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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best New Physical Books and E-Books at the Library: August 4, 2021

  • Black Boy Joy by Kwame Mbalia (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): In a short introduction to Black Boy Joy, anthology editor Kwame Mbalia reveals three secrets: He doesn’t like watching the news, he cries when he is happy, and he wants readers to be happy. He describes Black Boy Joy as what happened when he combined those three secrets with the contributions of 16 fellow Black authors. In addition to his role as editor, Mbalia also contributes the book’s framing story, “The Griot of Grover Street,” in which 11-year-old Fortitude Jones is called away from his aunt’s funeral to help a strange older man travel through the mysterious space between worlds to collect moments of joy. A mix of well-known and up-and-coming authors, including Jason Reynolds, Varian Johnson, Tochi Onyebuchi and Jerry Craft, create the moments themselves in 16 stories that highlight the sweetness of the extraordinary and the ordinary. Fantastical tales burst with the energy of intergalactic battles and magical games, and one story written in verse includes instructions for writing your own poem. In Lamar Giles’ incomparably titled “There’s Going to Be a Fight in the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman,” a boy named Cornell gets advice on a superpowered showdown from three generations of family members. In B.B. Alston’s “The McCoy Game,” two cousins reconnect after having grown apart. The young chef in Julian Winters’ “The Legendary Lawrence Cobbler” learns that his father’s love for him isn’t changed by the revelation that he likes boys. And a tween uses their 13th birthday as the occasion to come out as nonbinary in George M. Johnson’s “The Gender Reveal.” Every story’s protagonist is instantly endearing as they offer humor and hope and share their fears and dreams. The stories are honest and fresh, and the affection each contributor must have felt for both their characters and the reader while writing comes through clearly on every page. Black Boy Joy is a treasure to share and return to again and again.
  • Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (physical book available at the library; family drama): At the center of Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, is Rich Gundersen and his family. At 51, Rich is an aging logger in Northern California’s redwood forest. As the novel opens, he seizes the opportunity to buy a stand of redwoods that includes the mythic 24-7 tree, the numbers signifying its monstrous width of 24 feet, 7 inches. Without telling his wife, Colleen, Rich uses all their savings for the down payment. Collen is 34, a midwife mourning the death of her newborn, disturbed by the number of infant deaths in their rural community and upset that Rich is unwilling to try for another baby. The couple’s only child, Chub, is about to enter kindergarten. Taught by his father, Chub is already knowledgeable about the creeks and roads in the forest that lead him home. These are the first filaments of the magical web of story that Davidson weaves. The novel follows the family throughout 1977, a year of significant change. The National Park Service is slowly enlarging its holdings in the forest. The Gundersens’ house becomes part of the government takings for Redwood National Park, but the family will retain possession until Rich dies. Anti-logging activists have begun to harass loggers, and the local timber company is faltering, putting local livelihoods at risk. There is so much that is right and particular about this novel. Rarely will a reader have such a tactile experience of life in a forest logging community as one receives here. Davidson also sensitively portrays the fraught relationship between the Indigenous tribe of Yuroks and the white members of the logging community. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Colleen that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street. Davidson was born in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She’s studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.
  • The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert (physical book available at the library; historical fiction): Timothy Schaffert’s sixth novel has so much going for it that it’s hard to pinpoint only a few reasons why you will love it, but let us try nonetheless. Set in the German-occupied Paris of 1941, The Perfume Thief is the story of a queer American expat named Clementine who, after a life of notorious thievery all over the globe (think Robin Hood meets Indiana Jones), has retired in Paris and become a perfumer for the ladies of Madame Boulette’s cabaret. At 72 years old, Clementine, or Clem, believes she is too old to pull off any scams, especially one that involves fooling the Nazis. But that is exactly what she gets roped into doing when Clem’s friend Zoe St. Angel recruits her to steal the infamous diary and recipe book of the Parisian perfumer Pascal, who has gone missing. Not only does this diary reveal Zoe’s identity as a Jew, but it also might include concoctions that could be used as biological weapons by the Nazis. And so, Clem sets out to enchant and fool Francophile Nazi bureaucrat Oskar Voss in order to retrieve the sought-after book. It’s a thrill to be in Clem’s mind, to follow along as she sinks deeper and deeper into this mystery, as she worries about how to keep her loved ones safe, as she describes the City of Light crawling with Germans and as she reminisces about a long-ago love that still strikes a chord. With a healthy dose of romance, fashion and espionage and a glimpse of the lives of openly queer artists under Nazi occupation, The Perfume Thief is a reminder that Paris, even in the pages of a book, always makes for a great escape.
