Wilde Child by Eloisa James (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; historical romance): Eloisa James returns to the adventures of her wonderful Wildes in Wilde Child, a sparkling Georgian romance between an unconventional, theater-loving heroine and a stuffy viscount. Lady Joan Wilde’s reputation has always preceded her. Her golden blond hair (courtesy of her mother’s affair with a Prussian aristocrat) marks her as an illegitimate daughter, and her parentage is constantly whispered about among high society. Thankfully, Joan has a loving family who doesn’t mind embracing her eccentric ways, as Wilde Child continues to showcase the supportive familial bonds that readers love and have come to expect from this series. Joan has grown up loving the stage, often performing for her family in the privacy of their home at Lindow Castle. In true Joan fashion, she wants to shake things up a bit and take the leading role in a local theater troupe’s production of Hamlet. However, a woman in breeches, front and center in a Shakespeare play, is asking for scandal. Joan is unabashedly herself, and her tenacity and passion for acting make her the star of every scene. She is a whimsical departure from the shy wallflowers that so often populate the subgenre, with often hilarious results. Unfortunately, Joan’s brash personality is the bane of Thaddeus Erskine Shaw’s existence. As Viscount Greywick and heir to the Duke of Eversley, Thaddeus shouldn’t be seen with the likes of Joan. She consistently gets under his skin, and he is baffled by the way such an unconventional woman snatches his attention like no one else. His solution is to help the Wildes find a suitable husband for Joan, but before she’ll even consider marriage, she wants to make her dream of performing come true. Thaddeus’ solution is to protect and accompany Joan during the play’s production in a neighboring village, but enacting such a plan puts Thaddeus and Joan in rather close quarters. Thaddeus’ slow burn for Joan is something to be savored, especially for readers who love to watch a buttoned-up hero slowly come undone. James dials Thaddeus’ inner yearning up to 11, while Joan can’t help herself from teasing the stalwart, seemingly unmoved viscount. Thaddeus’ process of loosening his tight grip upon his conduct (with the help of Joan’s insistent presence) is a welcome foil to the often entertainingly outlandish Wilde household. James’ writing shines when her characters don’t take themselves too seriously, and the Wilde clan’s infectious energy is the epitome of delightful. Overflowing with tried-and-true romance tropes like opposites attract and secret pining, Wilde Child proves that sometimes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel can roll right along if it continues to produce this caliber of happily ever after.
Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pasteleria alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own. Xander Amaro, the restaurant’s new hire, has never really felt at home anywhere. Originally from Mexico, he’s spent the last 10 years living with his grandfather in the U.S. without legal documentation, always looking over his shoulder, always feeling he doesn’t quite belong. If only he could track down his biological father, Xander thinks, he might finally feel comfortable in his own life. When a dangerous loan shark threatens the community, Pen and Xander must work together with their families–the ones they were born into and the ones they’ve made–to save the restaurant. Along the way, they discover exactly where they’re meant to be. Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut YA novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, is fueled by vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, from the chaos of the kitchen on a busy night to the smells of the restaurant that linger in Pen’s hair after each shift. Chapters alternate between Pen’s and Xander’s first-person perspectives as Kemp explores their nuanced personalities and never shies away from their dark places, including Pen’s depression and Xander’s anxiety about his immigration status. Kemp develops these aspects of her protagonists with respect, making them parts of their whole, complex selves. Pen explains to Xander that Nacho’s Tacos employees are a family, and this perfectly describes the cast of characters Kemp has assembled. Though the book’s villain, El Martillo, feels a bit underdeveloped, the other supporting characters are as complex and well-crafted as the protagonists. This is a powerful, heartwarming story of family, first love and resilience.
