Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour: Mila has spent the past four years in the foster care system. Now that she’s turning 18, she can’t be placed with another foster family, so she’s stunned and humbled to receive a placement as an intern with a couple named Julia and Terry, who have raised dozens of children on their idyllic farm tucked between the mountains and the sea. Alongside two other interns, Mila will tutor the younger children and contribute to the daily workings of farm life, tending the crops, learning about flowers and taking harvests to the nearby farmers market. Mila quickly becomes close to her student, 9-year-old Lee, beneath whose quiet demeanor lies a traumatic history. The two also bond over their shared distrust of the ghostly figures who seems to haunt the farm at night. The farm’s other residents seem to relish their mysterious presence, but Mila and Lee aren’t ready to welcome them in. Even as Mila settles into her new life, she worries that she doesn’t really belong on the farm. She becomes increasingly unsettled when disturbing tokens from her old life begin to show up on the doorstep of her cabin. Watch Over Me is an unusual ghost story in which the ghosts are both metaphors and characters in their own right. Printz Medalist Nina LaCour effectively blends contemporary perspectives on psychological themes, including abuse, childhood trauma, guilt and grief, with a setting and a narrative that seem to exist somehow outside of time. As the story opens, Mila is at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood. Her regrets over events in her youth and her longing to have had a more secure childhood like those Julia and Terry’s adoptees enjoy is poignant and palpable. Simultaneously, however, as her deepening relationship with Lee causes her to want to be the best teacher she can, Mila begins to craft a vision of her future that wouldn’t have been possible without the farm. Richly atmospheric and both haunting and hopeful, Watch Over Me is a rewarding novel about a young woman on the brink of a new life.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: The phrase “worst-case scenario” calls to mind extreme situations, like being on a hijacked plane or a bridge during an earthquake. But perhaps more realistically, most worst-case scenarios are mundane. They’re quieter and less violent. They might even happen while we’re on vacation. Such is the premise of Rumaan Alam’s novel, Leave the World Behind. White parents Clay and Amanda leave Brooklyn for a gorgeous vacation rental home far out on Long Island. Their kids are thrilled about the pool, less thrilled about being isolated in the woods with no cell service. Their respite has barely begun, however, when the house’s owners, wealthy Black couple George and Ruth, appear at the door in the middle of the night. There’s been an epic blackout in New York City. Something seems very wrong, and the older couple thought they should get out. At first, Amanda is annoyed that their vacation has been interrupted. How bad could a blackout really be? And couldn’t this rich couple just go stay in a hotel? But then eerie occurrences begin to happen where they are, too. It’s clear something terrible is happening. Alam’s brilliance is less in what he reveals and more in what he doesn’t. Fear of the unknown ratchets up the reader’s anxiety, and yet Leave the World Behind unfolds slowly for a thriller. The internet and TV are down, and cell phones won’t work, so information about the crisis is scarce. “I can’t do anything without my phone,” Clay laments. “I’m a useless man.” Trying to reassure the children and each other, the two couples hit the expected notes for grown-ups in a crisis: We’ll be fine. The government will have everything under control. We’re safe here. None of this turns out to be true. Leave the World Behind is certainly timely in the era of COVID-19, but it’s also relevant for anyone who has questioned our society’s dependence on technology or our unwavering faith in the social contract. The characters second-guess their beliefs about safety and security. Readers who are safe at home–maybe?–can’t help but do the same.
The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall: American cookery rests squarely on the shoulders of the late, great James Beard. After all, the man’s foundation and prestigious culinary awards, named in his honor, are considered the gold standard for recognizing the best chefs, restaurateurs and food writers working today. His life and experiences are extremely well-known and have been written about extensively. Yet in his new book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, John Birdsall–a gastronomic expert in his own right, having twice won a James Beard Award–gives foodies a fresh, intimate look at James Beard. He writes with candor, wit and vibrancy, as if Beard himself is speaking through Birdsall’s pen, retelling his colorful life and inviting us into his world. And Birdsall doesn’t mince words, delivering a raw, revealing look into how and why Beard had to tread cautiously as he navigated the world as a closeted gay man during the often unforgiving 20th century. Birdsall’s strength as a food writer shines, with mouthwateringly descriptive prose about cuisine peppered throughout the book, such as the smoked and glazed “swaddled ham” that Beard’s mother would bring along on their trips to the Oregon seashore: “The ham was salty and pungent. Its smokiness and moldy specter would linger as the first taste on the coast.” He also provides touchstones to what was going on globally, including both World Wars, the World’s Fair of 1939, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the civil rights movement, giving context for the major events that affected Beard’s life. The Man Who Ate Too Much is meticulously researched. Additionally, Birdsall’s insightful style allows readers to feel Beard’s successes and failures, highs and lows, and revelations and discoveries as they become deeply familiar with the family, friends, colleagues and rivals who impacted his life. Food lovers will rejoice at this new portrait of one of America’s all-time culinary greats, cheering for Beard’s shining legacy and empathizing with his disappointments.