  • The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; popular fiction): Although Sara Nisha Adams makes her authorial debut with The Reading List, her connection to the world of books is not new. She has worked as a book editor and attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. Not only did this relationship cultivate a lifelong case of bibliophilia, but it also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading. We first meet Mukesh, a widower who is grieving the passing of his beloved wife (who was a voracious reader) and finds himself increasingly alienated from the rest of his family. Desperate to form a connection with his bookish granddaughter, Mukesh heads to the local library to try to better understand her. There he meets Aleisha, a teenager who dreams of becoming a lawyer and views her summer position at the library with disdain. Following a disastrous first meeting with Mukesh, Aleisha stumbles upon a mysterious list of book titles, which she decides she will recommend to Mukesh and read alongside him as a means of making amends. What begins as a whim soon transforms into a deeply enriching and gratifying experience. The books act as a lifeline for Mukesh and Aleisha as the two new friends navigate their personal tribulations. Reading is so often viewed as a solitary pursuit, but The Reading List turns that idea on its head, illustrating the ways one book can touch many lives and act as a shared point of empathy, uniting disparate individuals into a community. In Adams’ gentle novel, there is no sorrow or trouble so great that a good book–and a supportive friend–cannot help, and it is never too late to become a reader. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.
  • Billy Summers by Stephen King (physical book available at the library; thriller): Five decades into an almost singularly successful career, Stephen King goes in an intriguing new direction with Billy Summers. Though this novel includes many classic King touchstones–revenge, a writer hero, unlikely friendships, trauma, justice–its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works. As the novel opens, 44-year-old military sniper-turned-assassin Billy Summers is reluctantly agreeing to take on one last job. Though he only kills bad people (he considers himself “a garbageman with a gun”), Billy is tired of the isolation and violence his chosen career entails, as well as of the dull, incurious persona he puts on to deflect the attention of the dangerous people who hire him. The payday for this final assignment is astronomical, and the target undeniably deserves his fate, but what really convinces Billy to take on the job is the cover: He’ll have to pose as a writer who’s renting space in an office building to complete his first novel. The criminals who hired Billy find this cover story to be ironic due to Billy’s “dumb self” mask, but Billy, who secretly reveres Emile Zola and Tim O’Brien, is attracted to the idea of putting his own story on paper. As Billy begins to write about his traumatic childhood, his cover becomes increasingly real to him. But even as he sinks into his identity as “Dave,” the guileless would-be great American novelist who beats the pants off his neighbors at Monopoly and grabs drinks with a woman who works in his office building, he begins to sense that there’s more to this job than he’s being told. And of course, the hit is only the beginning of the action. The poignant beats in this early portion of Billy Summers will be familiar to readers of 11/22/63, which also features a main character with a hidden mission who becomes a part of a community even as he deceives the people around him. But given that this novel is about a hit man, the violence kicks in quickly and continues through most of the book. King’s trademark skill with suspense and action is on display in several thrilling set pieces, including the breathlessly paced original hit, but this novel also stretches his literary ambitions. Much of Billy’s autofiction appears on the page in a book within a book that gives readers a deeper understanding of its main character. And while Billy shifts between personas and dons physical disguises with aplomb, his internal self comes more clearly into focus as he writes about his experiences and interrogates the stories he’s been telling himself about his past–and about himself. Billy might kill only bad people, but he’s still a killer. Can a person who ends the lives of others ever be considered good? Misery, The Dark Half, Lisey’s Story and The Shining all feature writers as characters, but their craft was either incidental or corrosive. In Billy Summers, the art of creating fiction is portrayed as an empowering force. By taking control of our stories, King suggests, we can begin to heal, find hope and even discover a truth that is more profound than reality. These resonant ideas provide a somber counterpoint to the action in this contemplative thriller.

