Best New E-Books: January 4, 2021

  • Root Magic by Eden Royce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 8 to 12): Though debut author Eden Royce currently lives in the United Kingdom, it’s clear she is still deeply rooted in the culture of the Gullah nation to which she belongs. Royce’s previous short stories were informed by the traditions of these descendants of enslaved people living along the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, and her first middle grade novel is also set in this evocative milieu. Root Magic finds the South, as well as its main characters, twins Jezebel and Jay, on the verge of some big changes. Their beloved grandmother has just died, and they’re about to turn 11. Their grandmother was a practitioner of what’s known as root magic, a rich and complex set of spells and charms passed down through generations, and it’s the twins’ turn to begin learning from their uncle Doc the knowledge that has been such a source of strength for their family. Recently, however, root magic has also been a source of stress. An increasingly aggressive police officer has been cracking down on its practitioners, and the new girls at school mock Jezebel for her family’s practices. What’s more, Jezebel and Jay are in different grades for the first time, and Jezebel fears they’re starting to grow apart. And then there are the mysterious voices she hears calling her by the river… Royce’s storytelling is atmospheric and more than a little spooky, filled with haints and boo-hags, protection charms and curses. But the novel is also set during a specific historical period–the fall of 1963–and so these supernatural elements play out against an equally vivid backdrop of real historical events, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, police intimidation tactics and the integration of Charleston schools. Root Magic successfully blends mystical elements with historical ones for a novel that explores Gullah culture as well as the social upheavals of the 1960s. Readers who are easily frightened might want to read with the lights on–but if they do, they’ll discover a thoughtful story about a family taking on all obstacles, seen and unseen, together.
  • The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation. One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing. From one point of view, certain actions seem perfectly reasonable, but another storyline may reveal their harm. In particular, two of these stories are on a collision course. The most important and sympathetic thread involves Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers. The other involves an older enslaved man, Amos, who decides to take on the role of preacher as a way to attain power for a worthy goal: He wants to protect his female partner from the plantation owner, Paul. Amos negotiates with Paul and offers to use his role as a religious leader to help run the plantation and keep the peace. Those sound like reasonable objectives given the constraints Amos is under, but the exercise of power is never that clean, and a multitude of betrayals, cruelties and tragedies arise from that Faustian bargain. Amos’ new responsibility means encouraging his fellow enslaved people to cooperate with Paul’s plans to force them to have children in order to increase his workforce. Samuel and Isaiah’s love violates these plans because they only want to be with each other, but that kind of love doesn’t produce offspring. Thus Amos’ religiosity and Isaiah and Samuel’s love are inherently at odds, and as religion takes hold of the plantation, it makes outcasts of two young men whom the community had long embraced. Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today. The Prophets traces the origins of a host of social ills, such as the use of religion as a tool for social control. Likewise, observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers. For example, Puah, a teenage girl who must fight every day to protect her body and soul, feels frustrated by the favor that Be Auntie, an influential older woman, extends to the boys and men in their group. Puah concludes, “Men and toubab shared far more than either would ever admit.” The men she refers to are her fellow enslaved people, and “toubab” is a Central and West African word for white people. These are observations about Black men and white patriarchy that Black women still struggle with in the 21st century. Similarly, Puah grieves for the way that Auntie and other women cast her as being “grown” before her time. That’s another modern-day problem: Black children are judged as adults, and young Black women are sexualized and blamed for their own abuse. These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry. This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.
  • Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Tessa Johnson is a writer. The words pour out of her into romance novels that star heroines with brown skin like hers–and that feature the boys of her dreams, of course. So when Tessa and her family move to Long Beach, California, and she enrolls in a highly selective art school, she’s thrilled at the opportunity to spend hours each day honing her craft. But faced with sharing her work with other artists for the first time, Tessa’s anxiety skyrockets. Her writer’s block is so intense that, for weeks, she can’t write a single word. What if she never gets her groove back? Who is she if she’s not a writer? When her best friend, Caroline, suggests that finding a boyfriend might jump-start her novel, Tessa zeros in on her classmate Nico, who’s model-handsome and a fellow writer. But as she pursues Nico, her friendships with Caroline and her goofy yet caring neighbor Sam begin to fall apart, and Tessa starts to suspect that she’s looking for validation in all the wrong places. In her charming debut novel, Happily Ever Afters, Elise Bryant nimbly blends bubbly, will-they-won’t-they teen romance with a frank look at issues ranging from impostor syndrome and identity to race and mental health. Bryant treats the tough stuff with nuance and compassion through conversations among a richly drawn cast of diverse and appealing characters. From a scene in which Tessa and her new friend Lenore bond in the restroom over surprise periods, to Sam’s easy interactions with Tessa’s brother, Miles, who has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, to Caroline’s ability to firmly but gently draw her own boundaries, Happily Ever Afters is filled with delightful examples of strong, healthy friendships. Crucially, these friendships ultimately guide Tessa to strengthen her most important relationship: with herself. Happily Ever Afters captures just how difficult–and rewarding–high school can be. Though the title telegraphs how her story will end, Tessa’s journey to get there is all her own.
  • Lore by Alexandra Bracken (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Readers who love complex, mythology-based fantasies, meet your newest obsession. For seven days every seven years, Greek gods must walk the earth as mere mortals during a period they call the Agon. Well, they don’t do so much walk as fight for their lives. After thousands of years, many of the gods haven’t survived, as they’ve been hunted down by the descendants of ancient Greek heroes. Each heroic bloodline is sworn to protect a god, but these hunters are also eager to slay other families’ gods in order to seize the deities’ divine power and immortality. Once an Agon ends, the family reaps the benefits of their deity’s powers, which they can use to build family-owned business empires. For example, a god’s healing powers can help create a pharmaceutical company, the powers of war are a boon to a weapons manufacturer, and so on. Seventeen-year-old Melora “Lore” Perseous is the descendant of Greek hero Perseus, and as the last of her bloodline, she’s gone to great pains to remove herself from the Agon’s brutality. A rival bloodline led by Wrath, a hunter who slayed Ares and inherited his powers to become a god himself, viciously murdered Lore’s family during the last Agon, and though Lore is a highly skilled fighter, she went into hiding to avoid sharing her family’s fate. But when the Agon begins again in New York City, Athena, one of the last remaining gods, comes knocking at Lore’s door. In exchange for Lore’s help to survive the Agon, Athena agrees to slay Wrath, their shared enemy, who’s set on slaughtering the other gods in order to ensure he–and no one else–inherits their powers. Bestselling author Alexandra Bracken, whose Darkest Minds series was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2018, strikes a notably darker tone here than in her previous work. Lore’s world is a violent place, and Bracken doesn’t hold back. Though keeping track of hunter family genealogies as well as the histories of gods both old and new can be cumbersome at times, readers eager for detail-oriented world building will find Lore enthralling. Bracken’s well-drawn characters drive the narrative, keeping it anchored in gritty prose and high-stakes emotions. Lore is a wildly inventive and ambitious blend of reimagined Greek mythology and contemporary urban fantasy.