Eleanor by David Michaelis: Fueled by 11 years of research, the new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by David Michaelis, New York Times bestselling author of N.C. Wyeth, is both compelling and comprehensive, making use of previously untapped archival sources and interviews. It seems no accident that Michaelis chooses as his leading epithet this quote from the nation’s most formidable and longest serving first lady: “I felt obliged to notice everything.” In the same way, her biographer, who actually met Roosevelt when he was just 4 years old, trains his careful attention on virtually all aspects of her incredible life and times to craft a fast-moving, engrossing narrative. Eleanor follows its subject from birth to her death in 1962. Michaelis sets the stage by providing a list of principal characters, then presents Roosevelt’s life in seven parts designed to reflect the myriad roles she played in her transformation from an awkward child into a force of nature. Roosevelt’s life journey took her from a shy, often ignored child, whose mother shamed her with the nickname “Granny,” to a dynamic first lady and then a “world maker” when, as one of the country’s first delegates to the United Nations, she spearheaded the adoption of the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history. Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was entwined with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor was so intrinsically linked with the New Deal and World War II, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she was born in 1884 and was almost 36 years old when the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. That was one year before the summer when FDR contracted polio, altering both their lives in profound ways. Michaelis never neglects the politics and history that marked the life of this remarkable, fascinating woman. At the same time, his impeccable storytelling and seamless integration of dialogue and quotations allow him to create an intimate, lively and emotional portrait that unfolds like a good novel. The book is also meticulously sourced, with nearly 100 pages of notes and a 30-page bibliography that’s of interest to historians as well as general readers. One of the pleasures of this biography in Michaelis’ firm grasp of the material and his ability to sprinkle the text with anecdotes and tidbits that capture Roosevelt’s personality, complex private relationships and public accomplishments. We learn, for instance, that as first lady she traveled 38,000 miles in 1933 and kept up this grueling pace, logging 43,000 miles in 1937. He writes, “Never before had a president’s wife set out on her own to assess social and economic conditions or…visited a foreign country unaccompanied by the President.” Roosevelt once reflected, “You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best you have to give.” As America faces another challenging period in its history, there may be no better time for readers to turn to the life of one of our nation’s truly great leaders for inspiration.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: The future we face under climate change is often presented as a progression of sterile facts: The world’s oceans are likely to rise by X meters by the year 2100. Global average temperatures are going to increase by Y degrees over the next 30 years. There will be Z millions of climate refugees seeking new homes. The problem with these numerical descriptions of a hellishly hot future is that they often ignore the human toll of climate change. Not so in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, The Ministry for the Future. Robinson’s view of climate change is deeply personal, inescapably human and utterly horrifying. The Ministry for the Future frames the story of humanity’s future around the formation and future-history of an international organization of the same name. Established in 2025, its mission is straightforward: It must advocate for the future of the Earth and the creatures that make their homes here. What this means, in practice, is trying to mitigate–and bear witness to–the human toll of catastrophic climate change. Robinson structures his story as a series of oral histories, eyewitness accounts of a changing world. While this technique isn’t new, it is unique in both the number of different accounts Robinson chooses to follow and the type. Robinson doesn’t focus on the macro or the micro; he focuses on it all. While the novel opens with the account of the sole survivor of a killer heat wave in Lucknow, India, it doesn’t stay there. It ranges from international politics (Is geoengineering a viable solution? What would happen if a single country unilaterally decided to engineer a solution to rising temperatures?) to the stories of individuals dealing with PTSD, forced migration and heat waves, among other things. The Ministry for the Future isn’t really a book for folks who are used to (or longing for) grand space operas and tales of cosmic exploration and action. Although Robinson’s prose is evocative, the book isn’t exactly exciting. Robinson’s writing is sparse, and what plot that exists within the pages of this book is often obscured by its structure. Much like the future, The Ministry for the Future doesn’t lay itself out in a straight and orderly fashion. Despite its occasionally dry tone, Kim Stanley Robinson’s take on our future is one of the most moving pieces of climate fiction written in a very long time. Well researched and beautifully written, this book is a thought-provoking (and sometimes even hopeful) read for anyone looking to the future and wondering what’s coming next.