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

  • A Good Day for Chardonnay by Darynda Jones (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; mystery): Readers who enjoy murder mysteries with lots of intertwined plotlines, quirky characters and zany hijinks topped off with a healthy dose of sexiness will be delighted by bestselling author Darynda Jones’ A Good Day for Chardonnay. The small tourist town of Del Sol, New Mexico, is populated by unruly residents who are staunchly community-minded and happen to be, per Sheriff Sunshine Vicram’s hilariously lusty inner monologues, quite desirable. She says that her lifelong crush, local-badboy-turned-wealthy-distillery-owner Levi Ravinder and his family look “as though [they were] chiseled by the gods…[with] lean, solid bodies and razor-sharp jawlines.” But while Sunshine is often mightily distracted by eye candy, she’s also dedicated to–and excellent at–her job. She’s been back in town for four months after being away for 15 years, and she has multiple mysteries to solve. The newest include a bar fight gone terribly wrong; resurfaced cold cases with ties to her own traumatic past; and a raft of false confessions. On top of that, the mayor is pressuring her to figure out if the Dangerous Daughters secret society (rumored to have run the town for decades) is real or just local legend. And then there’s Sunshine’s daughter Auri, whom fans met in series kickoff A Bad Day for Sunshine. The smart, reckless teenager is determined to solve crimes just like her mom, and she pursues a sweet old lady who might be a serial killer. Auri is also Sunshine’s personal mystery: at 17, the sheriff was abducted by Levi’s uncle and held captive for five days, after which she emerged pregnant and with severe memory loss. Will Levi’s family finally answer Sunshine’s questions about her abduction? Can she catch the marauding raccoon that’s terrorizing the town? How are the cold cases tied to these complex new crimes? With her trademark warmth and humor, Jones answers some of these questions and raises even more, nicely teeing up the next installment in Sunshine’s complicated, sexy and highly entertaining life story.
  • A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (physical book available at the library; science fiction): Dex is a monk of Allalae, the god of small comforts, living in the only city on the planet of Panga. Their city and its satellite villages are the only parts of their world where humans have lived since the Factory Age, which ended when human-built robots suddenly achieved consciousness and asked to be given the freedom to choose their own path through existence. The robots vanished into the wilderness, and the humans have lived in their cities alone ever since. After Sibling Dex begins ruminating on a recording of evening crickets–a sound that they have never heard in reality, as generations ago, crickets were rendered extinct in areas inhabited by humans–they start to see all the other ways they feel unfulfilled. They decide to become a tea monk, a vocation devoted to helping people in the satellite villages through a combination of good listening and good tea. But after years tending to the villages, Dex’s cricketsong wanderlust remains unfulfilled, and they leave the trails between human habitations behind, striking off into the foreign forests. Typically, we assume that stories require conflict, and this is particularly true in genre fiction, in which there are worlds to be saved, aliens and elves to be romanced and new technologies and ancient incantations to be discovered. So it is striking that Becky Chambers’ novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built is narratively compelling without anything approximating a typical science fiction conflict. Rather, it is a story of discovery, fueled by the tension of exploring a small slice of an unknown world, like a more tightly constructed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In keeping with the rest of Chambers’ work, Psalm is a remarkably personal story set within a much larger saga; in this instance, she sets Sibling Dex’s journey across Panga against a canvas of rapid, large-scale sociocultural evolution. And although Psalm is separate from Chambers’ Wayfarers series, it follows many of the same themes: the strength of platonic bonds, thoughtful engagement with one’s environment and personal growth. It also retains the fundamental hopefulness and aspirational nature of her longer works. A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the perfect length. If it were shorter, it would be unsatisfying. But if it were longer, its meditative tenor might have become unsustainable, even with Chambers’ sense of whimsy shining through as frequently and naturally as it does. Introspection and humor are perfectly balance, to the point that these two tones literally bracket the novella: The first line is a shot of humor that admirably sets the mood and grabs the reader’s attention, while the last line is a draught of peaceful gratification reminiscent of one of Dex’s prized brews. This duality is characteristic of Chambers’ work, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built admirably demonstrates how it can translate beautifully into shorter formats. Psalm also highlights Chambers’ talent for world-building without excessive description. The ubiquity of ox-bikes, which are bicycles aided by electric motors to handle towing loads and climbing hills, speaks more clearly to Panga’s wholesale commitment to sustainable technology than pages of exposition. Similarly, the nature of this world’s six gods–including their separation into Parent Gods representing natural forces (Bosh, the god of the life cycle; Grylom, the god of the inanimate; and Trikilli of the framework of natural laws) and Child Gods representing human creation or action (Allalae of small comforts; Chal, the god of constructs; and Samafar, the god of mysteries)–paints a remarkably detailed picture of the cultural ethos of Panga society. And the tea monks, journeying through satellite villages, providing solace with a kind ear and a warm mug of tea, highlight this culture’s deeply collectivist bent. A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a worthy addition to Becky Chambers’ already burgeoning oeuvre. It distills her established interest in moving the grand conflicts of genre fiction to the background, in favor of more inspiring personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.
  • If the Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; contemporary romance): Julie Murphy’s first adult romance, If the Shoe Fits, is also the first book in the Meant to Be series, in which different authors will create contemporary rom-coms inspired by Disney princesses. Murphy’s reimagining of Cinderella takes place on the set of a reality TV show, where a young woman becomes an overnight body-positivity sensation. Cindy Woods is an aspiring shoe designer who works for her TV executive stepmother, Erica. When Erica needs a last-minute stand-in for her reality dating show, “Before Midnight,” Cindy steps up, thinking she’ll be sent home early and can get right back to working on her own dreams in the fashion industry. As the only plus-size contestant, Cindy immediately captures the hearts of viewers and is seen as an inspiration by many fans of the show. While Cindy had hoped her role would be a temporary distraction, she soon becomes one of the leading competitors vying for Prince Charming’s love. The prince is Henry Mackenzie, the heir to a formerly successful but now failing fashion company. He’s agreed to be the lead of the show as a way of revitalizing the brand. A mutual love of design sparks Henry’s and Cindy’s interest in each other, and the two fashion-loving nerds talking shop and debating various trends makes for great on-page chemistry. Henry is the perfect support for the self-assured and unabashedly passionate Cindy, and their light-on-angst courtship allows Murphy to focus on their individual character journeys. The Cinderella story wouldn’t be the same without a stepmother and stepsisters, but Murphy thankfully elevates them into complex characters rather than irredeemable villains. Erica and her two daughters can be a bit superficial, but they’re also grieving the loss of Cindy’s beloved father, and there are sweet moments of familial love and support between all four characters. Fan of “The Bachelor” franchise, especially those who cast a more critical eye on the images and storylines crafted onscreen, will really enjoy this fairy-tale romantic comedy. Cindy didn’t set out to become a voice for bodies like hers, but she is cast in that role regardless. She must navigate all the typical challenges of being a reality show contestant while also having her personality flattened into “the body-positivity girl,” which has both positive and negative repercussions. If the Shoe Fits is a confident, modern and magical romance that starts the Meant to Be series on the right foot.

