Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour: Mila has spent the past four years in the foster care system. Now that she’s turning 18, she can’t be placed with another foster family, so she’s stunned and humbled to receive a placement as an intern with a couple named Julia and Terry, who have raised dozens of children on their idyllic farm tucked between the mountains and the sea. Alongside two other interns, Mila will tutor the younger children and contribute to the daily workings of farm life, tending the crops, learning about flowers and taking harvests to the nearby farmers market. Mila quickly becomes close to her student, 9-year-old Lee, beneath whose quiet demeanor lies a traumatic history. The two also bond over their shared distrust of the ghostly figures who seems to haunt the farm at night. The farm’s other residents seem to relish their mysterious presence, but Mila and Lee aren’t ready to welcome them in. Even as Mila settles into her new life, she worries that she doesn’t really belong on the farm. She becomes increasingly unsettled when disturbing tokens from her old life begin to show up on the doorstep of her cabin. Watch Over Me is an unusual ghost story in which the ghosts are both metaphors and characters in their own right. Printz Medalist Nina LaCour effectively blends contemporary perspectives on psychological themes, including abuse, childhood trauma, guilt and grief, with a setting and a narrative that seem to exist somehow outside of time. As the story opens, Mila is at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood. Her regrets over events in her youth and her longing to have had a more secure childhood like those Julia and Terry’s adoptees enjoy is poignant and palpable. Simultaneously, however, as her deepening relationship with Lee causes her to want to be the best teacher she can, Mila begins to craft a vision of her future that wouldn’t have been possible without the farm. Richly atmospheric and both haunting and hopeful, Watch Over Me is a rewarding novel about a young woman on the brink of a new life.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: The phrase “worst-case scenario” calls to mind extreme situations, like being on a hijacked plane or a bridge during an earthquake. But perhaps more realistically, most worst-case scenarios are mundane. They’re quieter and less violent. They might even happen while we’re on vacation. Such is the premise of Rumaan Alam’s novel, Leave the World Behind. White parents Clay and Amanda leave Brooklyn for a gorgeous vacation rental home far out on Long Island. Their kids are thrilled about the pool, less thrilled about being isolated in the woods with no cell service. Their respite has barely begun, however, when the house’s owners, wealthy Black couple George and Ruth, appear at the door in the middle of the night. There’s been an epic blackout in New York City. Something seems very wrong, and the older couple thought they should get out. At first, Amanda is annoyed that their vacation has been interrupted. How bad could a blackout really be? And couldn’t this rich couple just go stay in a hotel? But then eerie occurrences begin to happen where they are, too. It’s clear something terrible is happening. Alam’s brilliance is less in what he reveals and more in what he doesn’t. Fear of the unknown ratchets up the reader’s anxiety, and yet Leave the World Behind unfolds slowly for a thriller. The internet and TV are down, and cell phones won’t work, so information about the crisis is scarce. “I can’t do anything without my phone,” Clay laments. “I’m a useless man.” Trying to reassure the children and each other, the two couples hit the expected notes for grown-ups in a crisis: We’ll be fine. The government will have everything under control. We’re safe here. None of this turns out to be true. Leave the World Behind is certainly timely in the era of COVID-19, but it’s also relevant for anyone who has questioned our society’s dependence on technology or our unwavering faith in the social contract. The characters second-guess their beliefs about safety and security. Readers who are safe at home–maybe?–can’t help but do the same.
The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall: American cookery rests squarely on the shoulders of the late, great James Beard. After all, the man’s foundation and prestigious culinary awards, named in his honor, are considered the gold standard for recognizing the best chefs, restaurateurs and food writers working today. His life and experiences are extremely well-known and have been written about extensively. Yet in his new book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, John Birdsall–a gastronomic expert in his own right, having twice won a James Beard Award–gives foodies a fresh, intimate look at James Beard. He writes with candor, wit and vibrancy, as if Beard himself is speaking through Birdsall’s pen, retelling his colorful life and inviting us into his world. And Birdsall doesn’t mince words, delivering a raw, revealing look into how and why Beard had to tread cautiously as he navigated the world as a closeted gay man during the often unforgiving 20th century. Birdsall’s strength as a food writer shines, with mouthwateringly descriptive prose about cuisine peppered throughout the book, such as the smoked and glazed “swaddled ham” that Beard’s mother would bring along on their trips to the Oregon seashore: “The ham was salty and pungent. Its smokiness and moldy specter would linger as the first taste on the coast.” He also provides touchstones to what was going on globally, including both World Wars, the World’s Fair of 1939, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the civil rights movement, giving context for the major events that affected Beard’s life. The Man Who Ate Too Much is meticulously researched. Additionally, Birdsall’s insightful style allows readers to feel Beard’s successes and failures, highs and lows, and revelations and discoveries as they become deeply familiar with the family, friends, colleagues and rivals who impacted his life. Food lovers will rejoice at this new portrait of one of America’s all-time culinary greats, cheering for Beard’s shining legacy and empathizing with his disappointments.
Eleanor by David Michaelis: Fueled by 11 years of research, the new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by David Michaelis, New York Times bestselling author of N.C. Wyeth, is both compelling and comprehensive, making use of previously untapped archival sources and interviews. It seems no accident that Michaelis chooses as his leading epithet this quote from the nation’s most formidable and longest serving first lady: “I felt obliged to notice everything.” In the same way, her biographer, who actually met Roosevelt when he was just 4 years old, trains his careful attention on virtually all aspects of her incredible life and times to craft a fast-moving, engrossing narrative. Eleanor follows its subject from birth to her death in 1962. Michaelis sets the stage by providing a list of principal characters, then presents Roosevelt’s life in seven parts designed to reflect the myriad roles she played in her transformation from an awkward child into a force of nature. Roosevelt’s life journey took her from a shy, often ignored child, whose mother shamed her with the nickname “Granny,” to a dynamic first lady and then a “world maker” when, as one of the country’s first delegates to the United Nations, she spearheaded the adoption of the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history. Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was entwined with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor was so intrinsically linked with the New Deal and World War II, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she was born in 1884 and was almost 36 years old when the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. That was one year before the summer when FDR contracted polio, altering both their lives in profound ways. Michaelis never neglects the politics and history that marked the life of this remarkable, fascinating woman. At the same time, his impeccable storytelling and seamless integration of dialogue and quotations allow him to create an intimate, lively and emotional portrait that unfolds like a good novel. The book is also meticulously sourced, with nearly 100 pages of notes and a 30-page bibliography that’s of interest to historians as well as general readers. One of the pleasures of this biography in Michaelis’ firm grasp of the material and his ability to sprinkle the text with anecdotes and tidbits that capture Roosevelt’s personality, complex private relationships and public accomplishments. We learn, for instance, that as first lady she traveled 38,000 miles in 1933 and kept up this grueling pace, logging 43,000 miles in 1937. He writes, “Never before had a president’s wife set out on her own to assess social and economic conditions or…visited a foreign country unaccompanied by the President.” Roosevelt once reflected, “You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best you have to give.” As America faces another challenging period in its history, there may be no better time for readers to turn to the life of one of our nation’s truly great leaders for inspiration.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: The future we face under climate change is often presented as a progression of sterile facts: The world’s oceans are likely to rise by X meters by the year 2100. Global average temperatures are going to increase by Y degrees over the next 30 years. There will be Z millions of climate refugees seeking new homes. The problem with these numerical descriptions of a hellishly hot future is that they often ignore the human toll of climate change. Not so in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, The Ministry for the Future. Robinson’s view of climate change is deeply personal, inescapably human and utterly horrifying. The Ministry for the Future frames the story of humanity’s future around the formation and future-history of an international organization of the same name. Established in 2025, its mission is straightforward: It must advocate for the future of the Earth and the creatures that make their homes here. What this means, in practice, is trying to mitigate–and bear witness to–the human toll of catastrophic climate change. Robinson structures his story as a series of oral histories, eyewitness accounts of a changing world. While this technique isn’t new, it is unique in both the number of different accounts Robinson chooses to follow and the type. Robinson doesn’t focus on the macro or the micro; he focuses on it all. While the novel opens with the account of the sole survivor of a killer heat wave in Lucknow, India, it doesn’t stay there. It ranges from international politics (Is geoengineering a viable solution? What would happen if a single country unilaterally decided to engineer a solution to rising temperatures?) to the stories of individuals dealing with PTSD, forced migration and heat waves, among other things. The Ministry for the Future isn’t really a book for folks who are used to (or longing for) grand space operas and tales of cosmic exploration and action. Although Robinson’s prose is evocative, the book isn’t exactly exciting. Robinson’s writing is sparse, and what plot that exists within the pages of this book is often obscured by its structure. Much like the future, The Ministry for the Future doesn’t lay itself out in a straight and orderly fashion. Despite its occasionally dry tone, Kim Stanley Robinson’s take on our future is one of the most moving pieces of climate fiction written in a very long time. Well researched and beautifully written, this book is a thought-provoking (and sometimes even hopeful) read for anyone looking to the future and wondering what’s coming next.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton: With The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, British writer Stuart Turton kept readers guessing Agatha Christie-style as they investigated a mystery with a time- and body-hopping detective named Aiden Bishop. In The Devil and the Dark Water, Turton presents readers with another cat-and-mouse game, but a vastly different setting: A galleon that sets sail from the Dutch East Indies in 1634, bound for Amsterdam. The Devil and the Dark Water artfully combines intriguing characters, fascinating historical details and a seafaring labyrinth of twists and turns–not to mention a demon named Old Tom. There is never a dull moment in this 480-page whodunit, but readers will be thankful not to be physically aboard for the grueling journey. As passengers arrive, a leper suddenly shouts that the voyage is doomed, and then burns to death. What more could possibly go wrong? As the ship’s constable notes, the “crew is comprised of malcontents, murderers, and thieves to a man.” One passenger may be able to get to the bottom of the strange curse and ensuing foreboding events–and deaths–that follow. Unfortunately, detective Samuel Pipps is locked in the brig without knowing what crime he is accused of, leaving his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, to investigate. A trio of women (the captain’s wife, daughter and mistress) are also sleuthing, adding a refreshingly feminine twist to this Sherlock Holmes-styled mystery. Turton’s characterizations dovetail nicely with his careful, clever plotting. Meanwhile, he uses history to his advantage, adding dollops of commentary on women’s rights, class privilege and capitalism that lend the novel a contemporary vibe. As talk of Old Tom’s powers ramp up, passengers wonder whether the ship’s misfortunes may be supernatural, and which unfortunate soul will be Tom’s next target. Steadfast Hayes remains convinced that “There were only people and the stories they told themselves.” With no end of stories aboard this ill-fated galleon, and even a touch of romance, possibilities abound. Meanwhile, a ghost ship lurks in the distance, and a huge storm wreaks havoc. History and mystery lovers alike will delight in the heart-racing escapades of The Devil and the Dark Water.
