The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis: Lindsey Davis’ eighth Flavia Albia novel, Grove of the Caesars, finds modern resonance in ancient Rome. With her husband away tending to a family emergency, Albia has her hands full just dealing with her household, perennially under renovation and thus a big draw for unscrupulous contractors. The discovery of a clutch of ancient scrolls leads to a search for their provenance, in the hope that they’ll fetch a good price at auction. This domestic fuss and bother is upended when a body is found in the sacred grove of Julius Caesar, and workmen reveal that it is not the first. To bring a serial killer to justice, Albia must work alongside Julius Karus, an arrogant member of the Vigiles (the firefighters and police of ancient Rome) who appears content to accept easy answers wherever he finds them. There is so much to unpack in this story, which balances a truly grim series of crimes with several funny subplots, often intermingling them in surprising ways. Two young enslaved boys gifted to Albia’s household witness the killing and disappear; what starts as an odd bit of comic relief ends in a mix of tragedy and tenderness. Albia herself continues to be a treasure, grateful for her place in society because it was not always such, but willing to disobey nearly any order if her curiosity is piqued. Davis fills her stories with meticulous research, and the details make for such rich reading, we would likely follow Albia on a day of errands and light entertainment with no crime to speak of. But it’s thrilling to watch her follow a line of inquiry and connect the dots that others fail to see, so we can be glad that she rarely fails to find trouble and charge headlong toward it.
You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): High drama isn’t just soap opera star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez’s day job, it’s also her life in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola. After getting her broken heart splashed over all the tabloid covers, she’s restrategized and plans to lead a man-free, drama-free, scandal-free life while tackling the juicy title character role in a high-profile telenovela adaptation. As down as she’s been, surely there’s nowhere to go but up—or so she thinks, until her first bold step forward into her new leading lady life ends on . . . well, not exactly a sour note but certainly a coffee-splattered one. For Jasmine, this first meeting with her co-star, the gorgeous and aloof Ashton Suárez, is not exactly ideal. But for the reader at the start of this smart and engaging madcap romance, it’s certainly a lot of fun! Considering the usual telenovela twists, the story is actually surprisingly down-to-earth. (There is an evil twin, but alas, it’s just a plot thread on the show.) A few situations are dialed up for laughs, such as the infamous coffee incident during the meet-cute, but for the most part, Jasmine and Ashton face realistic challenges as they deal with their careers, their personal relationships and their blossoming feelings for each other. Jasmine, who is adored but rarely understood by her loving, intrusive family, has the habit of falling too hard and too fast for anyone who makes her feel wanted. Ashton, grappling with a long-held secret, has the opposite problem as he hesitates to let anyone close. Both struggle to balance the success they crave versus the lack of privacy that comes as its price. And while they do have a steamy affair, it includes its share of roadblocks as they work to figure out at each stage how intimate and exposed, in every way, they’re willing to be. Their love story is dramatic but it’s also sweet and complex, as layered and grounded as the characters themselves. Daria fills the story with palpable warmth and affection, not just for her hero and heroine but for the dual worlds they inhabit: the film industry and the Latin American community. If you enjoy behind the scenes peeks, the story includes plenty of fun details about the nuts and bolts of a working set. (A key character is the set’s intimacy coordinator—a newer role on film sets but one that is, thankfully, becoming increasingly common.) And if you appreciate a media landscape that embraces diversity, you’ll love the chance to explore how Jasmine and Ashton carry their heritage with them, determinedly carving out opportunities not just for themselves but for all the gifted, undervalued Latinx performers searching for a place.
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: The second, much-anticipated installment in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy delivers on its promise of high-energy necromancy and cryptic conundrums. The Reverend Daughter, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, has been transformed into Harrow the First, Ninth Saint to Serve the Emperor. But Harrow the Ninth has been forever altered by her battles in the previous book, Gideon the Ninth, which is told from the point of view of Harrow’s now-deceased cavalier, Gideon Nav. As the mystery unravels aboard the Emperor’s ghostly space station, Muir’s seamless, inventive writing brings us dreamlike, labyrinthine plots, fantastical timelines and the continuation of secrets so surreal that readers will forever question who truly holds the power in this precarious but beautiful universe. As one of the Lyctors sworn to protect the Emperor, Harrow follows her lord to increasingly terrifying locations as he flees the mysterious Resurrection Beasts—horrifying creatures who ceaselessly attack him and his increasingly weary and rebellion-prone Lyctors. Whereas Gideon’s story focused on spellbinding swordplay and fleeting crushes on dangerous temptresses with unexpected identities, this book hones in on the very marrow of Harrow—the bone adept’s fears, desires and personal history. Harrow was created by her parents’ morbid sacrifice of all of the Ninth House’s children, and she feels the need to stay true to her roots, always donning the skeletal face paint typical of the Ninth House, practicing her necromancy until her sleepless eyes nearly bleed and remaining nemeses with the narcissistic, ruthless Ianthe Tridentarius, who consumed her own sister and cavalier in her thirst for Lyctorhood. The one piece of herself that Harrow has left behind, however, is any memory of or feeling for Gideon Nav. Harrow’s unbearable grief has forced her to carve the cavalier from her heart and mind. As the perspective fluctuates from a mysterious second-person narrator to an omniscient, unbodied narrator, readers will wonder if Harrow is being haunted, and by whom. Readers familiar with Gideon-and-Harrowhark, Harrowhark-and-Gideon will revel in the new dangers that threaten the Emperor and his Saints, all of which could only be conjured from the depths of Muir’s wild imagination: the River, an eerie, dangerous experience composed of both insurmountable amounts of energy and a void from which it’s nearly impossible to return; the Body, a vision of Harrow’s one true deceased love who proffers questionable advice and is most definitely not of this world; and a host of revenants, resurrections, hallucinations, illusions, ghosts and—of course—skeletons. Muir reprises her attention to numerology, mythology, classic literature and intricate, complex secrets, as well as special appearances from the spirits of cavaliers and necromancers recently and historically lost. As secrets spill like the vibrant innards of terminated cavaliers’ corpses, Harrow and the Lyctors must struggle to stay alive as the true price of the Emperor’s power comes to light—and perhaps, justice.