Best New Physical Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks at the Library: July 28, 2021

  • The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): The funny and sharp fourth novel by acclaimed Bangladesh-born British author Tahmima Anam, The Startup Wife, exposes the folly of looking for leadership in the startup sector, which reveres disruption in all areas except its own. In this brilliantly incisive social novel, a quasi-faith community springs from a social media platform called WAI, short for “We Are Infinite.” WAI uses an algorithm to design personalized rituals based on three meaningful elements of a person’s life–and then introduces that person to a like-minded community. It’s easy to see why WAI would be appealing. Its rituals fill the void many modern-day people feel in the absence of organized religion. The platform’s essential concept is that if we treat something as sacred, we believe that it is more than entertainment, that it offers moral rewards and is worthy of rigorous contemplation. (Listeners to the “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” podcast will find this idea familiar.) But first, the novel begins with a love story: Thirteen years after high school, Asha Ray reunites with her crush, Cyrus Jones, when they attend a memorial for their late English teacher. Asha is four years into her Ph.D. at Harvard, and Cyrus has become a charismatic spiritual polyglot. He’s traveled the world, collecting bits of philosophy and religion from an endless variety of sources, and distilled them into something people can use in their own lives. “I create rituals,” he says. Cyrus and Asha’s intellectual connection is intense, and soon, so is their physical relationship. The novel focuses on their all-encompassing, interconnected work-life partnership, which also includes, to a lesser extent, their best friend, Jules. When Asha’s artificial intelligence research hits a roadblock, she draws inspiration from Cyrus’ work and decides “to start a platform that [allows] people without religion to practice a form of faith.” Through Asha’s programming wizardry, WAI becomes a life-changing phenomenon. But it quickly becomes clear that the platform, intended to bring people together, is likely to blow the triad apart. The Startup Wife is framed as a satirical novel about startup culture, but because Americans revere that culture, its foibles and failings are our failures, too. Tech investors subscribe to the “great man” theory of history as much as the rest of America, and this unavoidable fact begins to spoil Asha’s relationships with her two male partners. Investors are more apt to provide valuable exposure and support to a passion project fronted by a brilliant (usually white) man rather than a geeky brown woman. So even though Asha’s research is the source of the platform’s Empathy Module algorithm, handsome Cyrus becomes the figurehead for WAI. Initially resistant to making his spiritual practice into a business, he is easily seduced into playing CEO and messiah. While The Startup Wife is full of beautifully messy and enviable characters, Asha’s fierce feminism and candor stand out. Of course, she’s far from innocent. She’s a creative genius who wants her due, just as any man would. But it’s a delight to experience Asha’s first-person perspective of the world and her metamorphosis into a powerful, flawed woman. Because The Startup Wife is sexy and funny and puts relationships at the forefront, it might be easy to overlook its depth and sophistication. But its priorities are right where they should be. When people create a community with their friends and lovers, it is inevitable that boundaries will dissolve and that friendship, love, ego and identity will become intertwined. The Startup Wife‘s insights about modern relationships, gender politics, race, technology and culture are as excellent and vital as its storytelling.
  • Last Guard by Nalini Singh (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; paranormal romance): In a society obsessed with genetic perfection, any difference is a cause for concern. In the midst of a gorgeous love story about childhood friends reunited, Nalini Singh’s Last Guard beautifully depicts both the perils of that obsession and its alternative: a world in which difference can be strength. Canto Mercant and Payal Rao were born into two of the wealthiest and most influential Psy families, but with privilege came a dangerous fixation. To their families, any variation is weakness, and no weakness is tolerated. When a child shows signs of being atypical in any way, they’re shuttled out of public view. Canto has limited use of his legs, and Payal has been traumatized by her brother’s physical abuse; her ensuing rage results in her being labeled mentally and emotionally unstable. Canto and Payal are both shipped off to an out-of-the-way boarding school. As “7J” and “3K” respectively, they’re subjected to terrible abuse and their lives are assumed to be unworthy of preservation. Amid this nightmare, the two brilliant and beautiful children form a friendship, creating an unbreakable bond through small acts of kindness. In a glorious moment of defiance, Payal saves Canto from a teacher who was on the verge of killing him. The teacher dies in the melee, families are contacted, and the children removed. But Canto and Payal never forget one another. Canto’s father subscribed to toxic, eugenicist ideas of perfection, but his mother’s family, who takes him in after he leaves school, holds no such beliefs. Nurtured by the tightknit Mercants, Canto gains fierce love, protection and the best medical care. He even gains another family after he’s embraced by his cousin Silver’s Changeling mate, an alpha bear shifter named Valentin, and his rambunctious clan. But he never stops searching for 3K. Payal returns to her father, who considers her defective and only values her as a better alternative to his violent and psychopathic son. She endures by leaving all emotion behind, rising to the position of CEO in the family business. Outwardly cold, contained and inscrutable, she’s painfully isolated and constantly fighting to stay in control. When she’s diagnosed with life-threatening brain tumors, necessary medication is meted out in small increments to keep her in line and under her father’s thumb. The eventual reunion of these two souls would be more than enough to sustain any novel. But Singh also seamlessly intertwines wonderfully precise discussions of disability into Canto and Payal’s evolution from childhood friend to adult lovers. Ableism is not just challenged; it’s trounced as Canto and Payal talk candidly about the tools and adaptations they use to survive and thrive. Last Guard also goes deep on efforts to save the crumbling PsyNet, the psychic network in which Canto and Payal play an essential role, so while strongly recommended for its life-affirming love story, Last Guard is best enjoyed if readers are already fully immersed in Singh’s Psy-Changeling lore. For readers with a firm grounding in the previous books, however, slipping back into the Psy-Changeling world in Last Guard will feel like coming home.
  • What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): According to the UN Refugee Agency, there were more than 26 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2019. Amid food insecurity, oppression and injustice, the global refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing, as migrants dare to cross dangerous seas on overcrowded ferries, fishing trawlers or other vessels in hopes of finding a better life. Many refugees fail to reach the next shore, becoming victims of dangerous waters or border patrols who turn them away. For Amir Utu, a 9-year-old Syrian boy in Omar El Akkad’s riveting second novel, What Strange Paradise, the voyage is at first a grand adventure, like in the comic books he reads. But after washing ashore on an unnamed island’s beach as the only survivor, Amir soon learns that this is no adventure but rather a matter of survival. Almost at once, he is pursued by soldiers combing the beach, and he must flee to escape them though he barely understands why he is running in the first place. Amir’s flight brings him in contact with 15-year-old Vanna Hermes, who takes pity on him, hides him from the soldiers and tries to help him to safety. Amir is unable to understand Vanna’s language, but as the pair builds an unusual bond, Amir finds a friend amid a hostile world. An international journalist and author of the acclaimed novel American War, El Akkad shapes What Strange Paradise mostly through Amir’s point of view, alternating between the boy’s immediate past and his present situation as he struggles to comprehend his plight. The author’s decision to focus on Amir’s youthful innocence serves to downplay the serious political undertones of the refugee crisis, transforming the boy’s tale into an intimate action-adventure story that’s laced with hope and compassion, emotions with the power to transcend borders and worldly disputes.