The Searcher by Tana French: Much like her previous standalone novel, The Witch Elm, Tana French’s The Searcher meanders its way into a mystery with a deliberate patience. Cal Hooper is an outsider in his rural Irish town, and before he can be ensnared by a missing person case, Cal–and by extension the reader–must get his footing in his new community. It’s this nuance, a signature of French’s writing, that makes this novel more than just a mystery; it’s also an exploration of rural poverty and the closely intertwined lives of people who are just trying to scratch out a living. Cal is a former Chicago detective burned out from his job, licking his wounds after his divorce and struggling to reconnect with his adult daughter. His decision to move to Ireland and fix up a ramshackle farmhouse feels impulsive, but Cal is almost immediately centered by the beautiful landscape and by the kindness of his neighbors. Gossip gets around though, and soon Cal finds 13-year-old Trey Reddy on his doorstep. Trey’s 19-year-old brother Brendan has vanished and Trey believes that he’s been met with foul play. The Irish police, and indeed Brendan’s own mother, believe Brendan left of his own volition. The Reddys are poor, Brendan didn’t make it into college, and his girlfriend recently broke up with him. With few prospects, it’s reasonable to assume that he fled to Dublin like many teens before him. Trey’s insistence rattles something in Cal, however, and as he begins a quiet investigation into Brendan’s disappearance, he realizes that his tiny community is full of secrets and people who don’t want Brendan found. French scrapes away at the idyllic landscape of rural Ireland and reveals the vices that plague every village and town, including drugs like methamphetamine. As the book progresses, Cal’s idyllic country adventure begins to rot around the edges. What sets The Searcher apart from French’s earlier novels is its depiction of how deeply intertwined the residents of the village are–with young people leaving the area, farms struggling and poverty and drug use plaguing the area, each person is somehow dependent on his or her neighbors for survival. This is not a place where Cal can bury his head in the sand. Evocative and lyrical, The Searcher is a mystery worth reading slowly to savor every perfectly rendered detail.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: In V.E. Schwab’s genre-bending 17th novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the reader first meets Addie as she is fleeing a life she doesn’t want, one that has been chosen for her by her parents. In the year 1714 in Villon, France, 23-year-old Addie is being forced to marry a widower from her village whose children are in want of a stepmother. Instead of submitting, Addie runs. “She doesn’t slow, doesn’t look back; she doesn’t want to see the life that stands there, waiting. Static as a drawing. Solid as a tomb. Instead, she runs.” She also prays to the old gods, as her friend Estele, the village witch, has taught her. Estele warned her never to pray to the gods that answer after dark, but as dusk bleeds into night, Addie accidentally conjures just such a god, whom she will come to know as Luc. He promises Addie of “time without limit, freedom without rule” in exchange for her soul. Only after the deal is struck does Addie understand the secret cost of this arrangement. She can live for a thousand years if she likes, but nobody will ever remember her. Until one day, in New York City in the year 2014, she walks into a bookstore and, for the first time in 300 years, someone does. It’s a twist that changes everything she thought she knew about her future and the decisions that await her. At the heart of this novel is a meditation on legacy, time and the values each person uses to guide their path. Freed from a life’s traditional arc of aging and transitions, the indefatigable Addie must proactively decide how she wants to spend her days and which sacrifices are worth her soul’s survival. This is a hopeful book from an author who is known for dark, violent stories, which makes it both a delightful surprise and a balm in difficult times.
Missionaries by Phil Klay: Phil Klay, who gave us the National Book Award-winning collection of short stories Redeployment, follows up with his first novel, Missionaries, about America’s unofficial war on Colombian guerillas, militias and drug cartels. The novel, staggering in scope, follows four lead characters. Mason is a U.S. Army Special Forces operative turned liaison to the Colombian military who’s looking for a sense of purpose after serving long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lisette is a foreign war journalist who has spent years covering the down and dirty horrors on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere. Juan Pablo, Mason’s attaché in Colombia, laments his role as mercenary. And Abel, a lieutenant in the Los Mil Jesus militia, saw his family butchered as a child but somehow managed to survive to take up his own position of power. Before launching them on their eventual collision course, Klay introduces the foursome in alternating chapters over the first half of the book, diving years into the past as each character reflects on their lot in life. None of them really chose their path, but each is resigned to accept it one way or another. Even when they have a chance to walk away from it–to start fresh, as with Mason and Lisette–they are seemingly incapable of living a quieter, safer life. Klay’s vividly descriptive yet lyrical prose keeps their stories interesting, though the novel is at its best when events cascade into occasional bursts of graphic violence. Klay, an Iraq War veteran, progressively ratchets up the unease throughout, which serves as a cautious warning of more intense violence to come. Missionaries offers a starkly realistic view of a war-torn region only hinted at on the nightly news that, at times, makes Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s troubles pale by comparison. At the same time, the novel provides a powerful glimpse of the psychological toll of war and a close look at people’s desperate attempts to find their place amid utter chaos.
The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross: A long time ago, amid circumstances that no one seems so sure about anymore, a small Jewish village in Poland fell off the map of the world. Surrounded by thick forests, Kreskol has existed in a self-sustained bubble of peaceful isolation for decades, thereby missing the best of human civilization–like electricity, indoor plumbing and the internet–as well as the worst, namely the Holocaust and the Cold War. It is surprising, then, that what brings this peace crashing down isn’t an epic catastrophe but rather something as mundane as a marital dispute. When young Pesha Lindauer disappears, everyone suspects foul play by her husband, Ishmael, who is also nowhere to be found. Having no means to further investigate the scandal, the rabbis convince young Yankel Lewinkopf, an outcast and an orphan, to find his way to the nearest town and inform the authorities of the suspected crime. Yankel leaves reluctantly, only to return three months later in a helicopter with gentiles who are less interested in solving the crime than in immediately thrusting Kreskol into the 21st century. First-time novelist Max Gross is funny, insightful and mysterious in sharing what is essentially a coming-of-age story not only for Pesha, Ishmael and Yankel, each of whom realizes that they can choose to lead a different life, but also for an entire village that’s at once suspicious of and fascinated by the inundation of money and modern conveniences. The Lost Shtetl is a fascinating combination of adventure, laughs and heartache, perfect for fans ofMichael Chabon.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (e-book available on Libby or Overdrive app with library card): Readers will be riveted by powerful world building and deep characterization for the entirety of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. Right from the start, the story is on the clock. The Convergence, an alignment of Sun, Moon and Earth, approaches, and Serapio, a boy from a far-off land, brings magic and doom with him to his mother’s homeland of Tova. As the characters make their way toward Tova for the Convergence, the narrative perspective shifts constantly between Serapio, the Sun Priestess Naranpa and a sea witch of sorts named Xiala. While there are a few twists and turns to the plot, Roanhorse paints her story in broad, easy-to-follow strokes, the action serving almost as backdrop upon which to paint her world and to enrich her characters. As perspectives change, so do the rhythm and meter of the text, matching the mannerisms and personality of each character. When Xiala is guiding the narrative, her brash, blunt nature creates shorter, more direct sentences. People characterized by Xiala are often summarized by their physical characteristics first, their emotional resonance second. This shift in narrative tone and theme is most notable when Serapio is in the hot seat. Blind, brooding and by far the most powerful character, Serapio offers a perspective that often clashes with others’ views of him and his surroundings. This attention to detail in character voice creates an engaging story that keeps the reader in the moment through shifting narrative lenses. The world of Black Sun is well-built and clearly inspired by the Pre-Columbian Americas. Roanhorse has constructed a world of multiple regions and religions, intertwined by their roots, culture and money (cocoa, in the Mayan fashion) but split by their beliefs. Each character has a different perspective on the story’s events; a relational diagram displaying where the characters agree, disagree and agree-but-do-not-quite-know-it would have to be three-dimensional and incorporate multiple referencing lines, mirroring their real-life relationships. Roanhorse’s humanization of Black Sun‘s characters creates genuine connection for the reader, even with the Sun Priestess, despite any lack of sun-star divination skills the reader might have. Also, this book has extremely cool magic. Crows eat people, the sun goes dark, and the ocean sings with its children–wild forces of creation running rampant on small to massive scales. (There’s something incredible about reading “THE SUN WENT DARK.” It paints a remarkable pictures.) Truly, the fact that this review has only now gotten to this aspect of Roanhorse’s fantasy world demonstrates Black Sun‘s multifaceted appeal. Black Sun has one drawback: It is clearly the start of a series, and ends like it. Readers looking for an open-and-shut story will not find it here. As referenced before, the story is a set piece for the characters to interact with the setting and each other, but there is plenty of fascinating interplay and world-building to keep readers engaged and entertained from start to finish.
A Time for Mercy by John Grisham (e-book available on Libby and Overdrive apps): With nationwide calls for police reform and defunding, literary giant John Grisham’s novel A Time for Mercy is undoubtedly timely, as it explores the ways that violence committed by or against law enforcement officials can complicate the pursuit of justice. Jake Brigance–the hero of Grisham’s 1989 debut, A Time to Kill–is court-appointed to represent 16-year-old Drew Gamble in the shooting death of his mother’s boyfriend, deputy sheriff Stu Kofer. There’s no question that Drew pulled the trigger, but Jake faces an ethical challenge over whether the shooting was justified. Drew contends that he shot Stu in self-defense after believing Stu had killed his mother. Drew, his younger sister and their mother lived in constant fear of beatings by Stu, who often returned home in a drunken stupor. Jake only wants to handle preliminary matters for the Gamble case until a permanent public defender can be appointed. But deep down, he realizes he’s the best chance the Gamble family has. With public sentiment and fellow police officers standing behind Stu and his family, Jake’s efforts to keep Drew from being tried as an adult and facing possible execution put him at odds with the community. While there are lulls during some of the legal procedural bits, Grisham’s mastery of the courtroom thriller is never in question. As usual, he presents as smooth a read as you’ll ever experience. The dialogue is sharp and pointed, layered with genuine emotions that make the characters pop off the pages of this morally complex story.
Mad at the World by William Souder: John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the promise of wealth beyond the veil of desolation and the wretched impossibility of such a promise. Steinbeck’s other epic, East of Eden, illustrates the ragged desperation of human nature, wreaking destruction rather than carrying hope. William Souder’s bracing Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck vividly portrays the brooding and moody writer who could never stop writing and who never fit comfortably in the society in which he lived. Souder, whose biography of John James Audobon was a Pulitzer finalist, traces Steinbeck’s love of story and storytelling to his childhood. As a teenager, Steinbeck immersed himself in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which he translated later in life, and in adventure tales and classics such as Treasure Island, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment. This early reading gave him glimpses into the shadowy corners of the human heart and provided him with models for telling tales of people engaged in heroic struggles against the injustices of their eras. Steinbeck was a born storyteller, a writer who was not happy unless he was working, a novelist a bit out of step with his times (many of his social realist novels appeared during the innovations of modernism) and a reticent man who would rather write than talk publicly about his writing. Steinbeck’s greatest virtue, according to Souder, was his “ability to live inside other cultures, other races; he brought people to life who were otherwise invisible and voiceless.” The first Steinbeck biography since Jay Parini’s more psychological John Steinbeck: A Biography (1995), Mad at the World vibrantly illuminates the life and work of a writer who is still widely read and relevant today.
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.
All He Knew by Helen Frost: In this luminous middle grade novel, Michael L. Printz Honor author Helen Frost mines family history to explore the little-known experiences of children in state-run psychiatric institutions in mid-20th-century America. Artistic and bright, Henry was born hearing but became deaf after an illness in early childhood. At first, Henry continues to speak to his loving older sister, Molly, as well as to his parents, but the teasing and bullying of others soon silence him. When his parents seek professional help, a school for the deaf deems Henry “unteachable,” and he is sent instead to Riverview, a deplorable institution. There, Henry develops close friendships with two other boys; despite mistreatment, he manages to maintain his compassionate nature and his humanity. Henry’s life changes for the better when, after the U.S. enter World War II, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview. Henry’s story unfolds in plainspoken yet evocative third-person free verse that brings the story’s setting to life. For instance, when he arrives at Riverview, Henry reacts most strongly to its awful smell, a combination that includes “something like potatoes / forgotten in a corner of the kitchen.” Victor’s portion of the narrative includes epistolary poems in sonnet form that add context to Henry’s experiences as well as to the time period. The relationship that develops between Molly and Victor–also told through letters–is especially lovely as the two young people work together to improve Henry’s life. Although Frost’s subject is weighty, she handles it with skilled sensitivity. All He Knew is a significant and poignant exploration of a difficult moment in American history and serves as a loving tribute to the young people whose experiences it brings to light.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: Bea hunches over the earth, burying her stillborn daughter. She’s broken with grief, even for this child she did not want, whom she couldn’t envision bringing into such a hopeless world. But there’s no time to linger, as Bea lives in the wilderness. Animals are circling, hoping to find food for their own young, and Bea’s community is about to move on. She must redirect her attention to her living daughter, 8-year-old Agnes. “They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living.” In The New Wilderness, Diane Cook deepens her study of the relationship between humans and the earth, which she previously explored in the short story collection Man V. Nature. Bea and her husband, Glen, are part of a nomadic community in a wilderness state. Life in the City was untenable, especially after Agnes became so ill that Bea was prepared for her daughter’s death. “The Community” starts out with 20 people, though its numbers fluctuate as members die and other procreate. There isn’t a lot of privacy–even young Agnes is aware of the adult’s personal lives–and community members know they must stick together, even with those they dislike. Community members submit to being fingerprinted, having the cheeks swabbed and other tests. They’re being studied, but for what, they can’t say. The wilderness feels dystopian to Bea, but it’s nearly all Agnes can recall. As they navigate a changing terrain and their own emotional landscapes, Cook incorporates the whole of human experience. The New Wilderness examines our relationships to place and to others as the Community considers its right to be on the land and whether others have any business sharing the space.
