On the Horizon by Lois Lowry and Kenard Pak (available as an e-book and an e-audiobook on the Axis 360 app): In 1940, when two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry was 3 years old, her father made a home movie of her as she played on a beach in Hawaii, where Lowry’s family lived. Years later, while watching the film, Lowry realized the USS Arizona, the battleship that sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was visible on the horizon. The poignancy of the image stayed with the author and served as one of the inspirations for her book On the Horizon. Each of On the Horizon’s three sections intertwine Lowry’s personal history with vignettes of sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack and of civilians in Japan, where Lowry moved with her family after the end of the war. Lowry’s desire to connect with and understand other people and their experiences unites the poems. In “Girl on a Bike,” for example, Lowry recalls the day she stopped outside a schoolyard to watch children playing. In an extraordinary coincidence, one of those children, a boy named Koichi Seii, grew up to become the Caldecott Medalist Allen Say. Say and Lowry never met in Japan, but years later, Say recalled seeing Lowry and her green bicycle outside his school that day. Lowry’s experiences–as a young child in Honolulu and a girl who grew up in Japan–provide her with a unique perspective on the major events that bookend World War II. But one of On the Horizon’s greatest strengths is that Lowry expands her gaze and incorporates the experiences of others. Although the USS Arizona was, that day on the beach, so far away as to appear “on the horizon,” Lowry employs a literary zoom lens to capture poignant portraits of the ship’s crew, including the members of the Navy band and commanding officer Captain Isaac Campbell Kidd. In “Captain Kidd,” Lowry links Kidd’s name to memories of her grandmother’s stories of pirates before revealing that, during the attack, Kidd ran to the bridge of the ship: “His Naval Academy ring / was found melted and fused to the mast. / It is not an imaginary thing, / a symbol of devotion so vast.” Through deceptively plainspoken prose layered with imagery and linguistic artistry, On the Horizon’s remarkable poems are a powerful reminder of our shared humanity in times of conflict and war. Simply put, they are an extraordinary gift from one of America’s most distinguished writers.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix: In his funny, gory new romp, Grady Hendrix conjures horror heroines out of a surprising demographic–the carpool moms of 1990s suburbia. They looked like “carpool drivers, skinned-knee kissers, errand runners, secret Santas and part-time tooth fairies, with their practical jeans their festive sweaters…But when the time came, [they] went the distance.” And how. Life in the Old Village, Patricia Campbell’s suburban South Carolina enclave, has always been safe, if a little unstimulating. But that’s before Patricia is attacked in her yard by an elderly neighbor gone feral, and soon she finds herself driving around her neighbor’s attractive relative, James Harris, and inviting him into her house for ice cream with the family. Life is suddenly far from boring, but when Patricia’s suspicions about James begin to escalate, she takes the matter to her true crime book club. According to her friends, Patricia’s just projecting a titillating plot onto their ploddingly dull daily lives. But when children from the poor neighborhood across town start dying, the club is forced to grapple with the possibility that Patricia’s new friend may be the monster she claims he is. And as if one monster isn’t enough, the women must confront another enemy at least as terrifying: the patriarchy. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires takes place in the same universe as Hendrix’s Stoker Award-winning horror novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is loosely based on his own childhood. Hendrix writes in an author’s note that his latest novel was inspired by the strength of his own mother and others like her: women easy to write off, but hard to defeat. “I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom,” Hendrix explains. “As you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.” In turns heartwarming and enraging, bloody horror and social critique, this genre-bending vampire story helps cement horror as a frontier for feminist storytelling.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: When Stars Are Scattered is the extraordinary story of Omar Mohamed’s experience of growing up in a refugee camp, as told by Mohamed to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson (Roller Girl). Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, live a simple and often dull life in a refugee camp in Kenya. Forced to leave their home and their parents behind in a civil war-torn Somalia when they were very young, they have spent the majority of their lives being able to depend only on each other and on Fatuma, the kind-hearted woman who lives in the tent across the path from them. But although they are safe from the war itself, the camp’s resources are scarce. They don’t have enough to eat, let alone access to the medical care that the nonverbal Hassan needs or the education that Omar desperately longs for. So when Omar has a chance to attend school, he is overjoyed. But the opportunity means that he will have to leave Hassan alone for several hours a day, forcing Omar to choose between improving life for his family in the future and his responsibility to his brother in the present.Images and text work together beautifully in this graphic novel. Jamieson’s characteristically orderly panel layout makes for a cohesive story that flows effortlessly. Soft lines and simple backgrounds allow dialogue and relationships between characters to take center stage. Jamieson’s illustrations—particularly, the vivid expressions on characters’ faces—enhance and deepen the book’s emotional impact. When Stars Are Scattered is a timely and important story, told in a format that ensures it will be accessible and appealing for readers of all ages.
Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Girl with songs in her heart moves from Ohio to New York City. Girl meets guitarist with hypnotic eyes and a deep voice. Girl falls hard for guy, who falls harder–for the drugs and alcohol that permeate the “rise to stardom.” Perfect Tunes begins here but isn’t just about the connection between Laura and Dylan, fueled by lust, alcohol and drugs. The tragedy of Dylan’s death not long after the 9/11 attacks turns Laura’s life into one she never could’ve envisioned. Pregnant at 22, grieving the death of someone she barely knew but was admittedly obsessed with, Laura sets aside her dreams of recording an album to become a mother to Marie. Duty engulfs her, and in a blink, 14 years pass, her musical talent relegated to teaching others or playing classes for babies. When teenaged Marie starts experiencing some dark moods similar to Dylan’s, Laura is drawn back to the past as she wrestles with where she is in the present. Author Emily Gould covers much ground through Laura’s and Marie’s relationships and inner dialogues, ruminating on how we see ourselves, from that euphoric anything-can-happen attitude that accompanies youth to the mundanity common to all lives. The trappings of Gould’s writing are millennial, but her portrayal of the desire for self-actualization and understanding is universal. This ground isn’t new in fiction, certainly, but Laura’s and Marie’s voices each stand out for their honesty and poignancy. Gould’s women are as fearless as they are fearful, as full of bravado as nagging doubt and depression. The crush of expectations and the need to perform (in all senses of the word) never let up, and Laura’s drive to return to music gets a kick in the pants just as Marie is grappling with life’s hard edges. Emotional and at times cringingly self-conscious, Perfect Tunes explores the mother-daughter bond through a distinctly youthful lens. Gould’s strength lies in her powers of observation, her ability to wrap words around a specific time and place in the lives of these particular women.
The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: The discovery of unpublished work by a now departed writer is always a treat. When that writer is Madeleine L’Engle, it is undeniably cause for celebration. The Moment of Tenderness collects 18 short stories found among L’Engle’s papers by her granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis. Dating primarily from the 1940s and ’50s, all but one were written before A Wrinkle in Time made L’Engle a household name. The stories cover myriad genres, with only a couple falling into the category of speculative fiction that we’ve come to associate L’Engle with (and oddly, these are among the least successful stories in the collection). The early stories in the book center on childhood and adolescence, and Voiklis surmises in her introduction that these—and indeed, many of the stories—are autobiographical in nature. They beautifully capture the sense of loneliness and yearning that is common to smart, somewhat isolated children. “The Mountains Shall Stand Forever” and “Summer Camp” both provide subtly chilling portraits of the cruelty children can adopt in order to run with the pack. Similarly, there is a Shirley Jackson-esque discomfort in “The Foreigners” and “The Fact of the Matter,” two of the numerous stories set in an insular rural Vermont community and narrated by a central character named Madeleine. Before turning to fiction writing, L’Engle tried her hand at acting, and that experience informs stories about young, single women trying to make it in theater in New York City. These, like some of the Vermont stories, offer sharp slices of the midcentury American zeitgeist, when certain possibilities for women were just beginning to open up. L’Engle here enters the territory of such masters of the form as Alice Munro, John O’Hara and John Cheever. Some of the stories are so affecting—in particular, the elegiac title story, the aforementioned “The Foreigners” and the somewhat shocking “That Which Is Left”—that it is surprising they did not find publication in L’Engle’s lifetime. Voiklis points out that her grandmother did recycle some of this material later as episodes in novels or incidents in memoirs, a fact that provides a glimpse into the writer’s process. “You have to write the book that wants to be written,” L’Engle once said. Due to the timelessness of her Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time, many people may think of L’Engle as a children’s author or a science fiction writer, or both. The engaging stories in The Moment of Tenderness collectively offer a different, fuller view of this talented master.
