How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi: In this book, we’re introduced to recent high school graduate Amir in an airport interrogation room, as he recounts the last year of his life to very patient Customs and Border Protection agents. During senior year, two of Amir’s longtime bullies discover his secret relationship with Jackson, a sensitive football player, and demand that he pay them off with money he earns online. When they get greedy, Amir feels trapped, afraid of revealing his sexuality to his conservative Muslim family. With logic that only a desperate teenager could make sense of, he makes a run for it and finds himself in scenic Rome. Ahmadi blows through the entirety of Love, Simon in this setup, and thank goodness, because once the familiar signposts of the trope fall away, the story really shines. Amir explores his identity and desires along with his new surroundings. He makes older queer friends who teach him about Nina Simone and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” takes Italian lessons and parties into the wee hours of the morning. His new friends become a chosen family of mentors whose help any young outsider would be happy to have on their journey to self-discovery. The relationships Amir builds with these characters are truly the highlight of the novel. Amir can be a frustrating protagonist, but Ahmadi authentically depicts the growing pains of a young queer person reconciling his sexual orientation with the expectations of two communities–LGBTQ and Muslim. The result is occasionally awkward but always brimming with sincerity. “It’s such a privilege, you know?” Amir reflects. “To get to be yourself, all of yourself, in this great big world.”
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman: British TV presenter, producer and director Richard Osman adds “novelist” to his resume with The Thursday Murder Club, an imaginative and witty whodunit set in the luxurious Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, England. Solving cold-case murders isn’t an activity listed in the retirement community brochure, but it’s quite popular with a quartet of whip-smart resident septuagenarians–Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron–who are dedicated to the cause. The group meets in the Jigsaw Room; the time slot is “booked under the name Japanese Opera: A Discussion, which ensured they were always left in peace.” Little do they know that Coopers Chase developer and owner Ian Ventham has built the place with ill-gotten money, and he’s got plans to expand while, er, taking care of some criminal-underworld related issues. When Ventham’s business partner Tony Curran, a talented builder and prolific drug dealer, is murdered, the club seizes the opportunity to work on something fresh and exciting (even if their help isn’t necessarily welcome). Not long after, there is another murder, plus the discovery of human bones that don’t belong in the cemetery where they were found. The investigation’s urgency ratchets up accordingly–and the number of viable suspects increases, many of them right there in Coopers Chase. Through some hilariously masterful manipulation, the group unearths clues and teases out witness testimony, no small thanks to Elizabeth’s impressive network (she just possibly might be a former spy) and the club members’ talent for using stereotypes about the elderly to their advantage. Joyce, the group’s newest member, chronicles the club’s hijinks in her diary with a tone of hesitant glee, and also muses on motherhood, mortality and romantic love. Osman’s careful attention to the realities of life in a retirement village ensures that The Thursday Murder Club is a compassionate, thoughtful tribute to a segment of the population that’s often dismissed and ignored. It’s also an excellent example of the ways in which a murder mystery can be great fun.
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): “Being a citizen of the United States, I had thought, meant being an equal member of the American family, a spirited group of people of different races, origins, and creeds, bound together by common ideals,” writes Laila Lalami. “As time went by, however, the contradictions between doctrine and reality became harder to ignore. While my life in this country is in most ways happy and fulfilling, it has never been entirely secure or comfortable.” Lalami is an American citizen. She earned that title in 2000, eight years after she came to this country to earn her doctorate at the University of Southern California. She is also a Muslim woman and a native of North Africa. She may have passed the United States’ citizenship test with ease, but because of the markers that identify her as an immigrant, Lalami’s citizenship is often treated as conditional. In Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, Lalami examines the ways in which people of color and people who live in poverty are often treated as less than. It’s the first work of nonfiction for Lalami, a novelist who won an American Book Award and became a Pultizer finalist for The Moor’s Account. In this new work, Lalami blends analysis of national and international events with her own personal narrative. For example, a woman at one of the author’s book events asks Lalami to explain ISIS. Would a white writer of a novel set in an earlier time be asked to explain the Ku Klux Klan, she wonders. Conditional citizenship means being seen as representative of a monolithic group, rather than as an individual. These citizens are often asked to explain their entire ethnic groups to white people, Lalami writes. Conditional Citizens is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by its detailed source notes and bibliography, but in this gifted storyteller’s hands, it never feels like homework. Lalami braids statistics and historical context with her lived experiences to illustrate how unjust policies and the biases that feed them can affect individual lives.