The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl: Leo and his father love their home in an old blue house right next to a majestic fir tree. It’s a rickety, scrappy home with peeling paint, a mossy roof, “leaks and creaks” and a heater that frequently breaks. And that is just how they like it. But the neighborhood around the blue house is changing, with nearby homes torn down to build modern apartments. When the landlord sells their blue house, Leo and his father must also move. Grief-stricken, they slowly acclimate to their new home by painting its interior; they even paint a picture of their beloved old blue house and its fir tree onto a bedroom wall. As they take their time unpacking their familiar belongings into their unfamiliar surroundings, their new house ever so slowly becomes more of a home. Author and illustrator Phoebe Wahl uses every tool at her disposal to carefully construct the details of her indelible characters and their world. Leo’s hair hangs down nearly to his waist, while his father sports a bearded, scruffy look. When they want to vent their anger about being forced to move, they turn on music, stomping and raging as a team: “They shredded on guitar, and Leo did a special scream solo.” (This may go down as the most punk picture book of 2020.) The blue house is cluttered but relaxed, filled with things Leo and his dad love, such as vinyl records, plants, art on the walls and a stereo with big speakers. Their delightfully unkempt yard includes a thriving vegetable garden, tall sunflowers, a trampoline and a clothesline. Rendered in watercolor, gouache, collage and colored pencil, Wahl’s illustrations are much like the old blue house itself–ramshackle and endearing, with nothing glossy about them. They are as worn-in, cozy and comfortable as the home Leo and his father leave behind and mourn. Best of all, however, is Wahl’s depiction of the tender and loving relationship between father and son. In one image, as the two sit dejectedly on a mattress surrounded by unpacked boxes in their new home, Leo leans into his father for an embrace, resting his head in his father’s lap, the gesture speaking volumes while saying nothing at all. The Blue House is an immensely satisfying picture book about a family acclimating to a big change.
When These Mountains Burn by David Joy: Stories about drug addiction and the emotional toll it exacts on both the addict and their family members are inherently tragic. But in the hands of a master storyteller, they can be unforgettably powerful as well. Such is the case with David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn. Joy follows up his Southern Book Prize-winning novel, The Line That Held Us, with a tale fraught with brutal consequences and heart-wrenching loss. All the stages of grief are given ample space here: shock, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 forest fire in the North Carolina foothills, the novel swiftly introduces widower Raymond Mathis, whose 40-something son, Ricky, owes $10,000 to his drug dealer. If Raymond doesn’t cover his son’s debts, he’ll have to bury Ricky instead. Raymond ultimately gives in, makes the trade and brings Ricky home, only for Ricky to steal all the painkillers in the house to support his habit. At his wit’s end, Raymond boots Ricky out, and this is the last time he sees his son alive. At the same time, junkie Denny Rattler, a Cherokee man who is with Ricky when he dies, is roped into doing the bidding of Ricky’s drug dealer. Raymond and Denny are on a collision course with far-reaching ramifications, but with a brutal drug kingpin and the Drug Enforcement Agency ramping up the pressure, finding a way out is more difficult than either Raymond or Denny could have thought. The novel moves at a brisk pace as it alternates points of view between Raymond and Denny. But what stands out here isn’t the story–harrowing though it is, this tale has been told before–but rather Joy’s unflinching and gritty depiction of his fully realized characters, from their raw loss to their helplessness and rage to their final acceptance. Joy has thoroughly captured their experiences in vivid, memorable prose that burns to be read.
The Less Dead by Denise Mina (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The Less Dead by Denise Mina opens with a personal crisis that explodes into a compelling thriller. Glasgow-based physician Margot Dunlop is facing down the chaos in her life: her adopted mother has recently passed, she’s broken up with her boyfriend, her best friend is being stalked and she has just found out she’s pregnant. Trying to make sense of her world, Margot reaches out to the agency that facilitated her adoption to get in touch with her birth mother, only to learn that she was murdered shortly after Margot’s birth. From here we descend into the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Margot’s mother was a sex worker and heroin addict, her murder left unsolved by a police force that considered her subhuman. Margot meets her aunt Nikki, also a former sex worker and addict, and learns that her mother’s case was far more complex than a trick gone wrong. Nikki believes that her sister was killed by a corrupt cop, and has received threatening letters that provide details only the killer could know. Margot isn’t sure she wants to be involved in the case, but she isn’t given a choice when the killer begins stalking and harassing her as well. Mina’s novel stands out in a genre that commodifies the dead bodies of women. Her characters are nuanced, complicated and never stereotypes, and her portrayal of the world of sex work isn’t lurid or voyeuristic. Furthermore, Margot is not the middle-class savior some would mistakenly believe that these women need. And although Margot’s mother was a victim of a violent crime, Mina juxtaposes her murder with the stalking of Margot’s best friend, Lilah, showing that women are subjected to violence by the men in their life at every socioeconomic level. As Margot seeks justice for her late mother, she’s introduced to a community of women, some still addicts, some still sex workers, who protect and care for one another, even as they are shamed and shunned by society at large. The Less Dead is at once a gripping thriller and an examination, and vindication, of a group of women who are often faceless, unsympathetic victims.
Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (e-book available on the Libby and Overdrive apps): Jennie Fields’ Atomic Love scrupulously captures both the minute (you might say “atomic”) and panoramic elements of the early Cold War. At ground zero: a female physicist, an FBI agent and a possible spy. Each has been broken, physically, emotionally or both, by World War II. They form a triangle, which brings to mind the symbol of a fallout shelter. Rosalind was the lone woman on the University of Chicago team that constructed the first controlled nuclear reaction, but in 1950, she’s unhappily selling jewelry at a department store. During her wartime service, she fell hard for Weaver, a British team member who awakened her intimately and then dumped her. As the novel begins, Weaver, “the cartoon of a good-looking man” with a “dimpled Cary Grant chin,” injects himself back into Rosalind’s life. FBI agent Charlie suspects Weaver of selling secrets to the Soviets, and he enlists Rosalind’s help to unmask her former lover. Surely among the most patient FBI agents in recent fiction, Charlie is a complex character who has repressed most feelings, though he feels a strong attraction to Rosalind. Tortured as a prisoner of war, Charlie was left with one hand so disabled that someone else must help knot his tie. When Rosalind tends to his tie, it is an intimate gesture. In Rosalind, Fields has created an anxious yet gutsy heroine who carries her Shakespearean name with aplomb. Growing up, science was her religion, yet she is horror stricken at the destructive power of the atom bomb she helped unleash. Inspired by such female scientists as physicist Leona Woods and the author’s own mother, Atomic Love is as much about undercover work as it is about women’s passions.
The Switch by Beth O’Leary (e-book available on the Overdrive and Libby apps): Leena Cotton was on the fast track in corporate London, where she was the youngest senior consultant at Selmount Consulting. But after her beloved sister dies, Leena loses her footing. Panic attacks are threatening to derail her career. She’s placed on a mandatory two-month sabbatical. At the same time, Leena’s grandmother Eileen is feeling lonely and lost after her husband left her for their dance instructor. Life in the village of Hamleigh is slow, and Eileen finds herself ranking the available men. (Typical pros include “own teeth” and “full head of hair,” while cons range from “tremendous bore” to “always wears tweed.”) Clearly, Leena and Eileen need shaking up, and they agree to switch homes for several weeks. Eileen–whose own London career dreams were cut short when she got pregnant so many years ago–eagerly moves in with Leena’s colorful roommates. She is immediately struck by how disconnected Londoners seem; the tenants in Leena’s apartment building don’t even know each other’s names. She begins an effort to bring the community together, particularly the lonely, isolated older residents. Meanwhile, Leena is adjusting to just how connected Hamleigh is. Everyone knows each other’s business–and has an opinion about it. When Leena volunteers to help with the annual village celebration, she must navigate the meddling of Hamleigh’s longtime residents. She also reconnects with a childhood friend who is now a single father and the village’s most eligible bachelor. Leena finds herself wondering whether she can trade her fast-paced London lifestyle for the village, where memories of her sister are everywhere. Despite the bucolic setting for much of the story, Beth O’Leary’s second novel is brisk and engaging. Her writing is warm, funny and oh-so-British. The characters she creates feel real–especially the older residents of Hamleigh, who are hilariously cranky and nosy but never lapse into caricature. In this time of increased isolation, The Switch offers a hopeful reminder to reach out to our neighbors with an open mind. It’s a cozy, lovely story about how community matters more than ever. “These people. There’s such a fierceness to them, such a lovingness,” Leena says. “When I got here, I thought their lives were small and silly, but I was wrong. They’re some of the biggest people I know.”
Letters From Cuba by Ruth Behar: Even before Nazi Germany invaded in the fall of 1939, Poland was a dangerous place to be Jewish. Determined to earn a living and raise his family in safety, Esther’s father fled to Cuba, but after years spent working as a street peddler, he can only afford to bring over one family member by the winter of 1937-38. Esther convinces the family that she should be the one to go and leaves her mother, grandmother and siblings for a long and frightening journey across the ocean. She arrives in Havana’s steamy shipyard clad in a woolen dress and stockings and is finally reunited with Papa; together, they travel to his small village of Agramonte. Once she has settled in, Esther helps her father peddle his wares. Showing fortitude and resilience, she begins to use her creative talents to sew dresses to sell in order to raise the money to bring the rest of their family to Cuba. Traveling the streets of Agramonte with Papa, Esther readily makes new friends in her new and unfamiliar country. Although Cuba is a safer place for Jewish people than Poland, Havana is still rife with anti-Semitism, embodied in the cruel Mr. Eduardo, who seems intent on bringing Hitler’s hatred to Cuba. Esther’s determination to learn about the cultural traditions of her new home and to share her own traditions with her new friends provides a striking and empowering counterpoint. Through hard work, patience, talen and the kindness of others, Esther and her father endure and eventually thrive, remaining undaunted in pursuit of their goal of reuniting their family. Letters From Cuba is told through Esther’s letters to her sister, Malka, in Poland, and author Ruth Behar creates a compelling narrative voice for Esther. She’s a preteen girl with a mature sensibility born out of the heavy burden she shoulders as she immigrates and raises the funds to reunite her family. Readers will root for Esther as she matures in her new country and keeps her dream alive. Behar shines a light on the harsh and unjust reality of life for Jewish people in Poland during this time while succeeding in filling Esther’s story with warmth and hope. Letters from Cuba‘s themes of friendship, family, faith and openhearted acceptance give this historical novel timeless resonance.
Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh: Moments after laying eyes on Lady Jessica Archer, Gabriel Thorne decides that she is the woman he will marry. But this isn’t love at first sight. It’s not even like at first sight. Freshly returned to England to make a long overdue claim on his title and estate, he’s staying incognito, getting the lay of the land, when Jessica sweeps into the nondescript inn and asserts a superior claim to the private sitting room he’s reserved. He’s unimpressed with her arrogance. She’s unimpressed with his rudeness. Love is definitely not in the air, but matrimony…is? Gabriel will need a wife by his side to manage the family drama he came to England to resolve. The right sort of wife–imperious, irreproachable, from the right family with the right upbringing, manners and connections. And Jessica, commencing her sixth (or possibly seventh–she’s lost count) season in London, is more than ready to settle down. While she’s always been praised as a “diamond of the first water,” encircled by a constant throng of smitten admirers (think of that barbeque scene from Gone With the Wind when all the men beg to be allowed to fetch Scarlett O’Hara’s dessert), she’s done with drifting through life. She has a plan to pick a groom that is every bit as practical as Gabriel’s plan to pick a bride. Then they meet in the proper society setting, Gabriel makes his intentions clear–and everything goes off the rails. Jessica realizes, suddenly and deeply, exactly what she does and doesn’t want. And a strictly proper courtship, complete with stifling social calls, stiff dances and a constant evaluation of the assets that she brings into the match, is definitely on the “no” list. It doesn’t matter that she is highly valued on the marriage mart when her value has nothing to do with who she truly is inside. She demands that Gabriel find a way to romance her as a person. She doesn’t ask for love; if anything, she shies away from using that word. But she does demand to be respected for who she is rather than for her bank balance or her pedigree. Up until that point, I was enjoying Balogh’s Someone to Romance as a stately, engaging dramedy of manners with lots of high-society escapism and the juicy fun of Gabriel’s family secrets. But when Jessica throws down that gauntlet, I started to really love this book. I admired Jessica’s strength and resolve, her determination to chart out her future on her own terms. And I was incredibly moved by Gabriel’s response to it–the tiny, deeply personal gestures with which he shows his growing esteem and trust. The happy marriage they build together is worlds away from the practical, businesslike matches they both anticipated at the start of the story, and yet it resolves in the sweetest of all imaginable happy endings. This is a love story that earns the name on every level, not just for the love the hero and heroine find but also for the love you’ll feel for everyone involved by the time you reach the final page.