Heiress for Hire by Madeline Hunter (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Bestselling author Madeline Hunter begins a brand new historical romance series with a mystery inheritance from an eccentric benefactor, a roguish investigator and a secretive widow. There is no love lost between Chase Radnor and Minerva Hepplewhite. In fact, Minerva is slightly delighted to whack Chase over the head when he sneaks into her home. She still holds some rather negative feelings for Chase, seeing as he previously accused her of murdering her late husband. But now he’s tumbled back into her life to inform her that she’s inherited a fortune, and from his very own uncle no less.Why? Well, no one seems to have any idea. While Minerva is grateful for the financial windfall, she’s also perplexed by both the duke’s decision and his death, leaving the unlikely pair to put aside their differences to find some answers. Minerva is a lively, independent heroine. Readers will fall in love with her the moment she decides to tie up and interrogate Chase for his intrusion. She’s frequently exasperated by his needling and the fact that he looks so good doing it. As an investigator, Chase has a natural disposition for solving puzzles and to him, Minerva is a puzzle yet unsolved. He isn’t sure he can trust her, but respects her intelligence and know-how and sees this as a large advantage in finding answers regarding his uncle’s death. Expect to have a goofy smile on your face for a bulk of the book as the two go head-to-head, while slowly learning to value the other. Heiress for Hire feels like a mix of Knives Out (minus the hunky Chris Evans in a cable knit sweater) and Clue, with a touch of “Scooby Doo.” It’s an entertaining whodunnit with a slew of entertaining side characters and suspects. Thankfully, the mystery elements only enhance Minerva and Chase’s slow burn. And let’s talk about this slow burn, which is worthy of the ultimate chef’s kiss. After an an initial period of suspicion and mistrust, Chase and Minerva’s working relationship is built on respect for one another’s intellect. They’ve clearly made snap judgments about one another without truly considering how the other would feel, especially with Chase’s prior accusations against Minerva. The underlying mystery is the perfect catalyst to get them in close quarters and allow their strengths to shine. It’s a gradual and wonderfully agonizing seduction that will leave readers begging for these two nerds to just kiss already. This fantastic beginning may be Hunter’s best series starter yet. With its memorable characters, a murder mystery and a perfectly paced romance, Hunter is at the top of her game in Heiress for Hire.
Network Effect by Martha Wells (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Life isn’t easy in the great, wide universe. Especially if you’re a SecUnit who’s hacked your governor module in order to watch thousands of hours of human media feeds. Or if you’re responsible for the health and safety of a crew of humans who seem just so incredibly bent on getting themselves killed, either on standard survey missions or in attempted hostile incursions from the Corporation Rim. Despite the downsides of caring for humans (most notably, caring for them interferes with television time), Murderbot is content with its position within Preservation Station and with the life and associates it has collected over the years. But when an old acquaintance kidnaps Murderbot’s crew and demands its help as ransom, Murderbot is forced away from the media feed to save the day (again) and get its humans back safe and sound. Network Effect is the first novel-length work in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries saga and the fifth entry in the series overall. Like Wells’ previous novellas starring Murderbot, Network Effect is a masterclass in tone. Murderbot’s sarcastic, adolescent humor suffuses the book, giving readers the distinct feeling of reading real-time logs directly off Murderbot’s strange, twisted core processor. The result is, at times, laugh-out-loud insights into human behavior. At others, it’s the feeling of intruding on someone as they try to understand exactly how to relate to their fellow sentient beings—and often fail. Despite its name, Murderbot is the most awkwardly human character to come out of science fiction in a long time. Of course, Network Effect is far from a book on philosophy. If it is, it’s a book on philosophy wrapped in the perfect space opera, full of mysterious alien remnants, thrilling firefights inside of sentient space ships and political and corporate intrigue. Wells’ fight scenes are kinetic and tactical, juxtaposing visceral descriptions of Murderbot’s organic parts sloughing off with occasionally balletic fight sequences between Murderbot, its drones and whatever targets it happens to be facing off against. The result is not for the overly squeamish, but it is also gory within reason. After all, Network Effect is a book based in humor as much as it is in action.New readers to the Murderbot Diaries universe need not fear; although it is well worth your time to go back and binge-read the first four novellas in the series, Network Effect delivers on its promise as a stand-alone story (one that, somehow, miraculously, only contains a few spoilers for the rest of the series). Although not every relationship is explained to its fullest, the book contains everything readers need to know about Murderbot and its team. And for longtime students of the many (mostly sarcastic or mildly annoyed) moods of Murderbot, this will be a satisfying return to some fan-favorite characters. No matter your background with sentient murder robots, Network Effect is the perfect fare for any seeking the perfect weekend binge read or escapist vacation.