My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Laura Lippman does not feel bad about her neck. Like, at all. In fact, she writes in My Life as a Villainess, “I have decided, at the age of 60, that I am a ***damn knockout.” She is, objectively, but that statement’s about more than her appealing physical self; it’s a celebration of finally shedding decades of societally induced self-consciousness about food and her body. The essay in which it resides, “The Whole 60,” with its “positivity, damn it” vibe, is a fitting kickoff to a smart, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable, always witty collection of essays. Some are new, some previously published, and together they offer an overview of a very special life so far. Lippman is aware of and thankful for said specialness, and she acknowledges her good fortune often. She adores her brilliant cultural-phenomenon-creator husband, David Simon, known for TV shows “The Wire” and “Treme,” et al. She loves her charming 10-year-old, who made Lippman a mom at 50; is fiercely grateful for a dazzling nanny named Yaya; and treasures her friends, even if she’s pretty sure she isn’t such a great friend to them sometimes. Before she was known for her critically lauded crime novels (her Tess Monaghan series, 12 books and counting, plus 10 standalones), Lippman was a newspaper reporter for 20 years. In “Waco Kid,” she writes of her early career struggles as a newly minted reporter adjusting to the alien Texas landscape, aghast at endemic racism but also thrilled at her burgeoning love of movies. Her later years as a reporter in her beloved city of Baltimore honed her prodigious writing and editing skills, but she’s still pissed that her growing off-the-clock career as a novelist was held against her (as opposed to male colleagues, who were praised for similar endeavors). In “Game of Crones,” she’s hilariously ticked off about menopause, too, and drops trash-talk and name-drop tidbits here and there like so many tasty, snappy breadcrumbs. There’s also a lovely remembrance of Anthony Bourdain (“Fine Bromance”) and a paean to a double boiler (“Revered Ware”), a cookware-as-tribute to her late father, who was also a journalist. With its “gleefully honest” hits of humor and willingness to take a close look at some discomfiting truths, it will come as no surprise to Lippman’s fans that My Life as a Villainess is an engaging read—an intrepid investigation of the author’s inner landscape and a raucous, no-holds-barred visit with that friend you admire for her candor, passion and unabashed nostalgia for 1980s fashion.
The Hollow Ones by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro: The FBI and the supernatural are familiar bedfellows in pop culture. For starters, there’s Fox and Mulder in “The X-Files.” Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child gave us Agent Pendergast. Now there’s the welcome addition of FBI agent Odessa Hardwicke and occult investigator John Silence in The Hollow Ones, the new novel from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Odessa is thrust into a bizarre mystery after she and her partner, Walt Leppo, chase down a random spree killer to a New Jersey home. But after killing the suspect in an exchange of gunfire, Leppo suddenly tries to kill the man’s 9-year-old child, and Odessa is forced to fire on and kill Leppo. In a decidedly twisted turn, Odessa “sees” something she can’t explain leaving his body. Remanded to desk duty while the Bureau investigates her shooting of Leppo, Odessa is, somewhat conveniently, tasked with cleaning out the desk of retired agent Earl Solomon, who is dying. Solomon urges Odessa to contact John Silence, a man he’s worked with before, to assist her in the case. Silence—who is based on one of Lovecraft disciple Algernon Blackwood’s characters by the same name—is an enigmatic and mysterious man who seemingly knows everything about Odessa and the threat she is pursuing, which he refers to as a Hollow One, a body-hopping entity addicted to the thrill of experiencing death. The authors ferry us back and forth in time. Silence is hundreds of years old, thanks to an ancient curse, and is responsible for setting the Hollow One loose in the world. It’s a bit complicated, but suffice it to say there’s a good bit of world building behind the strange goings-on, which all leads up to a modern-day, high-stakes pursuit by Odessa and Silence to capture the entity before it can do more harm. Hogan and del Toro previously collaborated on the Strain trilogy, a popular series turned short-lived TV show, and The Hollow Ones has TV series written all over it. At the very least, it promises to be the first in a new series of literary adventures, and that’s a good thing, as Silence is a fascinating character you’ll want to see again.