  • One of the Good Ones by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; YA Fiction): Footage of Black Americans being brutalized and even killed at the hands of police has been part of our media landscape for years. It may be hard to open a book and read about fictional brutality that hews so closely to reality that it feels like salt poured on a wound, but in their second novel, sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite aren’t simply picking at a scab. They are digging deep to help flush out an infection created by generations of injustice. Three timelines tell the story of Kezi, a straight-A teen activist who dies in police custody after she attends a protest. In the present, Kezi’s younger sister, Happi, must deal with the grief that has enveloped her family. Just before Kezi’s death, Shaqueria, a down-on-her-luck actor, hopes for the break that will give her a way out of her circumstances. And in the distant past, Happi and Kezi’s great-grandmother Evelyn bears witness to the horrors of an unust world. When Happi sets out on a road trip across the country to honor Kezi’s memory–a trip they’d planned to take together–the connections between the three timelines emerge. As Happi comes to terms with her loss and learns more about her family’s history, the Moulites introduce hallmarks of American history such as sundown towns and the Negro Motorist Green Book. Barreling through subtlety, the novel goes out of its way to bridge the gap between readers who may be unfamiliar with this history and readers who known it all too well. One of the Good Ones initially appears to share a premise with Angie Thomas’ influential 2017 novel, The Hate U Give. Like Thomas’ protagonist, Starr, Happi is navigating a world where she and her family are unsafe because of the color of their skin. However, once the puzzle pieces of the Moulites’ novel start coming together, it takes a sharp turn toward the unexpected. Stylistic differences as well as an incredible act of violence will shatter any comparisons to Thomas’ novel. Part history lesson and part mystery thrill ride, One of the Good Ones makes a pointed case for the power of sisterhood and the resilience of Black women.
  • The Awakening of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, teams up with acclaimed YA author Tiffany D. Jackson to tell the story of the time that the American icon spent in prison for charges related to a series of burglaries. The Awakening of Malcolm X opens in a courtroom in 1946, where Malcolm and his friend Shorty are betrayed by Malcolm’s white girlfriend and sentenced to separate prisons. So begins a nightmare from which Malcolm cannot awaken. Amid the inhumane conditions and cruel treatment at the Charlestown State Prison, it isn’t long before Malcolm realizes how far he has strayed from the ideals his family raised him to hold. His family never abandons him, however, and as they visit him in dreams, through letters and in the flesh, they help him pick up the pieces of his life and lay the foundation for his future as a leader. When Malcolm is transferred to a facility that provides opportunities for rehabilitation, he joins its successful debate team and the Nation of Islam. When he is finally released, though his mind is still full of questions, he is armed with the confidence and self-awareness he will need to make a difference for his people. Shabazz and Jackson’s retelling of the experiences that transformed Malcolm at one of the lowest points in his life makes for a powerful read. As he dwells on his upbringing, readers will see significant connections between the foundation Malcolm’s parents laid for him in the Garveyism movement, which advocated for racial separation, Black economic independence and Pan-Africanism, and the self-love Malcolm eventually finds in the Nation of Islam, which is presented as a sort of homecoming. Shabazz and Jackson don’t sugarcoat the ugly side of American society in this moment in history, and mesmerizing scenes in which the personal meets the political infuse the story with the fire and passion for which Malcolm X is so well known. The Awakening of Malcolm X is a welcome invitation to consider the light that Malcolm X shone on society’s injustices and what it continues to reveal today.

Best New E-Books/E-Audiobooks: December 29, 2020

  • The Cousins by Karen M. McManus (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Karen M. McManus’ latest thriller is a layered whodunit that takes its time unpacking several generations’ worth of deceit and cruelty. When Mildred Story invites her three grandchildren to spend the summer working at the resort she owns on Gull Cove Island, it’s a loaded proposition. Milly, Aubrey and Jonah barely know each other, and they don’t know their grandmother at all. Mildred is wealthy, and her decision to disinherit her children left the Story family fractured and alienated from one another. The Cousins at the heart of this mystery are tentatively curious to learn more about their family, and once they reach the island, secrets begin to come to light. The story jumps around quite a bit by design, as chapters alternate from each cousin’s perspective and also flash back to their parents’ youth. The suspense ebbs and flows while each Story’s story plays out. Milly had hoped to grow close to the grandmother she’s named for, but Mildred flatly ignores her in favor of Aubrey. At first, Aubrey is flattered by the attention, until she realizes she’s being rewarded for compliance (but compliance with what, exactly?). Jonah keeps his head down, but his strategy of trying to stay in the background only takes him so far; when the spotlight finds him, it’s damaging to everyone. McManus populates the island’s atmospheric, Hitchcockian scenery with eccentric characters, many of whom have ties to the Story family, and slowly reveals the event that shattered their lives. The conclusion that follows is terrifically choreographed. A relationship predicated on false identity turns out to be clever foreshadowing; readers who enjoy a romantic storyline intertwined with their mysteries will be all in. Curl up with The Cousins on a chilly day, and you’ll swear you can hear howling wind and crashing waves just outside your door.
  • A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card): Environmental racism, police and FBI malfeasance, gentrification and other social injustices are front and center in Aya de León’s novel A Spy in the Struggle. Even COVID-19 makes a brief appearance. All of these of-the-moment elements come together to make up a compulsive tale set in Holloway, a poor but proud neighborhood near San Francisco. The book’s opening tells you almost everything you need to know about its protagonist, Yolanda Vance. An associate in what turns out to be a corrupt law firm, she rats the otherwise prestigious company out because it’s just the right thing to do. For Yolanda, doing the right thing is paramount. It’s almost as important as being the right thing. The daughter of a charismatic but adulterous Southern preacher and a woman who too often let lowdown men lead her astray, Yolanda decides early in her life to let nothing get in the way of her success. That includes men, racism, sexism and any other “ism” out there lying in wait to trip her up. Her focus and determination pay off when the FBI, in what seems like an act of gratitude, hires her and gives her a very special assignment. Yolanda learns that an eco-activist group called Black, Red and GREEN! is making things difficult for a Microsoft-size government contractor called RandellCorp, which has invaded Holloway without offering residents any but the most low-level jobs. Moreover, the behemoth company is dumping carcinogens in an old railway yard even as they pretend to be greener than Kermit the Frog. Yolanda’s job is to infiltrate Black, Red and GREEN! and report on the comings and goings of its members. But this story isn’t just about a rock-ribbed conservative whose eyes are opened; it soon morphs into something darker and more kinetic. A Spy in the Struggle is as gripping as it is surprising, dropping readers into the thick of things before they even know it.
  • Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card): Angela M. Sanders’ first book in a new cozy mystery series, Bait and Witch, balances paranormal whimsy and small-town charm. Josie Way had her dream job in the Library of Congress but had to drop out of sight after overhearing a conversation that pointed to political corruption. She essentially creates a do-it-yourself witness protection program by taking a job in the library of rural Wilfred, Oregon, hoping to lie low until things resolve back in Washington, D.C. She’s barely unpacked her bags when a body is discovered on the library property, and her concern that she may have been the intended target prompts her to investigate. Oh, and the books on the shelves at Wilfred’s library? They’re able to talk to her–no big deal. Sanders fills the town of Wilfred with eccentric locals and blends in a plot about the library property being sold and potentially converted into a retreat center. These elements all collide when Josie’s life back east catches up with her. However, the story’s real heart derives from Josie’s gradual discovery that she’s a witch. From becoming fast and intimate friends with a local cat to developing an ability to recommend books she’s never read or even heard of, Bait and Witch is playful yet grounded, setting up a final confrontation when the decision to refuse or embrace her powers is critical. Sanders’ light touch leaves lots of possibilities for Josie’s future stories. There’s a potential romance simmering on a back burner, as well as Josie’s commitment to stay and help bring Wilfred’s library into the modern era without alienating any longtime patrons. Most evocatively, Bait and Witch ends with Josie receiving her grandmother’s grimoire, or book of spells, and preparing to learn more about her powers. Some of us think all librarians are at least a little witchy (in the best way), but it’s a delight to read about someone whose powers derive in part from stories and the feelings that readers attach to them. This is a fine debut that promises more bookish fun to come.

Best New Books: December 11, 2020

  • The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The real Lady Jane Franklin sponsored a number of expeditions to find her explorer husband, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, after he and his men went missing in the Arctic. Though there’s no record of an all-female expedition, that hasn’t stopped Greer Macallister from writing a cracking good story about one in her fourth novel, The Arctic Fury. Virginia Reeve is the leader of the all-female company, and when the book opens, she’s on trial for the murder of one of its members. The year is 1853, and the courthouse is in Boston, though the alleged homicide happened not far from the North Pole. Big-hearted Virginia is strong and rough around the edges, and much of her fortitude is born of trauma, having lived through both the horrific winter of 1846-47 and the accidental death of her mentor, a pathfinder named Ames whom she loved with a platonic fervor. Virginia’s crew is motley enough. Among them are a woman who handles the sled dogs, a cartographer, an illustrator, a writer, a ladies’ maid and her pampered mistress, Caprice. Though Caprice and Virginia cross swords early on, the hardships of their trek allow them to value each other’s qualities. Macallister’s book, written in prose as crisp as an Arctic summer, reminds us that women had all kinds of adventures during this period, from heading out into the frontier to holding conventions for women’s rights and writing antislavery books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Arctic Fury is a tribute to one young woman’s leadership and genius for survival.
  • Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): We humans like to imagine that we know what our animal friends are thinking, but in Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley actually burrows into the craniums of a menagerie that includes a horse, a dog, a raven, some rats and the humans they interact with, resulting in a remarkable novel that splits the difference between Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm. At the outset, a careless trainer leaves a stall unlocked, and the curious filly Paras (short for Perestroika) wanders away from the racetrack and into the City of Lights. Paras knows the things a thoroughbred would know–her lineage, for instance–but not much else. In the city, Paras meets a worldly dog named Frida, who has been forced to fend for herself since her owner went missing. Like any street survivor, Frida knows how to avoid the gendarmes and which tricks will con treats from the citizenry. The adventure shifts into high gear when the pair is introduced to a raven, Sir Raoul Corvus Corax, whom Smiley imbues with intelligence, twitchiness and a certain French je ne sais quoi. With winter approaching, Frida and Paras face some crucial decisions regarding housing and food. While neither is equipped with the capacity for long-term logistical planning, their animal instincts kick in, propelling them to a surprising conclusion. Smiley has created an otherwordly universe in which her makeshift animal family supports one another in an environment that, while not necessarily hostile, is certainly hazardous. Perestroika in Paris takes its place alongside the likes of Through the Looking-Glass, in that it will reward both precocious young readers and their parents with a sense of wonder and whimsy.
  • The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell’Antonia (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): KJ Dell’Antonia’s The Chicken Sisters opens when Amanda Pogociello applies to “Food Wars,” a show that features culinary rivalries. As a practical woman, she has little hope that she’ll be chosen, but her story is compelling: In the late 19th century, two sisters founded two fried chicken joints, Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s, in nowheresville outside of Merinac, Kansas. The rivalry continues to the present day. Amanda works for the more upscale Chicken Frannie’s. Her mother, Barbara, operates Chicken Mimi’s, and Amanda is persona non grata there. Barbara wouldn’t even let Amanda use Mimi’s restroom when she was pregnant and desperate. To Amanda’s shock, the producers at “Food Wars” are intrigued. The first prize is $100,000, which both eateries need badly. Amanda contacts her sister, Mae, a semi-celebrity who fled Merinac at the first chance she got and is now a snooty lifestyle guru. Mae dismisses the idea of appearing on “Food Wars” because it’s beneath her and a rival to her own show, which is (of course) named “Sparkling.” But when Mae gets fired, she’s quick to change her mind. What follows upends the expectations of Amanda, Mae, their kids, Barbara, just about everyone who lives in this little Kansas hamlet and even the show’s producer, a sweetly cutthroat woman named Sabrina. The tale itself upends any expectations of rural, Green Acres-esque silliness. Yet Dell’Antonia, the author of How to Be a Happier Parent, takes her characters seriously, albeit always with gentle humor. In the end, “Food Wars” proves to be a catastrophe for Barbara and her daughters, as old wounds, resentments, postponed dreams and layers of grief are peeled back and allowed to heal. And the mean girls of “Food Wars” and “Sparkling” get what’s coming to them. It all works to make The Chicken Sisters a delight.
  • Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Ijeoma Oluo, author of the bestselling book So You Want to Talk About Race, offers a historical and sociological view of the toxic white male identity in her new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Oluo persuasively argues that American society is structured to preserve the power (and tastes) of white men and outlines how we got here. Our now-ingrained power structure wasn’t inevitable but was purposely designed to center white men. Looking back at centuries of American history, Oluo shows how white male entitlement took hold from the early beginnings of this country–from slavery to westward expansion to the genocide and displacement of Indigenous Americans; from cowboy mythology glamorizing the violence of “Buffalo Bill” Cody to the modern-day obsession with spoiled but dangerous white men like Ammon Bundy. Americans are taught that the United States is a meritocracy and that anyone who tries to get ahead will be rewarded with opportunities. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out. With example after example–the male feminists of the early 20th century, NFL owners, presidential candidates and even their supporters–Oluo deftly shows how the society that white men built now rewards mediocre white men, regardless of their skills or talent, while punishing women and people of color for anything less than perfection. Unfortunately, when ordinary white men do not receive the unmitigated success they feel is their right, they turn their disappointments and anger on these women and people of color instead of on the elite white men who hoard opportunities and power for themselves. Because of this, disaffected white men are now the biggest domestic terror threat in the United States. Oluo expertly shows how inequality, toxic masculinity and an unequal power structure deeply hurt all Americans, including white men. Through careful research and scholarship, she breaks down the system that sustains the status quo while shedding light on the ways others can also dismantle this system to ensure a more equitable future for all. It’s an essential read during times of political upheaval and unsure futures.
  • Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon: Seventeen-year-old Sunny Dae is one of three nonwhite students at his high school; the other two are his best friends. He spends his days using his anxious energy to imagineer practical effects accessories for LARPing, a type of role-playing game in which participants dress up as the characters they play. His parents are workaholics obsessed with keeping up with the well-to-do families in their new neighborhood. His older brother, Gray, is back at home after flaming out as a musician in Los Angeles, licking his wounds in the basement, his rock-star dreams drowned out more and more every day by the dull reality of khakis and neckties. When Cirrus Soh, a beautiful new student with swagger to spare, mistakes Gray’s old room–decked out with rock ‘n’ roll posters, guitars and a totally metal wardrobe–for his, Sunny is happy to reinvent himself in the mold of his fallen rock god brother. Convinced Cirrus would recoil is she ever saw his real room or his real self, Sunny starts wearing his brother’s clothes, hides away the nerdy details of his life and, most consequentially, tells Cirrus he is the frontman of a rock band. Sunny’s rock ‘n’ roll charade gives him a confidence and bravado he’s never felt before. With help from his brother and best friends, he even manages to put together an actual rock band. However, author David Yoon isn’t interested in telling a coming-of-age story in Super Fake Love Song, but rather a story about coming to know ourselves. Who is Sunny, and why is he so willing to leave the person he was before he met Cirrus behind? “If there were no shame,” asks Sunny, “would we be freer?” Young men openly discussing and dismantling patriarchal shame in positive ways with their peers? You love to see it. It can be difficult for romantic comedies to strike the perfect balance between romantic and comedic, but in his sophomore outing, Yoon makes it look easy. Every character here is richly drawn, oozing with personality and overflowing with quippy one-liners that keep the laughs coming even as the emotional stakes increase. Roll down your windows and turn your speakers up to 11, because Super Fake Love Song is the real deal.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han: Simon Han’s debut novel scrutinizes the American dream through the Chengs, who have recently emigrated from China. The family settles in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where Patty works in semiconductors and Liang is a photographer. Their son, Jack, spends the first six years of his life in China, where his grandparents raise him until his parents are ready for him to join them in the United States. His sister, Annabel, is born in the U.S., and her relationship to China is abstract, as she has never been there but speaks Mandarin at home. Things aren’t going particularly well with 5-year-old Annabel. At school, she’s practicing manipulation on a friend, and other parents are leery of her. When she begins sleepwalking, Jack deems himself her protector. In Nights When Nothing Happened, Han explores all that can get lost in the spaces between people. A fateful Thanksgiving Day serves as the crux of the story, but the tale spans much further than that, back to the mysterious death of Liang’s mother when he was an infant, which has haunted him his whole life. While the book is driven more by characterization than by plot, Han delivers the few pivotal moments with such skill that they are jaw-droppers. Han displays incredible range as a novelist, oscillating between honest, almost tangibly real scenes, opaque dreams and refractive memories. He portrays Annabel’s and Jack’s points of view with remarkable integrity, while Liang and Patty are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, doing their absolute best for their children while grappling with their pasts. Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.
  • Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett: If you think you know all about the brain, think again! According to neuroscientist and Northeastern University professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett (How Emotions Are Made) in her delightful new book Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, “your brain is not for thinking.” This is the titular half-lesson that introduces this slim tome of short, informal essays, which are “best read in order, but you can also read them out of sequence.” Instead of including all the scientific specifics in the book itself (which, quite honestly, could get tedious if you’re reading for pleasure), Barrett handily moves the full explanations and references to her website, sevenandahalflessons.com, and merely includes an appendix with selected details at the back of the book. Barrett poses some interesting questions, such as “Why did brains evolve?”–busting the myth that it was for thinking and revealing that it was actually for body-budgeting, providing energy efficiency for our ancestors much like a renewably fueled car. She writes with precision and clarity as she covers topics as broad as the tricky business of comparing different species’ brains, the fact that all mammals’ brains are built from a single manufacturing plan and the difference between brains and minds. Barrett uses comparisons to everyday things and practices to help readers understand the brain’s complexity. For example, in the chapter “Your Brain Is a Network,” she likens the brain’s vast collection of interconnected parts to the internet’s network of linked devices and the intricate dispatch routes of transportation networks. As a result, interesting concepts such as tuning (strengthening the connections between neurons) and pruning (when less-used connections weaken and die off) are presented in approachable ways. Some topics are less fun but still worthy of consideration, such as the heartbreaking effects of adversity, poverty and neglect on the brains of developing children. Barrett also explains what sets our brains apart from those of other species, highlighting the things that make us human, such as social reality, creativity and communication. The brain can do a great deal of impressive things yet still misunderstand itself. On the path to better self-knowledge, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain sheds some light on our most powerful organ and its intriguing processes.
  • Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton: ‘Tis the season to be Dolly! In Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, the lovable, candid, tell-it-like-it-is singer shares her own story through the lyrics of her songs. While fans love Parton for her crystal-clear vocals and her charming, witty stage presence, she’s always thought of herself as a songwriter first, and this book illustrates her deep devotion to music that captures a moment or tells a heart-rending tale. As she reveals, “I write a lot from my own heart. But I also just have a big imagination. When I was young, we didn’t go to the movies, so I just created my own stories. It’s kind of embedded in me to make up songs and stories.” Chock-full of never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia from Parton’s archives, every chapter tells a portion of her biography. Using lyrics from 175 of her songs–including “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene”–she traces the journey from her Tennessee mountain childhood to her role on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” her 9 to 5 days and her bluegrass albums. As she provides a glimpse into the origins of each song, Parton notes that she has “never shied away from any topic, whether it was suicide or prostitution or women’s rights or whatever…Whatever it is, I can say it in a song, in my own way.” Parton tells her stories with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. Her book invites us to sit a spell as she weaves her enchanting storytelling web around us, wrapping us in the warm, silky threads of her voice and comforting us with her presence.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • White Ivy by Susie Yang (e-book and e-audiobook available on Libby and Axis 360 apps): Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own. In Chinese American author Susie Yang’s debut novel, we meet Ivy at several different stages of life. She grows from fretful child to moody and self-loathing junior grifter. By her late 20s, she has evolved into a smooth, sophisticated adult, determined to attain her American ideal by any means necessary. Her looks and circumstances have improved, but her desperation never fully evaporates. Rather than a traditional thriller, White Ivy is a slow-burning, intricate psychological character study and coming-of-age story full of family secrets and foreboding. Ivy isn’t an outsider simply because she’s an immigrant; she stands out even within her own deeply dysfunctional Chinese American family. Their treatment of Ivy exposes the minor harms of everyday life–the tiny slights and subtle hits that leave marks that never fade. Alienation appears to be Ivy’s natural state, and this is never more clear than when she is closest to getting what she wants: popularity, respect and, most of all, a romantic relationship with her childhood crush, the beautiful scion of an old-money New England family. Despite the book’s inevitable ending, Yang allows her main character ambiguity. Ivy is strangely, uncomfortably relatable and ultimately unknowable. Her transgressions are mostly minor, yet her sometimes vicious inner monologue shows that she has the capacity for far harsher misdeeds. Perhaps that is the point–that the dividing line between ordinary wrongs and acts of true evil is razor thin. So when signs start to suggest that something very bad is about to happen, the violent act is all the more jarring. Ivy brings to mind other desperate, liminal characters, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Readers will find a lot to appreciate in this sharply observed psychological thriller.