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Those who remember all too well the tragedy of September 11, 2001, may not recall another tragedy that occurred in its immediate aftermath. On November 12, American Airlines Flight 587, en route from New York City to the Dominican Republic, crashed in Queens, killing all 260 people on board, the vast majority of whom were of Dominican descent.The tragic stories of the lives lost on board Flight 587 and those of the families left behind, as well as author Elizabeth Acevedo’s own memories of trips to visit relatives in the Dominican Republic, inspired Clap When You Land. The book sees Acevedo return triumphantly to the novel-in-verse format of her multiple award-winning debut, The Poet X. Sixteen-year-old Camino Rios is meeting her father at the Santo Domingo airport. He lives in the United States much of the year but spends summers in the Dominican Republic. Camino, whose mother died a decade earlier, dreams of moving to New York City for college and then medical school. She can’t wait to finally be closer to her beloved father. Thousands of miles away in New York City, Yahaira Rios has just said goodbye to her father, who supports her love of competitive chess and always encourages her to follow her dreams. Yahaira misses him when he returns to the Dominican Republic each summer, but this year, her feelings are more complicated. She’s recently learned a secret about her father that she hasn’t admitted to anyone. Both Yahaira and Camino are on the cusp of a terrible loss—and of a profound discovery about their families and the surprising, sometimes uneasy connection between them. Clap When You Land explores themes of heredity, class and privilege, as well as the complex, conflicted emotions the girls feel toward their birthplaces and homes. Acevedo handles all of these themes with a lyricism and sensitivity to language that make Camino’s and Yahaira’s struggles and joys, both individual and shared, all the more powerful. Readers unaccustomed to verse narratives will quickly settle into the book’s generally short stanzas and conversational tone. Passages that are more deliberately poetic in style, such as the description of a burial that uses short lines to make the text resemble a deep hole, or a scene of violence in which the verses—like the narrator’s thoughts—grow increasingly fragmented, encourage readers to read slowly and even pause in order to fully experience both the characters’ powerful emotions and Acevedo’s tremendous skill at conveying them and transforming them into art. Clap When You Land gets its title from the Dominican tradition of applauding when a plane touches down safely at its destination. By the story’s end, readers will be ready to give Yahaira, Camino and Acevedo herself a standing ovation.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: What Sue Monk Kidd has done with her latest novel is far from predictable, but she is steering her formidable narrative talents into somewhat familiar territory. How does one write a compelling, evocative and, most importantly, new take on one of the most analyzed and fictionalized people who’s ever lived? With a tremendous narrative voice. The Book of Longings follows Ana, a young girl growing up under the reign of Herod Antipas with dreams of making her ideas resound across the ages. Ana’s sharp thoughts and probing mind eventually bring her into contact with an 18-year-old man named Jesus of Nazareth, who just happens to be as intellectually precocious and open as she is. Their curiosity about each other turns to romance, and Ana finds herself wrapped up in one of history’s great sagas, through it all searching for new and lasting ways to carry her own voice not behind Jesus’ but alongside him. The gripping conceit at the heart of this novel stems from the idea that, if Jesus were married, his wife might be completely erased by the history that followed their relationship. This raises spellbinding questions. What kind of spirit would have been so compelling to Jesus? What kind of strength would she possess? And most importantly, how hard would she fight to be heard? Kidd’s narrative, etched into the emotionally precise and tactile prose of Ana’s first-person voice, doesn’t always answer these questions directly.The Book of Longings is not an attempt to rewrite history. Instead it’s an exploration of a triumphant, fierce spirit and the stories she aches to tell. There’s an exuberance to Ana that vibrates off every page, and that is a testament to Kidd’s gifts.
The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate: Whether you’re a card-carrying member of the ASPCA living with two rescue dogs, four cats and seven goldfish, or you shudder at the idea of taking care of another creature, you’re going to love Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Bob. I fall into the former category, but Applegate had me at her glossary of canine terms, which features such entries as “Tug of war string: a long piece of fabric or leather (though never long enough) used to lead humans during walks.” The One and Only Bob is the long-awaited sequel to Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winner, The One and Only Ivan, a novel inspired by the story of a gorilla kept caged at a mall for 27 years. Applegate once again delivers excellence. The star of this show is Bob, a scrappy mutt who longs to be more of a hero than he currently is. He’s honest, wise and hilarious, but in his own words, he “ain’t a saint.” A four-legged philosopher, Bob waxes eloquent about his life as a dog, sharing his desperate times, when he thrown out of a truck as a puppy and forced to live on the streets, to his sweeter times now that his human, Julie, cares for him. But Bob is conflicted about being a pet. He doesn’t like the sound of the word and sometimes finds it demeaning. Though he’s small in stature, Bob is not one to be belittled. Julie takes Bob to visit his best friends, Ivan and Ruby, every week at the zoo, until one week, a fearsome hail storm spins into a tornado. The storm sends Bob’s world into a wet and terrifying tailspin. But just as crisis sometimes brings out the best of humanity, Applegate reveals that it does the same for animals. Applegate’s prose is full of moments of true beauty, philosophical musings and more than a bit of laugh-out-loud humor. When I read, I like to turn down the corners of pages that contain phrases or scenes I particularly love. By the end of The One and Only Bob, the review copy I was reading looked like an accordion. Every page of it reads like a gift, and it has wisdom to offer readers of every age, free for the taking.
