first in California, then in Las Vegas and Tijuana, Mexico. As different as Muriel and Julius are, they both harbor secrets–one of which Muriel shares with Julius early in the story. And they’re both trying to find a way to love more truly and openly, since neither fits into the strictures that 1950s America wants to keep them in. On Swift Horses offers many painful reminders of the damage that repression can do, but it’s also a deep-breathing, atmospheric novel. Pufahl renders postwar San Diego, the characters’ rural poverty and 1950s closeted gay life in careful detail, spinning plain language into beautiful images. Her prose carries hints of other writers who combine the bleak and the hopeful, such as Annie Proulx, Wallace Stegner and Kent Haruf. Pufahl is a novelist to watch.
Marley by Jon Clinch: Before reading Marley, I dug out my Bantam Classic paperback of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and reread it. As if I needed such an excuse: It’s one of my favorite books, and Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of greed and selfishness never gets old. I was equally excited to read Marley, which promised to deliver the untold origin story of Scrooge and his partner Jacob Marley’s sordid business. But whereas Dickens’ novel is ultimately uplifting–our stingy protagonist wholly embraces the lessons learned from ghostly visitations and immediately sets about amending his ways–Marley is anything but. It’s darkly haunting in its own way, but also devilishly fun reading. There are good reasons for the heavy chains wrapped around Jacob Marley’s ghost when he visits Scrooge that fateful Christmas Eve, and author Jon Clinch spares no detail as he depicts Marley in this prequel as a harsh, uncaring, coldly calculating, deceitful individual, showcasing his malevolent influence on Scrooge. The novel follows the pair from their first meeting at Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys in 1787–where Marley immediately extorts money from Scrooge–to Marley’s deathbed in 1836. Throughout, Marley’s obsession with money motivates every waking moment of his life. While Scrooge crunches the numbers (or cooks the books, if you will), Marley carries on the nastier business of cons, smuggling and slave trading, using various aliases and dummy corporations along the way, even going so far as to keep secrets (and cash) from Scrooge. Marley is, for want of a better phrase, more of a scrooge than Scrooge. Clinch–who pulled a similarly remarkable feat with his first book, Finn, about the father of Huckleberry Finn–has successfully added a layer of depth and intrigue to Dickens’ beloved characters. Rereading Marley each Christmas may become as much of a tradition as rereading A Christmas Carol.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller: This memoir is powerful, starting with the title. For a long time, the author’s identity was known to the public only as “Emily Doe”–the young woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, who at the time was a member of the Stanford University swim team. Now Chanel Miller, a 27-year-old woman from California, identifies herself as Doe. In Know My Name, she introduces us to the person who got lost amid labels like “victim” and “survivor”–the person who’s also an artist, a writer, a sister, a daughter. She is more than this terrible thing that happened to her, yet it has shaped her life irrevocably. She eventually learned the details of her own assault from reading about it online. Miller drags the reader through everything as she lived it including facing Turner’s lawyers in the courtroom as they tried to convince the jury that she’s an untrustworthy drunk. The time-consuming legal process is emotionally battering, and Miller’s pain emanates off the page. Turner served only 90 days in jail; most survivors of sexual assault never see their perpetrators brought to any justice. “The real question we need to be asking is not, Why didn’t she report, the question is, Why would you?” she writes. This memoir is a heavy one. But one hopes it will educate people about the terrorism of sexual violence and bring comfort to those still suffering in silence. In her victim impact statement, which went viral when published by BuzzFeed in June 2016, Miller wrote, “To girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you.” And with Know My Name, she has proven exactly that.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (e-book available on the Libby app): As graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins contemplates which book to choose in his university library, he muses that reading a novel “is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at that particular game.” That’s certainly the case when the author in question is Erin Morgenstern, who mesmerized readers with her breakout debut, The Night Circus, and now returns with her highly anticipated second novel, The Starless Sea, a grand fantasy about books, the power of literature and storytelling. The mysterious book Zachary ends up choosing features him as a character and leads him on an epic quest, first to the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade in New York City and ultimately through a secret doorway to a subterranean realm where he finds pirates, an Owl King, fairy tales, a story sculptor and “an underground trove of books and stories beneath their feet.” Think Harry Potter for book lovers and grown-ups. (Zachary’s favorite drink is a sidecar, and he falls in love during his adventures.) There are literary references galore, as well as an undertone of video games. “Is that Zelda for Princess or Fitzgerald?” Zachary asks at one point. The response he receives: “Little bit of both.” Paralleling Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a nonfiction ode to books, libraries and librarians, The Starless Sea is a fictional journey dedicated to stories and storytelling. Both are lively, inventive titles chock-full of book-centric quotes. This hefty novel requires imaginary leaps and careful attention to stories and characters that wind their way in many different directions, but Morgenstern–now proving not once, but twice, what an adept literary juggler she is–manages to weave a multitude of strands together into one mighty-magical tale.
The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon (e-audiobook available on the Libby app): It’s hard to believe that there are stories about the hunt for Nazi war criminals yet to be told. Numerous books and films already exist and seem to cover everything that can be said on the matter. So it was with some reservation that I approaced reading Joseph Kanon’s new novel, The Accomplice, which promised a hunt for one such war criminal. Fortunately, Kanon’s skill as a master storyteller quickly allayed my fears. The Accomplice is a fast-paced, emotionally charged novel. While the subject matter is familiar–there were moments of “I’ve heard all this before”–Kanon’s characters were so well-drawn and authentic in their portrayal that it was easy to put those early doubts behind. Kanon’s riveting story takes place some 17 years following Nazi Germany’s downfall at the end of World War II. He begins by introducing us to Max Weill, a Jewish concentration camp survivor fixated on the atrocities at Auschwitz, where he was imprisoned, and on the man who terrorizes his every waking moment, Otto Schramm. An assistant to Josef Mengele, who oversaw gruesome experiments on camp prisoners and selected those to be sent to the gas chamber, Schramm is believed to be dead at the outset of the novel. But Max believes otherwise. With Max critically ill from a heart condition, however, his obsession of bringing Schramm to justice falls to Max’s nephew, a CIA desk jockey named Aaron Wiley. Initially, Aaron is reluctant, believing there’s nothing to be gained by dredging up old wounds. But Aaron ultimately concedes, propelling him to chase leads to Buenos Aires where he encounters (and falls in love with) Schramm’s daughter, who may be more devious that she lets on. Kanon, who previously wrote the critically praised spy thrillers Detectors and Leaving Berlin, uses taut prose and sly dialogue to dial up the intrigue and tension to satisfy any reader, including skeptics like me.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (e-book available on the Libby app): Talia Hibbert knows how to pack a book full of fun, sexy and whip-smart characters, and Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a pitch-perfect example of her talents. The first in the Brown Sisters series, this book introduces us to Chloe Brown, a well-to-do black woman with fibromyalgia. After a close call with death, Chloe decides it’s time to get her life together and makes a list that she hopes will bring some excitement to her life. Enlisting the help of her dreamy, tattooed landlord, Redford Morgan, Chloe sets out to check all of her boxes on her list. Hibbert’s books are a master class in inclusivity. Not only does she often include black women as the romantic lead, she also portrays mental illness with the utmost care. Her characters’ experiences with depression or bipolar disorder are believably and respectfully depicted. She works to make sure that the characters have more than a story that solely focuses on their illnesses, showing that romance and passion are for everyone. Hibbert peppers in witty and incredibly sultry banter between her characters. Chloe and Red’s interactions are delectably sweet and will leave you smiling to yourself as they verbally spar with each other. Their conversations are effortless and believable, and flow with increasing ease as they get to know each other. The natural development of Chloe and Red’s relationship is a testament to Hibbert’s character work and excellent plotting. She excels in the slow build of intimacy between the two as they discover that despite their differences, like Red’s tattoos and Chloe’s fondness for prim cardigans, they can’t get enough of each other. When sparks, fly, readers will want to cheer out loud. Hibbert’s stunning dialogue and stupendous prose are on full display in this powerhouse of a romance.