The Beauty of Living Twice by Sharon Stone (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): It’s impossible to overstate just how famous Sharon Stone was in the 1990s. After the phenomenon of 1992’s Basic Instinct, the legendary beauty earned further acclaim for roles in Casino and The Muse and became one of the highest paid actors on the planet. As a result, her every move was scrutinized. She would have broken the internet–if that had been a thing back in 1996–when she wore a black turtleneck from the Gap to the Oscars. In Stone’s generous new memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, she writes about it all, starting with her loving but fraught childhood in blue-collar Pennsylvania, where her family laughed hard and fought loudly. “They did a horrible, beautiful, awful, amazing job with us,” she writes of her parents. “They gave us their best. They gave us everything. All of it. The full Irish.” Stone also reveals in this memoir that she and her sister were sexually abused by her maternal grandfather. That portion of the book is understandably vague and brief, but it’s clear this betrayal impacted the family irrevocably. In fact, The Beauty of Living Twice alternates between vague summarization and incredibly personal recollections. Stone writes in detail about the massive stroke she suffered in 2001, which left her in financial and physical ruin that took years to recover from. She dishes on her experiences with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and her philanthropic efforts around the world. But she only briefly talks about her experience of adopting three sons, one of whom became the subject of an acrimonious custody dispute with her ex-husband Phil Bronstein. Overall, the book reads like an oral history, as if someone were typing furiously while Stone reminisced about her exceptional life. (“Remind me to tell you about James Brown,” she writes late in the book. She does not, unfortunately, tell us about James Brown.) Somehow, this old Hollywood narrative style works, and Stone delivers a bighearted, wonderfully rambling story full of wisdom and humor.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos (physical book available at library; essays): Girlhood is a time of life that’s often idealized as innocent and safe. This, of course, speaks to our gendered expectations for the so-called fairer sex. But the truth about girls’ early lives is more complex. Girlhood can be exploited just as often as it is protected, and Melissa Febos brings these complications to the fore in Girlhood, a collection of seven memoiristic essays. The author of Whip Smart, about her time working as a dominatrix, and Abandon Me, another essay collection, Febos is a dab hand at the memoir genre. The essays that compose Girlhood tell a story of Febos’ life that reaches back to her childhood on Cape Cod and her young adulthood in New York City to examine her internalized beliefs. While her route to making sense of her own life is usually circuitous, her thoughtfulness as she reaches toward a conclusion is a delight to follow. Many of Febos’ girlhood experiences stemmed from her body developing maturely at a young age. She fearlessly interrogates her adolescent reaction to these changes and the attendant shame, voyeurism and almighty male gaze that subsumed her young life. Each essay is layered like a sfogliatelle: Recollections of a growing girl in a sexist culture lay upon her adult analyses and rich cultural references, from Greek myths to 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault. Sources listed at the book’s conclusion range widely from Black feminist and race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw to British art critic John Berger. In one of the strongest essays, “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” Febos and her partner attend cuddle parties. Based on the belief that there is a primal need for human touch, a cuddle party is when strangers gather together to experience consensual, nonsexual touch. These parties prompt Febos to examine her history of accommodating and prioritizing men’s needs over her own. Girlhood offers what some may view as a dark portrayal of young adulthood, in which opportunities for degradation are seemingly limitless. And some of Febos’ later-in-life experiences, such as heroin addiction and sex work, won’t be shared by every reader. But anyone raised as a girl will be able to relate to something in Girlhood, and those who weren’t will marvel at this book’s eye-opening, transformative perspective.
The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman (e-book and e-audiobook available on Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Nami Miyamoto is living her dream: She is headed to college in the fall, she loves her supportive family, and she just confessed her feelings to her longtime crush–and learned that he feels the same way. It seems like everything is falling into place. Then, on her way to a graduation party, Nami is unexpectedly and brutally murdered. But that’s only the beginning of Nami’s story. Her consciousness is revived in Infinity, an afterlife ruled by an artificial intelligence assistant from Earth named Ophelia. (Think Siri or Alexa, but much more vengeful.) Determined to stop Ophelia’s plans to destroy humanity, Nami joins the rebellion. In the midst of their struggle, she must come to terms with what it really means to be alive. It’s not surprising that a book set in an afterlife would grapple with weighty, philosophical themes, but the cerebral tone of The Infinity Courts sets it apart from its YA genre fiction peers. Ethereal and thoughtful, this story is as much about emotion as it is action. Nami is motivated by her feelings, which makes her a stubborn, sometimes reluctant hero. When she first arrives in Infinity, she must wrestle with grief, loss and forgiveness, all from the other side of her own death. Her participation in the rebellion is shaped by her ever-evolving beliefs about what defines good and evil during a war and who deserves to be saved. Though Nami’s fellow rebels are outwardly committed to freedom, author Akemi Dawn Bowman also establishes the internal desires that drive each of them. For example, Theo sympathizes with the humans Ophelia has captured, while Ahmet wants to retain as much of his humanity as he can. The narrative raises age-old questions about the individual versus the community but proposes a range of answers rather than one definitive solution. The shifting beliefs of Nami and the other rebels propel the plot forward while impressively reflecting the mutable, unpredictable nature of humanity. Best known for realistic fiction, including her Morris Award finalist debut novel, Starfish, Bowman combines the psychological with the heart-pounding in her powerful leap into science fiction. Featuring an imaginative world, a terrifying villain and complex heroine, The Infinity Courts is a mesmerizing series opener that’s sure to lead to a thrilling, expectation-shattering sequel.
Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; family saga): The relationship between mothers and daughters is a richly mined topic in fiction. In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature. Of Women and Salt tells the intertwined stories of women in two families from the 19th century to the present day. After an unstable childhood during the Cuban revolution, Carmen leaves her mother behind and immigrates to Florida. Later, in a wealthy suburb, Carmen tries to provide her daughter Jeanette with a comfortable American life. Jeanette has a drug addiction, is hiding a tragic secret and is desperately seeking a purpose. Their lives intersect with that of Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who hopes to give her young daughter, Ana, a better life in Miami. Then Gloria is seized by ICE, and Ana must reunite with her mother at a detention center in Texas. They are deported to Mexico with no resources and forced to start over on their own. Some novels attempt to tell a sweeping narrative only to get bogged down by a busy plot and too many characters, but despite a large cast from numerous time periods, Of Women and Salt expertly threads each women’s story to another’s and pulls their stories taut. Disparate hardships propel each of their lives, but they are linked by a shared struggle to carry on in a harsh world, whether each survives her circumstance–or not. Motherhood is “a constant calculation of what-if,” Garcia writes. At the heart of Of Women and Salt are the sacrifices made by mothers so their daughters can have different lives–perhaps better ones. But daughters may make choices based on their own wishes and needs, and this possibility is ever poised to pierce a mother’s heart. In this way, the novel is quietly heartbreaking. As Garcia writes, “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.”
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (physical book available at library; historical fiction): There’s plenty of Civil War fiction out there; it’s a seemingly bottomless category of novels exploring people both prominent and obscure whose lives are touched in some way by the war. But with the exception of books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, only recently have novels about enslaved or freeborn Black people during the war and Reconstruction become prominent. With its revelatory history and fresh perspectives, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s splendid Libertie is a welcome addition to the canon. Greenidge’s second novel was inspired by the life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first woman in New York to earn a medical degree, and by one of her children, a daughter who moved to Haiti upon her marriage. In Libertie, they’re transformed into Dr. Kathy Sampson and the titular narrator Libertie, whose incredible story is shaped by her own choices as well as other people’s designs. The novel begins just before the war in a free Black community in Brooklyn, a borough that’s still mostly farmland. As a child, Libertie marvels at her mother’s diligence, stoicism and mystifying ability to heal. But as Libertie grows up, Greenidge masterfully details the way the girl begins to separate herself from her mother and find her own path. Libertie ventures from Brooklyn to one of the new all-Black colleges that arises after the war, then marries her mother’s kind and intelligent assistant and drops out of school. Libertie’s marriage leads to a rare fit of histrionics on Dr. Sampson’s part, but this negative reaction to Libertie’s relocation to Haiti, a country untroubled by white rule, eventually proves justified. The Haitian scenes allow Greenidge to explore the grinding universality of patriarchy, but this is balanced by Libertie’s determination to live her best life. Passionate and brilliantly written, Libertie shines a light on a part of history still unknown by far too many but that is now getting the finest treatment.
