Breath by James Nestor: Our obsession with productivity is a defining characteristic of modern society. Smart watches streamline and gamify our workouts and sleep cycles. Smartphones make us permanently available. And of course, social media drives us to put our most personal moments online. In some ways, James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art points out the obvious: This productivity obsession is killing us. Yet, not all hope is lost. Nestor’s work reveals the importance of our breath and promises us a changed life if only we’ll take a moment to stop, slow down and breathe. Nestor’s obsession with breathing started with a sort of spiritual experience—a conversion moment during a breath workshop that led to lifelong change. “I wasn’t conscious of any transformation taking place,” he writes, but after a long evening of intentional breathing, “it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else.” However, skeptical of encounters that might be fake or gimmicky, Nestor decided that the experience alone wasn’t enough. So he dug deeper. Breath is the result of Nestor’s digging, and it offers more than a simple guide to meditation. He details the history of breathing, from ancient cultures to modern innovations that have changed our facial structures and thus our breathing patterns. Over time, these changes resulted in the loss of much of the breath work practiced by early humans—but it’s being rediscovered now, just in time. From yogis to monks, from voice teachers to athletic trainers, from people with scoliosis to those with asthma, Breath details how these rediscovered breath practices are providing the promise of a better, longer, healthier life. If this all sounds too good to be true, Nestor assures us that breath isn’t a golden ticket. It’s not a magic cure for everything that ails us, but it is “a way to retain balance in the body.” And if that still sounds like a bunch of baloney, go ahead and give it a try. Stop. Slow down. Breathe.
Parachutes by Kelly Yang: Adults can be selfish, corrupt and disappointing. In Kelly Yang’s first YA novel, Parachutes, two teens accustomed to fending for themselves gradually discover that even when adults fail them, they can depend on each other. Claire Wang of Shanghai and Dani De La Cruz of California both go to a private high school near Los Angeles. Claire’s parents’ decision to send her to American Prep reflects the cultural phenomenon for which the book is titled, in which wealthy Chinese students immigrate to attend American high schools in the hopes of better educational and professional prospects. Claire leaves behind her shopaholic mother and arrives in the United States with a platinum American Express card courtesy of her absentee father. Dani is a gifted debater who dreams of attending Yale. She’s also a scholarship student who spends her afternoons cleaning houses, some of which belong to her rich classmates. Like Claire’s parents, Dani’s single mom is mostly absent from her daughter’s life, because she works so hard to support them; her decision to welcome Claire into a spare bedroom at their house is motivated by the extra cash her boarding fees will yield. Yang relates the girls’ initial wariness of one another, which stems primarily from how radically different their lives have been, in chapters that alternate between their points of view. But Parachutes goes much deeper than a predictable story of rich girl versus poor girl. Although the book’s title refers to a slang term for international students like Claire, the idea of the parachute also functions as a metaphor for the economic, gender and racial privileges that create differences and inequalities in the lives of some of Yang’s characters. Many readers will likely find this seamlessly integrated introduction to the concept of intersectionality eye-opening. Yang, who shares in a revealing and powerful author’s note that Parachutes is based partly on some of her own personal experiences in college, incorporates issues of sexual assault and abuse, discrimination, parental infidelity and emotional neglect into an elaborate and twisting narrative. The book has an impressive buoyancy despite these weighty subjects, and Yang never slides into preachiness or lecturing. For many readers, finishing Parachutes will feel like saying goodbye to two beloved friends who’ve helped them survive the emotional battlefield that is high school. Yang is best known for her debut novel, the middle grade book Front Desk, which won multiple awards and became a bestseller in 2018. Parachutes is sure to establish Yang as one of YA’s most thoughtful and vital new voices.