The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams (e-book available on the Libby app): Lyssa Kay Adams hits a home run with The Bromance Book Club, a contemporary romance about a husband and wife who learn to reconnect using the power of romance novels. Due to an unexpected pregnancy and their subsequent marriage, Gavin and Thea Scott never had a chance to enjoy being newlyweds. After each lackluster intimate encounter between them, it becomes clear to Thea that something needs to change. At home with twin toddlers and a husband whole MLB career took off like a rocket, Thea very much feels like a single mom. When Gavin is home, he’s a man she doesn’t really recognize. When she brings up divorce, Gavin realizes he’s had his head in the sand for too long. He’s determined to save his marriage and make Thea feel loved and appreciated. Enter the Bromance Book Club, a romance book club made up of Gavin’s fellow athletes who see romance novels as a way of understanding and improving their communication with women. The setup may seem farfetched, but it’s too charming to resist. The men think their current book club pick, Courting the Countess, may hold the secret to Gavin and Thea getting their groove back. Readers who enjoy a heartfelt second-chance romance, especially between a married couple, should get their hands on this book immediately. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful, single and unattached twenty-somethings finding love, but the added stress of running a household with troublesome twins fully and truly embodies the romantic complacency that can happen in long-term relationships. A first love is a beautiful ting, but how do we make that love last when life dishes out so many curveballs? Adams creates a cringe-worthy look at modern romance with Gavin being too busy and Thea being too exhausted to do more than just go through the motions. It feels a little too real in the best way possible. Gain is a likable hero whose cluelessness gets called out by not only his wife, but by his fellow book club bros too. There are some wonderful scenes of introspection as the men break down romantic scenes in romance like “the grovel” or “the big misunderstanding,” comparing where they’ve messed up in life and how romance can teach them to be better communicators. And as Thea regains control of her life and finds her voice, her arc becomes a wonderful and empowering lesson that it’s never too late to change course and make adjustments for the sake of your own happiness. The Bromance Book Club is truly a novel for dedicated romance fans. Readers will be delighted at all of the meta winks and nudges to the genre we love so much. I can’t wait to see what the Bromance Book Club will read next and how it’ll help shape their next happily ever after.
Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren (e-book available on Libby and Overdrive apps): Boy meets girl. Boy woos girl. Boy wins girl. Boy…sells girl out, and then flees the country, never to see her again–until 14 years later, when their paths cross once more. Twice in a Blue Moon starts off simply enough: small-town California girl Tate Jones visits London with her grandmother. Vermont farm boy Sam Brandis is in London with his grandfather, and in a meet-cute lovingly borrowed from E.M. Forster and an acclaimed Merchant Ivory film adaptation, the pairs swap rooms so the ladies can have “a room with a view.” The view includes the hotel’s garden, where Tate and Sam meet nightly to stargaze and flirt, and to share their dreams and secrets. Tate’s secret is a doozy. She’s the daughter of Ian Butler, the world’s most idolized actor. As a little girl, her red carpet images were recognized around the world. But when she was 8, her mother–heartsick about her husband’s blatant, unrelenting infidelity–took Tate and left the spotlight behind. Back in her tiny hometown, they buried their pasts, adopting the last name Jones. Only a handful of people know Tate’s true identity, and Tate shares it with Sam with all the overflowing trust of a girl in love for the very first time. But when she steps out of the hotel to find a waiting mob of paparazzi–tipped off by a well-paid “trusted confidante”–she gets her first broken heart, and resolves to be more careful about ever loving again. Fast-forward 14 years. Tate, having used that unwanted reveal to launch an acting career, is about to start filing a role that could push her onto the A-list. The pressure has doubled, since a supporting role will be filled by her superficially doting, micro-aggressive father. Worst of all, she’s totally blindsided to show up on location and meet the screenwriter: Sam Brandis, writing under the pen name S.B. Hill. Pulling it together to give the screen performance of a lifetime will be hard enough, but when the cameras stop rolling and she has to write her own life’s dialogue, Tate grapples to find answers, inner strength and possibly forgiveness. The best-friend writing team known as Christina Lauren never fails to delight. Twice in a Blue Moon is funny and engaging, whether Tate is bantering with her bestie, or navigating an awkward love scene with her adorable co-star. It also rings true on the low notes. Tate’s genuine heartbreak over her secret’s exposure comes both from being betrayed by Sam, and her personal sense of having betrayed her mother and grandmother’s trust. Her lack of faith in her own judgment–and in men, in general–requires Tate to reach deep to find the strength and conviction she thinks she lacks. It’s a strikingly poignant note, and makes her journey toward trusting herself, and determining who else is worthy of her trust, all the more meaningful. Some might quibble that Tate gives her trust back to Sam a little too quickly. But it’s hard to argue with a character who has fought this hard to figure out what she wants, and who finally finds the courage to go and get it.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): When we meet Victor Tuchman, the patriarch of New Orleans-based novelist Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours, he’s as good as dead. Which is just as well, since everyone agrees Victor is a monster. Now he languishes in comatose purgatory while the whole family is called home. Well, not home exactly, but to Victor and his wife Barbra’s condo in New Orleans, where they’ve lived for about a year. Nobody is sure why they left Connecticut, but it probably had something to do with Victor’s criminal activity. Not that anyone knows what that activity is–except maybe Barbra. One family member has questions. Alex, their daughter who lives in Chicago, is a tough-minded, recently divorced attorney who gave up on a relationship with her parents years ago. But news that Victor is near death stirs in Alex a primal excitement. In a rare show of optimism, Alex has convinced herself that once her father is dead, her mother will spill the tea on the Tuchmans’ secret history. Gary, Alex’s younger brother, has been living in New Orleans for several years and has no idea why his parents stopped honoring the decades-long unspoken agreement to stick to their own corners of the country. Gary, who is going through a marital crisis, just happens to be in Los Angeles on business when he gets the call. He promises his mother he’ll find a flight home soon but can’t manage to force himself onto a plane. Weaving together a riotous assortment of threads–the stories of three generations of Tuchmans as well as a smattering of other characters pulled into their orbit–Attenberg tenderly mines their family history and massive dysfunction not for clues as to what created the monstrous Victor but for what a monster can create in spite of himself. Her characters–flawed, defensive, overwhelmed and frequently endearing–fizz off the page. Their inner lives coalesce beautifully into a funny and heart-stirring tribute to the nutty inscrutability of belonging to a family.