Best New E-Books and E-Audiobooks at the Library: July 12, 2021

  • The Man Who Hated Women by Amy Sohn (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; American history): This engrossing new history of American women’s fight to gain autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive choices has a somewhat misleading title: The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. While Anthony Comstock, the “anti-vice” crusader and U.S. postal inspector, was without a doubt a man who hated women, his story is ultimately less significant than those of the brave women who stood up to him at the dawn of the 20th century. Comstock’s drive to root out and destroy materials that he considered pornographic led to the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the U.S. Postal Service. In his role as postal inspector, and inspired by a mania for “purity,” he defined pamphlets and books about contraception and family planning as “obscene” and subsequently hounded, prosecuted and even drove to suicide people who disseminated such information. Bestselling author Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock’s efforts in The Man Who Hated Women. Suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, free love advocate Angela Heywood, spiritualist Ida C. Craddock, abortionist Madame Restell, anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control defender Margaret Sanger are just a few who doggedly fought against the Comstock laws in order to bring information about sex and birth control to American women at the turn of the century. Sohn has unearthed a wealth of vivid historic detail about these women’s resistance to Comstock’s censorship. Dr. Sara Chase, for example, not only sued Comstock for damaging her medical practice but named the vaginal syringe she sold to women for contraceptive douching the “Comstock syringe.” Craddock, who believed that sex was a deeply spiritual act, fought for the rights of Egyptian belly dancers to perform the “hoochie-coochie.” Sohn places these mostly forgotten “sex radicals” at the center of the history of the women’s rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.
  • This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Body, mind & spirit): Acclaimed writer Michael Pollan, author of several notable books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and most recently How to Change Your Mind, returns with This Is Your Mind on Plants, which delves into the deep relationships humans have with three mind-altering plants: opium, coffee and mescaline. Pollan begins this book with an updated version of his Harper’s essay from 1997, in which he writes about attempting to grow poppies to make opium tea for his personal enjoyment–and about the intense anxiety over planting the poppies in his own garden. Confused over whether or not it was legal to grow poppies, Pollan conducted research that led him into a morass of penal contradictions, not to mention the philosophical puzzle of why certain drugs and not others are illegal to begin with. Next Pollan describes his monthlong detox from caffeine, his preferred drug of choice. During this experiment he experiences mental dullness, lethargy and an intense inability to focus–a writer’s nightmare. Caffeine is a legal drug, of course, but Pollan can’t help but notice how it has a much stronger effect on him than his opium tea did. The relationship between humans and coffee is centuries deep, and Pollan helpfully connects the history of coffee-drinking to our modern-day reliance on caffeine. The final section is devoted to the study of mescaline: its uses but also who gets to use it. Pollan explores some interesting history involving Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and after taking mescaline himself during a Native American peyote ceremony, Pollan makes fair observations about the recent cultural appropriation of mescaline. Readers of How to Change Your Mind will recognize Pollan’s thoughtful and scientific approach to the subject of psychedelic drugs and altered states of consciousness. This Is Your Mind on Plants is an entertaining blend of memoir, history and social commentary that illustrates Pollan’s ability to be both scientific and personal. By relying on contextual history and focusing on three popular, if misunderstood, drugs, Pollan challenges common views on what mind-altering drugs are and what they can accomplish.
  • The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical fiction): Yona, born Inge, doesn’t remember much about her parents or the world outside the forest. The day before her second birthday, Yona was stolen from her German parents by an elderly Jewish woman named Jerusza. Jerusza was driven by intuition; she knew she must take the girl from her family and into the forest. Yona’s childhood is unconventional, as she learns not only survival skills but also multiple languages. Jerusza’s care is practical, never maternal. The girl doesn’t know love, but she knows how to survive. Not long after Jerusza’s death, Yona encounters other people in the forest. They’re Jewish, and they’ve fled their villages to escape persecution by the Germans. Yona knows how to help, but by sharing her skills, she’s inviting human connection like she’s never known–and risking her heart in the process. Although Kristin Harmel’s The Forest of Vanishing Stars is fiction, the bestselling author’s research contributes richness and authenticity to this captivating tale. During the Holocaust, Jewish people escaped from ghettos and created forest settlements, banding together to survive both genocide and the wild. In addition to showcasing her exceptional historical research, Harmel’s novel explores the frailty of human connection. Yona finds joy and sorrow in bonding with others, and in the process, she learns more about the world she was born into. Yona knows she is German, and as she tries to protect the people she’s met, she begins to question whether she truly belongs in the encampment. “In the times of greatest darkness, the light always shines through, because there are people who stand up to do brave, decent things,” says one of the men Yona meets in the forest. “In moments like this, it doesn’t matter what you were born to be. It matters what you choose to become.”
  • The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card; Fantasy): Brian Staveley’s previous trilogy, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, followed intricately intertwined political machinations in a vast world with an extensive history. The Empire’s Ruin begins a new arc set in the same universe and tells the stories of three characters: Gwenna, a member of an elite group of soldiers who serve the Annurian Empire; Akiil, a monk turned con artist; and Ruc, a priest trying to survive in the dangerous swamp town of Dombang. Even readers unfamiliar with Staveley’s earlier books will enjoy this lengthy, immersive fantasy. Staveley frequently narrates from triads of point-of-view characters, and while the three protagonists of The Empire’s Ruin start in dramatically different places, they all serve to tell the same story: the slow, inevitable decline of the Annurian Empire, which is still reeling from the events of the previous trilogy. Ruc experiences the consequences of the empire’s weakened grip firsthand, as a victim of the violent streets of Dombang, which has seceded from the empire. Gwenna carries out the Empress’s orders to explore and scavenge undiscovered territory across a vast ocean as Akiil attempts to work a con on the Empress herself. The world of The Empire’s Ruin is unremittingly bleak, and while Staveley embraces the physical violence that’s all too common in this world, he focuses far more on the psychological impact of living in a crumbling society. Each character here, even beyond the three main characters, battles external corruption and violence while simultaneously battling their own fears of inadequacy, internal corruption and severe depression (except for Akiil, who is a dirtbag who deserves the comeuppance he will eventually receive). Gwenna, Akiil and Ruc are all prone to monologuing and soliloquies, to the point that it sometimes feels as if Staveley has written three separate fantasy versions of Hamlet. At times, this focus on introspection can make certain sections feel interminable. And while this feels like an intentional choice on Staveley’s part, to demonstrate each character’s narrow focus on their own struggles, it does hurt the book’s overall pacing. But by the end of The Empire’s Ruin, most readers will still be itching for more. Those looking for a thoughtful, dark fantasy with action and well-earned twists would do well to pick this one up.