  • Paper Bullets by Jeffrey H. Jackson: Although it’s been 75 years since the end of World War II, accounts that reveal the resilience of ordinary individuals in the face of the Nazi regime continue to emerge into the historical record. In Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Jeffrey H. Jackson, a Rhodes College professor specializing in European history, unearths the fascinating story of two women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, whose “resistance activity grew organically out of life-long patterns of fighting against the social norms of their day.” After 20 years of immersion in the art scene of Paris, Lucy, a photographer and writer who published under the name Claude Cahun, and Suzanne, an illustrator whose professional pseudonym was Marcel Moore, found themselves under German occupation on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. The two women had retreated there in 1937 out of concern for Lucy’s chronic health problems, posing as sisters to hide their true relationship. Jackson links the women’s involvement in resistance work to their personal experiences as artists and lesbians whose lives constantly put them at odds with expectations placed on them as the daughters of wealthy families in France. These expectations included gender identity and expression, which they explored in both their personal lives and art as a fluid spectrum between masculinity, androgyny and femininity. Jackson’s previous works include Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris, and he is adept at bringing the vibrancy of 1920s and 1930s Paris to life, including the cafes, nightclubs and personalities that were part of the thriving gay and lesbian community to which Lucy and Suzanne belonged. This carefully researched volume also includes fascinating photographs, artwork and excerpts from the women’s letters and articles. The author’s attention to detail and prodigious research skills are also on display as he recounts the saga of the German occupation of Jersey and the women’s growing determination to do something to resist. They began small enough, ripping down German posters and announcements and making graffiti. They also created their own anti-Nazi artwork and slipped subversive messages (the eponymous “paper bullets”) onto the windshields of police cars or into the pages of German-language magazines on local newsstands. Their efforts at fomenting doubt among the occupying forces escalated, eventually leading to their arrest, imprisonment in solitary confinement and a dramatic trial in which they were sentenced to death in November of 1944. Their sentence was later commuted, but they remained confined until the war ended. The final section of Paper Bullets details these women’s postwar lives. Lucy died in 1954, Suzanne in 1972. In an epilogue entitled “Why Resist?” Jackson addresses some of the issues that led to the women’s commitment to the cause of freedom. Their story, he notes, “invites us to look at a history of the war from the bottom up, to think about the complexities of ground-level responses to conquest.” Impeccably researched and meticulously sourced, Paper Bullets is a welcome and timely portrait of courage and creativity.
  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans: Racism is an insidious beast. It can find its way into any situation, as Danielle Evans shows in the stories and novella in The Office of Historical Corrections. Evans emerged as an important voice in American literature with her 2010 debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and she once again demonstrates impressive artistry and humor as she chronicles shocking episodes of discriminatory behavior. In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop for a replica of the Titanic, but she never gets to work the museum’s princess parties because, her boss says, of historical accuracy: There were no Black princesses on the Titanic. In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student poses for pictures in a Confederate-flag bikini and is surprised by the pain it causes Black students. Other stories dig deeper, such as “Anything Could Disappear,” about a Black woman forced to care for a 2-year-old Black child who is deliberately left next to her on a bus by the child’s white caregiver. Not every story deals with race, as with the funniest story, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” in which a “genius artist” stages public apologies to the women he has wronged. However, most stories do, and the sharpest piece is the title novella, about a government agency that adds emendations to incorrect placards at historical sites, a job that becomes surprisingly dangerous. As a child, the novella’s protagonist consoled a Black friend who had lost a debate tournament, declaring her a better debater than her white competitors. “But it’s never going to be enough,” replied the friend. Evans’ book shows that that painful truth hasn’t disappeared.
  • We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper: The true crime genre has been so successful in podcasting that one might forget it originated in publishing. Becky Cooper, formerly of the New Yorker, has already drawn comparisons to In Cold Blood with her true crime masterpiece, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence–and for good reason. On a winter night in 1969, Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in the Harvard anthropology department, was brutally murdered in her Boston apartment. Aspects of the crime scene suggested that her murderer may have had some knowledge of ritualistic burials. For decades, rumors suggested that a powerful archeology professor killed her. Cooper, herself a Harvard graduate, finally decided to find out. Over the course of 10 years, Cooper turns over every stone trying to identify Jane’s killer. She perseveres mightily in her investigation, driven in part by the way she identifies with the quirky, complicated victim. This identification may draw in readers who see themselves in Jane, too. But for others, the author’s embrace of a stranger who died 50 years prior may never quite gel. The book is strongest when we’re empathizing with Jane–her romantic foibles, grappling with sexism within academia–rather than with the author. For aspiring journalists, Cooper’s impressive work in We Keep the Dead Close is a masterclass on how to do investigative reporting. She dug deep into archival research and interviewed most everyone involved in the case, drawing uncomfortable information out of her sources with particular skill while still withholding judgment. Along the way, the narrative ventures down rabbit holes and zigzags from Cambridge to Hawaii to Iran to Labrador. Cooper’s 10-year investigation is a meandering one that may drag on for readers who want a neat and tidy resolution. For everyone else, there’s so much to chew on in We Keep the Dead Close. The resolution, when it comes, is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.