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes: Ill-suited to the stultifying environment and prospects of England, Alice jumps at the chance to escape to America by marrying Bennet, the wealthy, handsome son of a coal-mine owner. However, soon after arriving in Bennet’s small town in Depression-era Kentucky, Alice realizes that problems in her marriage, a controlling father-in-law and small-town gossip are equally suffocating. When Eleanor Roosevelt creates a mobile library system as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, Alice volunteers to become one of the librarians on horseback to escape her father-in-law’s house. As a librarian, Alice joins four others: unconventional Margery, who lives by her own rules; boisterous Beth, who has eight brothers; Izzy, the library organizer’s pampered daughter, who wears a leg brace and has a beautiful voice; and Sophia, a black woman who risks backlash to work for the mobile library, in violation of the state’s segregation laws. Together, these women and their horses face hardship and danger to bring books and information to the poverty-stricken backwoods of Kentucky. In return, they find companionship and fulfillment. The library’s future is threatened, however, when Margery and Alice step too far outside the accepted norms of society, angering the powerful patriarchy of the town. Jojo Moyes, bestselling author of Me Before You, has written a wonderful novel based on the real-life Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. Moyes’ research is evident, as her writing completely immerses readers in the world of a small, Depression-era coal-mining town–the class structure, the ignorance and the violence, as well as the overwhelming beauty of the surroundings and the strength of character required to survive. Moyes has written unforgettable characters who come alive on the page. All five women, but especially Alice and Margery, are written with such depth that readers may wish they, too, could join this tight circle of remarkable women. A heartwarming page turner, The Giver of Stars is certain to be Moyes’ next bestseller and should not be missed.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando are driving out of Manhattan after a terrorist attack. What sounds like the opening of an urban myth is actually the zany plotline of “Escape from New York,” one of 19 tales in Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories, Grand Union. These masterful tales impress, engage and occasionally infuriate as Smith brings her dazzling wit and acute sensitivity to bear. These stories are ready to grapple with the complex times we live in. If anything serves this collection best, it’s the humor that runs through the stories like a lazy river. All genres are Smith’s to play with, from fables to science fiction to a realistic conversation between two friends. Even the few weaker efforts still brim with ideas and intelligence. No subjects are off-limits, from an older trans woman shopping for shapewear in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” to a young mother remembering her sexual escapades in college in “Sentimental Education.” Smith uses the third-person plural to fine effect in one of the collection’s best, the parable “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” which explores global politics without ever mentioning a politician or country by name. Smith has explored the complexities of families and friendships in an urban setting over the course of five award-winning novels. Those themes are reflected in the delightful “Words and Music,” in which the surviving sister of an elderly pair of siblings sits in a Harlem apartment, reminiscing about the music that shaped her life, and in “For the King,” in which two old friends catch up over a decadent Parisian meal. Grand Union is bookended by two stories of mothers and daughters–one a vignette, the other a ghost story, both with a depth that far outweighs their brevity, something that can be truthfully said for each of these stories.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), says she thought she was done with Olive–until her beloved character “just appeared” to her again. And how grateful Strout’s readers will be that she did. In 13 interlocking stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, Olive travels through old age in her own inimitable style. She’s called an “old bag” by more than a few townsfolk, but she is loved by those who have, over the years, come to appreciate her honesty and complete lack of pretense. In one story, Olive shares her fear of dying with Cindy, who cared for Olive’s late husband, Henry, and who may be dying of cancer herself. Olive reminds her that Cindy’s husband and sons, as well as Olive, will be “just a few steps behind” her if she does die. A few years after Henry’s death, Olive befriends widower Jack Kennison. Each has a child who doesn’t really like them, and both are lonely. They marry–to the dismay of Olive’s son, Christopher–and go on to enjoy eight years together. Olive lives through some health scares, first totaling her car after confusing the accelerator with the break, then suffering a heart attack in her hairdresser’s driveway. When Olive is assigned round-the-clock nurse’s aides–the story “Heart” poignantly portrays Olive’s growing dread of being alone–two of the aides are especially kind to her. One is the daughter of a Somali refugee, the other is a Trump supporter, and Olive surprises herself by befriending them both. Strout possesses an uncanny ability to focus on ordinary moments in her characters’ lives, bringing them to life with compassion and humor. Her characters could be our own friends or family, and readers can easily relate to their stories of love, damaged relationships, aging, loss and loneliness. Each phase of Olive’s life touches on a memory, real or imagined. Olive, Again is a remarkable collection on its own but will be especially enjoyed by those who loved Olive Kitteridge. It’s a book to immerse oneself in and to share.