The Library as Platform for Community Conversation and Engagement

Change begins with a conversation. It doesn’t begin with angry arguments, hatred or apathy. It begins with mutual understanding, love and deep empathy. If we all leave politics aside, most people would agree that no one deserves to be without a home or the basic needs with which to survive. We decided this as a nation when we built a social safety net after the Great Depression. People often seem to diverge when it comes to exactly *how* we solve problems, both on a national scale and at the local level.

I’ve observed (and unfortunately been a part of) numerous political arguments, both in-person and online. What I’ve seen recently is a lack of willingness to even have a conversation with someone who may not agree with everything you stand for. These ‘arguments’ were once healthy debate and have since devolved into a reluctance to try to understand where another person may be coming from. The more we demonize each other by dismissing someone as a “boomer” or a “snowflake” or any other name (many not so nice), the further away we get from meaningful change. As much as I like to disagree with the other political party, I truly believe that many people on separate sides of the aisle would like to see a lot of the same outcomes but can’t seem to agree on how we get there.

Last week, the library had a Community Book Discussion that brought a little light through the clouds of divisiveness. It is my hope that conversations like these happening at libraries all over the country will continue to part the clouds.

At the beginning of the year, the Jacksonville Public Library won a grant from the American Library Association through the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative. This grant allowed the library to purchase a small fleet of tablets, books for everyone who participated and advertisement for the event. The tablets allowed those without Internet or technology at home the chance to participate in the conversation because it took place on Zoom.

I first decided on the idea for this project in the late fall/early winter of 2020. I saw an article about the challenges that our local community chaplain/resource officer, Alan Bradish, was facing in terms of trying to secure a space for a temporary homeless shelter. Although a different space was eventually used for the duration of the winter, there is still no permanent shelter for people without a home as of July 2021. The article that I saw on social media discussing this issue had a handful of misinformed and mean-spirited comments. Also, the Jacksonville Public Library has always been a welcoming place where those without a home can spend their time and it felt imperative for the library to be part of the conversation. I felt like there had to be a way to get people to talk about poverty and homelessness in our community in a more constructive and meaningful way. Once I saw the grant announcement, it felt like the perfect opportunity to make my thoughts become reality. I reached out to Alan Bradish along with a local sociology professor at Illinois College, Dr. Jackie Tabor. They were gracious enough to co-lead the discussion with me to bring their perspectives and knowledge to everyone.