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri: “A patchwork story is the shame of a refugee,” Daniel Nayeri writes in Everything Sad Is Untrue. Nayeri’s patchwork story forms a stunning quilt, each piece lovingly stitched together to create a saga that deserves to be savored. Everything Sad Is Untrue is the mostly true story of Khosrou, who becomes Daniel, and the two lives he has lived in just 11 years. First, there’s his life back in Iran, where his family was wealthy, where he went hunting for leopards and where his parents’ veins were filled with the blood of divinity. Then there’s his life now, in Oklahoma, where he has to learn to survive the bus ride home, where his mother has to learn to survive her new husband and where he realizes his memories of his first life are slipping away. In the voice of his younger self, Nayeri casts himself as Scheherazade, with readers as his king; we hold his life in our hands. Should we believe his tales? His classmates in Oklahoma don’t. No one believes that the smelly kid who is too poor to pay for lunch in the cafeteria once lived in a beautiful house and dined with the prince of Abu Dhabi. Even Nayeri admits his memory is shaky. Was that really the prince of Abu Dhabi? It’s hard to know when you’re a kid who’s just escaped a religious death squad by fleeing to a foreign country. The stakes here are life and death, not only for young Daniel and his family during their journey but also for Nayeri the storyteller, who stands before us in “the parlors of our minds,” spinning tale after tale. To stop reading is to condemn him to a death of indifference. But Nayeri is a gifted writer whose tales of family, injustice, tragedy, faith, history and poop (yes, poop) combine to create such an all-consuming experience that reacting with indifference is simply not possible. A deeply personal book that makes a compelling case for empathy and hope, Everything Sad Is Untrue is one of the most extraordinary books of the year.
His Truth Is Marching On by Jon Meacham: It’s been only a few months since the death of civil rights giant John Lewis, and though eloquent tributes from leaders like Barack Obama have attempted to sum up his legacy, it will ultimately fall to future generations to fully assess his contributions to the cause of racial equality in America. One of our most prominent contemporary historians, Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, offers an appreciative early assessment in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. Meacham frankly admits that his book makes no attempt at a full-scale biography of Lewis. Instead, he focuses on the tumultuous period from 1957 to 1966, when Lewis rose from obscurity in a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, to national prominence in the civil rights movement. This “quietly charismatic, forever courtly, implacably serene” man was motivated by a fierce commitment to nonviolence and above all by his unswerving attachment to the vision he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of a “beloved community”–in Lewis’ words, “nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth.” As Meacham describes it, Lewis’ path to attaining that vision was marked by arrests (45 in all); savage beatings, like the one he received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965; and moments of profound frustration as he fought to overcome the fierce opposition to his quest. But there were also moments of triumph, not least of all when he shared the stage with Dr. King at the August 1963 March on Washington and, as Meacham writes, “spoke more simply, but from the valley, among the people whose burdens he knew because they were his burdens, too.” Meacham makes a persuasive case for his claim that “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.” At a moment when events have once again forced Americans to confront the evils of racism, His Truth Is Marching On will inspire both courage and hope.
The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis: Lindsey Davis’ eighth Flavia Albia novel, Grove of the Caesars, finds modern resonance in ancient Rome. With her husband away tending to a family emergency, Albia has her hands full just dealing with her household, perennially under renovation and thus a big draw for unscrupulous contractors. The discovery of a clutch of ancient scrolls leads to a search for their provenance, in the hope that they’ll fetch a good price at auction. This domestic fuss and bother is upended when a body is found in the sacred grove of Julius Caesar, and workmen reveal that it is not the first. To bring a serial killer to justice, Albia must work alongside Julius Karus, an arrogant member of the Vigiles (the firefighters and police of ancient Rome) who appears content to accept easy answers wherever he finds them. There is so much to unpack in this story, which balances a truly grim series of crimes with several funny subplots, often intermingling them in surprising ways. Two young enslaved boys gifted to Albia’s household witness the killing and disappear; what starts as an odd bit of comic relief ends in a mix of tragedy and tenderness. Albia herself continues to be a treasure, grateful for her place in society because it was not always such, but willing to disobey nearly any order if her curiosity is piqued. Davis fills her stories with meticulous research, and the details make for such rich reading, we would likely follow Albia on a day of errands and light entertainment with no crime to speak of. But it’s thrilling to watch her follow a line of inquiry and connect the dots that others fail to see, so we can be glad that she rarely fails to find trouble and charge headlong toward it.
You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): High drama isn’t just soap opera star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez’s day job, it’s also her life in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola. After getting her broken heart splashed over all the tabloid covers, she’s restrategized and plans to lead a man-free, drama-free, scandal-free life while tackling the juicy title character role in a high-profile telenovela adaptation. As down as she’s been, surely there’s nowhere to go but up—or so she thinks, until her first bold step forward into her new leading lady life ends on . . . well, not exactly a sour note but certainly a coffee-splattered one. For Jasmine, this first meeting with her co-star, the gorgeous and aloof Ashton Suárez, is not exactly ideal. But for the reader at the start of this smart and engaging madcap romance, it’s certainly a lot of fun! Considering the usual telenovela twists, the story is actually surprisingly down-to-earth. (There is an evil twin, but alas, it’s just a plot thread on the show.) A few situations are dialed up for laughs, such as the infamous coffee incident during the meet-cute, but for the most part, Jasmine and Ashton face realistic challenges as they deal with their careers, their personal relationships and their blossoming feelings for each other. Jasmine, who is adored but rarely understood by her loving, intrusive family, has the habit of falling too hard and too fast for anyone who makes her feel wanted. Ashton, grappling with a long-held secret, has the opposite problem as he hesitates to let anyone close. Both struggle to balance the success they crave versus the lack of privacy that comes as its price. And while they do have a steamy affair, it includes its share of roadblocks as they work to figure out at each stage how intimate and exposed, in every way, they’re willing to be. Their love story is dramatic but it’s also sweet and complex, as layered and grounded as the characters themselves. Daria fills the story with palpable warmth and affection, not just for her hero and heroine but for the dual worlds they inhabit: the film industry and the Latin American community. If you enjoy behind the scenes peeks, the story includes plenty of fun details about the nuts and bolts of a working set. (A key character is the set’s intimacy coordinator—a newer role on film sets but one that is, thankfully, becoming increasingly common.) And if you appreciate a media landscape that embraces diversity, you’ll love the chance to explore how Jasmine and Ashton carry their heritage with them, determinedly carving out opportunities not just for themselves but for all the gifted, undervalued Latinx performers searching for a place.
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: The second, much-anticipated installment in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy delivers on its promise of high-energy necromancy and cryptic conundrums. The Reverend Daughter, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, has been transformed into Harrow the First, Ninth Saint to Serve the Emperor. But Harrow the Ninth has been forever altered by her battles in the previous book, Gideon the Ninth, which is told from the point of view of Harrow’s now-deceased cavalier, Gideon Nav. As the mystery unravels aboard the Emperor’s ghostly space station, Muir’s seamless, inventive writing brings us dreamlike, labyrinthine plots, fantastical timelines and the continuation of secrets so surreal that readers will forever question who truly holds the power in this precarious but beautiful universe. As one of the Lyctors sworn to protect the Emperor, Harrow follows her lord to increasingly terrifying locations as he flees the mysterious Resurrection Beasts—horrifying creatures who ceaselessly attack him and his increasingly weary and rebellion-prone Lyctors. Whereas Gideon’s story focused on spellbinding swordplay and fleeting crushes on dangerous temptresses with unexpected identities, this book hones in on the very marrow of Harrow—the bone adept’s fears, desires and personal history. Harrow was created by her parents’ morbid sacrifice of all of the Ninth House’s children, and she feels the need to stay true to her roots, always donning the skeletal face paint typical of the Ninth House, practicing her necromancy until her sleepless eyes nearly bleed and remaining nemeses with the narcissistic, ruthless Ianthe Tridentarius, who consumed her own sister and cavalier in her thirst for Lyctorhood. The one piece of herself that Harrow has left behind, however, is any memory of or feeling for Gideon Nav. Harrow’s unbearable grief has forced her to carve the cavalier from her heart and mind. As the perspective fluctuates from a mysterious second-person narrator to an omniscient, unbodied narrator, readers will wonder if Harrow is being haunted, and by whom. Readers familiar with Gideon-and-Harrowhark, Harrowhark-and-Gideon will revel in the new dangers that threaten the Emperor and his Saints, all of which could only be conjured from the depths of Muir’s wild imagination: the River, an eerie, dangerous experience composed of both insurmountable amounts of energy and a void from which it’s nearly impossible to return; the Body, a vision of Harrow’s one true deceased love who proffers questionable advice and is most definitely not of this world; and a host of revenants, resurrections, hallucinations, illusions, ghosts and—of course—skeletons. Muir reprises her attention to numerology, mythology, classic literature and intricate, complex secrets, as well as special appearances from the spirits of cavaliers and necromancers recently and historically lost. As secrets spill like the vibrant innards of terminated cavaliers’ corpses, Harrow and the Lyctors must struggle to stay alive as the true price of the Emperor’s power comes to light—and perhaps, justice.
My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Laura Lippman does not feel bad about her neck. Like, at all. In fact, she writes in My Life as a Villainess, “I have decided, at the age of 60, that I am a ***damn knockout.” She is, objectively, but that statement’s about more than her appealing physical self; it’s a celebration of finally shedding decades of societally induced self-consciousness about food and her body. The essay in which it resides, “The Whole 60,” with its “positivity, damn it” vibe, is a fitting kickoff to a smart, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable, always witty collection of essays. Some are new, some previously published, and together they offer an overview of a very special life so far. Lippman is aware of and thankful for said specialness, and she acknowledges her good fortune often. She adores her brilliant cultural-phenomenon-creator husband, David Simon, known for TV shows “The Wire” and “Treme,” et al. She loves her charming 10-year-old, who made Lippman a mom at 50; is fiercely grateful for a dazzling nanny named Yaya; and treasures her friends, even if she’s pretty sure she isn’t such a great friend to them sometimes. Before she was known for her critically lauded crime novels (her Tess Monaghan series, 12 books and counting, plus 10 standalones), Lippman was a newspaper reporter for 20 years. In “Waco Kid,” she writes of her early career struggles as a newly minted reporter adjusting to the alien Texas landscape, aghast at endemic racism but also thrilled at her burgeoning love of movies. Her later years as a reporter in her beloved city of Baltimore honed her prodigious writing and editing skills, but she’s still pissed that her growing off-the-clock career as a novelist was held against her (as opposed to male colleagues, who were praised for similar endeavors). In “Game of Crones,” she’s hilariously ticked off about menopause, too, and drops trash-talk and name-drop tidbits here and there like so many tasty, snappy breadcrumbs. There’s also a lovely remembrance of Anthony Bourdain (“Fine Bromance”) and a paean to a double boiler (“Revered Ware”), a cookware-as-tribute to her late father, who was also a journalist. With its “gleefully honest” hits of humor and willingness to take a close look at some discomfiting truths, it will come as no surprise to Lippman’s fans that My Life as a Villainess is an engaging read—an intrepid investigation of the author’s inner landscape and a raucous, no-holds-barred visit with that friend you admire for her candor, passion and unabashed nostalgia for 1980s fashion.