Tools of Engagement by Tessa Bailey (e-book available on the Libby app):Tools of Engagement is the third and final book in Tessa Bailey’s contemporary Hot & Hammered series, and it’s every bit as fun and sexy as her readers have come to expect. Wes Daniels and Bethany Castle’s story has been building over the series, and it finally comes to a head when he signs on to help Bethany flip a house for a television competition. Wes is a man after my own heart, with his “winging it” approach to life. When his sister needs a break after separating from her husband, Wes flies to New York to care for his 5-year-old niece. He takes on a job with the Castle family’s construction business and begins to work with Bethany, a perfectionist home stager who’s trying to get her family to take her seriously. Her type-A, anxiety-driven personality is the perfect foil for Wes’ easygoing, earnest appeal for connection. She’s seven years his senior, which is a great plot device in developing the attraction between the two main characters. The key elements of a Bailey rom-com are certainly present: snappy dialogue, likable characters and red-hot chemistry. But it’s the plot that makes this romance feel perfectly of the moment, and readers quickly learn that the house the main couple is flipping isn’t the only thing that needs a little overhaul. It’s hard to be perfect all the time, and Bethany embodies every modern woman I know who juggles career and relationships, self-confidence and vulnerability. Wes is a very lovable hero, stepping up to care for his niece while fighting his own insecurities from bouncing around different foster homes when he was younger. He, too, has to find the perfect balance of self-reliance and vulnerability. This is such a timely story for an era of quarantining and social distancing, when families have had to reconfigure their own tools of engagement, learning how to shift gears and work from home, entertain less personal space or even take on new tasks like cooking and homeschooling. Bailey’s characters face their fates with good humor and hope, which is a good aspiration for her readers. I think she’d also like to know that, as usual, I laughed out loud while reading her book…and I may have even snorted.
Adrianne Geffel by David Hajdu: Depending on one’s perspective, a work of art deemed avant-garde is either a welcome innovation or a stinging repudiation of the status quo. Few people are indifferent. And no avant-garde artist provoked more extreme reactions than Adrianne Geffel, the fictional pianist at the center, or perhaps it’s better to say the periphery, of Adrianne Geffel, music critic David Hajdu’s debut novel. The reason periphery is a tempting word here is because the reader rarely hears directly from Geffel. Hajdu has structured this clever work as an oral history, the unnamed author of which has long known about the “idiosyncratic American pianist and composer” active in the 1970s and ’80s, whose works inspired a Sofia Coppola film and a George Saunders story and who had a neurological condition that prompted “auditory hallucinations.” She “heard music almost all the time.” This book is an attempt to figure out what happened to the “Geyser on Grand Street,” as a SoHo newspaper dubbed her, who disappeared in the mid-1980s at age 26. A portrait of Geffel slowly emerges through interviews with people who knew her–from her parents, who fed baby Adrianne formula in part because they could buy it at a discount, to her teachers at Juilliard and a classmate who insinuated himself into Geffel’s life to latch on to her fame. The result is the literary equivalent of negative space in art: creating a picture of a subject by focusing on surrounding details. Hajdu does this to entertaining effect, even when some of the interviewees’ stories wander and slow the narrative momentum. He has fun satirizing figures in the music world, among them teachers who think students should get into prestigious schools through connections because it’s more “convivial” that way, critics who use their interview with the author to plug their books, and prominent publications that report on trends in music long after the trends have become passé. Adrianne Geffel is an uncommon treat: a smart parody that even detractors of the experimental are likely to welcome.
Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots: Fresh and funny, Hench exposes the inner lives of superheroes, villains and sidekicks with all their mundane vulnerabilities. Anna Tromedlov is a struggling, hapless temp who “henches” for evil villains. When she is badly injured during a battle between the forces of good and evil, she finds herself broke, broken and unemployed. So she does what she does best: runs the numbers to discover the extent of damage caused by those supposed do-gooders. Anna’s database goes viral, and she is soon employed by Leviathan, a mysterious and powerful villain who uses Anna’s expert skills in collecting and collating data to bring down superheroes by the numbers. They’re targeting one superhero in particular: Supercollider, who caused Anna’s downfall and, ultimately, her rise. Familiar tropes are turned upside down in this fast-paced caper, and no one is perfect. Superheroes carelessly cause damage while fighting for justice. The villains are more efficient and professional than the so-called “good guys.” Even the downtrodden Anna, who becomes a dangerous asset when she wields her database skills, continues to wrestle with self-doubt despite her success. Toronto writer and journalist Natalie Zina Walschots deftly choreographs the dynamic skirmishes between superheroes and villains, who sport suitably fabulous names like the Electric Eel, Glassblower, Quantum and Auditor. (Guess who gets the latter title.) While there is some bloodshed and gore, the attention falls mostly on the often humorous dialogue and commentary by Anna and her cohorts. Wry observations about the corporate world, our litigious society and how our chaotic lives are ruled by dry-cleaning tickets and family obligations are sprinkled throughout. Rousing and irreverent, Hench is an entertaining adventure that challenges the stereotypes of heroes, villains and the humble temp.