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton: With The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, British writer Stuart Turton kept readers guessing Agatha Christie-style as they investigated a mystery with a time- and body-hopping detective named Aiden Bishop. In The Devil and the Dark Water, Turton presents readers with another cat-and-mouse game, but a vastly different setting: A galleon that sets sail from the Dutch East Indies in 1634, bound for Amsterdam. The Devil and the Dark Water artfully combines intriguing characters, fascinating historical details and a seafaring labyrinth of twists and turns–not to mention a demon named Old Tom. There is never a dull moment in this 480-page whodunit, but readers will be thankful not to be physically aboard for the grueling journey. As passengers arrive, a leper suddenly shouts that the voyage is doomed, and then burns to death. What more could possibly go wrong? As the ship’s constable notes, the “crew is comprised of malcontents, murderers, and thieves to a man.” One passenger may be able to get to the bottom of the strange curse and ensuing foreboding events–and deaths–that follow. Unfortunately, detective Samuel Pipps is locked in the brig without knowing what crime he is accused of, leaving his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, to investigate. A trio of women (the captain’s wife, daughter and mistress) are also sleuthing, adding a refreshingly feminine twist to this Sherlock Holmes-styled mystery. Turton’s characterizations dovetail nicely with his careful, clever plotting. Meanwhile, he uses history to his advantage, adding dollops of commentary on women’s rights, class privilege and capitalism that lend the novel a contemporary vibe. As talk of Old Tom’s powers ramp up, passengers wonder whether the ship’s misfortunes may be supernatural, and which unfortunate soul will be Tom’s next target. Steadfast Hayes remains convinced that “There were only people and the stories they told themselves.” With no end of stories aboard this ill-fated galleon, and even a touch of romance, possibilities abound. Meanwhile, a ghost ship lurks in the distance, and a huge storm wreaks havoc. History and mystery lovers alike will delight in the heart-racing escapades of The Devil and the Dark Water.
The Searcher by Tana French: Much like her previous standalone novel, The Witch Elm, Tana French’s The Searcher meanders its way into a mystery with a deliberate patience. Cal Hooper is an outsider in his rural Irish town, and before he can be ensnared by a missing person case, Cal–and by extension the reader–must get his footing in his new community. It’s this nuance, a signature of French’s writing, that makes this novel more than just a mystery; it’s also an exploration of rural poverty and the closely intertwined lives of people who are just trying to scratch out a living. Cal is a former Chicago detective burned out from his job, licking his wounds after his divorce and struggling to reconnect with his adult daughter. His decision to move to Ireland and fix up a ramshackle farmhouse feels impulsive, but Cal is almost immediately centered by the beautiful landscape and by the kindness of his neighbors. Gossip gets around though, and soon Cal finds 13-year-old Trey Reddy on his doorstep. Trey’s 19-year-old brother Brendan has vanished and Trey believes that he’s been met with foul play. The Irish police, and indeed Brendan’s own mother, believe Brendan left of his own volition. The Reddys are poor, Brendan didn’t make it into college, and his girlfriend recently broke up with him. With few prospects, it’s reasonable to assume that he fled to Dublin like many teens before him. Trey’s insistence rattles something in Cal, however, and as he begins a quiet investigation into Brendan’s disappearance, he realizes that his tiny community is full of secrets and people who don’t want Brendan found. French scrapes away at the idyllic landscape of rural Ireland and reveals the vices that plague every village and town, including drugs like methamphetamine. As the book progresses, Cal’s idyllic country adventure begins to rot around the edges. What sets The Searcher apart from French’s earlier novels is its depiction of how deeply intertwined the residents of the village are–with young people leaving the area, farms struggling and poverty and drug use plaguing the area, each person is somehow dependent on his or her neighbors for survival. This is not a place where Cal can bury his head in the sand. Evocative and lyrical, The Searcher is a mystery worth reading slowly to savor every perfectly rendered detail.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: In V.E. Schwab’s genre-bending 17th novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the reader first meets Addie as she is fleeing a life she doesn’t want, one that has been chosen for her by her parents. In the year 1714 in Villon, France, 23-year-old Addie is being forced to marry a widower from her village whose children are in want of a stepmother. Instead of submitting, Addie runs. “She doesn’t slow, doesn’t look back; she doesn’t want to see the life that stands there, waiting. Static as a drawing. Solid as a tomb. Instead, she runs.” She also prays to the old gods, as her friend Estele, the village witch, has taught her. Estele warned her never to pray to the gods that answer after dark, but as dusk bleeds into night, Addie accidentally conjures just such a god, whom she will come to know as Luc. He promises Addie of “time without limit, freedom without rule” in exchange for her soul. Only after the deal is struck does Addie understand the secret cost of this arrangement. She can live for a thousand years if she likes, but nobody will ever remember her. Until one day, in New York City in the year 2014, she walks into a bookstore and, for the first time in 300 years, someone does. It’s a twist that changes everything she thought she knew about her future and the decisions that await her. At the heart of this novel is a meditation on legacy, time and the values each person uses to guide their path. Freed from a life’s traditional arc of aging and transitions, the indefatigable Addie must proactively decide how she wants to spend her days and which sacrifices are worth her soul’s survival. This is a hopeful book from an author who is known for dark, violent stories, which makes it both a delightful surprise and a balm in difficult times.