All Adults Here by Emma Straub: No one engages a reader quite like Emma Straub. I was 30 pages into warmhearted new novel, All Adults Here, before I even realized it. Her writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend. Events take place in a small, fictitious town in New York’s Hudson Valley and center on the Strick family. The matriarch is 68-year-old widower Astrid, who witnesses an acquaintance being struck and killed by a school bus. This brings to light Astrid’s long-standing animus toward the victim, who, years ago, informed Astrid that her eldest son, Elliot—now a successful builder, married with kids—had been spotted kissing another boy. The fact that Astrid admonished Elliot, albeit subtly, has plagued her ever since, particularly now that she is in a same-sex relationship with her hairdresser, Birdie. Indeed, gender and sexuality are some of the central themes of the novel. Astrid’s daughter, 37-year-old Porter, pregnant via a sperm bank, embarks on an affair with her former high school boyfriend, who is married with kids. Astrid’s youngest son, Nicky, and his wife have sent their daughter, Cecelia, to live with Astrid after a scandal involving online pedophilia in her former Brooklyn school. At Cecelia’s new school, she befriends August, who is transitioning into Robin. Along the way, Straub imbues the novel with her trademark humor and comic turns of phrase, particularly Porter’s one-liners. Straub has taken on a lot of issues—gender politics, abortion, bullying, sexual predators—and it’s to her credit that the subject matter never seems heavy-handed or detracts from the momentum. The characters are believable, and events unfold naturally. I found myself stepping onto a few trapdoors while trying to predict the plot. Having read Straub’s other novels, I should have known better; she’s always one step ahead.
We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly: Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest novel is a work of historical fiction that pulses with contemporary relevance. We Dream of Space chronicles the lives of three siblings during the month leading up to the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. Life in the Nelson-Thomas home is anything but easy. Mom and Dad fight constantly, and the family feels “like its own solar system,” with members who are “floating objects that sometimes bumped or slammed into each other before breaking apart.” Twins Bird and Fitch couldn’t be more different. Fitch loves arcade games but can’t control his temper (a cruel outburst gets him suspended from school), while Bird thrives in her classes (the budding engineer spends her spare time drawing schematic diagrams of everything from VCRs to cassette tapes). Big brother Cash feels he isn’t particularly good at anything, especially since he’s repeating seventh grade, putting him in the same class as the twins. Kelly develops the siblings’ personalities through short, focused chapters, allowing their stories to emerge naturally as the book progresses. Much to Bird’s delight, science teacher Ms. Salonga, who hopes to become a teacher in space like Christa McAuliffe, organizes students into flight crews as part of Space Month. Lively classroom scenes add to the anticipation of the launch. Bird yearns to one day blast off to become NASA’s first female mission commander. In a series of touching inner monologues, she imagines conversations with Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik. Kelly vividly resurrects the 1980s with references to President Reagan, Madonna and Atari and integrates astronomy metaphors throughout her prose as the Challenger’s fateful liftoff approaches. Her sensitive description of that terrible day captures the shocking impact of the tragedy, particularly for classroom viewers like Bird and Ms. Salonga, whose enthusiasm and empathy provide a stark contrast to the Nelson-Thomas parents. We Dream of Space offers an exceptional portrayal of the endless ways in which parental dysfunction affects every member of a family. It’s also a celebration of the need for optimism, compassion and teamwork in the face of disasters both individual and communal.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas: Catherine House, the debut novel by Elisabeth Thomas, defies categorization; it is a coming-of-age story, a thriller, science-fiction and a Gothic novel all at once. These elements should feel incongruous, but in the strange world of Catherine House they blend together in a way that makes perfect internal sense. Ines is a young woman running from her past. Once a dedicated student, her life changed dramatically during her senior year of high school, leading to a horrific tragedy. With nowhere left to go, Ines is fortunate to have been accepted into Catherine House, an elite, unconventional university. Isolated in the Pennsylvania woods, Catherine House’s campus is at once beautiful and moldering. Students agree that for three years they will focus solely on their course of study with no interaction with the outside world—no TV, no radio, no calls or visits home. The book’s mid-1990s means that students don’t have access to Wi-Fi or cellphones either. If they should fall behind in their studies or violate the university’s rules, they are sent to a facility called The Tower for “restoration” and contemplation.Ines is never quite sold on Catherine House’s exclusive charms. While other students, like her roommate Baby, focus entirely on succeeding in the rigorous course study, Ines sees the decaying grandeur of Catherine House for what it is: an institution hiding secrets in plain sight. Among these secrets is the university’s research and highly secretive experiments into a mysterious substance called plasm. Catherine House employs that wonderful Gothic convention of an inexplicable sense of wrongness, which pervades the narrative. We see the institution through Ines’ point of view; she craves its sanctuary, but is simultaneously also too cynical to accept it. There is never a moment when Ines, or the reader, can fully let her guard down and trust that any of Catherine House’s strange rituals and traditions are benign, and as Ines’ curiosity about plasm becomes a fixation, the atmosphere of the novel takes on an even more sinister feel. Much of Catherine House is devoted to building the world that Ines and her friends inhabit, a narrative strategy that delays some of the suspense. However, by crafting a truly immersive experience, Thomas ratchets up the sense of dread as both Ines and readers begin to see Catherine House for what it truly is. With a compelling narrator and truly inventive setting, Catherine House embraces Gothic conventions even as it defies expectation and utilizes them in new and exciting ways. It challenges the genre while embracing it and takes readers on a truly unique journey.