All of the participants in the discussion received the book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond when they signed up for the event. The goal was to use the book as a starting point and to give participants a grounding in the subject matter, particularly if they hadn’t experienced poverty in their own lives. Even though the book takes place in Milwaukee, the same themes and struggles can be witnessed in our much smaller town. The book follows multiple people and families who are consistently on the verge of housing insecurity. My feelings while reading this book ranged from deep sadness to rage and not much in-between. Many of the participants shared similar experiences while reading Evicted. Even though I both wrote and chose questions to ask in case the conversation petered out, there were fewer opportunities to ask them than I had anticipated.

Everyone kept the conversation going with a sharing of experiences and ideas. People with a broad range of opinions immediately began sharing what they thought of both the book and ways to potentially help locally. Alan gave everyone a lot of options in terms of community resources that already exist. A number of people reached out to me after the event to tell me that they would be contacting Alan to see how they could help and volunteer their time.

There were times throughout the conversation when a few people disagreed with each other ideologically but for the most part, everyone remained civil and tried to get on the same page. By the end of the conversation, everyone agreed that something needed to be done to help the “working poor” or those struggling to maintain housing. The main solution presented in the Desmond book is a national housing voucher system. We talked about this solution briefly but immediately realized that the solution may need to be even bigger than that. In order to end poverty once and for all in this country, the issue would need to be addressed differently depending on the zip code. Something that would work in Los Angeles certainly would not work in Jacksonville and then there are all the cities of various population sizes in between. It’s hard to imagine such a complex and creative idea that could address eviction and poverty on such a large scale. One suggestion from a participant was that people who care about poverty should run for office so that some of these programs could be brought to light. One thing is for certain: most people who read the book and shared in the conversation left that night knowing more about their community and those in need and learned of ways to follow up if they so chose.

I was pleasantly surprised by everything that occurred during the discussion because I didn’t know what to expect. I had never run a book discussion with so many people and I was afraid it might be overwhelming if a number of people tried to talk at once. However, I announced a few ground rules about how to talk and mute on Zoom and it seemed to clear up any issues that may have occurred. All in all, 42 people attended and learned from one another. To paraphrase something that I stated in my grant proposal… it’s very difficult to hold on to an uninformed opinion about the lives of others when you’ve just read hundreds of pages illuminating something you may have known nothing about. I can certainly say I learned from what every single person had to say and it filled my heart with hope to hear people with different ideologies be able to have a big picture discussion again.

After the event, around 15 people e-mailed me to talk about how much they enjoyed being able to join in. Many expressed an interest in events like this in the future. After some brain-storming, we’ve decided that the library will begin hosting “article” discussions. These discussions will be based on long-form articles about a range of topics from science to social issues to so much more. The idea is that most people are busy and a long article is more accessible to everyone. We’ll make the events hybrid so people can attend either in-person or on Zoom. This might not happen every month but I’d also love to be able to find someone in the community who is an “expert” or well-informed on the topic at hand to help with the discussion. I haven’t set a date or named this idea yet but watch the Jacksonville Public Library website (www.jaxpl.org) or social media for announcements.

Thank you again to everyone who was involved for making this a wonderful experience for so many people. Let’s all continue talking and working together to make Jacksonville the best it can be. -Sarah Snyder, Assistant Director/Adult Services Librarian