  • The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): In his 12th novel, Jonathan Lethem returns to speculative fiction to tell a provocative tale of an isolated Maine peninsula after an apocalypse. In this particular apocalypse, known as “the Arrest,” some mysterious process has incrementally disables the world’s supply of gasoline, pixels and gunpowder. There’s no TV, no internet, no internal combustion engines, no firearms. This is a challenge for all the residents on the peninsula, but it is especially hard for Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, known as Journeyman, who once had a successful career as a Hollywood script doctor but now works as a butcher’s assistant and a bicycle deliveryman, pedaling in the shadow of his younger sister, Maddy, a local communal farmer. The peninsula’s isolation is enforced by a surly group of tribute-demanding bullies called the Cordon. Are they keeping outsiders out or insiders in? In there life, civilization or, better yet, electricity beyond their barricades? Busting past the Cordon comes Peter Todbaum in his nuclear-powered vehicle called the Blue Streak. Peter is Journeyman’s former Yale roommate and movie-making collaborator, and he arrives hoping to rekindle his estranged relationships with Journeyman and Maddy as well as his lifelong movie project, Yet Another World, a dystopian, apocalyptic love story. He comes bearing an endless supply of the rarest of rare–brewed coffee. He first enthralls and then alienates almost everyone with his endless stories and fabrications. And this is just the beginning. Lethem is a beguiling and very smart writer. Told in short, breezy chapters, The Arrest vibrates with sharp, satiric observations and layers upon layers of strange, often funny mashups of popular 1970s and ’80s end-of-the-world books and movies. Ultimately, Lethem’s plot resolves itself, but in ways that do not fully satisfy. This is deliberate. As his fans know, Lethem often plays a deeper game. There are some answered and many unanswered questions in The Arrest–so many that Lethem seems to be suggesting that even at the end of days, the familiar shapes of stories are insufficient, and life itself offers fewer resolutions than we hope for.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • I’ll Be Seeing You by Elizabeth Berg (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): “This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.” So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don’t be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse–generous gifts of poetic insight, close observance, vulnerability, honesty, humor and grace. Berg’s father, a tough U.S. Army “lifer,” is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while his wife of more than 67 years tries to cope. Though he’s always been autocratic and demanding, Berg’s father unconditionally adores his wife. “She was the place where he put his tenderness,” Berg writes. Eventually, his gradual descent into dementia, along with his wife’s advancing age, force the couple to move from their longtime home into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility. Berg and her sister try to negotiate and navigate this upheaval with their parents’ best interests at heart, but complications arise. Their father is increasingly confused and isolated, and their usually even-tempered mother becomes angry–an understandable reaction to her two-pronged grief over losing her husband to dementia and leaving a beloved home. “My mother was enraged,” Berg writes. “Her heart was breaking because her house was being taken from her, which is to say that her life was.” From the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011, short diary entries focus mainly on the events of Berg’s aging parents’ lives, as the author and her sister step in to be their parents’ loving–and often frustrated–family caregivers. “It’s hard to know how to rescue someone. It’s hard to know how to help them in the way they need to be helped,” she writes in one entry. Such rueful reflections are blended with an appreciation of ordinary moments, making each entry a story in miniature–cameos of the joys and pains of family life, and the challenges and rewards of caregiving for loved ones. Readers familiar with Berg’s novels know that her stories wonderfully encompass the comforts of beauty and wry humor, but they never sugarcoat life’s hard truths. The same is true of I’ll Be Seeing You, which mines the wisdom hidden in difficult times. “Life is a minefield at any age,” Berg writes. “If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”
  • Memorial by Bryan Washington (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): It sometimes feels like romantic relationships are becoming harder and harder to navigate. Meeting someone, getting to know them, constantly finding ways to communicate about everything, searching for common ground, trying and failing to move forward or take a leap of faith–it’s all exhausting. The routine isn’t entirely disheartening, though, and to the most curious of minds, it can be fertile ground for analysis and creation. So it is with Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, a celebratory lamentation of modern love. The novel follows two men who are in love with each other. Through a major miscommunication, Benson, a Black day care worker in Houston, ends up living with his boyfriend Mike’s Japanese mother, who doesn’t seem all too happy to be the guest of someone she has never met before. Mike, on the other hand, is a chef who must travel to Japan to help his father, who is dying of cancer, through his final days. As the novel begins just before Mike’s departure, the two men are unsure of their path forward together. This classic will-they-won’t-they scenario gives Memorial a timeless feel, but by placing two gay men at the center of this familiar setup, Washington poses fresh questions about contemporary romantic relationships with quiet grace. From the intermittent use of text messages and shared photographs to the mastery of a decade of slang, his writing is invigorating, reminding the reader of the realities every human must face and how we’ve all learned to communicate them. Memorial is more than just a love story–though it is a very good love story. It’s this generation’s response to centuries of love stories, to a whole history of them. It’s what is coming; it’s what is here.
  • To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu: Short stories in science fiction are frequently answers to questions. What if, an author wonders, an incomprehensibly powerful alien being were inspired by an ice sculpture? Or what if there were nations in cyberspace, separate and distinct from their real-world counterparts? What if a world on the brink of annihilation could be saved by a poet? Or a teacher? Each of these questions is explored in a story in Cixin Liu’s new collection, To Hold Up the Sky. These stories span three decades of his writing career, from 1985 to 2014, and although many have been published before, all are new to his English-speaking audience. As with any writer over such a long period, Liu’s style evolves from the earliest stories to the more recent ones, and yet they are all immediately recognizable as his work. In some ways, Liu’s point of view is rare among science fiction novelists of his international stature. Unlike most of his peers in the Western science fiction scene, whose worlds frequently comment on fundamental human failings or the dystopian struggles of an inconsistently ethical society, Liu’s work is suffused with an understated optimism. To Hold Up the Sky is no different. In fact, he hints at this in the foreword, where he mentions that in his writing, he is always attempting to depict “the relationship between the Great and the Small.” To him, the “Small” is all of humankind, and at this project’s core, there’s a presumption that humans are always more united than we are divided, that our communal nature is our defining characteristic as a species and that free will, along with the frailties and flaws that it allows, is essential to that collaborative instinct. (And yes, that does sound like a contradiction, but this is addressed and dispensed within one of the stories in To Hold Up the Sky.) This realistic but positive outlook is shared by a few other science fiction writers–Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Becky Chambers and Iain M. Banks come to mind–but rarely is it as essential to a speculated universe as in Liu’s prose. As a result, few writers achieve quite the same flavor of optimistic apocalypse or infuse existential dread with such a tangible thread of hope. Throughout To Hold Up the Sky, Liu brings his collections of ice sculptors and poets and computer scientists and military engineers teeteringly close to oblivion. He does so knowing that the crisis is finite, and that humanity in its feeble entirety will either survive, learn and grow, or simply…stop. And he insists that there is beauty either way. I am not certain if I agree with this sentiment. It is both too cynical and too idealistic for me. But either way, Liu is far too good a writer for me to put this book aside.
  • Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, follows main character Harold on an improbable long walk across England as he comes to terms with his failures. Similarly, Miss Benson’s Beetle, Joyce’s fifth novel, tracks main character Margery Benson as she aims to make her own unlikely journey to an island called New Caledonia in the southwestern Pacific, to track down an elusive golden beetle. In 1950, the war is over, but rationing and shortages continue in London. Margery is a lonely 40-something soul, teaching home economics to snarky high school girls. When the girls go too far in making fun of her, Margery snaps and flees the school, snatching a pair of lacrosse boots in fury and frustration, an act that reminds her of her long-deferred goal of finding the golden beetle of New Caledonia. But it’s a preposterous dream. Margery has no academic credentials, no passport, no knowledge of New Caledonia and no money. Nevertheless, she persists, planning her journey and interviewing assistants. What follows is an epic, obstacle-filled journey from London to Australia and at last to New Caledonia, which in 1950 is a French colony. Margery and her assistant, Enid Pretty, arrive on the island woefully underprepared for the final part of their quest. Miss Benson’s Beetle balances the light–including comic moments that highlight the discrepancies between stolid Margery and flighty Enid–with the dark, such as Margery’s trauma-filled youth. As with Harold Fry, the main character’s inner journey is the real one. Margery finds human connection she didn’t know she was missing and, through that connection, a deeper purpose in life. The novel also has a marvelous, economical way of contrasting the drab gray of postwar London with the vivid colors, sounds and smells of New Caledonia. Joyce’s fiction has been slotted into “uplit,” a publishing term for novels that contain some dark moments but ultimately offer an uplifting ending. For readers who seek escape, Miss Benson’s Beetle is just right.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • Cary Grant by Scott Eyman: Film historian Scott Eyman takes a fresh look at a movie legend in the sparkling biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Drawing upon extensive interviews and archival materials, including the star’s personal papers, Eyman shows that Grant (1904-1986), king of the romantic comedy and the very definition of dashing, was a man of contrasts forever troubled by his working-class past. Born into a poor household in Bristol, England, Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach, did not have a happy childhood. His father was an alcoholic. His depressed mother spent decades in an institution, while Grant was told that she was dead. At 14, he engineered his own expulsion from school in order to chase a career in show business. From stilt walking, acrobatics and pantomime in English music halls to American vaudeville revues and the Broadway stage, he didn’t stop until he’d landed in Hollywood. In 1932, Grant made his first big film, Blonde Venus, with Marlene Dietrich. By 1939, he was a full-blown star. Absent-minded scientist (Bringing Up Baby), wisecracking socialite (The Philadelphia Story), ice-cold government agent (Notorious)–there was no bill he didn’t fit. During the late 1940s, Eyman writes, “Grant had first crack at nearly every script that didn’t involve a cattle drive or space aliens.” But Grant’s past seems to have left him permanently scarred. Although he maintained a suave public persona and was widely cherished by friends and fellow actors, the truth about him was, of course, more complicated. As the author reveals, Grant has a reputation for stinginess and self-absorption and could be a mean drunk. On set, he was often anxious and tense. Eyman’s consideration of the inner conflicts that drove Grant results in a wonderfully nuanced study of his life. Along with the star’s many marriages and bitter divorces, Eyman explores the rumors surrounding his sexuality and his LSD use, recounting it all in clean, unaffected prose. He mixes Grant’s personal story with several decades’ worth of Hollywood history, and his film analyses are eye-opening. Grant was “a man for all movie seasons.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
  • The Kidnapping Club by Jonathan Daniel Wells: Urbane and bustling, New York City is often considered the epitome of “Northern-ness.” However, in the decades before the Civil War, the city’s interests were very much in line with those of Southern cotton farmers. Through its finance, insurance and shipping industries, New York probably profited from slave labor more than any other city in the country. The city would do almost anything to appease the Southern states, even if it meant sending its own citizens into slavery. The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells is an eye-opening history of antebellum New York. Wells, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, meticulously details two of New York City’s dirtiest secrets: the city’s illicit backing of the illegal transatlantic slave trade and the Kidnapping Club that helped reinforce it. From the 1830s until the start of the Civil War, and with the support of the city’s judiciary, vigilantes in the Kidnapping Club as well as the police abducted Black New Yorkers on the pretext that they were escaped slaves. With little or no due process, hundreds of men, women and even children were snatched, jailed and then sent south. The broader effects of New York’s illegal slave trade were even more horrific, resulting in the abduction, enslavement and frequently death of hundreds of thousands of West Africans. There are many villains in this thoroughly researched and fascinating history, including police officers Tobias Boudinot and Daniel Nash, Judge Richard Riker and Mayor Fernando Woods. Yet The Kidnapping Club is more than a story of villainy. It’s also a history of heroes, including David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist who put his body between the victims and their snatchers; Elizabeth Jenkins, who fought against segregated transportation over a century before Rosa Parks; and James McCune Smith, an abolitionist and the first African American to hold a medical degree. Most important of all, The Kidnapping Club restores the names of the abducted: Ben, Hester Jane Carr, Isaac Wright, Frances Shields, John Dickerson and countless others whose lives were destroyed and humanity erased–until now.
  • Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): Debut author Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduces us to detective Lillian Pentecost and her right-hand woman/chronicler, Willowjean Parker, a mid-1940s pair that resembles a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Their investigation into the murder of prominent New York City matriarch Abigail Collins–found with her head bashed in inside her late husband’s locked-from-the-inside study–almost takes a back seat to the intrepid detectives themselves. Willow grew up with a traveling circus, and Lillian suffers from multiple sclerosis, making them as instantly intriguing as any classic detective tandem, whether it be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or the aforementioned Wolfe and Goodwin. Written with witty prose, Fortune Favors the Dead is often humorous and fun–nowhere near the stuffy analytical voice of Dr. Watson. Instead, with its cast of suspects (all conveniently listed at the start of the book to help readers keep track), it has the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery, and there’s a delightful dose of noir thrown in for the more hardcore pulp fiction crowd, too. All the tried and true methods of detection are evident here, as Willow follows cagey suspects (including a mysterious medium/spiritualist and a cynical university professor) around the city and interviews everyone from the family of the deceased to the waitstaff. There’s even a local police detective who begrudgingly accepts Lillian’s involvement in the case against his better judgment, a la Inspector Lestrade. Oh, and that case they’re working on? It’s as mysterious and fun a caper as you will ever read, with plenty of misdirection and intrigue to keep you guessing. You don’t need a clairvoyant to realize this duo will be around for years to come.
  • The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Jess Walter’s first novel in eight years arrives with the weight of high expectations. His last, Beautiful Ruins, was a surprising and well-deserved bestseller. His previous fiction–including crime novels, a 9/11 tale and short stories–were rapturously reviewed. In The Cold Millions, Walter tries another mixed genre, the Western historical novel, and shows he is a master at investigating the “hobo” world of 1909. The star of the book is Spokane, Washington, a “boomtown that just kept booming.” It is here, amid skid row poverty and mansions of wealth, that 19-year-old rabble rouser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn intersects with two orphaned young men, Rye and Gig, who are the protagonists of the story. The book is uneven, however, and falls short of the romanticism of Beautiful Ruins. There is fine detail on dark anarchy and dank jail cells, but unlike Walter’s funny version of Richard Burton in Ruins, Flynn is so focused (one might say didactic) as to be wooden. Her leadership of the dismal class struggle becomes repetitive. Rye and Gig are callow, and even though Gig is a book lover and Rye a striver, they don’t fully inhabit their space. Readers may be far more interested in the villain, a robber baron named Brand, and a smart circus performer named Ursula the Great. When these two are cavorting, The Cold Millions shines. Walter has devised some fantastic set pieces, including a riot that leads to a dreadful scene of jail overcrowding. The freedom of the road, the lawlessness of the police, the spectacle of a few cynical power figures making life miserable for the huddled masses–it’s all enlivened by Walter’s vivid writing. A reader can feel the rails rattling under the trains that thunder through the mountains. A new life, the 20th century, is roaring into being. As Rye thinks to himself, “History is like a parade.” Forget the book’s shortcomings; it’s good to have Jess Walter back.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • 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 of Michael 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.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • 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.