The Black Cabinet by Jill Watts: When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, he was praised for the significant advances African Americans made during his administration. One editorial said black Americans had “lost the best friend they ever had in the White House.” The New Deal did provide African Americans with substantial assistance and more reason to hope, but FDR needed the support of Southern Democrats in Congress to advance his agenda, and he was reluctant to take actions on race that would upset them. What he was able to achieve came largely thanks to the efforts of an informal group of black activists, intellectuals and scholars working within the government. As historian Jill Watts shows in her meticulously researched and beautifully written The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, these “black cabinet” members succeeded in stopping or modifying many policies that would have made institutionalized racism even worse than it was. At the center of this effort was Mary McLeod Bethune. A passionate advocate for civil rights and the first African American woman to head a federal division, Bethune was an educator, the founder of a college and a magnetic and strong-willed personality with a talent for organizational politics. Watts includes portraits of many other figures, as well, including Robert Weaver, who, in the 1960s, became the first African American to serve in a White House cabinet position. Two other African American women, though not part of the black cabinet, also played crucial roles. Eva DeBoe Jones, a Pittsburgh manicurist, was able to organize a meeting that led to many black voters deserting the Republican Party. College graduate Elizabeth McDuffie was a maid at the White House who was close to the Roosevelts and helped manage their relationship with the black community. This absorbing look at a pivotal point in civil rights activity before the 1950s and ’60s is well done and should be of interest to us all.
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon: Anna Solomon’s The Book of V. is painted on a much larger canvas than the author’s previous novels, each of which focused primarily on one place and time period–1880s Dakota Territory in The Little Bride and 1920s Gloucester, Massachusetts, in Leaving Lucy Pear. The novel opens in 2016 with Lily, a 40-something Brooklyn wife and mom who’s grappling with the woman she has, and hasn’t, become. The narration then drops back to early-1970s Washington, D.C., where Vivian, or Vee, the young wife of a power-hungry senator, is about to host a party. Just as quickly, the story drops all the way back to ancient Persia, where 17-year-old Esther (yes, the biblical Esther) is about to be handed off to a Persian king who has done away with his first queen, Vashti, and now plans to select a new bride from his kingdom’s population of beautiful young virgins. Solomon keeps these three stories moving as Lily, Vee and Esther find themselves in precarious situations. Lily second-guesses her marriage and contemplates an affair while trying to care for her sick mom, who doesn’t approve of Lily’s ambivalent style of feminism. Vee is cast out of her political life, with no clear path forward, while Esther is suddenly the queen of Persia and also under house arrest. Although the characters and their stories differ markedly from one another, Solomon’s omniscient narration serves as a lovely, wry guide. The Book of V. offers plenty of thoughtful interiority while spinning a fast-moving story. Lily’s meditations on feminism, motherhood, friendship and middle-class striving will resonate with many readers. The novel’s unexpected retelling of the Esther story is imaginative yet, in its own way, faithful to the original. In her acknowledgments, Solomon credits inspiration for the structure of her new novel to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which also follows three different women in three different time periods. As with The Hours, The Book of V. connects its three characters’ stories not only thematically but also narratively, with a surprising yet inevitable and satisfying conclusion.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels: Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star imagines a difficult prodigal son homecoming. It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson has returned to his small southern Ohio hometown. Six years before, Brian left home for New York City, where he found friends, a measure of acceptance and love with his partner, Shawn. Now Brian is 24 and ill with late-stage AIDS. He’s also alone; Shawn has already died, isolated in a hospital ward. Brian’s family doesn’t know—or rather, they’ve chosen not to accept—that he is gay. The novel rotates through the first-person perspectives of Brian; his mom, Sharon; and his 14-year-old sister, Jess. Sharon is paralyzed, unable to figure out how to be a parent to Brian and remain a wife to Travis, who pretends that his son isn’t gay and isn’t sick. Observant Jess, who shares with her brother a love of whales and David Bowie songs, struggles to find her place in this changed world. And Brian narrates through a series of video recordings from the camera he carries with him, as Shawn asked, so those who die of AIDS won’t be forgotten.Soon, word of Brian’s return, along with the suspicion that he has AIDS, gets around town. Friends, strangers and their own extended family begin to shun Brian, Sharon, Travis and Jess, often in overtly hateful ways. Sickels does an excellent job showing the mix of panic, homophobia and bullying that AIDS once engendered. He also evokes the mid-1980s and rural small-town life with the right amount of period and place detail. Brian’s narration occasionally feels too composed and lyrical for a 24-year-old man talking into a camera, but that’s a small quibble. While the story is bleak, it moves along at a clip, offering some surprises and a couple of unlikely, brave heroes. The Prettiest Star is a sensitive portrayal of a difficult time in our recent history.