Brave Like That by Lindsey Stoddard: The kids are a lot bigger in middle school. That’s the first thing Cyrus Olson notices when he steps onto the field for football tryouts. Everyone expects him to become the next star receiver for Joseph Lee Heywood Middle School, just like his dad was. In fact, they expect him to be a lot of things like his big, strong firefighter dad, but that’s just not Cyrus. In Brave Like That, author Lindsey Stoddard creates a grounded and authentic story that illustrates how being brave doesn’t always mean running into burning buildings or being the leader of the A-team. Cyrus feels like the frightening things in his life just keep growing. He knows tackle football is going to hurt; the hallways and classrooms of middle school are full of unfamiliar classmates and teachers and harder schoolwork than ever before; and his beloved grandma is still recovering from a recent stroke. It’s all too much, and Cyrus is afraid that he’s just not brave enough to handle any of it. Then Cyrus’ dad finds a stray dog, alone at the front door of the firehouse, just like he found Cyrus exactly 11 years before. Unlike Cyrus, however, his dad has no plans to keep the dog, whom Cyrus names Parker. But if Cyrus is going to get through this year, he knows he’s going to need help from the most unlikely places, whether from a few unexpected friends, his grandma’s old vinyl records or the weight of a lonely dog resting a tired head on his shoulder. Brave Like That is a nuanced and realistic story of a boy realizing that what he wants for himself is different that what other people may want for him. Cyrus’ sensitive first-person narration is effortlessly constructed and will draw readers in to his thoughts and feelings from the very first page. Stoddard treads familiar middle grade territory, addressing evergreen themes of friendship and loyalty, but Cyrus’ warm and supportive relationships at the firehouse and his family’s unwavering love make the story shine. Put Brave Like That into the hands of any reader struggling to figure out who they really want to be, and it’ll show them that being yourself is the bravest, if sometimes the hardest, thing you can do.
Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown: Travel. Sex. Work. Living alone. They’re universal topics, but for women, they’re often accompanied by societal expectations and restrictions. And for Molly McCully Brown, these realities are even further restrained. From birth, Brown has been without complete control of her physical self. She and her twin were born early—too early. Her twin, Frances, died. Brown went too long without oxygen in the birth canal and was born with cerebral palsy. In the essay collection Places I’ve Taken My Body, Brown reflects frequently on her connection to Frances and the ways her own body influences her movement through the world. While visiting Europe for a writing fellowship, for example, Brown writes, “A few weeks in, I’m discovering that being abroad in a wheelchair requires an intense kind of myopia that feels both necessary and dangerous. . . . I worry that, because my body goes with me everywhere, it won’t matter how far I travel, that I’ll still just be telling its same small story over and over again. That this is all wasted on me.” But it isn’t. Whether she’s writing about traveling Italy in a wheelchair or managing a classroom of adolescents in Texas, Brown offers poetic, contemplative insight about her experiences. Yes, these moments are all, necessarily, observed from the vantage point of her particular body. But even when she revisits an idea or a location, the ideas are always fresh.Brown has won awards and acclaim for her poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and her prose is equally lyrical. This affinity for poetry comes naturally for Brown because of the way poetry complements her corporeal experience. She writes, “In my daily life, I was desperate to wrench away from my body and I hated how stumblingly and ploddingly it moved, but in poetry, I found a form that not only mirrored my own slowness, but rewarded the careful attention with which I had to move through the world.” That careful attention shines in this essay collection, which opens a window into Brown’s graceful interior life.
The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams: Science journalist Wendy Williams, perhaps best known for her New York Times bestseller The Horse, turns her attention to humanity’s long-standing love of butterflies, those “flying flowers” that inhabit the natural world and have long inspired poets, artists and avid, obsessive collectors. The idea for this informative, thought-provoking account was sparked after Williams viewed thousands of astonishing butterfly specimens collected over a century and now housed at Yale University. Curious, she embarked on a two-year quest to investigate not only the insects but also our fascination with all things Lepidoptera. Williams is a consummate storyteller, and her narrative seamlessly integrates scientific facts with vivid portraits of characters as colorful as the butterflies that intrigue and inspire them. While some, like Charles Darwin, are household names, readers will also meet lesser known historical figures including Maria Sibylla Merian, whose artwork and observations provided scientific evidence of how a caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis to become a specific butterfly, and 19th-century Colorado homesteader Charlotte Coplen Hill, a mother of seven who discovered an incredibly detailed butterfly fossil. Williams also teams up with researchers and citizen scientists to explore threats to butterfly populations, including monarchs, whose life cycles are dependent upon milkweed. She retraces the work that led to the discovery of monarch overwintering sites in Mexico and delves further into the decline caused by habitat loss, climate change and other factors. While the news for butterfly populations is sobering, Williams urges us to never give up the work of conservation. She advocates for “the joining together of countless people of many different nations, across generations, in a united effort to protect at least one small joyful piece of the natural world to which we belong.” The Language of Butterflies is more than small contribution to this crucial effort.