The Elephant of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; historical fiction): Loosely based on true events–and the real people and animals that played a part–The Elephant of Belfast captures the turmoil of both a city and a young woman’s life during World War II. S. Kirk Walsh’s first novel opens in 1940, just as German bombardment begins to threaten Northern Ireland. The Bellevue Zoo has welcomed a new elephant named Violet to its menagerie, parading the pachyderm through the streets of Belfast with all the pomp of a visiting dignitary. Onlookers are bewildered, but young zookeeper Hettie Quin finds a sense of purpose in the elephant’s presence. Hettie’s older sister is dead and her father absent, and she tiptoes around the house she shares with her mother, Rose. Hettie wants to be taken seriously as the only female zookeeper at Bellevue, though navigating her terse boss and the physical demands of working with large exotic animals proves challenging. But Hettie steadily proves to herself that she is capable, even resilient, despite the nearly constant state of upheaval caused by her tense relationship with Rose, confusion about the opposite sex, the ever-present Catholic and Protestant divide and the threat of bombing raids. When the Luftwaffe bombs start to fall in April 1941, caring for Violet becomes Hettie’s sole focus. In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, Hettie has Violet, and their relationship keeps the young woman from falling into total despair. With such a unique premise, the novel remains engaging despite occasionally cliched prose and a plot that gets bogged down in detail. Hettie’s grief and longing are palpable, her mounting losses real and tangible. Through heart-stirring scenes of violence and destruction in a city unprepared for the chaos of war, Walsh showcases a flair for description and emotion, and for rendering ordinary lives amid extraordinary circumstances.
The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec and Jayne Entwistle (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; fantasy): In Genevieve Gornichec’s fantasy novel, The Witch’s Heart (12 hours), Angrboda has been burned three times for performing witchcraft, but she remains alive at the edges of the mythical Ironwood, where she begins a lasting, tenuous relationship with the trickster god Loki, Odin’s half brother. But Ragnarok, the destruction of the known world, threatens their future–and the future of their unusual offspring. Jayne Entwistle, best known for her narration of the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley, brings Angrboda to life with a husky, sage voice and northern English lilt. Her comforting tone and gentle pacing reinforce the novel’s focus on Angrboda’s domestic challenges in the shadow of cosmic conflicts. Accents used to delineate characters create a lively cast of women and men who visit Angrboda in her forest hovel. As many listeners will want to continue this dive into Norse mythology, a helpful list of resources for further reading follows the narration.
House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Seven years ago, Iris Hollow and her two older sisters disappeared from the streets of Edinburgh. They returned, transformed, a month later, with shocking white hair and their beautiful blue eyes now dark. Their parents’ relief quickly turned to suspicion as it became clear the sisters didn’t just look different; they now wielded the ability to force people to do their bidding. These days, Iris is finishing up high school while middle sister Vivi tours Europe with her punk rock band and the oldest, Grey, has become a fashion designer and model known for her outlandish, almost grotesque creations. When Grey vanishes without a trace, Iris and Vivi search for her, joined by Grey’s delightful and charming boyfriend, Tyler. But the search soon becomes a race for their lives when they realize they’re being hunted by a dangerous, otherworldly figure. Australian-born British author Krystal Sutherland blends elements of detective fiction, fairy tales and horror in House of Hollow. Iris’ first-person narration gives the book a gorgeous but often dark feel that’s buoyed by witty banter between Vivi and Tyler, which cuts the tension and provides necessary levity. As the search for Grey grows increasingly frantic and desperate, Sutherland excellently conveys the way Iris and her sisters are bound not just by family ties but also by the trauma they shared when they were younger. Readers who enjoy fantasy books with contemporary or urban settings such as Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series or Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood will find much to enjoy here. Sutherland’s lush, gruesome prose, a sinister Scottish woodland setting and the powerful yet destructive role of magic combine for a truly chilling tale. Pick this up before bedtime, if you dare.