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • Anxious People by Fredrik Backman: Fredrik Backman’s gift for portraying the nuances of humanity is well known to his many loyal fans. With Anxious People, Backman once again captures readers’ hearts and imaginations. An armed, masked robber attempts to hold up a bank in a Swedish city. But as the thief approaches, the apathetic young teller is unmoved. It’s a cashless bank, the teller says. Doesn’t the would-be robber know that? Well, no. The robber doesn’t. As police arrive, the robber rushes into the street, through the nearest open door, up a set of stairs and into an apartment’s open house. When the potential buyers and real estate agent see the thief, they assume they’re being held hostage. Backman describes these events with a light touch, making clear early on that, though there’s a crime at the heart of this story, his novel is much more than this series of events. Father and son police officers Jim and Jack try to understand how a bank robber slipped, unnoticed, from an apartment full of people. As the officers interrogate the witnesses, Backman reveals glimpses of each character’s past. Anxious People could reasonably be called a mystery, but it’s also a deeply funny and warm examination of how individual experiences can bring a random group of people together. Backman reveals each character’s many imperfections with tremendous empathy, reminding us that people are always more than the sum of their flaws.
  • Monogamy by Sue Miller: Any story told quickly, without the chill or warmth of accumulated details, becomes a cliche. For example: After 30 or so years of a relatively happy marriage, a woman wakes to find her husband dead beside her. Her grief is nearly unbearable until, at his memorial, she discovers he had been having an affair. She becomes angry. What then? We’ve heard this tale a couple of times, and that is one way to summarize the story Sue Miller tells in her 11th novel, Monogamy. The best approach to this unbelievably good novel, however, is to avoid summary altogether and simply urge readers to read–and reread–the book itself. Here is a taste of what a reader will find: The long marriage of Annie and Graham is a second marriage for both. Each has a past that captured and shaped them. Graham, who co-owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a passionate, needy, generous man who clasps his past–his ex-wife, for example–more closely than Annie does hers. It’s not irrelevant that Annie, a thoughtful person and a good-not-great photographer, views the world through her own lens and keeps any boisterous turbulence at a bit of a distance. Annie and Graham really do love one another. But the past is always up for reevaluation. So is our understanding of ourselves and others. Miller is excellent at conveying and illuminating the inner lives of her characters, and she remains one of the best writers at depicting the day-to-day normality of desire. Events occur in this novel–normal sorts of things–and Miller’s attention, her descriptions and the tempo at which she reveals them help us feel these events truly and deeply. She has found in Monogamy probably the best expression of her longtime interest in sociograms, an exercise to demonstrate how lives intersect and influence each other. Among the relationships of the characters in Monogamy, there are reverberations upon reverberations. How great is Monogamy? If this is not Miller’s best novel, it is surely among her very best. One measure of that is how the experience of it deepens with each reading.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: “It is my belief,” writes Piranesi, the protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s new novel of the same name, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” Clarke’s first novel since 2004’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi centers on a strange, haunting world and features a main character whose earnest goodwill is piercingly endearing. The House, composed of hundreds of huge rooms filled with statues and wild birds and containing an ocean’s four tides, is so vast it may as well be infinite. Piranesi spends his days fishing, drying seaweed to burn for warmth, tracking the tides and cataloging the features of each room of the House in his journals. Twice a week, he meets with the Other, the only living person Piranesi has ever known. The Other is obsess with finding and “freeing the Great and Secret Knowledge from whatever holds it captive in the World and to transfer it to ourselves,” and the guileless and devoted Piranesi has been his cheerful collaborator. But just as Piranesi begins to lose faith in the Knowledge, a discovery leads him to question his own past. From this point, the novel is almost impossible to put down. The reader reflexively mirrors Piranesi in his quest to interpret the clues revealed to him by his beloved World. Stripping this mystery back layer by layer is a magical way to spend an afternoon, reading narrative motifs like runes and studying Piranesi’s journals as if they are the religious texts they resemble. Piranesi hits many of the same pleasure points as Jonathan Strange–Clarke’s dazzling feats of world building, for one. But at one-third as many pages, Piranesi is more allegorical than epic in scope. With their neoclassical verve, certain passages recall ancient philosophy, but readers may also see connections between Piranesi’s account and the unique isolation of a confined life–whether as a result of a mandatory lockdown during a global pandemic, or perhaps due to the limitations caused by a chronic illness, such as Clarke’s own chronic fatigue syndrome. Lavishly descriptive, charming, heartbreaking and imbued with a magic that will be familiar to Clarke’s devoted readers, Piranesi will satisfy lovers of Jonathan Strange and win her many new fans.
  • What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: Don’t be deceived by the brevity of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, What Are You Going Through. Like its National Book Award-winning predecessor, The Friend, this exquisite portrait of female friendship, aging and loss packs more insight into its barely 200 pages than many serious novels twice that length. The novel’s unnamed narrator is a writer whose middle-aged friend, dying of cancer (“fatal,” as she prefers to say instead of “terminal”), asks her to serve as a companion in the New England rental house where she plans to end her life with a “euthanasia drug”–even as she confesses that “you weren’t my first choice” for this challenging assignment. Over the course of the succeeding weeks, with a “new intimacy that made secrets and lies intolerable,” and that at various moments is touching, profound and even wryly humorous, the women bond over shared stories of their lives, old movies, music and fairy tales, in something the narrator’s ex-partner observes “does sound a little like a sitcom. Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.” Borrowing the opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier–“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”–Nunez confronts the reality of death without succumbing to despair. Whether she’s summarizing the improbable plot of a serial killer potboiler or recounting a conversation between the narrator and a “once beautiful woman” at the gym, she’s an economical, graceful storyteller. She also touches lightly but provocatively on subjects like climate change, the #MeToo movement and the malign influence of Fox News on one elderly woman’s psyche, then eases her story along almost before we realize it. Sooner than she would like, the narrator faces the reality that what she’s come to think of as a “fairy tale” will end, and that, paradoxically, “the saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass. And I’ll be alone.” It’s a good bet that most readers will share that same wistful feeling when they reach the novel’s final page.