The Body by Bill Bryson (e-book): Bill Bryson can take any topic and spool it into the most entertaining thing you’ve ever read. He tackles diverse subjects, from hiking the Appalachian Trail (A Walk in the Woods), to, well–everything (A Short History of Nearly Everything). In his latest book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bryson divides the body’s various parts and processes into 23 chapters, with subject headings such as “The Heart and Blood,” “The Guts” and “Nerves and Pain.” Each relatively short chapter is chock-full of clear, in-depth explanations of the body and its components, focusing just the right amount of facts and attention on each area to keep the reader riveted and eager to dive into the next topic. As with his previous writings, Bryson demonstrates his gift for putting science in layman’s terms, deftly melding the most incredible statistics with wit to expose humorous and fascinating aspects of the human condition. He relates these nuggets of information to everyday life, such as when he compares a cell to a little room that is “of itself as nonliving as any other room.” Yet when combined with the busy, also nonliving things housed within its walls–such as proteins, DNA and mitochondria–life is created. Throughout the book, Bryson highlights parts of the human physique that are mysteries even to doctors and scientists. He creatively intertwines amazing medical advances, such as transplant surgery and antibiotics, with topics that are still very much unknown, such as the immune system and allergies. It’s rather humbling to realize that there’s so much we don’t know about the place that houses all of our thoughts, feelings and physical attributes. As Bryson so effectively conveys in The Body, we truly are a work in progress.
Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall: “Look, the most humane thing might be to put him down now.” That was the hoof expert’s verdict after one look at the traumatized, mistreated donkey Christopher McDougall and his family had just taken in. The donkey, which they named Sherman, had been rescued from a hoarder’s farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Since relocating from the city, McDougall and his wife, Mika, had tried their hands at keeping chickens, a stray cat and a phone-book-munching goat named Lawrence. But an ailing donkey was a whole different story. And what a story Sherman turned out to be. McDougall, author of Born to Run, believes that “movement is big medicine.” And if movement-as-medicine works for people, why wouldn’t it work for a donkey? So McDougall concocts the idea of training Sherman to run in a world championship burro race in Colorado. With help from family and neighbors, including a young man named Zeke who’s been struggling with depression, “Team Sherman” sets out to fulfill a quest of healing. Running With Sherman includes some wonderful photos of the endearing Sherman and his clan. And while you may not decide to take up burro racing yourself, McDougall’s inspiring story is not to be missed.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series. In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which has outlined a near future in which women’s freedom had been completely curtailed, celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood leaps these hurdles with Olympian ease. The Testaments is a crowd-pleasing page turner. Atwood leans in to the attractions of both her original novel, with its Scheherazade-style narration, and the TV series, with it resistance-minded heroine. The Testaments is told in the first person by three narrators, allowing for a more panoramic view of Gilead than the cloistered Handmaid Offred could provide. The voice that flows with the most relish from Atwood’s pen, and that will be most familiar to readers, is the Machiavellian Aunt Lydia. In Gilead’s patriarchal society, which categorizes women according to their function (Handmaids, for example, exist solely to bear children), Aunts are responsible for enforcing these roles. As a privileged member of an oppressed class, Aunt Lydia makes every decision with maintaining her status in mind. The other two narrators are young girls: one raised within Gilead’s walls by a powerful Commander and his wife, and the other raised in Canada as the child of Mayday resistance operatives. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that the power to bring Gilead down may be in their hands. If a book must be groundbreaking to be a true classic, The Testaments can’t be ranked alongside its predecessor. Today, the divide between genre and literary fiction is more porous, and dystopian fiction is an established genre–in large part thanks to novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. But just as The Handmaid’s Tale was a response to the backlash against the women’s movements of the 1970s, The Testaments is equally of its time, drawing from contemporary politics in ways that resonate. Atwood remains a keen chronicler of power and the way status (or lack thereof) affects how it is leveraged, and seeing her explore that issue in Gilead once again is a pleasure.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty: “To my adorable future corpses,” reads the dedication to Caitlin Doughty’s Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death. Doughty’s forthright but playful tone is apparent before you even get to the table of contents. Written as an answer book to all the questions Doughty has fielded from young and inquiring minds during her career as a mortician, author and death activist (more on that later), Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? is perhaps the most enchanting little book ever to discuss such matters as whether or not one’s body might explode if one’s final meal before being loaded into the crematorium included popcorn. Anyone with a child in their life will be unsurprised at the sorts of curious hypotheticals that are posed in this book, or at a hyper-focus on the ins and outs of the corpse. It is to her credit that Doughty not only answers those questions that would seem to fall easily within her area of expertise but dutifully chases down the science that might provide a plausible answer to the fate of an astronaut who slipped from this mortal coil while on a spacewalk. However, this book is by no means solely for death-curious children. Most if not all of the answers provided alongside the charmingly gothic illustrations will be news to the average adult reader, as well. In her career, Doughty has worked to rehabilitate a Western culture that has become death-illiterate through an increased outsourcing of the caregiving and rituals surrounding death. And as Doughty orients death as sometimes sad but normal, she touches on subjects that are of interest to adult readers who may be planning for end of life care, or helping someone else do so, such as eco-friendly, natural burial. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? (which, yes, does include an answer to that question as well) provides answers to questions both humorous and moving, bringing tiny and full-sized mortals alike to a greater comfort with and understanding of the one transition that will happen to us all.
The Institute by Stephen King: Stephen King’s The Institute is already drawing comparisons to a couple of his older works, Firestarter and It, as well as to the Netflix sensation “Stranger Things.” And with good reason–The Institute includes a ragtag collections of adolescents banding together against a common enemy, a shady organization exploiting children for their unique “gifts.” But whether King is chasing “Stranger Things” or “Stranger Things” is chasing King, the result is the same: shocking suspense and hallmark thrills. In an unexpected move, King opens The Institute with a Jack Reacher-like drifter named Tim Jamieson, who takes a job as a “night knocker” with the sheriff’s department in rural Dupray, South Carolina. It’s more than 50 pages later before we meet the novel’s true protagonist, young prodigy Luke Ellis, whose parents are trying to get him into a prestigious school where his unique intellect will be challenged. But Luke’s world is shattered when he is kidnapped from his Minneapolis home in the middle of the night by a team of highly skilled special operatives. He awakens in a room made to look like his own, though the illusion stops at the door. Once outside his room, Luke finds himself in a strange facility somewhere in Maine. He soon learns he’s not alone, as other kids, ranging in age from 10 to 16, are also being held prisoner. King conveys Luke’s confusion, shock, hopelessness and grief in convincing and heart-wrenching fashion. The concept of family separation takes on an eerie weight here, with unsettling parallels between the events of the novel and real-life images we see on the news of kids huddled under silver mylar blankets in cramped cages at the U.S.-Mexico border. In a thinly veiled comparison to callous border patrol agents, Luke’s adult captors lack compassion and are often downright cruel. But King ramps up the cruelty even further, subjecting Luke to physical and mental abuse that, at times, readers may find hard to sit through. Luke and the other kids get slapped around, are forced to receive mysterious injections that cause convulsions and are nearly drowned in a sensory deprivation tank, all to awaken the kids’ latent telepathic or telekinetic powers. The kids are promised that, if they do as they are told, they’ll have their memories wipes and be returned home to their parents as if nothing ever happened. Good behavior is rewarded with tokens to purchase snacks or even alcohol and cigarettes. Kids can even buy time on a computer, though internet access is restricted. After gaining the trust and help of one of the Institute’s support staff, Luke makes a break for freedom. His escape brings him to South Carolina, where Tim Jamieson finally reenters the story just in time to aid Luke in a final confrontation with the Institute’s baddies. King makes no effort to hide his distaste for Trump, as he takes a direct jab at him in the book’s waning pages. Political leanings aside, The Institute offers a thrilling reading experience and rousing tribute to the resilience of children and the unending fight against evil.