The Hollow Ones by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro: The FBI and the supernatural are familiar bedfellows in pop culture. For starters, there’s Fox and Mulder in “The X-Files.” Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child gave us Agent Pendergast. Now there’s the welcome addition of FBI agent Odessa Hardwicke and occult investigator John Silence in The Hollow Ones, the new novel from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Odessa is thrust into a bizarre mystery after she and her partner, Walt Leppo, chase down a random spree killer to a New Jersey home. But after killing the suspect in an exchange of gunfire, Leppo suddenly tries to kill the man’s 9-year-old child, and Odessa is forced to fire on and kill Leppo. In a decidedly twisted turn, Odessa “sees” something she can’t explain leaving his body. Remanded to desk duty while the Bureau investigates her shooting of Leppo, Odessa is, somewhat conveniently, tasked with cleaning out the desk of retired agent Earl Solomon, who is dying. Solomon urges Odessa to contact John Silence, a man he’s worked with before, to assist her in the case. Silence—who is based on one of Lovecraft disciple Algernon Blackwood’s characters by the same name—is an enigmatic and mysterious man who seemingly knows everything about Odessa and the threat she is pursuing, which he refers to as a Hollow One, a body-hopping entity addicted to the thrill of experiencing death. The authors ferry us back and forth in time. Silence is hundreds of years old, thanks to an ancient curse, and is responsible for setting the Hollow One loose in the world. It’s a bit complicated, but suffice it to say there’s a good bit of world building behind the strange goings-on, which all leads up to a modern-day, high-stakes pursuit by Odessa and Silence to capture the entity before it can do more harm. Hogan and del Toro previously collaborated on the Strain trilogy, a popular series turned short-lived TV show, and The Hollow Ones has TV series written all over it. At the very least, it promises to be the first in a new series of literary adventures, and that’s a good thing, as Silence is a fascinating character you’ll want to see again.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson eloquently traced the lives of the 6 million Black Americans who fled the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. Never once in that 640-page book did she mention the word racism. “I realized that the term was insufficient,” she explains. “Caste was the more accurate term.” Her latest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is a much anticipated follow-up and couldn’t be timelier. In it, she examines the “race-based caste pyramid in the United States,” comparing this sociological construction to two other notable caste systems: those of India and Nazi Germany. “As we go about our daily lives,” Wilkerson writes, “caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.” Wilkerson’s comparisons are profound and revelatory. Chapters describe what she has identified as “the eight pillars of caste,” the methods used to maintain this hierarchy, such as heritability, dehumanization and stigma, and control of marriage and mating. In addition to such insights, including how immigrants fit into the caste system, what makes this book so memorable is Wilkerson’s extraordinary narrative gift. Highly readable, Caste is filled with a multitude of stories, many of which are tragically familiar, such as those of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. The story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. is particularly shattering. Returning home on a Greyhound bus after serving in World War II, Woodard asked the driver to allow him to step off the bus to relieve himself, but the driver refused. When Woodard protested, the driver called the police and had him arrested. The police chief, in turn, blinded the returning soldier with his billy club. Stories like these are painfully informative, making the past come alive in ways that do not beg but scream for justice. That said, Wilkerson is never didactic. She lets history speak for itself, turning the events of the past into necessary fuel for our current national dialogue. Dismantling the caste system is possible. Wilkerson points out that Germany did it after World War II. But in the meantime, “caste is a disease, and none of us is immune.” If you read only one book this year, make it Caste, Wilkerson’s outstanding analysis of the grievances that plague our society.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: In Akwaeke Emezi’s brief, remarkable second novel for adults, the reader knows from the start that the central character, Vivek Oji, is dead. After riots in the marketplace of their Nigerian town, Vivek’s mother discovers his naked body placed “like a parcel, like a gift” at the family’s doorstep. Why was he killed? Who killed him? Who was he? Answers emerge incompletely, surprisingly and in fragments as the novel progresses and casts its spell. “I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was,” Vivek says from somewhere outside life. “Every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.” One of the brilliant aspects of this novel is how Emezi makes a person’s invisibility visible. As a child, Vivek is bright, beautiful and by turns violently angry and girlishly shy. He is often beset by fugue states during which his body is present and his consciousness vanishes. Vivek’s family is loving but unable to comprehend him. His extended family is populated by “Nigerwives,” women from India, the Philippines or Sweden who are married to Nigerian men. Outdated sexual traditions and identities—multiple wives for Nigerian men and a sanctified horror of gay people, for example—still prevail in these families. After being forced to leave university, Vivek spends more and more time with the daughters of his extended family. These daughters are of a new generation and seem to understand and protect him. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But, Emezi implies, it takes a culture and its mythologies to erase a child. The Death of Vivek Oji is a profound exploration of the boundaries of personal, sexual and cultural transition.
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay: No one writes as lovingly about quirky, messy and sometimes heartbreaking families as Hilary McKay, whose Binny, Exiles and Casson Family series are rightfully beloved. Although McKay’s most recent books (a historical novel and a fairy-tale collection) are also special, fans will be pleased to discover that she has returned to her roots with The Time of Green Magic—this time with a little magic added, to boot. Eleven-year-old Abi is not exactly thrilled that her father is getting married again. Sure, she gains two stepbrothers, 14-year-old Will and 6-year-old Louis. But she also loses a lot of space and privacy, as well as her beloved Granny Grace, who has lived with Abi since her mother died and uses this moment of change as a chance to finally return to her beloved Jamaica. So when the fledgling family needs to move to a new home and Abi discovers a mysterious, ivy-covered house that seems just perfect for them, she dares to hope that it might be a chance for a new beginning. Almost immediately, though, strange things start to happen. Abi, always a passionate reader, finds herself a little too immersed in the books she picks up. Little Louis starts to get nighttime visits from a furtive feline friend who quickly grows out of control. Meanwhile, Will is discovering a different sort of magic altogether: the bewitching power of first love. In telling the story of how magic unites these new siblings, McKay’s novel recalls classic gentle fantasies like L.M. Boston’s Green Knowe novels or Edward Eager’s Half Magic. But the world of McKay’s book, with its blended family, globe-trotting mother and subplots about bullying and reluctant readers, also feels rooted in and relevant to the contemporary moment. Of course, one thing that will never go out of fashion is the love between family members. The Time of Green Magic depicts the tentative formation of a family with tender sweetness and aching authenticity. Readers will be particularly gratified to see how stories and writing bring this new family together, whether via the stories that Abi’s dad tells at bedtime or the letters Granny Grace sends from Jamaica. It’s a joy to spend time with another memorable set of characters from this talented author.
Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings: Perhaps the first thing you might do after picking up Kathleen Jennings’ fantasy novella is pull out the map and look for Inglewell somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean. Does it exist? Is it real? In this former mining town, full of withering things, there is a house with the prettiest front garden on Upper Spicer Street. There, 19-year-old Bettina Scott lives with her sickly mother, Nerida, who over the years has quieted Bettina’s curiosities about the mysterious disappearance of her father and her two older brothers. But when an unexpected note makes an appearance in the mailbox, Bettina finds it hard to resist the urge to seek the truth about her family. She reluctantly turns to Gary Damson and Trish Aberdeen, two formerly inseparable best friends who’ve had a bad falling out. But much like everything else in this old town, they, too, are strangely connected to the riddle Bettina is trying to solve. Together, they embark in Gary’s old beaten truck to chase tales of cursed creatures, bewitched vines and desert monsters, all of which seem as much part of their past as Inglewell’s. Jennings grew up on fairy tales on a cattle station in Western Queensland, Australia, and worked as a translator and lawyer before completing a master of philosophy in creative writing. Jennings is also an illustrator, and the cover design and chapter illustrations are her own. Part ghost story, part murder mystery and part fairy tale, Flyaway feels like a perfect combination of all Jennings’ experiences and imagination.
A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair: Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge would like nothing more than to get back to running their business, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, and perhaps to relocate it to a larger office in their building whose desk has all four legs under it. But their reputation as crime fighters precedes them now, so in addition to pairing off various lonely hearts, they’re working for Lady Matheson, who herself works for the queen, in A Royal Affair, Allison Montclair’s second mystery starring the duo. Discretion is required as Gwen and Iris search for a cache of letters that could derail Princess Elizabeth’s engagement; the loose lips that sank ships during the war can still threaten royalty with scandal. Gwen and Iris follow the trail and quickly realize nothing is as simple as it appears, and that this is information people will kill for. The balance Montclair strikes between humor and hard truths is arresting. Postwar England has its raucous parties and a lot of can-do spirit, but the entire nation is still reeling—and rationing for that matter. (Can a birthday party be any fun if the cake has “tooth powder frosting”?) Gwen and Iris sling banter that makes them sound like the war-hardened women they are, but a scene in a therapist’s office makes the depth of their separate sorrows, and their care for one another, abundantly clear. Descriptions of neighborhoods where one building stands next to bombed-out rubble are unnerving and add to the sense of danger. Have faith, though: There’s not much that can stop this pair, who have friends in high and low places and a delightfully complementary set of skills. The climactic scene laying out the whodunit (and why) is like a maraschino cherry in a complex cocktail. Here’s to the return of these formidable women, and to many more chances to enjoy their company.
To Start a War by Robert Draper: The mistakes in judgment that led to the United States invasion of Iraq have frequently been described as a failure of the imagination. However, as Robert Draper demonstrates in his compelling and richly documented To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, in reality, imagination drove the policy. Saddam Hussein denied having weapons of mass destruction, but he had used them in the past, and his government had repeatedly lied about them, so his past behavior did raise some questions. Even so, the case for Hussein possessing more of these weapons was based on badly outdated information, almost all circumstantial and often fabricated. President George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted, for their own reasons, to believe the weapons were there and that the U.S. should use that “fact” to oust Hussein. CIA analysts tried to give the president what he wanted. Eventually, the president needed to know if what the CIA had was sufficient to persuade the public that the “Iraqi threat” justified war. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell thought invading Iraq was a foolish idea, when the president asked him to make the case before the United Nations, he went along. Draper’s exhaustive research includes interviews with key figures such as Powell, Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice, as well as dozens of others from the CIA and the State and Defense Departments. He also makes extensive use of recently released documents to give a vivid picture of how events unfolded. There really was not a process, Draper reveals. For example, there was no plan for what to do following a military victory. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to give more importance to finding fault with other government agencies and micromanaging his department than to urgent follow-through. Vice President Dick Cheney was allowed to make misleading or false public statements without correction. As we continue to live through the ripple effects of this momentous decision in American foreign policy, Draper’s revelatory account deserves a wide readership.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Canadian writer Cherie Dimaline blends fantasy, monsters and contemporary First Nation struggles in a powerful and inventive novel. Dimaline drew inspiration from stories of the rougarou—a werewolf-like creature that is always on the lookout for misbehaving boys and girls—that she heard about as a child in the Métis community near Canada’s Georgian Bay in Anishinaabe territory. Set in a small community in rural Ontario, Empire of Wild opens a year after Victor Beausoleil walked out in the middle of a heated argument about land rights with his wife, Joan. Nobody has seen him since, and though Joan’s close-knit family assumes Victor has left the marriage, she is convinced that something is preventing his return. His absence is getting to her when, one hungover morning, she stumbles into a tent revival service set up in a Walmart parking lot and believes she sees Victor there, dressed in a suit and leading the congregation in prayer. The minister, who introduces himself as Eugene Wolff, assures Joan that he is not her husband. But something about the situation doesn’t seem right, especially after Joan encounters the church’s financial backer, the creepy Thomas Heiser. With her 12-year-old nephew riding shotgun and armed with Native medicine and advice from community elders, Joan goes in search of the truth. The quest will take her deep into indigenous traditions and present-day struggles over property and ownership. Like Dimaline’s award-winning Marrow Thieves, a chilling YA novel that takes place in a dystopian future of ecological devastation and gruesome colonization, Empire of Wild seamlessly mixes realistic characters with the spiritual and supernatural. As much a literary thriller as a testament to Indigenous female empowerment and strength, Empire of Wild will excite readers with its rapid plot and move them with its dedication to the truths of the Métis community.