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: When Desiree Vignes returns to Mallard, Louisiana, in 1968 after running away 14 years earlier, people take note–especially because she’s accompanied by her dark-skinned 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The black citizens of Mallard believe that lighter skin is better, an idea that’s been championed since the town’s founding back in 1848. All these years later, the townspeople “weren’t used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them.” That’s just part of the masterful plot of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett’s exquisite second novel, which weaves together scenes from the 1950s through the ’90s, tackling such issues as racism, identity, gender and inherited trauma. Family ties and secrets were at the heart of Bennett’s bestselling debut, and she continues to explore these themes here, this time concentrating on sisterhood. The title refers to Desiree’s identical twin, Stella, who has turned her back on her family, married her white boss and is living in California as a white woman, a secret unbeknownst to her husband and daughter, Kennedy. This is a novel to be devoured slowly, not only for its intriguing plot and exploration of vital issues but also for its gorgeous writing. Bennett digs deep into the history of colorism and racism in America and explores how far their poisons can reach. As young girls, Stella and Desiree witness the lynching of their father by angry white men. This tragedy haunts his surviving family, its effects reverberating for generations to come. At the novel’s core is not only family but also community, from Mallard to the privileged, seemingly progressive Los Angeles neighborhood where Stella lives with her family. When a black television star and his family move in across the street from Stella, it poses a unique dilemma that unfolds in a multitude of rewarding scenes. Soon the lives of cousins Jude and Kennedy intersect with plot twists reminiscent of Twelfth Night, which the novel references. The Vanishing Half calls to mind the work of Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout. Bennett writes like a master, creating rich worlds filled with a broad cast of characters, all shining brightly in memorable moments both big and small.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: Megha Majumdar’s first novel follows three characters in contemporary urban India: Jivan, a 22-year-old Muslim woman who works at a clothing store, trying to raise her family out of poverty; Lovely, a transgender beggar woman whom Jivan tutored in English; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher who’s sure he deserves more respect and improved middle-class creature comforts. A Burning opens the day after terrorists attack a commuter train. The attack has killed a hundred people and captured the nation’s attention and anger. Jivan, who saw the burning train cars and the people trapped inside (the train station is near Jivan’s home in the slums), dares to comment sarcastically on Facebook about the attack, equating the government with terrorists. Because of these posts, Jivan quickly becomes a suspect. Lovely and PT Sir, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their own ambitions. Lovely takes acting classes and aspires to get a role in a movie, and PT Sir stumbles into a campaign rally for an opposition politician and finds himself captivated. As PT Sir gets more involved with the campaign, he begins to do favors for the party and descends into corruption. The story rotates through the three characters’ points of view and occasionally the perspectives of other peripheral characters. The chapters are very short, sometimes only a page or two, giving the novel a fast-moving, staccato feel. A Burning touches on issues that complicate life in India today: Hindu-Muslim conflict, political corruption, the promises and failures of a political system, the pressures of extreme poverty, the drive to improve one’s lot in life. Majumdar knows this world well. Born and raised in Kolkata, India, she came to the U.S. to attend Harvard University. She also did graduate work in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. This challenging and distinctive novel is a lot to balance, but Majumdar’s writing stays grounded in these three characters’ voices and in their daily lives and hopes.
Again Again by E. Lockhart: Adelaide’s life has been turned upside down by her brother’s addiction, her family’s separation and her devastating breakup with Mikey Double L. With an aching heart and an unfinished school project hanging over her head, threatening her final grades, Adelaide chooses to stay at her boarding school for the summer, walking professors’ dogs and falling in and out of love–over and over again. Through it all, she just might learn that what she really needs is herself. E. Lockhart is no stranger to the complexities of the teenage heart, and Again Again explores them in a poignant and lyrical way. As in her previous novels, such as We Were Liars and Genuine Fraud, Lockhart again plays with perception and time, treating readers to multiple versions of Adelaide’s experiences, from romantic encounters to feedback from teachers. The line between reality and fantasy becomes intentionally and wonderfully ambiguous. Call it an exploration of the multiverse or a glimpse inside a teenage girl’s mind. Either way, the creative format highlights Adelaide’s uncertainty and elevates her summer into a coming-of-age experience that readers will find relatable. While every scenario Adelaide imagines (or lives) is honest and heartfelt, the most powerful storyline in every version is her relationship with her brother, Toby. Lockhart depicts his recovery from addiction gently and respectfully, and the siblings’ attempts to find their new normal are beautifully rendered and often eclipse Adelaide’s romance as the most moving relationship in the book. On the surface, Again Again is relatively simple: Girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, emotional turmoil ensues. But Lockhart’s unique narrative structure and poetic prose stylings transform it into a thought-provoking look at what we expect and what we need from each other—and from ourselves.