Clear My Name by Paula Daly: It’s evident from the first page of Clear My Name that Paula Daly’s heroine, investigator Tess Gilroy, is as adept at keeping secrets as she is at uncovering them. Between Tess and Carrie, the woman she’s trying to prove innocent of murder, we’re left with two narrators who are simultaneously sympathetic and also inherently unreliable. Add exquisite pacing and a plot with some real twists, and you have a recipe for a book bound to keep you up all night. A former probation officer, Tess is now the chief investigator for a group called Innocence UK that works to free the wrongfully convicted. Her latest case brings her back home to the small town she fled. She’s investigating the murder conviction of Carrie Kamara, a woman serving a 15-year sentence for killing her husband’s mistress. Many of the details surrounding Carrie’s case seem weak and the police work potentially shoddy, but Carrie was never able to account for how her blood was found in the victim’s home. That forensic detail was enough to see her incarcerated. Even as Tess digs into Carrie’s deeply trouble marriage and her complicated relationship with her daughter, we can sense her unease at being back home. Tess thinks she’s being followed, and she’s avoiding contact with someone from her past. The competing mysteries of Tess’ past and Carrie’s true involvement in the murder make Clear My Name feel tightly wound, with threads of paranoia woven throughout. Tess is used to false claims of innocence, and even as she is reluctant to believe Carrie, we know we also cannot trust Tess. Eventually Tess’ and Carrie’s narratives collide in a way that is genuinely shocking. The last quarter of this mystery doesn’t so much as unfold as it explodes; the tension is at a fever pitch and the final revelations are genuinely surprising. With a wonderfully executed mystery and two unreliable narrators, Clear My Name straddles the line between psychological thriller and good old-fashioned whodunit.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: Gideon Nav is not a Necromancer. She is not even one of their bodyguards, a Cavalier. So when her oathsworn enemy since childhood, the Reverend Daughter and Necromancer Harrowhark Nonagesimus, requires a skilled Cavalier to accompany her on her ambitious educational trials, brash swordswoman Gideon volunteers partially out of self-preservation, partially because of blackmail and mostly because she needs a free ride off of the planet of the damned she was raised on. Gideon and Harrow hail from the Ninth House, a dark realm fraught with bloodthirsty skeletons, fearsome nuns and crypts that house the living, dead and reanimated alike, where the haunted and actively haunting lay trapped, forgotten and rotting in the jet-black depths ruled by the iron fist of Harrow and her frightful ossified forces. Tamsyn Muir’s meticulous world building has created a realm where penitence and piety are prioritized above all else, traditions that acting leader Harrow has kept instituted to keep rabble-rousers like Gideon at bay. But for the fearless and free-spirited Gideon, who has yet to leave the Ninth House, remaining on the planet means the slow torture and inevitable death of her hopes and dreams, or she can risk a swift execution during her next escape attempt. On her most recent escape effort, Gideon’s plans are foiled by Harrowhark as usual, but this time she is offered an intriguing proposition–to escort Harrow on her journey to the First House to study towards Lyctorhood, a hallowed educational position for reputed necromancers of the Nine Houses. If Gideon accepts, she can finally leave the Ninth and its grimy ghouls behind, but she will be tied at the hip to her mortal enemy, posing as a professional cavalier in front of the rest of the Houses. If she declines, she will surely rot in the prisonlike Ninth until her death and beyond. Gideon thrives off-planet despite personal and professional challenges, practicing her swordswoman and adventuring skills and becoming accepted by the group of competitors as the solitary Harrow explores their lodgings, the mysterious and foreboding Canaan House. The girls are welcomed by Teacher, a priest of the First who is a little too lively and thrilled for the taste of the Ninth, as well as a fascinating and memorable cast of their competitors, including Dulcinea Septimus of the Seventh, whose alluring charm captivates Gideon immediately; the suspicious trio of the Third, comprised of twin sun-and-moon necromancers and a vain cavalier; and the repulsive, parasitic-like duo of the Eighth, a nephew-uncle combination who condemn followers of the Ninth as “death cult members.” So when the murders begin, it is only natural that the house most comfortable and familiar with Death itself should solve the mysteries that abound. Gideon the Ninth is worth every second of every spine-chilling page as the book moves seamlessly from science fiction to mystery-thriller and back again. The journey to Lyctorhood is soon revealed to be more nefarious and agonizing than a simple competition between Houses. The necromancer-cavalier teams realize they are stranded on the First, and things devolve into a battle royale reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None where only the strongest, bravest and smartest will endure. Gideon herself is a blazing beacon in this very dark world, where people are shackled their entire lives by tradition and fear–her extroverted nature and love for items like swords, girly magazines and an archaic pair of an item once called “sunglasses” reveal her passion for living in the moment and her open-mindedness to explore outside the parameters forced upon her by society. Compelled to accompany Harrowhark on several trials and tribulations, Gideon soon realizes that they might have more in common than she assumed, and that if they want to stay alive, they will have to move forward from the past and work together, and that maybe, just maybe, she could have had a friend–or more–all along during their dark days in the Ninth. Muir’s attention to numerology, wordplay and symbology here is beyond impressive. Each of the Nine Houses is painstakingly constructed, from their unique Necromancer personalities to the abilities of their Cavaliers and priests. The story takes place mostly in the First House, yet readers will feel familiar enough with the other realms that they can imagine the entire cosmos that Muir has created at her fingertips. Gideon is no stranger to Death, but when faced with the constructs of fear, loss and grief, she soon learns what is truly important to her in life, and that while new endeavors mean an inevitable end, endings can also mean a new beginning.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Jacqueline Woodson, who is completing her stint as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, returns to her beloved Brooklyn for her second novel for adults, Red at the Bone, which explores the effects of an unplanned pregnancy on an African American family. The story opens in 2001 at a coming-of-age party at a Brooklyn brownstone. Sixteen and outfitted in her mother’s lace dress with a matching corset, garters and stockings, Melody plans to enter the party to an instrumental version of Prince’s “Nikki,” much to her grandparents’ discomfort. But there’s another catch to both the day and the dress. At 15, Melody’s mother, Iris, was pregnant and unable to wear the carefully made dress. Iris’ own coming-of-age birthday was left unmarked, and after her dismissal from private school, the family opted to move to another part of Brooklyn where they could also join a new church. But despite the shame and disruption of baby Melody, Iris was determined to move forward, ultimately getting her high school diploma, enrolling at Oberlin College and moving, almost permanently, out of Melody’s life. Over 21 brief chapters, Red at the Bone, which draws its title from the romantic feelings Iris has for another woman at Oberlin, moves backward and forward in time, examining the effect Melody’s birth had on each character, from her disappointed but loving grandparents to her devoted father and his resolute yet fragile mother. Along the way, the reader learns more about the history of the family’s losses, from 9/11 to the Tulsa Race Riots of 1912. Kin and community have always been of primary concern for Woodson; her National Book Award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, explored her own childhood transition from Ohio to South Carolina and then New York. Her books combine unique details of her characters’ lives with the sounds, sights and especially music of their surroundings, creating stories that are both deeply personal and remarkably universal. Though Red at the Bone lacks the cohesion of Woodson’s previous work, this lyrical, lightly told coming-of-age story is bound to satisfy.
Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser: Perhaps no writer of the late 20th century has been more mythologized, or lionized, than Susan Sontag. Beautifully written and moving, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work reveals with illuminating clarity Sontag’s ceaseless quest to understand and be understood; her often arrogant and condescending manner, even to those closest to her; and her attempts to use art to fashion herself into the iconic figure she became in life and death. Drawing deeply on hundreds of interviews with Sontag’s family and friends, as well as on materials in Sontag’s restricted archives and her published and unpublished writings, Moser traces her life from her childhood and youth, to her years at the University of Chicago, and throughout her attempts to distance herself from reality by aestheticizing it in her critical essays and fiction. Sontag’s father died when she was 5, and her mother remained distant, so she retreated into books. “Reading gave Susan a way to recast reality…When she needed to escape, books lets her close the door,” Moser writes. Looking back on her childhood, Sontag revealed a theme in her journals that defined her entire work and life: “I grew up trying both to see and not to see.” Moser’s close readings of Sontag’s writings–from her earliest essays (“Notes on Camp,” “Against Interpretation”) to her failed novels (The Benefactor) and her successful ones (The Volcano Lover, In America)–reveal the theme of language’s relationship to reality. For Sontag, “language could console, and how it could destroy.” Alongside his elegant readings, Moser delves into the rocky relationships that resulted from Sontag’s inability to be alone–from her son, David, to her lover, Annie Leibovitz, to artists such as Jasper Johns and Joseph Brodsky. Sontag may have been our last public intellectual. She cast her intense gaze over art, literature, film and politics, boring into her subjects with a steely vision that revealed the many facets not only of those subjects but also of herself. Moser’s monumental achievement captures the woman who, among other things, “demonstrated endless admiration for art and beauty–and endless contempt for intellectual and spiritual vulgarity.” This brilliant book matches Sontag’s own brilliance and finally gives her the biography she deserves.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett:The Dutch House confirms what we’ve always known: Ann Patchett doesn’t write a bad book. Though the settings may differ (Bel Canto took place in South America, Commonwealth in Southern California and elsewhere), each of Patchett’s books tells a compelling, vivid and imaginative story while offering a deep meditation on human nature. The titular mansion is located in the Elkins Park section of Philadelphia. It was once owned by the VanHoebeeks, whose imposing portraits are still hanging on the walls when an aspiring real estate developer buys it after World War II. He brings with him his two children–Danny, 3, and Maeve, 7–and his wife, Elna. The house, which has fallen into disrepair, comes complete with furniture and a servant, Fluffy. Elna is horrified by the extravagance of the property and her husband’s wealth, which he’d been keeping a secret. She starts to disappear, first sporadically, then permanently. Left with their emotionally detached father, the children find that things can only get worse. In true fairy-tale fashion, a wicked stepmother and her own kids move in. Danny (the narrator) and Maeve are displaced from their home when their father suddenly dies and leaves them both almost penniless. An unshakable bond forms between the brother and sister as they survive and strive, pining for their lost home and enraged by the women who took it from them. Along the way, Patchett’s knack for aging her characters over many decades serves the story well. The Dutch House is a vast, almost preternatural property, and the characters who have, at one point or another, inhabited it are at the heart of this absorbing tale. It’s fitting and inevitable that the home eventually beckons them back.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hiram was born into “tasking”–what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls slavery in this beautiful, wrenching novel–but he has always stood slightly apart from the other people who are “Tasked” on the Virginian estate called Lockless. The son of an enslaved woman named Rose, Hiram learned early in life that his father was the Lockless master, Howell Walker. Although Hiram worked in the apple orchards and the main house, he had something the other Tasked would never dream of: lessons from the Walker family tutor. But the lessons were no gift. Howell Walker’s plan was to prepare Hiram to spend his life caring for his older half-brother, Maynard, the charmless, dull heir to Lockless. A naturally smart child, Hiram subdued his thirst for knowledge. “I knew what happened to coloreds who were too curious about the world beyond Virginia,” he says. Driving Maynard home one night from the horse races, Hiram is thinking of nothing but his “desire for an escape from Maynard and the doom of his mastery. And then it came.” Hiram doesn’t know why a strange mist comes up off the river or why the bridge falls away, revealing his long-gone mother dancing. He later learns this is Conduction, the rare ability to transport oneself on the power of memories. It’s a prized skill that recruiters on the Underground Railroad hope Hiram will put to use for their cause. They move him to Philadelphia, where he is shocked to see for the first time people of all colors mingling freely. He works to harness his gift of Conduction, while still feeling the pull of his people who have been sold and scattered throughout the South. The Water Dancer confronts our bitter history and its violence and ugliness, which still resonate generations later. Coates’ fierce, thought-provoking essays on race composed We Were Eight Years in Power and the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me. Here he weaves a clear-eyed story that has elements of magic but is grounded in a profoundly simple truth: A person’s humanity is tied to their freedom. “Breathing,” Hiram says. “I just dream of breathing.”