My Vanishing Country by Bakari Sellers: Family trauma–even inherited trauma–can take a tremendous toll on children. But as Bakari Sellers makes plain in My Vanishing Country, family trauma can also be a source of strength. Sellers’ story is remarkable. When he was 22, he unseated a 26-year incumbent to become the youngest legislator in South Carolina. In that role, he championed policies addressing rural poverty, including access to heath care and improved educational opportunities. He became a CNN political analyst in the wake of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and today he is a successful attorney. These accomplishments required persistence and resilience. In My Vanishing Country, Sellers beautifully evokes the South Carolina low country, the haunted landscape of his childhood, to explain how its backbreaking poverty and history of relentless racism molded him. But the greatest influence on his life was an event that occurred years before he was born, when his father, Cleveland Sellers, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges for his role in the Orangeburg Massacre. The fact that many people have not heard of the Orangeburg Massacre is in itself an excellent reason to read My Vanishing Country. Sellers meticulously recounts how and why eight South Carolina highway patrol officers fired upon a crowd of black student protesters at South Carolina State University, killing three students and wounding 27 others. The massacre affected every members of the Sellers family, including the yet-unborn Bakari. Though they each still bear the painful effects of that event, their trauma has also become a source of power–the power to endure tragedy and achieve their goals. My Vanishing Country is more than a memoir. It’s a loving celebration of a father’s gift of fortitude and determination to his son.
The Outlaw’s Daughter by Margaret Brownley (available as an e-book on the Libby app): It’s not every day that the “meet cute” starts with a shotgun…but not every heroine is Ellie-May Blackwell. Tough, strong and stubborn–not to mention fierce when she needs to be–Ellie-May brooks no nonsense and protects what’s hers, whether that’s her two children, her struggling farm or the memory of her late husband, Neal Blackwell. Neal is viewed with reverence by most of the town of Haywire, Texas, after dying a hero’s death while saving children from a burning schoolhouse. Ellie-May is not viewed nearly as kindly. The child of a notorious outlaw, she knows all too well how it feels to be treated as guilty by association. So when Texas Ranger Matt Taggert shows up with suspicions that Neal participated in a stagecoach robbery the day before he died, well, Matt’s lucky that all he gets is a shotgun pointed in his face. He’s not welcome. His suspicions aren’t welcome. And most unwelcome of all are the doubts he plants in Ellie-May’s heart—doubts that make her question everything she thought she knew when she finds a sack full of banknotes stuffed under her front porch. Ellie-May is a heartbreakingly relatable character. On the one hand, she desperately wants to prove wrong all the whispers and taunts that say she’s no better than her father, but on the other hand, she’s ferociously determined to protect her son and daughter from being tarred by the same brush. The children think of Neal as a hero and she’d do anything to keep from shattering that ideal. That turmoil would be enough to twist any woman into knots, even without the distraction of a certain very handsome, very appealing Texas Ranger. But then Matt goes and makes himself even more desirable by being kind to her children and genuinely compassionate about Ellie-May’s background, approaching it from a place of true understanding, since the death of their own father led Matt’s brother to spiral out of control and become an outlaw himself. Indeed, struggles and sufferings in their past are something that all of the key characters in this story share, from Matt’s grief over his father’s loss and his brother’s downfall, to Ellie-May’s bruised spirit over the town’s scorn, to her farmhand Anvil’s past as a vagrant, to Jesse, the teenage sidekick Matt accidentally picks up (my favorite character, I must confess), whose father crawled into a bottle after losing his wife. Even Neal, Haywire’s local saint, had a painful secret in his past that kept him from ever finding peace. Margaret Brownley is not gentle with her characters, and they’re the better for it. The troubles they’ve faced have tempered them, making them wiser, stronger, kinder. More loyal. More generous. And ever more deserving of the happy endings they all find in the end.