The Cost of Knowing by Brittney Morris (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Alex Rufus is cursed. Everything he touches gives him a glimpse of the future, but he never knows when what he envisions will manifest. He knows, for example, that the ice cream shop he works at is going to be sold and that his girlfriend is going to break up with him–he just doesn’t know when. Worst of all, Alex knows that his little brother, Isaiah, is going to die, but without knowing when, he can’t try to prevent it from happening. When Alex makes a critical discovery about the source of his visions, he attempts to find a cure to get rid of them so that he and his brother can fully enjoy what little time Isaiah may have left. But their lives as two Black boys in a wealthy gated community are complicated, and Alex may not be able to protect his brother from every danger. In The Cost of Knowing, author Brittney Morris gives Black boys power in a world that considers them powerless. Though Alex treats his abilities like a burden, they eventually enable both him and Isaiah to reclaim their lives, face their greatest fears and live out their dreams. Indeed, Alex spends much of the book motivated by what he fears, but this is a rational reaction not just to the vision he’s trying to stop from coming to fruition but also to his daily experiences as a Black teen in his mostly white Chicago suburb, where he regularly endures microaggressions from his neighbors. Throughout the novel, Morris frames Alex’s fears as possible for him to overcome, a choice that speaks to the hopes of every Black boy in America–to live without fear and to be seen by everyone as worthy of dignity and respect. Emotional and gripping, The Cost of Knowing uses fantastical elements to convey how life-threateningly real the problems that Black boys face in America are–so real, in fact, that even having superpowers isn’t always enough to overcome them.
Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): Bestselling author Jenny Lawson’s writing often elicits a range of emotional responses, from gasp-laughs to sympathetic murmurs to the particular type of groan that accompanies massive secondhand embarrassment. Lawson, aka the Bloggess, believes “we are so much less alone if we learn to wear our imperfections proudly.” Her brand of sharing has created a community endlessly drawn to her hilarious confessions of foibles and fears; conversations with her loving yet exasperated husband, Victor; and chronicles of her experiences with mental and physical illness. Broken (in the best possible way), Lawson’s fourth book, is a loop-de-loop of an emotional roller coaster that swoops from poetic to profane, madcap to moving and back again. She’s in fine form in this collection of essays, which offers support, humor and her take on society’s ills and wonders. Years of frustration and righteous rage are channeled into the trenchant essay “An Open Letter to My Health Insurance Company,” in which Lawson shares what it’s like to rely on medication controlled by an impenetrable and uncaring health care system. She also confides that rheumatoid arthritis, which causes her feet to swell and then deflate, has resulted in “Six Times I’ve Lost My Shoes While Wearing Them.” Her poignant account of the times a shoe has taken “a ride in an elevator without me” is a thing of hilarious beauty. So, too, are a compilation of tweets about everyday mortification called “Awkwarding Brings Us Together,” as well as stories about the book editing process, an ill-fated kayaking trip and the time a (live) squirrel fell on her head. Lawson’s more serious essays, especially her musings on her spotty memory and her family’s history of dementia, are sad and affecting. She writes with love and admiration about her grandmother, who “goes missing sometimes, lost in her own mind,” and shares her conviction that treatment for mental illness is getting slowly but surely better with every generation. To wit, her diary of transcranial magnetic stimulation treatment for depression is harrowing, edifying but also hopeful. After all, she writes, “Nothing lasts forever. The good and the bad.”
Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders’ highly anticipated first YA novel, Victories Greater Than Death, invites readers aboard the starship Indomitable for a colorful tour of a delightfully strange universe. Tina might look like a normal human, but she’s actually the clone of a legendary alien war hero, Captain Thaoh Argentian, hidden on Earth until she’s old enough to join the war between the peacekeeping Royal Fleet and their genocide-minded enemies who call themselves the Compassion. One day, the Fleet will return and unlock all of Captain Argentian’s memories, which are hidden deep in Tina’s DNA. Tina wants nothing more than to step into her big heroic destiny, but when the Fleet does finally arrive, she finds herself falling short of the life she imagined. Argentian’s knowledge was passed on to Tina but not her memories, leaving Tina a walking encyclopedia of alien trivia with none of the experience to make it useful. She might be able to name every species on the Indomitable‘s bridge, but that doesn’t mean she can lead them. Tina’s strained relationship to her past life makes her a compelling protagonist, especially when the lines between “doing what’s right” and “doing what Argentian would do” conflict. Tina is accompanied on her adventure by her best friend, Rachel, and a squad of Earthling Fleet recruits from across the globe. They represent an admirably diverse cross section of interests, cultures and queer identities, and their friendships and escapades form the book’s lively core. Together, the Earthlings experience the universe at its most ridiculous, as when they see Beyonce on a billboard in an interstellar marketplace or they travel to a world dubbed “Best Planet Ever” in an attempt to increase tourism. But they must also face the universe at its most cruel, as the Compassion’s leader wipes out entire planetary populations in pursuit of his own twisted goals. Readers who enjoy a humorous, relaxed approach to science fiction will find much to enjoy here, as Anders’ tone lands squarely between Star Trek and “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.” The Indomitable‘s crew are endlessly charming as they meet each new cosmic challenge with courage.
Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; speculative fiction): Readers of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest mind-teaser will know they’re in for an unusual experience when the novel’s narrator, a 38-year-old hypnotist, begins the story by describing a set of Czech days-of-the-week underwear, a gift from a former boyfriend. And that’s before the narrator boards a train for a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his current love and their pet mongoose. Such is the uncommonly inventive setup of Peaces. Otto Shin is one half of “a starry-eyed young couple” and has happily adopted the surname of his partner, Xavier. As the novel begins, they and their mongoose have boarded a sleeper train called The Lucky Day at their local station “in deepest Kent.” The ride was a gift from Xavier’s aunt. But, in one of the novel’s many engagingly bizarre flourishes, Otto and Xavier don’t quite know where they’re going. Even more curious: When Xavier calls his aunt from the train to check in on her, she says she’s in the company of someone named Yuri. Yuri claims to be a friend of Xavier’s, but Xavier doesn’t know who he is. That’s just the start of the book’s many complications. Soon Otto and Xavier meet the train’s owner, Ava Kapoor, a theremin player who lives full time on The Lucky Day and has her own pet mongoose. Ava is days away from collecting an inheritance, but a series of events threatens her bounty. Among the characters that deepen the plot are a composer named Karel, who wrote a piece Ava used to play; Karel’s mysterious son, Prem; and a doctor assigned to assess Ava’s state of mind. The story’s second half is convoluted, and Oyeyemi tends to overwrite, as when she describes a photo of a “fainting couch upholstered in brocade the color of Darjeeling tea in the fourth minute of brewing.” But fans of the British writer’s previous work, such as the PEN award-winning What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will enjoy this novel’s surreal twists and imaginative scenarios. Peaces is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.
The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; contemporary romance): Rosie Danan returns with The Intimacy Experiment, a steamy contemporary romance that is every bit as enjoyable as her debut, The Roommate. It’s s triumph of feminist fiction, supporting the importance of healthy emotional and physical intimacy and showing how to make the world a better place with love. Startup executive Naomi Grant thinks of herself as something of a superhero. She’s a former porn star who left behind her previous name and identity to build an enormous platform and take-no-prisoners public image, which she has used to transition into a career as a sex educator. But given the cultural stigma surrounding sex work, she isn’t welcome in the lecture circuit or in higher education. She’s the perfect foil to Rabbi Ethan Cohen, one of the city’s hottest bachelors, who’s been tasked with attracting a younger generation to the faith. His own background is somewhat nontraditional, in that he was a career academic before devoting his life to his faith. Faced with budget woes and low participation, Ethan decides to pursue a controversial initiative with Naomi by asking her to co-host a seminar series on modern intimacy. Rather than judging her former career as a sex worker, he focuses on her intelligence and the successful company and message she’s created. Not only does he acknowledge the brain behind Naomi’s beauty, he also understands that the things she’s talking about are important to the millennial generation his congregation needs to survive. The Intimacy Experiment is sexy and modern and fun, but also thoughtful and authentic. Danan avoids tired stereotypes: Ethan isn’t the least bit squeamish about sex, and Naomi is vulnerable and open when considering their budding romance. There’s a lot at stake for both of these flawed, richly layered characters. For them to love each other, openly and without reserve, is a risk to their professional reputations. And even without all of that, it takes a brave person to tell another, “I think I could be good at loving you,” and mean it. It takes a brave person to believe they’re worthy of that love. Danan crafts a beautiful arc as Naomi learns to stand in the real world and let her true self shine through, reconciling both her “superhero” and “secret’ identities, and trusting that Ethan will love all of who she is.