Missionaries by Phil Klay: Phil Klay, who gave us the National Book Award-winning collection of short stories Redeployment, follows up with his first novel, Missionaries, about America’s unofficial war on Colombian guerillas, militias and drug cartels. The novel, staggering in scope, follows four lead characters. Mason is a U.S. Army Special Forces operative turned liaison to the Colombian military who’s looking for a sense of purpose after serving long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lisette is a foreign war journalist who has spent years covering the down and dirty horrors on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere. Juan Pablo, Mason’s attaché in Colombia, laments his role as mercenary. And Abel, a lieutenant in the Los Mil Jesus militia, saw his family butchered as a child but somehow managed to survive to take up his own position of power. Before launching them on their eventual collision course, Klay introduces the foursome in alternating chapters over the first half of the book, diving years into the past as each character reflects on their lot in life. None of them really chose their path, but each is resigned to accept it one way or another. Even when they have a chance to walk away from it–to start fresh, as with Mason and Lisette–they are seemingly incapable of living a quieter, safer life. Klay’s vividly descriptive yet lyrical prose keeps their stories interesting, though the novel is at its best when events cascade into occasional bursts of graphic violence. Klay, an Iraq War veteran, progressively ratchets up the unease throughout, which serves as a cautious warning of more intense violence to come. Missionaries offers a starkly realistic view of a war-torn region only hinted at on the nightly news that, at times, makes Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s troubles pale by comparison. At the same time, the novel provides a powerful glimpse of the psychological toll of war and a close look at people’s desperate attempts to find their place amid utter chaos.
The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross: A long time ago, amid circumstances that no one seems so sure about anymore, a small Jewish village in Poland fell off the map of the world. Surrounded by thick forests, Kreskol has existed in a self-sustained bubble of peaceful isolation for decades, thereby missing the best of human civilization–like electricity, indoor plumbing and the internet–as well as the worst, namely the Holocaust and the Cold War. It is surprising, then, that what brings this peace crashing down isn’t an epic catastrophe but rather something as mundane as a marital dispute. When young Pesha Lindauer disappears, everyone suspects foul play by her husband, Ishmael, who is also nowhere to be found. Having no means to further investigate the scandal, the rabbis convince young Yankel Lewinkopf, an outcast and an orphan, to find his way to the nearest town and inform the authorities of the suspected crime. Yankel leaves reluctantly, only to return three months later in a helicopter with gentiles who are less interested in solving the crime than in immediately thrusting Kreskol into the 21st century. First-time novelist Max Gross is funny, insightful and mysterious in sharing what is essentially a coming-of-age story not only for Pesha, Ishmael and Yankel, each of whom realizes that they can choose to lead a different life, but also for an entire village that’s at once suspicious of and fascinated by the inundation of money and modern conveniences. The Lost Shtetl is a fascinating combination of adventure, laughs and heartache, perfect for fans ofMichael Chabon.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (e-book available on Libby or Overdrive app with library card): Readers will be riveted by powerful world building and deep characterization for the entirety of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. Right from the start, the story is on the clock. The Convergence, an alignment of Sun, Moon and Earth, approaches, and Serapio, a boy from a far-off land, brings magic and doom with him to his mother’s homeland of Tova. As the characters make their way toward Tova for the Convergence, the narrative perspective shifts constantly between Serapio, the Sun Priestess Naranpa and a sea witch of sorts named Xiala. While there are a few twists and turns to the plot, Roanhorse paints her story in broad, easy-to-follow strokes, the action serving almost as backdrop upon which to paint her world and to enrich her characters. As perspectives change, so do the rhythm and meter of the text, matching the mannerisms and personality of each character. When Xiala is guiding the narrative, her brash, blunt nature creates shorter, more direct sentences. People characterized by Xiala are often summarized by their physical characteristics first, their emotional resonance second. This shift in narrative tone and theme is most notable when Serapio is in the hot seat. Blind, brooding and by far the most powerful character, Serapio offers a perspective that often clashes with others’ views of him and his