Burn by Patrick Ness: Small-town Washington state, 1957: The Cold War with Russia is in full swing, the threat of nuclear war is omnipresent, the space race is in hyperspeed, and Sarah Dewhurst is making friends with the dragon her father begrudgingly hired to help on the family farm. The Dewhurst farm has fallen on hard times since the death of Sarah’s mother, so Sarah’s father is paying Kazimir the dragon, a rare Russian blue, to burn and clear a few fields for them. But Kazimir, it turns out, has an ulterior motive for taking the job. He believes Sarah is at the heart of an ancient prophecy that predicts her role in preventing the end of the world. As Sarah and Kazimir’s unlikely friendship grows, a highly trained assassin named Malcolm is sent on a divine mission by a cult of dragon worshippers to find and kill the savior mentioned in the prophecy, but he has to outrun the FBI first. When Malcolm’s and Sarah’s paths finally converge, entire worlds are literally ripped wide open. The award-winning author of 10 previous novels, including the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls (the basis for the feature film), Patrick Ness knows his way around highly original plots with fantastical elements. He’s a master at managing a plethora of tiny narrative threads, weaving them tightly together and then unraveling them with perfect pacing, an achievement as impressive as it is enjoyable to read. Burn waltzes wryly through themes of implicit bias, explicit racism and religious fanaticism as it explores the power of a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy and the possibility of parallel universes. It’s a breakneck journey full of wit, sarcasm, bravery and a generous bit of magic as the fate of the world dangles delicately out the farmhouse window and a dark storm rolls in over the fields.
The Distant Dead by Heather Young: The small town of Lovelock, Nevada, is nestled in brush-dotted hills that crouch under unending blue sky–an eerie desert landscape that sets a tone of creeping dread in Heather Young’s The Distant Dead.Young, an Edgar Award nominee for her first book, 2016’s The Lost Girls, has crafted a story that begins with a horrific discovery and expands to explore the weight of familial obligation, the far-reaching devastation of drug addiction and the ways in which guilt and boredom can curdle into something much more sinister. And so: Sixth-grader Sal Prentiss goes to the fire station to report that he’s found a burned body while, in another part of town, social studies teacher Nora Wheaton is wondering why her colleague Adam Merkel hasn’t shown up to work. He’s a math teacher and it’s Pi Day—surely he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to have math-centric fun with his class? No one else seems very concerned, not least because the enigmatic Adam keeps to himself and doesn’t engage in gossip, but Nora can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. Alas, her instincts are validated when she learns that Adam is the victim. It’s incomprehensible; what enemies could he possibly have? He’s been very kind to Sal, teaching the boy chess at lunchtime and helping him navigate a hard life with his taciturn uncles on an isolated ranch outside of town. Nora’s not confident the relatively inexperienced police will be able to solve the case, and she’s also been feeling unfulfilled, due to a dream deferred: she went to college for anthropology but left early to care for her argumentative alcoholic father. She decides to investigate Adam’s death, and Young shuttles the reader back and forth in time as she unfurls the characters’ relationships and life paths, with all their secrets and hopes and disappointments. The suspense is slow and steady in this meditative, artistic take on the murder mystery—the author’s language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient: When will people learn? This is an unusual, compelling portrait of a people and a place where the future always seems impossibly far away.
The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz: Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell. The novel opens with a prologue set in 1975, as college-bound Samantha “Sam” McGinty is leaving behind her hometown, Erietown, but carrying plenty of emotional baggage along with her vintage suitcase. On the road trip to Kent State, she’s accompanied by her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother, Reilly. It’s a trip that hints at Sam’s childhood scars even before the story begins to unfold through a series of flashbacks, starting in 1944. After being abandoned by her ne’er-do-well parents, Ellie is raised by her grandparents, kind and decent folks whose old age has been interrupted by the demands of another round of child rearing. The youngest of 12 children, Brick grows up with a violent, alcoholic father, who is mourning the death of his favorite son, killed in the war, and a loving mother, who is also a victim of the patriarch’s wrath. By the time Ellie and Brick are teenagers–she’s a cheerleader, he’s the captain of the basketball team–the young lovers are inseparable and looking forward to college, careers and eventually marriage and a family. But those dreams are dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, a quickie marriage and a move to a dilapidated rental house near the electric plant where Brick finds employment. Before long, the young couple and their baby, Sam, have settled into a routine, with Ellie raising their child and visiting with friends, and Brick turning to a corner tavern and womanizing–with catastrophic consequences. While Schultz’s compelling narrative and realistic characters will keep readers turning pages into the night, her eye and ear for real-life details set this novel apart from other domestic sagas. Part tragic love story, part powerful testament to shifting cultural norms and the evolution of the women’s movement, The Daughters of Erietown is an impressive first novel with a big heart.