Best New Physical Books and E-Books at the Library

  • Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (physical book available at the library; short stories): In fiction, the corporal ecstasy of sexual tension often comes in peaks and waves. That’s not always how it feels in reality, however. In Brandon Taylor’s short story collection, sexual tension acts more like an undertow, lurking to pull its victims down below. Author Roxane Gay has described the stories in Filthy Animals as “melancholic”–truly the right word for this collection. Taylor’s characters endure rape, sexual abuse, suicide, violence, cancer and familial abandonment while searching for friendship, love, sex or even just respect. Many of his characters are LGBTQ, partially closeted and living in the Midwest, which in many cases amplifies their struggles. Several of the stories center on three young adults named Lionel, Charles and Sophie. Lionel is a former graduate student who recently tried to take his life. At a party, he meets Charles and Sophie, two dance students who are in an open relationship. The enigmatic and possibly sinister couple is drawn to Lionel’s fragility, and they begin to pull at his threads, trying to unravel him. Taylor’s depiction of the complicated power dynamics in an open relationship calls to mind Luster, Raven Leilani’s brilliant debut novel. As difficult as the subject matter may be to stomach at times, Filthy Animals is full of beautiful writing. However, since some stories feature the same characters and others do not, the reading experience lacks cohesion. It’s easy to spend too much time trying to find connections where none exist, which can be a frustrating way to engage with a book. Nevertheless, the characters in Filthy Animals are relatable in ways we may not want to admit to ourselves, especially regarding unmet desire. A reader doesn’t need to share Lionel’s mental health issues and sexual confusion to understand his shame at being truly seen. Fans of Taylor’s work will be fascinated by Filthy Animals, but newcomers should be aware that it’s an intense read.
  • The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; mystery): History, mystery and legend collide in The Night Hawks, the atmospheric and intense 13th entry in British author Elly Griffiths’ bestselling series starring forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway. Ruth has recently returned to the Norfolk fens, leaving behind a job at Cambridge University as well as her ex-boyfriend Frank Barker. She’s now head of archeology at the University of North Norfolk, complete with a lovely large office and employee David Brown, who seems to love dismissing her authority almost as much as he loves going on digs. Another constant presence at the digs are the Night Hawks, a group of licensed metal detectorists who are excited at the prospect of buried treasure at nearby Blakeney Point beach. Alas, while the eventual discovery they make there is notable, it’s not in the way they’d hoped. Certainly, a hoard of Bronze Age artifacts is an excellent find, especially with a very old skeleton in their midst–but nearby, they also find the much more recent corpse of a man with a tattoo that resembles the mythical Norfolk Sea Serpent. As special advisor to the local police, Ruth is called to the scene by Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, who is the father of her 10-year-old daughter, Kate. She and the police have just begun to unravel the bodies’ and artifacts’ origins when there is another gruesome discovery: the presumed murder-suicide of a married couple at a remote farmhouse that locals believe is haunted by the Black Shuck, a harbinger of death in the form of a huge black dog with frightening red eyes. Even stranger, the Night Hawks discovered this tragedy as well, and the investigators begin to wonder if the group, rather than simply stumbling across crimes, is somehow involved in them. Like the seaweed that lays in messy heaps on the rocky Norfolk beach, the interplay among Griffiths’ appealingly varied characters becomes ever more tangled as the story progresses, making for an intriguing mix of secrets, loyalties and ulterior motives. The Night Hawks will delight longtime fans and new readers alike with its spooky-beautiful setting, layered mysteries and authentically complex relationships.
  • The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; historical fiction): “Your act goes against everything I stand for and everything I’ve worked for,” Richard T. Greener tells his wife in The Personal Librarian. Despite the fact that Richard is a civil rights activist and Harvard University’s first Black graduate, his wife claimed their family was white on the 1905 New York state census. The act tears the family apart. Richard eventually leaves his wife and children, who change their surname to “Greene,” and his daughter Belle adds “da Costa” to her name, claiming Portuguese ancestors as a way to explain her complexion and still pass for white. Belle da Costa Greene grows up to become J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian and one of the most influential librarians in America. Belle’s unlikely rise to fame forms the heart of this engrossing, dramatic novel, and co-authors Marie Benedict (who is white) and Victoria Christopher Murray (who is Black) do an admirable job of trying to imagine whether her achievements were worth the sacrifices. Despite the fact that Belle burned her personal papers before she died, no doubt to protect her secret, the authors succeed in bringing her elusive, charismatic personality to life, highlighting her attention-grabbing style, her witty quips and her rich, complicated relationship with Morgan. Although the novel may have benefitted from a more sharply focused narrative arc, the authors take full advantage of the treasure trove of intriguing historical detail at their disposal. The Personal Librarian explores high-stakes art auctions; Belle’s long-lasting love affair with art critic Bernard Berenson, who had his own secret (his Jewish Lithuanian roots); friendships and encounters with the likes of dancer Isadora Duncan; and an art show featuring the works of Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse. As Belle grapples with her ongoing fear of having her secret discovered, she realizes she can’t have children at the risk of having a dark-skinned baby–although it’s hard to imagine how a husband or child would have fit into her busy, globe-trotting lifestyle. There is much to enjoy in The Personal Librarian, as well as much to consider, especially the tragic central dilemma of Belle’s life: “While Papa held beautiful dreams of equality for us all, Mama saved me–and all my siblings–from the segregation and racism in America, freeing me to fulfill that early promise Papa saw in me.”
  • The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright (physical book available at library; literary fiction): The long overdue publication of Richard Wright’s short novel The Man Who Lived Underground could not be more timelier. In the opening section, which he began writing in 1941, Wright constructs a harrowing episode of a falsely accused Black man named Fred Daniels who is beaten near senseless by police officers intent on getting a confession. Sadly, Wright’s brutal realism still resonates 80 years later. When his agent and publisher originally rejected the book, Wright pared down the material into a truncated short story with the same title. This new edition, which languished in manuscript form among his papers, restores Wright’s original vision. Triggered by a true story that Wright read of a man who lived underground in Los Angeles for a year, the novel is set in an unidentified city. Once Fred Daniels escape police custody, he descends through a manhole and encounters a dank, subterranean network of tunnels that leads him to the cellars of a series of businesses–butcher, jewelry store, insurance company with a safe full of money, greengrocer. His thefts from these establishments come to mean nothing, for he now lives in a world where such material possessions are meaningless. He listens to hymns through the walls of a church and begins to view sin and salvation from a new perspective. He becomes alienated from the “normal” world, seemingly forgetting that he has left a wife and infant behind, and his alienation frees him in ways that can be viewed as either liberation or insanity. While issues of race launch the story, these issues weren’t the impetus for the novel. As Wright explains in an accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother,” The Man Who Lived Underground is an attempt at something far more complicated: an allegory for religion, guilt and alienation. It was inspired by Wright’s deeply religious grandmother, who lived apart from the world even as she lived among people–hating anyone who did not share her beliefs but adhering to society’s rules. It’s informed, too, Wright says, by blues rhythms and surrealistic perceptions, and it borrows, consciously or not, from the hard-boiled urban fiction of the era. Wright also reveals in his essay a long fascination with stories about invisible men, and The Man Who Lived Underground at times pulses with a certain pulp fiction sensibility, located somewhere between Wright’s usual gritty realism and a more heightened, fabulist realm. “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration, or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom,” he writes. Enigmatic and haunting, Wright’s restored novel adds layers to his legacy as one of the leading Black writers in American literary history.