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, profound novel Jack will not be for every reader. First of all, it’s a slow read. It has fewer than 300 pages, and if it had a vigorous plot, you’d rush through it in less than a week. Instead, you’ll find yourself spending much longer in the tangled, contradictory thoughts of John Ames Boughton–the titular Jack. You’ll want to stop and consider the foolish and wise things he thinks. You’ll wonder why he seems so eager to defeat himself. If you allow yourself the time, you could easily spend a month reading and thinking about Jack, about old-time Christian debates regarding grace, redemption and love. Second, there’s the whole moral problem of Jack. You’ve seen him and felt him in the midst and at the edges of Robinson’s previous novels in the widely hailed Gilead cycle: Gilead, Home and Lila. He is the prodigal son of Reverend Robert Boughton of Gilead, Iowa. Since boyhood, Jack has had a shameful talent and urge for petty theft. Now, much older and out of prison, he flops in a single-occupancy hotel on the white side of segregated St. Louis just after World War II. At the beginning of the novel, he finds himself locked in a whites-only cemetery after hours, where he meets a young Black woman named Della Miles who has come there because Jack once praised the place to her. In the mysterious darkness, they talk about poetry and Hamlet and the coincidence that they are both children of ministers. He is aware of the shame that will result from her being discovered there. He wants to protect her. Yet he tells her he is the Prince of Darkness. You wonder if he is joking or really believes it. Third is the question of Della. She is young, smart and from a good Christian family. She teaches English at the local Black high school. She is the beloved daughter of an esteemed Baptist bishop in Memphis. The risk to her and her family’s reputation in associating with Jack could be devastating. So why in the world would she fall in love with Jack? What does it even mean that she believes she has seen his holy human soul? These are just a few of the spirit-boggling questions a reader will encounter by dipping into Robinson’s glorious new novel.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik: Nebula Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Naomi Novik returns with the can’t-miss fantasy of fall 2020, a brutal coming-of-power story steeped in the aesthetics of dark academia. The Scholomance school in Wales has a very specific purpose: Uphold the balance of good and evil, and prevent the latter from running rampant. The evil here takes the form of the maleficaria, monsters that think teenage wizards coming into their own are particularly tasty snacks. The solution was to create the Scholomance, a place where the teen wizards can congregate and harness their powers while simultaneously drawing the maleficaria into one central location. Not everyone survives, and that’s before graduation day, when seniors must battle their way past the hordes of demons and monsters as a way of “passing” their education. And you thought your high school experience was rough. El is a student at the Scholomance with an affinity for dark magic. While her acerbic personality is enough to keep people at arm’s length, the possibility that her magic could grow into a magnificent display of villainous sorcery is a close second. To further cement her role as a school outcast, El is biracial and struggles with not identifying enough with either her Welsh mother or her Indian father. She was distant from her father’s side of the family while growing up, but her brown skin still keeps her from being fully accepted by her mostly white European classmates. Her magic and her identity prevent her from fitting in, making her compensate with a sharp tongue and standoffish attitude. If you’ve been searching for the antiheroine of your dreams, El is a strong contender. There is something so cathartic about being in El’s mind, seeing the world through familiarly jaded and angry eyes. The thought of being able to wield her power even just for a second, and the confident way she nurtures and uses her abilities are the vicarious experiences many restless readers will appreciate. Do not be fooled by the book’s high school setting and the presence of teen wizards, as this is very much an adult fantasy novel (if the demons who feast on teenage wizards wasn’t a clear giveaway). The twisted trial by fire endured at the Scholomance by its students is the only solution that’s been proven to control the maleficaria, but the scales are tipping and El worries there could be disastrous consequences. But there is lightness amidst the viscera in El’s growing friendship with Aadhya, an Indian American student, and the bickering beginnings of a romance with the popular, do-no-wrong Orion. It reminds readers that at the end of the day, these people are trying to deal with the complexities of hormones and emotions and identity…if they could forget about the monsters trying to kill them for five seconds. A Deadly Education is a wild ride that never ceases to yank the rug out from under readers. El is a heroine you want to root for over and over, while still worrying about what all this means for her future. Will she embrace the darkness and become the evil sorceress she was born to be? Or will she guide her magic down a different and more surprising path? It’s not a question easily answered, especially in a world that takes no prisoners and requires a high price from its magic users. As a reader, nothing is more thrilling than discovering an author blessed with boundless imagination. A Deadly Education will cement Naomi Novik’s place as one of the greatest and most versatile fantasy writers of our time.