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: I only had to read the title of Ilana Masad’s debut novel to be hooked. It doesn’t spoil the plot to learn that within the first few pages of All My Mother’s Lovers, the mother in question, Iris, dies, leaving behind her daughter, Maggie; her husband, Peter; her son, Ariel; and at least some of the titular lovers. Iris left each of these men a letter to be read in the event of her death. Maggie, appalled at the revelation of her mother’s secret life, takes it upon herself to hand-deliver them. Lucky for her, all these chaps live within driving distance. Like Maggie, the reader spends much of the novel wondering why Iris, whose marriage and family have been a source of endless joy, would want to step out on her husband—and not once, but multiple times until the day of her death. Was she trying to work out the trauma of her ghastly first marriage? Sort of, but not really. The reasons don’t add up, reminding the reader of life’s untidiness. Maggie, after all, knew her mother for 27 years and had no idea who she really was. Indeed, the two women were pretty opaque to each other. Iris could never quite approve of her daughter’s sexuality, and Maggie actually believed, for a long time, that her mother disliked her. Masad’s writing style is easy and straightforward, even if her characters aren’t. Maggie was a bit of a mess even before her mother’s death. She’s prickly, rude and histrionic but craves love even as she’s wary of it. She and Ariel have made a lifelong game out of being mean to each other, and both children are polar opposites of their gentle, wise, accepting dad. Masad gives Peter a counterpart in Maggie’s meltingly sweet girlfriend, Lucia. It’s not a coincidence that the beginning and end of the novel find Lucia and Maggie in an intimate situation. A story of good but difficult characters and the openhearted people who love them, All My Mother’s Lovers is a compassionate and insightful work.
Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander: In the English summer of 1939, Eileen Alexander’s life seemed sun-dappled. A recent graduate of the University of Cambridge and the only daughter in an upper-class Jewish family with powerful political connections, she was beloved in her circle of brilliant friends and embarking on a promising future. Even a hospital stay after being flung from a car could not blight her charmed life; she began a correspondence with the guilt-stricken driver, which quickly blossomed into flirtation, and then romance. As the course of her life shifted abruptly and against her will that year, like the lives of so many at the onset of World War II, Alexander responded with unflappable humor and irrepressible intellect, both of which shine through in Love in the Blitz, a collection of her letters to her paramour and eventual husband. Alexander’s letters were purchased by chance in an eBay auction, and they detail not only her romance with their recipient but countless other moments of humanity and hopefulness in the face of harrowing circumstances. England was under siege, and Alexander illustrates some of the worst of it: air raid warnings in the night, the stress of being packed with family into a small shelter, the heartache of lost friends and classmates. That Alexander’s sense of humor remained so resolutely intact throughout only serves to highlight the occasional glimpse of sadness or weariness, and you admire her all the more for it. Alexander’s unassailable wit makes her an accessible narrator, someone in whom we see pieces of our friends, our sisters and, we hope, ourselves. She flirts salaciously with her lover, making references to their “mollocking,” gossips cheerfully and good-naturedly about their friends and offers hysterical observations at every turn. For a book of war correspondence, it’s peculiar to note that it’s a laugh-out-loud sort of work, but Alexander’s candor makes her wartime experience real to us. When she shows up for work only to find her workplace bombed, we feel the impact of that moment as though we’re standing next to her. When she stops in her tracks in one letter to wonder if she will ever forget the things she has seen, we pause with her. After reading Love in the Blitz, events on the 20th-century world stage no longer seem so removed from our own age. We can only hope to conduct ourselves as Alexander did: with tenacity, optimism, tenderness and a perfect zinger for everything.
Fairest by Meredith Talusan (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Self-expression always happens in a cultural context. For writer and journalist Meredith Talusan, the journey to self-knowledge was long and very culturally influenced. Talusan was raised as a boy in an unstable home in the Philippines. As a person with albinism, her pale skin, blond hair and poor eyesight set her apart from her relatives, some of whom spoke Tagalog, some of whom spoke English. As she grew, she gained power through her intellect and self-awareness, earning top marks in school. Eventually she became aware that she harbored deep feelings for boys. Had Talusan stayed in the Philippines, she likely would have embraced the role of “bakla,” a playful, effeminate gay man.Instead, Talusan’s nuclear family immigrated to California shortly before their home life imploded. In the face of her mother’s addictions and her father’s absence, Talusan buckled down, continued to excel academically and was admitted to Harvard. Here the memoir snaps into a different register, becoming less dreamy and more journalistic as Talusan recalls her intellectual and sexual awakening. Rail-thin and often assumed to be a white boy, Talusan finds a place for herself in Harvard’s gay community by identifying as a twink, a slang term for young gay men who are usually slim and clean-shaven. Talusan cultivates this persona by purchasing trendy outfits and hitting the gym. Eventually she begins dating a man she adores, but she feels incomplete. Through another friendship with romantic undertones, Talusan realizes what’s missing—she wants the freedom to express her feminine gender identity—and her life changes again. She navigates what gender transition and passing mean for her, ultimately finding yet another cultural identity and means of self-expression. At each step of her journey, Talusan interrogates the complex intersection of who she feels herself to be and how others perceive her. Through this fearless self-awareness, Talusan demonstrates her intellect, creativity, sexuality and, most of all, a true dedication to expressing her inner self. For anyone who has wondered how their identity is impacted by the ways others see them, Fairest is an extraordinary story of one woman’s self-reckoning.