To Love and to Loathe by Martha Waters (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; historical romance): Martha Waters is back with the second book in her Regency Vows series, To Love and To Loathe. This absolutely perfect Regency romance is chock-full of chatty, flirty characters and delectable scoundrels. It’s charming, happy and perhaps best of all, it’s got a scandalous wager between enemies. The tension between the widowed Diana, Lady Templeton and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, is through the roof. Their flirting is legendary–everyone can see it–and in an era ruled by gossip, it seems obvious the two will wind up together. Except, of course, to Diana and Jeremy, because their frenemies love to bicker. Over one particularly dicey row, Diana makes Jeremy a wager that comes back to haunt her. She bets Jeremy that he’ll marry within a year, or she’ll give him 100 pounds. But Jeremy, who’s reeling after his last mistress criticized his skills in the bedroom, proposes something even more shocking. He suggests they have an affair for a fortnight, because he knows the sharp-tongued, honest to a fault Diana won’t shy away from telling him the truth. What follows is a saucy and scandalous romance that’s addictive fun while capably portraying both characters’ internal conflict. Waters sets a jaunty pace with flirty dialogue, easy camaraderie and enjoyable characters. All the typical trademarks of Regency era are present, but thanks to Waters’ charm, this story feels timeless and young and fun.
Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (e-book available on the Libby app with your library card; family drama): Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s 2016 debut novel, The Nest, was an instant bestseller for a reason. It had the lure of cash; a charismatic, lovable rogue as a central figure; and a crackling cast of New York City characters. In her second novel, Good Company, Sweeney once again flexes her talent for crafting loving family dynamics that splinter due to errant behavior. Flora Mancini’s seemingly idyllic life in Los Angeles as a voice-over actor and wife to Julian, a full-time TV actor, hits the rocks when she discovers an envelope containing her husband’s wedding ring, supposedly lost years earlier. From this pivotal moment, chapters begin to alternate between present and the past, revealing the reason for the ring’s disappearance when the couple was living in New York City with their young daughter, Ruby, and struggling to keep Julian’s theater company, Good Company, from sinking. When the lure of steady work spurs the Mancinis to switch coasts, upgrading their climate and lifestyle, they are able to reunite with Flora’s best friend, Margot, another Good Company alum. Margot’s husband, David, was forced to give up his East Coast job as a heart surgeon after he had a stroke, and Margot was lucky to land a recurring role on a daytime soap opera. Now she’s living the celebrity life. Along the way, there have been bumps in the road for the four friends, but life on the West Coast is treating the former Manhattanites well. Flora’s discovery, however, shatters the illusion of her perfect marriage and her rock-solid friendship with Margot. As in The Nest, Sweeney skillfully navigates the narrow path between literary and commercial fiction with plenty of wit, warmth, heartache and joy. Like a comfy armchair, this is a novel you can sink into and enjoy. Good company, indeed.
The Light of Days by Judy Batalion (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; European history): As Judy Batalion notes toward the end of her scrupulously researched narrative history, The Light of Days, there were plenty of reasons why the stories of young Jewish women who valiantly resisted the Nazis in Europe during World War II were ignored or silenced after the war. Some of those reasons were sexist, but most weren’t so nefarious. Still, the effect until now has been that bits and pieces of this great story have been scattered through bygone personal memoirs and archived survivor testimonies. The Light of Days is a huge achievement that brings an overarching coherence to this largely unknown story. Batalion focuses on the lives and actions of about a dozen and a half young women and teenage girls who joined the fray in the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Bedzin. Chief among these was the spirited Renia Kukielka, who became a courier for one of the activist Jewish youth groups at the core of the resistance. Batalion interweaves the personalities and actions of other young women–messengers and warriors–into the arc of Kukielka’s story. The narrative reaches its crescendo in the spring and summer of 1943, during and just after the dramatic but ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Batalion uses a kind of you-are-there approach that at times feels awkward but dramatically makes its point in the end. The Light of Days also offers arresting insights into community life during this perilous time. It is astounding to read about the number and variety of Jewish youth groups that commanded the loyalties of young people. It’s also surreal to learn that mail continued to circulate among Jewish communities even as the Nazi killing machine was roaring down the tracks. Batalion interviewed many survivors’ families, and these passages in the book invite us to wonder what it would be like to battle and survive for half a decade, witnessing the loss of friends and family, only to resume a “normal” life after experiencing all that trauma. Kukielka at least seemed to maintain some essential part of herself through it all. Her adult life, Batalion reports, was “happy, passionate, filled with beauty.”