The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor: Set in Ireland and America, Sarah Stewart Taylor’s slowly simmering The Mountains Wild is the first entry in a new series featuring homicide detective Maggie D’arcy. A divorced mother of one living on Long Island, Maggie earned her investigative bona fides by solving a case involving a notorious serial killer that the FBI couldn’t crack. Maggie originally felt called to become a detective after her cousin, Erin, vanished in the woods of Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1990s. At the age of 23, Maggie traveled there to look for Erin, but neither she nor the Irish police force, the Gardaí, could find her. Decades later, Maggie remains haunted by her cousin’s disappearance. After Erin’s scarf is found by investigators searching for a woman named Niamh Horrigan, Maggie returns to Ireland—and reenters a maze of painful memories—to do some sleuthing. The authorities fear that a serial killer is at work and that Niamh may be latest his hostage. Upon arriving in Dublin, Maggie meets up with her old friend Roly Byrne, a good-natured detective inspector, and becomes a temporary member of his investigative team. Together, they race to connect the pieces of the intricate mystery behind Niamh’s disappearance. The case becomes even more complicated when Maggie gets involved with former flame Connor Kearney, who was friends with Erin and may know more about her disappearance than he let on when he was originally questioned. Taylor takes her time in unspooling the strands of the mystery, keeping the reader on edge all the while. Through transportive details of Dublin pubs and the Wicklow wilderness and a wonderful command of Irish history, she fashions an immersive setting for the narrative, which moves nimbly through the decades, flashing back to Maggie’s first trip to Ireland and providing glimpses of her friendship with Erin. Featuring a memorable cast that includes cheeky Irish Gardai, sinister suspects and a not-to-be-messed-with female lead, The Mountains Wild makes for perfect summer reading. Maggie is a first-class protagonist–an ace investigator and appealing everywoman with smarts and heart. Suspense fans will welcome her to the crime scene.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Talia Hibbert is quickly becoming a contemporary romance powerhouse. Her return to the adventures of the Brown siblings with Take a Hint, Dani Brown is an easy contender for best book of the year. Zafir Ansari and Dani Brown couldn’t be more different. Zaf is a former rugby player turned security guard whose weakness is reading romance and who has a passion for destigmatizing mental illness. Dani is more tightly wound—a Ph.D. student who can barely stop working long enough to eat a decent meal. She certainly doesn’t have time for romance. Friends with benefits? Surely, but nothing that requires careful cultivation and patience navigating emotional bombshells. After a fire drill goes haywire, Zaf’s gallant rescuing of Dani becomes a viral sensation and both realize they can use the situation to their mutual benefit. Dani can get her friends with benefits scenario with hunky Zaf, and Zaf can get closer to his crush, Dani, while using the exposure to help his sports nonprofit for children, Tackle It. What seems like a win-win scenario quickly becomes messier; in romance, fake dating rarely stays fake for long. Hibbert knows how to deepen and complicate her characters, meticulously peeling back layer upon layer as the story goes on. Zaf’s past includes a devastating personal tragedy that changed his life and set him on a course to advocate for athletes experiencing mental health issues. Dani’s more than just a flighty commitmentphobe; her passionate studiousness comes from fear, because she’s never known love and career to exist harmoniously. What makes Take a Hint, Dani Brown a superlative example of the romance genre as a whole, and not just a gem in the contemporary category, is that Hibbert gets to the essence of what a happily-ever-after means. It’s not about love as the antidote to a couple’s problems, but love becoming a foundation on which the couple understand one another better and a soft place to land when times are tough. While they’re quick to tumble into bed, Dani and Zeb are both guarded, but through lovely, stick-to-your-ribs home cooking on Zaf’s part and Dani’s ability to make those around her feel like they can achieve anything, they fall in love little by little. It’s not a romance of grand gestures, but a slow burn made up of small, simple moments. Fans who loved the first book in the Brown Sisters series, Get a Life, Chloe Brown, may feel that it’s a tough act to follow. Fear not. Take a Hint, Dani Brown possesses the same amount of charm, grit and, certainly sex appeal as its predecessor. Zaf is the emotionally competent, buff hero of our dreams. Dani is the heroine we all aspire to be: confident, feminist, sex-positive and driven. Read this romance immediately, and then read it again.
The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app): The Mist is the third and final book in Ragnar Jonasson’s electrifying Hidden Iceland series, which features Hula Hermannsdottir, detective inspector with the Reykjavik Police Department. Like its predecessors, The Darkness and The Island, Jonasson’s latest is a labyrinthine murder mystery set against the bleak backdrop of Iceland. It’s Christmas 1987, and Erla and Einar Einarsson, who run a farm in the highlands—“the edge of the inhabited world”—are preparing for the holiday. In their part of Iceland, winter days don’t begin to brighten until 11 a.m., brutal blizzards are a regular occurrence and skiing is easier than walking or driving. The two receive few visitors and don’t have a television. In the midst of a pummeling snowstorm, a stranger named Leó shows up at the farm looking for shelter. Leó claims to have become lost during a hunting trip with friends, but Erla doesn’t believe his story. She’s frightened of him from the start, and her fears worsen after the electricity goes out, leaving the farmhouse in darkness. As Erla tries to find out what Leó is after, the novel moves headlong toward a terrifying climax. Two months later, Hulda, recently returned from personal leave after a tragedy involving her teenage daughter, is asked to look into a pair of murders that occurred at the farm. Although she struggles to keep her emotions in check, Hulda moves into detective mode, bringing her brisk, efficient investigative style to a sinister crime scene. But the circumstances at the farm are more complex than they appear, and Hulda soon discovers that the murders may be linked to the disappearance of a young woman named Unnur. Jonasson turns the tension up to a nearly unendurable degree as the novel unfolds. His complete–and complex–narrative design isn’t revealed until late in the book, when the story’s multiple threads coalesce in a surprising conclusion. With this no-frills thriller, he continues to map Iceland’s outlying regions and to develop Hulda’s character, adding a new chapter to her story that followers of the series will savor. Masterfully plotted and paced, The Mist is atmospheric, haunting and not for the faint of heart.
The Last Flight by Julie Clark: Julie Clark’s The Last Flight is a delicious thrill ride of a read. It’s got swapped identities, minute-by-minute suspense, shadowy figures, murder mystery and enough twists and coincidences to make things exciting yet frighteningly realistic. Clark’s two protagonists, Eva James and Claire Cook, take turns narrating their separate lives before and after they decide, together, to abandon them. When Claire fell in love with her husband, Rory, a handsome and wealthy would-be senator from a powerful family, it was almost a relief. While she’d excelled at Vassar and had a great job at Christie’s, she was still devastated by the deaths of her mother and sister. Rory was charming, with a glittering life—and, Claire realized not long after they wed, a penchant for control and abuse. She longs to escape, and knows she’s got to do it just right; she has a bad feeling about the untimely demise of Rory’s previous girlfriend. She puts a plan in motion, only to encounter a major last-minute problem. And then, as she muses on her options in a JFK airport bar, Eva joins her and shares her desire for a new, better life. After a few tentative jokes about the movie Freaky Friday, the women decide to do a swap of their own. They exchange clothes, phones and tickets, with Eva taking Claire’s place on a flight to Puerto Rico, and Claire boarding Eva’s flight to California. Upon touchdown in Oakland, Claire is shocked by the TV news: the Puerto Rico flight crashed, presumably leaving no survivors—and suddenly, she has more choices than she did before. Alas, assuming Eva’s identity has its own set of problems, as it turns out she, too, was at the mercy of dangerous men. The Last Flight is a suspenseful, timely tale about smart, strong women who support one another in their determination to not just survive, but also thrive, uncertainty and risk…Who cares?
These Women by Ivy Pochoda: Anyone who has lived in Southern California for more than six months will already have heard–or will soon hear–a dad joke about its seasons: fire, flood, earthquake and that other one. Sometimes it’s drought, sometimes mudslide, but it’s never something cheery like spring. In some ways, this is the ironic underbelly of the Hollywood-starlet face that Los Angeles presents to the world. While the myth of Los Angeles stretches from the surfer-magnet shores of Malibu to the Hollywood sign and the last tie-dyed hippie enclave of Laurel Canyon, it is also a city that bears a scar: Western Avenue, which runs LA’s length until it crashes into Los Feliz Boulevard. This is where Ivy Pochoda, author of 2017’s mesmerizing Wonder Valley, set her latest stem-winder of a thriller, These Women. If you drive along that avenue in West Adams, you might not suspect that, nestled among the likes of Antique Stove Heaven and the Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, there’s a whole other economy devoted to every manner of vice that can be exploited for a buck, from chop shops to no-tell motels and bars that double as drug emporiums. It is in this milieu that “these women”—a restaurateur, a vice cop, a young “dancer,” an aspiring performance artist and her mother—all ply their trades. Suddenly, a string of murders intertwines these women’s lives in unexpected ways. Is it possible that this latest spree is related to a similar one that stopped mysteriously a decade and a half earlier? Pochoda buttresses her narrative with a distinct and empowered group of women, and it is refreshing to see women in a thriller all acting with agency. Even the dancer is cognizant of her choices and acts only through the compulsion of her history, not controlled by some man. Not since Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source (or perhaps Pochoda’s own Wonder Valley) has a mystery author so successfully and unflinchingly delved beneath the surface of a Southern California subculture to render a portrait that readers will find arresting–no matter the season.
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan: As problems go, a surfeit of money is a nice one to have. Some might argue, however, that wealth is like a set of weights: Those who have it will likely be stronger than those who don’t But mishandle it, and the self-imposed strains can be painful. The clash between rich and poor animates Friends and Strangers. J. Courtney Sullivan’s quietly perceptive new novel about two women on different sides of America’s economic divide: a new mother and the college-age nanny she hires for her son. Elisabeth Ronson, a former New York Times journalist and author of two bestselling books, has moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York with her husband, Andrew, and Gil, their baby conceived through in vitro fertilization. The move was precipitated by the fellowship Andrew received from a nearby college to develop a solar-powered grill. Elisabeth won’t accept money from her rich, philandering father and insists that her needy sister, Charlotte, eager to build a lifestyle brand on Instagram, do the same. As Sullivan skillfully shows, family is not Elisabeth’s only problem. Another is loneliness in her suburban neighborhood of stay-at-home mothers. Elisabeth also needs help caring for Gil as she struggles to write a third book, so she hires Sam, a senior at the town’s women’s college, to watch him. Sullivan does a fine job depicting Elisabeth’s and Sam’s respective dilemmas, as Elisabeth learns to live on less money and Sam deals with her family’s meager finances. Among the well-drawn supporting characters are Clive, Sam’s English boyfriend who’s a decade her senior, and whom Elisabeth suspects may be taking advantage of her; George, Elisabeth’s father-in-law, who rails against the inequities of society; and the poorly paid staff at the college kitchen where Sam also works. The tension sometimes wanes, but Friends and Strangers is at its best when Sullivan emphasizes the widening class difference in America between people who can afford $46 peony-scented hand soaps and those worried about meeting basic needs. Sullivan dares to further complicate her narrative by showing that financial security doesn’t guarantee happiness. The result is a poignant look at the biases of modern society.
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager: We’ve all heard the saying “You can’t go home again,” but Maggie Holt decides to do it anyway in Riley Sager’s supernatural haunted-house thriller, Home Before Dark. The 30-year-old interior designer’s father, Ewan, recently died and, to her surprise, left her a house she didn’t realize he still owned: Baneberry Hall, a beautiful Victorian manse located in the woods of Vermont. Twenty-five years ago, Maggie’s parents bought the house for a song because of its tragic and violent history. They optimistically set out to make happy memories there together but after 20 days in the house they fled in terror. Unfortunately, Ewan’s bestselling memoir about their traumatic experiences achieved massive fame and notoriety that have been dogging and defining Maggie ever since. Renovating and selling the gothic mansion seems like an excellent opportunity for her to reckon with her past and put Baneberry Hall behind her at last—especially since she doesn’t remember the events Ewan wrote about (and is highly skeptical that they ever happened in the first place). Sure, her father made her promise to never return to the house, but if you don’t believe in ghosts, they can’t scare or harm you, right? Sager fans know better, of course, and therein lies the fun. As in his previous bestselling thrillers (Final Girls, The Last Time I Lied and Lock Every Door), the author puts a fresh, clever spin on horror tropes, this time with echoes of The Amityville Horror and “The Haunting of Hill House.” And he amps up the tension by alternating chapters of Ewan’s book with Maggie’s musings, thus putting the past and present on a collision course that readers can, but our heroine cannot, see. Home Before Dark is a compelling and layered mix of taut psychological suspense, genuinely scary haunted-house terrors and the vagaries of memory, capped off with an inventive and satisfyingly wild ending.