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman: Alice Hoffman is a brilliant weaver of magic and the mundane, as many of her novels have proven over the years. In her hands, a story we think we know, from a time we think we’ve extracted every possible detail, can become a soulful new voyage into the heart of the human condition. With her latest novel, The World That We Knew, Hoffman travels to a hidden world built amid the horrors of the Holocaust and brings forth a spellbinding tale of love, loss and what it means to endure. Hoffman’s story begins in 1941 in Berlin, where a young Jewish mother, Hanni, knows that she must find a way to smuggle her daughter, Lea, out of the city before the Nazis take notice of her. To do this, she turns to a rabbi for mystical help, only to discover that his daughter, Ettie, is more willing to help Lea through magical means. Ettie, working from knowledge she’s gained through observing her father, crafts a golem they call Ava to guide and protect Lea. Thus begins an unlikely and harrowing journey through France, where Ettie finds a new purpose, Lea finds her soul mate and Ava finds that she’s much more than a single-minded creation. In beautifully precise prose, Hoffman chronicles the experiences of these characters and those whose lives they touch along the way. Throughout the next three years of the war, each woman tries to survive while also pursuing her own process of self-discovery. Through Nazi-occupied France is an endlessly compelling place to many readers, Hoffman never takes her historical setting for granted. Rather than leaving us to lean on what we think we know, she weaves a fully realized version of the hidden parts of history, chronicling the stories of people who slipped through the cracks on their way to freedom and the emotional toll that freedom took. Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, The World That We Knew presents a breathtaking, deeply emotional odyssey through the shadows of a dimming world while never failing to convince us that there is light somewhere at the end of it all. This book feels destined to become a high point in an already stellar career.
Immortal Born by Lynsay Sands (e-book): Lynsay Sands immerses readers in the complex and exciting world of bloodsucking vampires in Immortal Born and leaves them breathless for more. The 30th book in the Argeneau series, Immortal Born introduces us to Allie Chambers, who is in a predicament. Allie has promised to raise and protect her friend’s son who has an insatiable appetite for blood. As Liam grows, so does his hunger, and Allie decides to take a desperate chance to give him what he needs. When her plan to rob a blood bank to feed her growing son goes awry, Allie is suddenly introduced to one of the most handsome men she has ever met: Magnus Bjarnesen. As Allie may be Magnus’ potential lifemate, he’s not sure what surprises him more–the amount of danger Allie and Liam are in, or how badly he wants her. Sands’ effortless character creation leaves no stone unturned as she spells out the sprawling world of the immortals and their history. With this modern take on vampire lore, Allie and Magnus become as believable and relatable as any other romantic leads. Allie is a modern-day heroine thrown into the confusing world of immortals. Readers will have no trouble identifying with Allie as she faces difficult choices and displays a refreshing, no-nonsense attitude toward survival. When faced with the ultimate choice to protect Liam, and put her heart on the line in more ways than one, Allie weighs the options with a clarity and relatability that comes from thorough character building. Magnus and his family of vampires, who prefer to be called immortals, are warm and inviting when his and Allie’s worlds are thrown together. Readers will revel in Sands’ expert, slow build of the couple’s chemistry as Allie finds herself more curious about Magnus with each passing day, and as Magnus struggles with his own desire. The intimate moments between these two characters make this book shine and romantic sparks fly. Immortal Born is a take on the vampire genre grounded in emotional realism that allows readers to imagine themselves in the characters’ shoes with ease.
Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo: Sometimes characters continue speaking to their creators long after their books have been published, prompting authors to write unplanned follow-ups. Grateful readers will reap ample rewards in Kate DiCamillo’s Beverly, Right Here, the last in what has unexpectedly become a middle grade trilogy, which began with Raymie Nightingale and continued in Louisiana’s Way Home, about three irrepressible girls who meet at baton-twirling lessons in Lister, Florida, in 1975. This installment, set in 1979, features the tough-as-nails, eye-rolling Beverly Tapinski, who is now 14. Following the death of her beloved dog, Beverly decides she’s had enough of life with her drunken mother and leaves, hitching a ride to nowhere with a good-for-not-much-else cousin. A big-hearted older woman named Iola welcomes Beverly into her trailer. Beverly slowly builds an anchoring friendship not only with Iola but with bullied, brilliant Elmer, who is about to leave for Dartmouth on a full scholarship. Life with a ragtag bunch of strangers becomes much better but is still hardly perfect as Beverly, who hates fish, ends up working in a fish restaurant and eating tuna melts every day. A tormentor named Jerome lurks on the sidelines, and Beverly desperately misses Raymie and Louisiana. DiCamillo’s genius is her ability to create such worlds without ever sugarcoating their gritty realities. “People were terrible to other people. That was the truth,” Beverly realizes. Yet amid life’s injustices, a fish restaurant waitress repeatedly urges Beverly to always dream big, and a cook named Doris stages a sit-down strike for better working conditions. In the end, although Beverly realizes she can’t run away from her past or her neglectful mother, she learns that she doesn’t have to be held back by either one. Instead, she can seek her own springboards to happiness. As Iola says, “Oh, I’m glad I needed you. I’m glad you needed me.” DiCamillo has described her trilogy as being about “becoming” and “the power of community.” Drawing each girl’s story with subtle yet bold strokes, DiCamillo delivers novels that feel both beautifully spare and deeply rich. With lovely reminders of the angels who help us all find our way in this sometimes unbearable world–as well as the enduring power of stories, kindness, hope and surprising possibilities–Beverly, Right Here completes DiCamillo’s superb trilogy, which is destined to remain a classic.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner (e-book): Late in The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s brilliant new novel, a character asks, “How do you rid yourself of a voice, keep it from becoming part of yours?” Voice is one of the central themes of this ingenious work that also serves as a commentary on the current political climate. One of the book’s three narrators is Adam Gordon, the protagonist of Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. When Adam was 8, he suffered a concussion that left him with migraines so severe that his speech became slurred. Now, in the late 1990s, Adam is a Kansas high school senior and a fierce debater who has taken part in national tournaments. Adam’s story makes clear that communication as well as voice–how people communicate or don’t, from debaters to therapists to anti-gay Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church–are as integral to the story as Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane Gordon, psychologists at an institute called the Foundation. Jane is the author of a bestselling book that some women have told her saved their marriage. Because of its success, Jane has received abusive phone calls from men, especially after her “Oprah” appearance, as well as harassment from Phelps and his crowd. Jonathan, meanwhile, struggles with his wife’s success and with his own fidelity. He left his first wife after he met Jane, and now with Jane’s career on the rise, he begins to have feelings for Sima, another Foundation psychologist, who is also Jane’s best friend. In the midst of these stories is that of Darren Eberheart, Adam’s classmate, who has committed a violent act that will have ramifications for the people around him. The importance of speech in the novel let’s Lerner comment on the state of politics, from glancing references to some people’s inability to decode irrational arguments to more direct critiques, as when he writes of a legendary debater at Adam’s school whose right-wing Kansas governorship would become “an important model for the Trump administration.” “How do you keep other voices from becoming yours?” is a key question of our time, or, for that matter, any era. The Topeka School provides no clear answers, but it memorably demonstrates how hard it can be to recognize insidious utterances for what they are.
Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik (e-book): Jessie Mihalik returns to her science fiction romance series with Aurora Blazing, as a noblewomen with secrets plays cat-and-mouse with her family’s security advisor. Bianca von Hasenberg is a woman with a lot to hide. Widowed under mysterious circumstances, Bianca fully leans into “mourning” her late husband, which grants her freedom from the strict Consortium courtly etiquette. Though she plays up the air-headed, materialistic royal role, Bianca has been cultivating a network of spies and complex digital connections for collecting intel. But her biggest secret is that she was her scientist husband’s guinea pig, and now has a modified mind and body that intercept communication signals from nearly everyone. Security Director Ian Bishop is a no-nonsense man who is loyal to the von Hasenberg family, though Bianca’s habit of sticking her nose into things where it doesn’t belong is often his biggest source of frustration. When Ferdinand, Bianca’s older brother, is kidnapped and Bianca is framed as a traitor, Ian is tasked with keeping her locked away. When she escapes, Ian chases Bianca across the galaxy as she searches for answers and Ian does his best to keep her out of harm’s way. Sci-fi romance is a relatively small subgenre and Mihalik’s imaginative series about the bonds of family amid scheming power plays feels like a refreshing sip of water after a long drought. The romance is tense, as Bianca and Ian both prefer to ignore whatever feelings they share. And with an intergalactic conspiracy as a backdrop, there is no shortage of action to rival the sizzling banter between the main couple. Bianca is an impressively strong heroine, given what she’s overcome both in childhood and marriage. The survivor she’s built herself to be is, well, totally awesome. She doesn’t need a blaster or superb fighting skills to get out of a tough situation. Instead, Bianca relies on her many connections and useful knowledge to gain the upper hand. And for romance readers who prefer the strong, silent type, Ian Bishop ticks all of the boxes. His sense of honor and duty is everything to him, but when pesky things like love get in the way, Ian must finally address how far he’ll go for his employer and his mission. Aurora Blazing is a standout, memorable book that oozes crossover appeal. Prefer action and adventure? One spaceship heist coming up! Find court intrigue and politics to be irresistible? Two ruling houses are at war, with a third desperately trying to remain neutral. Sucker for a happy ending? Well, it’s a romance, so there’s definitely that. Mihalik fills the void for every Star Wars fan who wished the franchise had more kissing.
The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys (e-book): In her stunning new novel, New York Times bestselling author Ruta Sepetys, author of Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray, turns her attention to a period rarely (if ever) covered in American young adult literature: 1950s Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco. The first part of The Fountains of Silence takes place in Madrid in 1957, as Sepetys follows four young people who are all trying to set the course for their futures through alternating chapters narrated in third person. Rafa must deal with blood every day in his job at a slaughterhouse, but blood is a part of his past as well. He is tormented by the memory of his father’s murder—which he and his sisters, Julia and Ana, witnessed firsthand—at the hands of “the Crows,” Franco’s guards. Ana, Rafa’s sister, is now a maid in a hotel and dreams of leaving Spain. She is drawn to a guest at the hotel named Daniel, a young white man from Texas. Daniel wants to be a photojournalist, a dream his father, a Texas oilman, is sure Daniel will outgrow. The fourth and final character, Puri, works with babies at a Madrid orphanage—some of whom may have been stolen from their parents. The novel depicts these characters’ lives, loves and often-difficult decisions as their paths intertwine. The second part of the book revisits all four characters nearly two decades later, when Daniel returns to Madrid after Franco’s death on November 20, 1975, and discovers a shocking secret. In an author’s note, Sepetys traces her interest in Spain to a trip she took while on a book tour, where she met readers fascinated by the past—a past that was often both hidden and painful. “I discovered that Spain is a classroom for the human spirit,” she writes. A 2011 article about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath drew her further into the country’s history. (For readers interested in learning more, the novel includes a substantial bibliography as well as a glossary.) With The Fountains of Silence, Sepetys has once again written gripping historical fiction with great crossover appeal to adult readers, combining impeccable research with sweeping storytelling.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (e-book): We already replace knees and lenses and hips with superior mechanical parts. We can implant devices to augment our abilities, from delivering insulin to stimulating the heart to beat. What happens when we can replace the whole body? Such is the question at the heart—or maybe CPU—of Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. The mechanics of the story are a bit convoluted to sum up in the space allotted, but try to follow along. In alternating chapters, four stories run parallel, one of them in the distant past (the summer of 1816, to be precise) and three in the present. The first tale is a (more or less) straight recounting of the circumstances surrounding Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The other three take place in contemporary society and concern a cryogenics facility in Arizona, a young transgender doctor who is mesmerized by an artificial intelligence specialist named—get this—Victor Stein and a recently divorced boor who has perfected a robotic sex doll. In many ways, though, the story is just a pretext for extended meditations on the meaning of love, the meaning of life and the coming “singularity,” in which consciousness can be uploaded like so many data points to be retransferred to a previously frozen human body or to a “more human than human” replicant à la Blade Runner.Surprisingly, it’s the sexbot engineer who poses some of the most cogent practical questions surrounding the possibility of cryogenic revival, including this one on inheritance: “Actually I was about to say, you can’t take it with you, but maybe you should! You drop dead. All your relatives spend the money, then bingo! You’re back! Then what?” Of course there are deeper concerns as well: What happens to the soul in the interregnum between death and reanimation? How do you love someone “forever” when forever is, quite literally, forever? What does gender mean in a replicant body . . . or no body at all? Much like its spiritual predecessor, B.F. Skinner’s 1948 novel, Walden Two, Winterson’s book occasionally sets up straw men to knock down, but also like Skinner, she may turn out to be more prophetic than she, or we, imagined.