War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman loves to write about “gutsy girls figuring out who they are.” The titular character of War and Millie McGonigle is yet another outstanding creation. Twelve-year-old Millie knows all too well what it’s like to endure a personal and a national crisis simultaneously. It’s September 1941. Over the summer, as World War II raged in Europe, Millie’s beloved grandmother died on Millie’s birthday. No wonder Millie feels that the world is “full of war and death.” Just before she died, Gram gave Millie a diary and instructed her to use it to remember good things. Now Millie keeps her “Book of Dead Things” like a talisman, jotting down notes and sketches of things she sees, such as an octopus caught by a fisherman on the San Diego beach near her home. She’s also developed a ritual of writing her last name in the sand over and over, which she hopes will keep death away from her family. Money is tight for the McGonigles, but everyone pitches in to help the war effort. After Mama becomes a welder and Pop gets a job as a clerk at the Navy Exchange, Millie is left to oversee her younger siblings, including Lily, who has weak lungs. Gram’s absent-minded cousin Edna also moves in, making the family’s tight quarters even tighter. As Millie seeks freedom outdoors, she finds joy in a new friend and develops a crush on an older surfer. As always, Cushman exquisitely captures her story’s historical setting. Readers will feel the San Diego sun on their shoulders as Millie steers her rowboat into warm bay waters and the sand between their toes as Millie explores the mud flats. Millie’s winning first-person narration is filled with 1940s slang like “holy mackerel” and “good gravy,” as well as references to “The Lone Ranger,” Bob Hope and the ongoing fear of polio. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the McGonigles sleep in their clothes and keep suitcases packed in case they have to evacuate, and their blackout curtains make Millie feel as though there is “not a glimmer of light left on earth.” Despite such serious topics, War and Millie McGonigle is a lively book filled with humor, love and transformation. Millie gradually learns to navigate her grief, deal with her fears and shift her focus from war and death to life and the living. Though Cushman roots the story in tangible details of the ’40s, it has much to offer contemporary readers. Gram, for instance, was a crusader who felt that all girls should know “songs of protest and the phone number of your state representative.” Millie follows in her grandmother’s footsteps and repeatedly intervenes to prevent bullying against kids of Italian and Japanese descent. Reminiscent of Katherine Paterson’s sensitive portrayals of grief, War and Millie McGonigle acknowledges the suffocating enormities of fear, injustice and tragedy Millie experiences while revealing a path forward. As Gram tells Millie, “Life’s not hopeless. We can do something about what worries and scares us…Despite the horror, people care, work together for a better world, and bravely fight back.”
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; thriller): In Jeff Vandermeer’s eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, security analyst Jane Smith receives an envelope containing a key and a short list of animals. The contents of the envelope seem to be random, but Jane investigates them anyway and ends up at a storage unit where she finds a taxidermied hummingbird. After prying out the eyes of the bird, she finds another clue, which leads to an unraveling, deadly mystery that unravels Jane as well. Jane has an exceptionally unique voice. Even from her first-person point of view, it’s apparent that she is selfish, brazen and highly unusual. She gives strange nicknames to her belongings, such as “Shovel Pig” the purse and “Bog” the cellphone. She is closer friends with her purse than with her husband. Though Jane has “made it”–she has a high-paying job, a family, a nice house–she seems to experience life as an outsider. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy for her to throw it all away, though the reader must take certain leaps to understand this motivation. The story falls short when it comes to establishing why Jane would go to such excruciating lengths to solve the mystery. The reader’s questions are ultimately answered, though only in a sense, and far too late. Vandermeer is a well-established, highly acclaimed author who is known for weird, inventive fiction, including his Southern Reach Trilogy, the first novel of which was adapted to film. Hummingbird Salamander is not a great introduction to his style, but his existing fans will likely be carried through by its intriguing, propulsive plot.