Cross of Snow by Nicholas A. Basbanes: During his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was one of America’s most highly regarded poets, a phenomenally successful bestselling writer both here and abroad. An author of stories and essays, a translator of Dante and an editor of a multivolume anthology of poetry from around the world, he played a major role in shaping middle-class culture during the 1800s. As the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, he brought a cosmopolitan vision to his writing and was influential in bringing European culture to the U.S. and dramatizing American themes overseas. (He is still the only American to have a bust of his likeness in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.) His many literary friends included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe and Charles Dickens. Longfellow and his times are brought vividly to life by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his authoritative and wonderfully readable Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He traces the poet’s life from Maine, where Longfellow knew early on that he wanted to be a professional writer, to becoming a major literary presence. Basbanes draws on a rich abundance of correspondence, diaries, journals and notebooks and gives readers generous excerpts from Longfellow and many others. At the heart of the book is the relationship between Longfellow and his second wife, Frances Appleton Longfellow. Fanny, as she was called, was educated, multilingual and skilled as an artist. She was remarkably well read and wrote very well herself, and her relationship with Longfellow thrived on intellect as much as romance. Describing their relationship, a friend once remarked, “Of all happy homes theirs was in many ways the happiest.” Longfellow usually preferred not to be involved in controversial issues but was a noted antislavery advocate who decried war and violence of any kind. His best friend was Charles Sumner, a noted abolitionist who almost lost his life for the cause of abolition when he was attacked in the U.S. Senate. Long before that incident, Longfellow published Poems on Slavery at Sumner’s request. Basbanes uses his sources well, transporting readers beautifully to the world of a poet who is often overlooked. If you enjoy literary biography, this is a book to savor.
Union by Colin Woodard: Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the bestselling American Nations Colin Woodard tackles the evolution of ideas about America’s nationhood leading up to the Civil War in Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. Part biography, part political and intellectual history, Union chronicles the tumultuous clash of regional cultures and competing visions of America’s destiny through the lives, writings and ideas of five very different men. In 1817, future historian and diplomat George Bancroft had graduated from Harvard and was heading to Germany for further study. Attending a school at the bottom of the rung was his future rival, author William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina, who became an avid proponent of slavery and secession. Sometime in February of 1818, Freddy Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland. If that name isn’t familiar, it’s because he later assumed the name Frederick Douglass after becoming a fugitive in Massachusetts in 1838. Douglass soon made a name for himself as a powerful orator for the cause of equality, both in America and on his famous 1846 visit to Britain, where English abolitionists purchased his freedom legally. In the following years, both Douglass and Bancroft met with Lincoln. These sections are some of the most powerful of the book. (It was Bancroft who asked Lincoln to write out a copy of the Gettysburg Address, now considered the definitive version and preserved in the Library of Congress.) While Douglass pressed Lincoln for equality, Simms and others in the South set forth to find ways “to dispossess” formerly enslaved people, wrenching efforts at reconstruction away from the federal government. As the narrative moves into Reconstruction and beyond, Woodard focuses on two other figures: Woodrow Wilson, who influenced the creation of a federal government that “actively resisted making diversity an official part of American life,” and Frederick Jackson Turner, a scholar best known for his “frontier thesis,” tracing the role of westward expansion in shaping American values and democracy. This choice of narrative structure makes for a fascinating journey through history. However, given the centurylong time frame, chapter titles and defined sections might have added welcome context. It’s also worth noting that not much attention is paid to women’s contributions. In the end, though, Union is timely and thought-provoking, accomplishing much more than a static history. In an author’s note dated December 2019, Woodard writes that several paths lie before us and that “the survival of the United States is at stake in the choices we make about which one to follow.”
Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay: Elizabeth Kay’s debut, Seven Lies, examines just how far a woman would go to maintain her oldest and closest friendship. June tells her story in seven parts, one part for each of the seven lies she tells her best friend, Marnie. It starts small, with the reassurance that, yes, of course Jane likes Marnie’s boyfriend, Charles. But after Charles and Marnie marry, the lies quickly grow out of control, leading to Charles’ death and throwing Jane’s own relationship with Marnie into jeopardy. The only way Jane sees to save herself is with still more lies, each one drawing her closer to losing not only her friend, but also her secret. Seven Lies is a heart-pounding portrait of a sociopath committed to maintaining control of a friendship. What makes the novel remarkable is not that Jane is a sociopath—it’s how badly you want to like her anyway. Jane has gone through trauma and has lost people, and she is trying to hold on to the one thing in her life that has always been steady. As a reader, you begin to excuse some of the small lies, some of the little inconsistencies. It isn’t too big of a stretch to then start buying into the bigger lies, the bigger indiscretions. Kay uses the gentle cadence of her main character’s voice to pull readers down the slippery slope of rooting for the bad guy. Full of uneasy suspense, Seven Lies may leave you wishing that just this once, the villain could get away with it. Be ready to wince, shudder and—above all else—exist for several hours at the edge of whatever seat you happen to be occupying.
Devolution by Max Brooks: Civil society is always fragile. When it collapses under violent threat, its citizens inevitably reveal their truest selves. With his groundbreaking first novel, World War Z, Max Brooks adapted this timeless truth–the essence of The Iliad, King Lear, War and Peace, etc.–on a global scale (with zombies). In Devolution, the author gives it another go, this time in microcosm.Greenloop is a would-be environmental utopia (with all the modern amenities) established by a bunch of well-heeled city folks in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest forest. The volcano of Mount Rainier is sleeping nearby, along with a family of sasquatch. Rainier wakes up, and so does Bigfoot. Next stop: Greenloop. The personnel of Greenloop is the ultimate catalog of urbanite hubris, idealism, cluelessness and dormant heroism. Moral fiber hits rock bottom in the character of Tony, the founder of the community, a charismatic Grizzly Man type whose phony charisma crumbles in the face of disaster. The community’s shining light is Mostar, a survivor of the Balkan conflicts of the last century. She is the prophet, the pragmatist, the ass-kicker. With these characters, and the other Greenloop residents, Brooks demonstrates how a person’s true nature comes to light in a catastrophe, when they must either summon courage they never knew they possessed, or die. Or both. In Devolution, as in World War Z, Brooks relishes what he calls “forensic horror,” a medium for understanding a disaster retrospectively, through available evidence. The novel is framed by an unnamed researcher into the events, who presents the diary of Kate Holland, a resident of Greenloop. The researcher illuminates Kate’s complex firsthand account through interviews with her grieving brother and a baffled park ranger. The transformation of Greenloop and its members—especially Kate and her slacker husband, Dan—from self-doubting basket cases into formidable warriors transcends the notion of “evolution.” It’s terrifying. Brooks is not only dealing with the end of humanity; he’s also showing us our further course toward a new, ineluctable, absolute brutality.
The Girl From Widow Hills by Megan Miranda: At just 6 years old, Arden Maynor was outside sleepwalking when a flash flood swept her away. Residents of her small Kentucky town searched for days, her mother made on-camera pleas and the national media broadcast it all. The country breathed a sigh of relief when Arden was found–and on every anniversary of that day, the media spotlight found her and her mother over and over again. The relentless attention made Arden feel hunted, “like nothing more than a character brought to life by my mother’s book.” And so, in Megan Miranda’s The Girl from Widow Hills, we get to know the Arden of 20 years later: now 26, she goes by Olivia Wells and lives in North Carolina, where she has a job she loves. She’s finally beginning to feel secure in her life’s rhythms, even forging new friendships–but then, one horrible night, she sleepwalks outside and awakens with a bloodied body at her feet. Is the looming 20th anniversary stirring up tamped-down trauma? Or is someone from the past trying to torment her anew? Newspaper articles, transcripts, book excepts and other artifacts paint a fuller picture of the rescue and its aftermath, including conspiracy theories and bizarre expectations from those obsessed with the little girl. Step by suspenseful step, Miranda lays a path for readers to follow as Olivia tries to separate dreams and reality, fear and fact–with a tenacious local detective not far behind. The Girl from Widow Hills is a creepy, compelling portrait of a life forever warped by unwanted fame, a timely theme in this era of internet celebrity and the fall from grace that often follows. (There are strong echoes of the real life 1987 “Baby Jessica” media explosion, too, wherein a toddler feel deep into a Texas well and the nation breathlessly tuned in to CNN’s live broadcast of the tension-filled, successful rescue effort.) It’s a shivery kind of fun to wonder along with Olivia whether those close to her should be trusted or feared, and to urge her on as she races to unravel the past without unraveling her sanity. She may have been rescued all those years ago, but now, only she can save herself.