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson eloquently traced the lives of the 6 million Black Americans who fled the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. Never once in that 640-page book did she mention the word racism. “I realized that the term was insufficient,” she explains. “Caste was the more accurate term.” Her latest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is a much anticipated follow-up and couldn’t be timelier. In it, she examines the “race-based caste pyramid in the United States,” comparing this sociological construction to two other notable caste systems: those of India and Nazi Germany. “As we go about our daily lives,” Wilkerson writes, “caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.” Wilkerson’s comparisons are profound and revelatory. Chapters describe what she has identified as “the eight pillars of caste,” the methods used to maintain this hierarchy, such as heritability, dehumanization and stigma, and control of marriage and mating. In addition to such insights, including how immigrants fit into the caste system, what makes this book so memorable is Wilkerson’s extraordinary narrative gift. Highly readable, Caste is filled with a multitude of stories, many of which are tragically familiar, such as those of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. The story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. is particularly shattering. Returning home on a Greyhound bus after serving in World War II, Woodard asked the driver to allow him to step off the bus to relieve himself, but the driver refused. When Woodard protested, the driver called the police and had him arrested. The police chief, in turn, blinded the returning soldier with his billy club. Stories like these are painfully informative, making the past come alive in ways that do not beg but scream for justice. That said, Wilkerson is never didactic. She lets history speak for itself, turning the events of the past into necessary fuel for our current national dialogue. Dismantling the caste system is possible. Wilkerson points out that Germany did it after World War II. But in the meantime, “caste is a disease, and none of us is immune.” If you read only one book this year, make it Caste, Wilkerson’s outstanding analysis of the grievances that plague our society.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: In Akwaeke Emezi’s brief, remarkable second novel for adults, the reader knows from the start that the central character, Vivek Oji, is dead. After riots in the marketplace of their Nigerian town, Vivek’s mother discovers his naked body placed “like a parcel, like a gift” at the family’s doorstep. Why was he killed? Who killed him? Who was he? Answers emerge incompletely, surprisingly and in fragments as the novel progresses and casts its spell. “I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was,” Vivek says from somewhere outside life. “Every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.” One of the brilliant aspects of this novel is how Emezi makes a person’s invisibility visible. As a child, Vivek is bright, beautiful and by turns violently angry and girlishly shy. He is often beset by fugue states during which his body is present and his consciousness vanishes. Vivek’s family is loving but unable to comprehend him. His extended family is populated by “Nigerwives,” women from India, the Philippines or Sweden who are married to Nigerian men. Outdated sexual traditions and identities—multiple wives for Nigerian men and a sanctified horror of gay people, for example—still prevail in these families. After being forced to leave university, Vivek spends more and more time with the daughters of his extended family. These daughters are of a new generation and seem to understand and protect him. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But, Emezi implies, it takes a culture and its mythologies to erase a child. The Death of Vivek Oji is a profound exploration of the boundaries of personal, sexual and cultural transition.
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay: No one writes as lovingly about quirky, messy and sometimes heartbreaking families as Hilary McKay, whose Binny, Exiles and Casson Family series are rightfully beloved. Although McKay’s most recent books (a historical novel and a fairy-tale collection) are also special, fans will be pleased to discover that she has returned to her roots with The Time of Green Magic—this time with a little magic added, to boot. Eleven-year-old Abi is not exactly thrilled that her father is getting married again. Sure, she gains two stepbrothers, 14-year-old Will and 6-year-old Louis. But she also loses a lot of space and privacy, as well as her beloved Granny Grace, who has lived with Abi since her mother died and uses this moment of change as a chance to finally return to her beloved Jamaica. So when the fledgling family needs to move to a new home and Abi discovers a mysterious, ivy-covered house that seems just perfect for them, she dares to hope that it might be a chance for a new beginning. Almost immediately, though, strange things start to happen. Abi, always a passionate reader, finds herself a little too immersed in the books she picks up. Little Louis starts to get nighttime visits from a furtive feline friend who quickly grows out of control. Meanwhile, Will is discovering a different sort of magic altogether: the bewitching power of first love. In telling the story of how magic unites these new siblings, McKay’s novel recalls classic gentle fantasies like L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe novels or Edward Eager’s Half Magic. But the world of McKay’s book, with its blended family, globe-trotting mother and subplots about bullying and reluctant readers, also feels rooted in and relevant to the contemporary moment. Of course, one thing that will never go out of fashion is the love between family members. The Time of Green Magic depicts the tentative formation of a family with tender sweetness and aching authenticity. Readers will be particularly gratified to see how stories and writing bring this new family together, whether via the stories that Abi’s dad tells at bedtime or the letters Granny Grace sends from Jamaica. It’s a joy to spend time with another memorable set of characters from this talented author.