surroundings. This attention to detail in character voice creates an engaging story that keeps the reader in the moment through shifting narrative lenses. The world of Black Sun is well-built and clearly inspired by the Pre-Columbian Americas. Roanhorse has constructed a world of multiple regions and religions, intertwined by their roots, culture and money (cocoa, in the Mayan fashion) but split by their beliefs. Each character has a different perspective on the story’s events; a relational diagram displaying where the characters agree, disagree and agree-but-do-not-quite-know-it would have to be three-dimensional and incorporate multiple referencing lines, mirroring their real-life relationships. Roanhorse’s humanization of Black Sun‘s characters creates genuine connection for the reader, even with the Sun Priestess, despite any lack of sun-star divination skills the reader might have. Also, this book has extremely cool magic. Crows eat people, the sun goes dark, and the ocean sings with its children–wild forces of creation running rampant on small to massive scales. (There’s something incredible about reading “THE SUN WENT DARK.” It paints a remarkable pictures.) Truly, the fact that this review has only now gotten to this aspect of Roanhorse’s fantasy world demonstrates Black Sun‘s multifaceted appeal. Black Sun has one drawback: It is clearly the start of a series, and ends like it. Readers looking for an open-and-shut story will not find it here. As referenced before, the story is a set piece for the characters to interact with the setting and each other, but there is plenty of fascinating interplay and world-building to keep readers engaged and entertained from start to finish.
A Time for Mercy by John Grisham (e-book available on Libby and Overdrive apps): With nationwide calls for police reform and defunding, literary giant John Grisham’s novel A Time for Mercy is undoubtedly timely, as it explores the ways that violence committed by or against law enforcement officials can complicate the pursuit of justice. Jake Brigance–the hero of Grisham’s 1989 debut, A Time to Kill–is court-appointed to represent 16-year-old Drew Gamble in the shooting death of his mother’s boyfriend, deputy sheriff Stu Kofer. There’s no question that Drew pulled the trigger, but Jake faces an ethical challenge over whether the shooting was justified. Drew contends that he shot Stu in self-defense after believing Stu had killed his mother. Drew, his younger sister and their mother lived in constant fear of beatings by Stu, who often returned home in a drunken stupor. Jake only wants to handle preliminary matters for the Gamble case until a permanent public defender can be appointed. But deep down, he realizes he’s the best chance the Gamble family has. With public sentiment and fellow police officers standing behind Stu and his family, Jake’s efforts to keep Drew from being tried as an adult and facing possible execution put him at odds with the community. While there are lulls during some of the legal procedural bits, Grisham’s mastery of the courtroom thriller is never in question. As usual, he presents as smooth a read as you’ll ever experience. The dialogue is sharp and pointed, layered with genuine emotions that make the characters pop off the pages of this morally complex story.
Mad at the World by William Souder: John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the promise of wealth beyond the veil of desolation and the wretched impossibility of such a promise. Steinbeck’s other epic, East of Eden, illustrates the ragged desperation of human nature, wreaking destruction rather than carrying hope. William Souder’s bracing Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck vividly portrays the brooding and moody writer who could never stop writing and who never fit comfortably in the society in which he lived. Souder, whose biography of John James Audobon was a Pulitzer finalist, traces Steinbeck’s love of story and storytelling to his childhood. As a teenager, Steinbeck immersed himself in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which he translated later in life, and in adventure tales and classics such as Treasure Island, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment. This early reading gave him glimpses into the shadowy corners of the human heart and provided him with models for telling tales of people engaged in heroic struggles against the injustices of their eras. Steinbeck was a born storyteller, a writer who was not happy unless he was working, a novelist a bit out of step with his times (many of his social realist novels appeared during the innovations of modernism) and a reticent man who would rather write than talk publicly about his writing. Steinbeck’s greatest virtue, according to Souder, was his “ability to live inside other cultures, other races; he brought people to life who were otherwise invisible and voiceless.” The first Steinbeck biography since Jay Parini’s more psychological John Steinbeck: A Biography (1995), Mad at the World vibrantly illuminates the life and work of a writer who is still widely read and relevant today.