Daring and the Duke by Sarah MacLean (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Sarah MacLean wraps up her Bareknuckle Bastards series with the ultimate story of revenge and redemption. Fans of the first two books will enjoy seeing the series villain, Ewan, the Duke of Marwick, brought to his knees (literally and figuratively) by the strong-willed Grace. A long time ago, Grace considered Ewan to be her first love, until he betrayed her and his brothers and forced them to live on the streets. Since then, Grace has built herself up to be a ruler in Convent Garden’s seedy underworld. Ewan’s love for Grace has never wavered, even in spite of his deceptive actions. For years, he thought she was dead, her memory driving him into madness. But once he discovers she’s not dead at all, but is instead the very successful owner of a ladies’ club, he fights to win back her heart. Unfortunately, Grace’s first instinct is to seek revenge rather than reconciliation. Can Ewan fully redeem himself and become worthy of Grace’s love and affection? In the end, the answer is yes, but you’ll get no spoilers from me on Ewan’s path to redemption. It’s something readers really do need to experience for themselves. When Grace and Ewan reconnect, there is more pull than push. It’s obvious they both still love one another and their relationship becomes less of a fight against attraction and more of a healing journey to right past wrongs. If you expect fireworks of antagonism, you may be disappointed; this is a tender second-chance romance between two people who have known a life full of pain and abandonment. It’s emotional and heart-wrenching, as both Grace and Ewan are characters who experience their emotions strongly and earnestly. Think of this as more of a slow simmer than a rolling boil. Daring and the Duke will crush your heart and then slowly and carefully piece it back together. It’s the epitome of catharsis. Though Daring and the Duke offers enough exposition for newcomers to dive right in, readers will miss the nuance of the hero and heroine’s history and how it informs their behavior without reading the previous two romances in the series. And honestly, it’s a grave disservice to your reading enjoyment to not start from the beginning with MacLean’s charming cast of characters. I can’t think of a better weekend activity than powering through the entire trilogy!
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (available as an e-book/e-audiobook on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Stephen Graham Jones pulls off an interesting feat in his new novel, The Only Good Indians. He makes you question whether you should root for the four Native American friends who shot and killed a family of elk on a hunting trip or for the spirit of the elk as it seeks revenge against them. Ten years ago, while hunting on land designated for use by their tribal elders, Ricky, Lewis, Gabe and Cass opened fire on a small elk herd with reckless abandon, killing far more than they should have, including one that was pregnant. The now 30-something men have moved off of the Blackfeet reservation, but the incident still haunts Lewis, who has always felt guilty about the deed as well as about having turned his back on his culture. When Lewis sees a vision of the elk’s calf in his living room, his guilt begins to consume him. He suspects the elk’s spirit has taken the form of a friend, Shaney, and he sets a grisly trap for her. But Lewis’ irrational fears continue, and before long, he suspects the entity has switched forms again, this time taking on that of his wife, Peta. Confused by Lewis’ actions at first, Gabe and Cass soon begin to experience the wrath of the elk’s spirit as well, leading up to a frantic finale. Borrowing a bit from his previous novel, Mongrels, which explored the mindset of a family of werewolves, Jones’ latest novel dips into the elk’s perspective in several chapters. As a result, the reader is torn as to which faction–men or beast–is more deserving of empathy. The Only Good Indians unfolds at a slow and steady pace that offers ample opportunities for sharp commentary on history, past choices and the identity crises of a group of Native American men. It toys with impending doom, then slaps you in the face with violence.
A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood: Seventeen-year-old Lou has always been drawn to the grand but empty house just across the causeway from her own home–so drawn, in fact, that when she discovered an open window in the house’s library, she went in and made herself comfortable. When the house’s owners, the Cardew siblings, return for the summer of 1929, they invite Lou into their circle and introduce her to their intoxicating, glamorous world. But what lies hidden beneath the opulent surface of their lives? In a moment when Lou is feeling hemmed in by the pressures of life in her small Cornish town–pressures to grow up and settle down–her summer with the Cardews may be just what she needs to find out what she really wants. Middle grade novelist Laura Wood’s first YA novel is dazzling in every way, starting with its gorgeous prose. From Lou’s small and plain but bustling family home, to the luxurious quiet of a Sunday afternoon at the Cardew house, to the glitz of one of their many Gatsby-esque parties, Wood creates atmospheres that readers can dive into headfirs. Lou’s perspective—smart and capable but a little naive and utterly in awe of the new world she’s suddenly part of—enables readers to get swept up in it completely, with no sense of pretense or feeling that we’re stuck on the outside, looking in. Lou’s relationships with the Cardew siblings—Lou and Caitlin quickly form a fast friendship, while she and Robert develop the best kind of budding attraction, masked by constant barbs and banter—bring these larger-than-life characters into sharp focus, making them just as grounded and human as Lou herself. Tinted with an undercurrent of magic, A Sky Painted Gold will resonate with readers who love the glamour of The Great Gatsby or Jane Austen’s sharp, will-they-won’t-they romances and fierce female friendships, or with any reader who has ever longed to step into a life grander than their own, even just for a moment.
The Vapors by David Hill: Those of us who are fans of gangster stories have been saturated (oversaturated, perhaps?) in the Lucky-Bugsy-Meyer saga, rooted in New York but with memorable offshoots in Havana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Well, here’s a fresh cast and venue: the casino crows of Hot Springs, Arkansas, arguably America’s gambling capital until it all came crashing down in the mid-1960s. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky do make cameos in The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, David Hill’s true crime narrative of the spa resort town from the ’30s through the ’60s. But the big players are the less-remembered mobster Owney Madden, casino boss Dane Harris and a raft of crooked homegrown pols, judges and cops–with a fleeting appearance by Hot Springs resident Virginia Clinton and her promising son Bill. It’s still astonishing how open Hot Springs’ vice industry was, with city leaders acting as an integral part of the criminal establishment. Madden was the mob’s guy in town, but he quickly assimilated to the local landscape. Harris, the son of a bootlegger, had aspirations of respectability; he’s the Michael Corleone of the story. He wanted the clubs, led by his gang of Vapors, to be glossy entertainment palaces. Harris did his best with payoffs and vote-buying, but internecine fighting that featured bomb explosions and pressure from Bobby Kennedy’s Department of Justice ended his dream. The history is fascinating, but what makes The Vapors a compelling–and ultimately heartwrenching–book is the author’s account of his own family, who lived in Hot Springs during the casino heyday. His grandmother Hazel Hill landed there as a teen, drifted into casino work after leaving her violent, alcoholic husband and neglected her sons as she feel into her own sad addictions. Hill tells the hard truth of her life with compassion and context. Amid all this mayhem, one person in the book emerges as a beacon of decency: Jimmy Hill, Hazel’s youngest son and the author’s father. Intelligence, hard work, athletic talent and loyal friends led him to a better life. Dane Harris should have been so lucky.
The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama: In Gail Tsukiyama’s eighth novel, a small Japanese community on Hawaii’s Big Island is thrown into chaos in 1935 when the town’s golden boy, Daniel Abe, returns home after several years away on the mainland. His homecoming coincides with the eruption of Mauna Loa, a portentous omen, as the locals have long viewed its seismic activity as the manifestation of the mercurial moods of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. As Daniel works to resettle into his former home and make peace with a tragedy that occurred while working as a doctor in Chicago, dormant secrets and sins of the past come bubbling up. Tensions rise further when he and the villagers learn that the lava flow from Mauna Loa is headed directly for them. With The Color of Air, Tsukiyama revisits themes that have been constant over the course of her 20-year career, tenderly exploring the complicated web of family and the resilient nature of the human spirit, while also shedding light on an important period of Asian history, this time the indentured servitude of Asian people on the sugar plantations that were once Hawaii’s lifeblood. As always, Tsukiyama’s storytelling is deeply compassionate, undoubtedly buoyed by her personal ties to the material (her father was Japanese American by way of Hawaii), which lends a quiet and sincere intimacy to the proceedings. There is plenty of interpersonal drama in this twisting tale of love and loss, but the novel’s true joy and beauty come from the intensely atmospheric writing. Tsukiyama’s prose is lush and sensual, fully immersing the reader in this pocket of paradise and bringing the island’s spirits to life. She elevates Hawaii from a simple setting to a character as dynamic and vital as its human inhabitants. An intoxicating blend of historical events and fiction, The Color of Air is a richly rewarding reading experience perfect for fans of Lisa See or Isabel Allende, or anyone looking for a magical love story that transcends time.
Or What You Will by Jo Walton: Due to an unintended quirk of timing, I read Or What You Will, Jo Walton’s latest novel, immediately after Sofia Samatar’s magnificent, book-obsessed fantasy A Stranger in Olondria, so perhaps I was primed for a book about books. Or a fantasy novel about novelists forced to live in an all-too-flawed reality, or a meditation on mortality or a meta-literary escape to a near-mythical elsewhere. The fact that Walton uses a reference to Samatar’s masterpiece as an emotional level only heightens the connection between the two works. But this is not a review of Olondria. And although there is a concrete relationship between the two books, Walton’s story of an imaginary friend concerned for the incipient demise of his progenitor, bestselling author Sylvia Harrison (also referred to as the owner of his “bone cave,” in a somewhat distressing allusion to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks), and seeking a route to mutual immortality deserves its own evaluation. Or What You Will, like the cuisine at the Teatro del Sale in Firenze (Walton steadfastly refuses to call the city “Florence,” citing a preference for its Italian name), begs to be devoured slowly, in courses that may be individually savored and committed to memory. Walton’s prose is kin to chef Fabio Picchi’s carrots, or maybe the porcini mushroom soup: excellence wrought from the most prosaic of elements. It even includes something like Maria Cassi’s political comedy: There are anecdotes about the abstract nature of Victorian women’s legs, Canadian threats and biblical inerrancy. A rather lengthy paragraph on the Canadian emigration system is especially, ah…poignant. But for those (like me) who have only experienced Firenze in books, this is likely not the most effective route to explain this book. Let me try again. Walton’s nameless, chameleonic, probably mostly imaginary narrator says he (and he is, by his own admission, an indisputably and irrevocably male aspect of fantasy novelist Sylvia’s mind) “will ask you to do nothing but read, and remember, and care.” He then spends the full length of Or What You Will weaving the brutal reality of Harrison’s long life with a melange of Renaissance apocrypha, Shakespearean comedy and Greek mythology. Throughout, he dodges between narrating the negotiations of the creative process, narrating the creation itself and playing his part in Sylvia’s latest book, all the while slowly unfolding his plot to save Sylvia’s life (and his own). Walton’s snark keeps any potential mawkishness at bay, and the result is a thoroughly memorable story about magic, meddling gods, learning to love properly and all the ways the world we create can save us in the ones we’re born into. It’s a worthwhile reminder that creativity has value and that the proper standard of value is rarely monetary. Or What You Will is the literal manifestation of escapism, but it also may be among escapism’s most effective champions. Walton’s Firenze is an island of charming dysfunction in a world whose dysfunction more often frightens, and its fictional analogue, Thalia, is a theatrical idyll. Walton’s narrator is equal parts Melpomene and the archangel Michael, though he denies the latter. It is fantastical, but tangible all the same, less escapist than transporting, and suffused with joy and the tacit hope that maybe, just maybe, the salvation Sylvia finds in crafting her books might be attainable for the reader as well.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has written some of the most innovative novels of the past 20 years, from the post-apocalyptic Cloud Atlas to Slade House, a ghost tale about a mysterious residence “that only blinks into existence one night every nine years.” His latest, Utopia Avenue, is a journey into new territory and a return to earlier themes. One of the biggest surprises here is that an author who has built a reputation for creating original worlds now seeks originality in a seemingly familiar milieu: a British rock band’s brief moment of fame in the psychedelic heyday of the late 1960s. It’s 1967, and impresario Levon Frankland, on the lookout for fresh talent, spots bass guitarist Dean Moss, a 23-year-old “long-haired lout” who’s desperate for a gig and a place to live. Soon, Dean joins a band that includes drummer Peter “Griff” Griffin, no stranger to having bottles thrown at him during a set, and lead singer Elf Holloway, formerly half of a folk duo with her Australian ex-boyfriend, a man who isn’t above using thievery and unfaithfulness to achieve his goals. So far, so familiar, but this being a Mitchell novel, a wrinkle is not too far off. This novel’s wrinkle involves lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a man who, ever since an afternoon on the cricket pitch during his youth in the Netherlands, has heard a persistent knocking in his head. The knocking has now returned, as has the message tapped out by this foreign entity inside his brain: “Life and liberty . . . De Zoet must die.” Utopia Avenue is more ramshackle than Mitchell’s earlier works. Some plot elements, including episodes of revenge, jealousy and blackmail, are exactly what one might expect to find in a story of newly celebrated musicians. Mitchell fans, however, will welcome the continuation of flourishes from such earlier works as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, including the reemergence of characters from those novels and the neologisms that made Mitchell’s previous works such mind-bending experiences. Mitchell’s song may be different, but readers will recognize the tune.
Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan: The title of bestselling author Kevin Kwan’s blazingly fun new novel is a bit of a misnomer: There’s very little sex. But that’s not what we go to the author of Crazy Rich Asians for, is it? What Kwan consistently delivers–and does so again in Sex and Vanity–are fantastic tales of the over-the-top wealthy, written with just enough empathy to make us care about young, beautiful trust-fund billionaires. Meet Lucie Tang Churchill. She’s the beautiful daughter of a Mayflower descendant and a Chinese American from Seattle. On her lily-white paternal side, Lucie has always been the outcast. Although she’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, her patrician grandmother still calls her an offensive slang term for a subservient Chinese woman. When Lucie travels to Italy for the extravagant wedding of a childhood friend, she meets George Zao, a handsome surfer from Hong Kong. Lucie and George get caught in a compromising position at the wedding, and they sheepishly go their separate ways. Fast-forward five years, and Lucie is a successful art consultant engaged to Cecil Pike, a Texas oil heir and a “GQ-handsome bon vivant.” But Lucie’s family looks down their noses at Cecil’s new money, and Cecil’s family looks right back at Lucie the same way. It’s clear Lucie and Cecil are an odd match—to everyone except Lucie and Cecil. And when George reemerges, Lucie begins to question everything she thought she wanted. Sex and Vanity is a deliciously fun romp from Capri to Manhattan and East Hampton. Kwan is in fine form, gleefully name-dropping luxury brands and socialites as he spins a heartfelt, satirical tale that observes the price of fame, fortune and following your heart.
What You Wish For by Katherine Center: Katherine Center, reigning queen of comfort reads, returns with an exuberant new novel that will have readers rejoicing. What You Wish For is a bona fide explosion of happiness packaged in book form. Ensconced in the free-spirited island town of Galveston, Texas, Samantha Casey is living the life of her dreams. Working as a school librarian, Sam is like a second daughter to the Kempner School’s founders, Max and Babette, and she feels like she’s finally found the family she’s always craved. However, when Max tragically dies, Sam’s personal and professional life is thrown into complete upheaval. Then Max’s replacement is announced, and Sam can’t decide what’s worse: that her unrequited crush, Duncan Carpenter, is back in her life and is now her boss, or that this new Duncan is nothing like the man she remembers. Gone is the sweet, goofy man with an infectious joie de vivre. Duncan 2.0 is an authoritarian killjoy who is obsessed with safety and intent on transforming Kempner into a glorified prison. Sam decides to fight for her school and her students, launching a “joy offensive” on Duncan to help him remember who he used to be. If she happens to lose her heart to him all over again in the process—well, that’s a risk she’ll have to take. A compassionate story of grief and resilience, What You Wish For is also a vital reminder that joy is not just something that happens to us but also something we have the power to choose. As Max always told Sam, we must “never miss a chance to celebrate,” even when things get tough. Ultimately, that is what Center has created for her readers: a quirky confection that celebrates life in all its imperfect glory and delivers a much-needed dose of optimism.
The Daughters of Foxcote Manor by Eve Chase (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Set in mysterious and witchy woods, The Daughters of Foxcote Manor is the perfect read for mystery lovers who prefer thrills without gore and violence. Author Eve Chase embarks on a deep character study of two women, both of whom are entangled in the tragic events of one summer day in 1971. Live-in nanny Rita is sent off to Foxcote Manor in the Forest of Dean to care for precocious Teddy and troubled teen Hera while their socialite mother, Jeannie, recovers after the stillbirth of a child. Awkward, shy and utterly devoted to her charges, Rita struggles to balance Jeannie’s depressive episodes with the family’s paranoid patriarch’s demands that Rita act as a spy. When Hera finds an infant abandoned in the forest and Jeannie wants to keep her, Rita is forced into even more lies. All the while, the forest around them feels claustrophobic and menacing. From the strange arrival of the baby to moved objects to suddenly unlocked gates, Rita feels as if Foxcote Manor is being visited by some sort of supernatural presence. As the culmination of family secrets comes to a boil in 1971, London makeup artist Sylvie is struggling in present day. Her mother is comatose after a fall, and her teenage daughter is harboring a secret. When Sylvie finds newspaper clippings in her mother’s house about an abandoned infant and a mysterious murder in the Forest of Dean nearly 50 years ago, Sylvie realizes she knows nothing about her family. The Daughters of Foxcote Manor draws its intensity from the secrets of its main characters, and as the summer of 1971 draws to a close, Chase builds a frenetic momentum. The slightly gothic atmosphere of Foxcote Manor and the surrounding woods adds an element of fear to an already fraught environment. While all the violence happens off-page, the galloping pace and dangers faced by both Rita and Sylvie keep this mystery from ever feeling cozy.
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Witchcraft has lost some of its bite in the last hundred years. From nose-twitching Samantha to teenage wizards roving the halls of Hogwarts, witchcraft has moved from a dark threat to a childish fantasy. Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, The Year of the Witching, abandons this trend, plunging readers headlong back into a world where magic is a thing to be dreaded and feared. Despite its dark promise, The Year of the Witching opens with scenes of relative innocence. Immanuelle Moore has always been relegated to the outskirts of Bethel society due to her family’s checkered history and biracial heritage, but she is, all things considered, relatively happy. Even if her very birth was an affront to the Prophet and cast her family into disgrace, she is able to go on Sabbath picnics with her best friend and tend her flock of sheep in the relative safety of Bethel’s fields. But a darker side to Bethel lurks beneath the surface. When Immanuelle stumbles into the Darkwood while chasing a rogue ram, a pair of witches give her a piece of contraband that will change her life forever: her dead mother’s journal. Although its very existence puts Immanuelle’s life and freedom in jeopardy, she is loathe to give up the only connection she has to a woman and a history she never knew. But as she digs deeper into the journal’s pages, Immanuelle discovers a secret about herself that threatens to lead her to ruin–and Bethel towards a reckoning. Alexis Henderson’s novel is heavy, and not because of its page count. The Year of the Witching explores issues of identity, patriarchy and life under a totalitarian theocracy, all of which would be terrifying in their own right. But Henderson introduces us to this world, equal parts The Handmaid’s Tale and 1690s Salem, gently. She allows readers to slowly see for themselves the cracks in Bethel’s pious facade before bringing down the full weight of its horror. That horror necessitates a warning to the faint of heart: This is not the book for you if you even border on squeamish. The Year of the Witching revels in a sort of rich macabre tone, describing scenes of blood and horror so vividly that you can almost smell the putrid flesh of the witches of the Darkwood and feel the harsh stone of the Prophet’s altar. For the wrong reader, The Year of the Witching will fail to do anything but nauseate. But for the right reader–a reader who loves historical fiction and the cold feeling of text-induced terror–this book is a perfect read, certain to terrify, disturb and intrigue from beginning to end.
Breath by James Nestor: Our obsession with productivity is a defining characteristic of modern society. Smart watches streamline and gamify our workouts and sleep cycles. Smartphones make us permanently available. And of course, social media drives us to put our most personal moments online. In some ways, James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art points out the obvious: This productivity obsession is killing us. Yet, not all hope is lost. Nestor’s work reveals the importance of our breath and promises us a changed life if only we’ll take a moment to stop, slow down and breathe. Nestor’s obsession with breathing started with a sort of spiritual experience—a conversion moment during a breath workshop that led to lifelong change. “I wasn’t conscious of any transformation taking place,” he writes, but after a long evening of intentional breathing, “it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else.” However, skeptical of encounters that might be fake or gimmicky, Nestor decided that the experience alone wasn’t enough. So he dug deeper. Breath is the result of Nestor’s digging, and it offers more than a simple guide to meditation. He details the history of breathing, from ancient cultures to modern innovations that have changed our facial structures and thus our breathing patterns. Over time, these changes resulted in the loss of much of the breath work practiced by early humans—but it’s being rediscovered now, just in time. From yogis to monks, from voice teachers to athletic trainers, from people with scoliosis to those with asthma, Breath details how these rediscovered breath practices are providing the promise of a better, longer, healthier life. If this all sounds too good to be true, Nestor assures us that breath isn’t a golden ticket. It’s not a magic cure for everything that ails us, but it is “a way to retain balance in the body.” And if that still sounds like a bunch of baloney, go ahead and give it a try. Stop. Slow down. Breathe.
Parachutes by Kelly Yang: Adults can be selfish, corrupt and disappointing. In Kelly Yang’s first YA novel, Parachutes, two teens accustomed to fending for themselves gradually discover that even when adults fail them, they can depend on each other. Claire Wang of Shanghai and Dani De La Cruz of California both go to a private high school near Los Angeles. Claire’s parents’ decision to send her to American Prep reflects the cultural phenomenon for which the book is titled, in which wealthy Chinese students immigrate to attend American high schools in the hopes of better educational and professional prospects. Claire leaves behind her shopaholic mother and arrives in the United States with a platinum American Express card courtesy of her absentee father. Dani is a gifted debater who dreams of attending Yale. She’s also a scholarship student who spends her afternoons cleaning houses, some of which belong to her rich classmates. Like Claire’s parents, Dani’s single mom is mostly absent from her daughter’s life, because she works so hard to support them; her decision to welcome Claire into a spare bedroom at their house is motivated by the extra cash her boarding fees will yield. Yang relates the girls’ initial wariness of one another, which stems primarily from how radically different their lives have been, in chapters that alternate between their points of view. But Parachutes goes much deeper than a predictable story of rich girl versus poor girl. Although the book’s title refers to a slang term for international students like Claire, the idea of the parachute also functions as a metaphor for the economic, gender and racial privileges that create differences and inequalities in the lives of some of Yang’s characters. Many readers will likely find this seamlessly integrated introduction to the concept of intersectionality eye-opening. Yang, who shares in a revealing and powerful author’s note that Parachutes is based partly on some of her own personal experiences in college, incorporates issues of sexual assault and abuse, discrimination, parental infidelity and emotional neglect into an elaborate and twisting narrative. The book has an impressive buoyancy despite these weighty subjects, and Yang never slides into preachiness or lecturing. For many readers, finishing Parachutes will feel like saying goodbye to two beloved friends who’ve helped them survive the emotional battlefield that is high school. Yang is best known for her debut novel, the middle grade book Front Desk, which won multiple awards and became a bestseller in 2018. Parachutes is sure to establish Yang as one of YA’s most thoughtful and vital new voices.
Brave Like That by Lindsey Stoddard: The kids are a lot bigger in middle school. That’s the first thing Cyrus Olson notices when he steps onto the field for football tryouts. Everyone expects him to become the next star receiver for Joseph Lee Heywood Middle School, just like his dad was. In fact, they expect him to be a lot of things like his big, strong firefighter dad, but that’s just not Cyrus. In Brave Like That, author Lindsey Stoddard creates a grounded and authentic story that illustrates how being brave doesn’t always mean running into burning buildings or being the leader of the A-team. Cyrus feels like the frightening things in his life just keep growing. He knows tackle football is going to hurt; the hallways and classrooms of middle school are full of unfamiliar classmates and teachers and harder schoolwork than ever before; and his beloved grandma is still recovering from a recent stroke. It’s all too much, and Cyrus is afraid that he’s just not brave enough to handle any of it. Then Cyrus’ dad finds a stray dog, alone at the front door of the firehouse, just like he found Cyrus exactly 11 years before. Unlike Cyrus, however, his dad has no plans to keep the dog, whom Cyrus names Parker. But if Cyrus is going to get through this year, he knows he’s going to need help from the most unlikely places, whether from a few unexpected friends, his grandma’s old vinyl records or the weight of a lonely dog resting a tired head on his shoulder. Brave Like That is a nuanced and realistic story of a boy realizing that what he wants for himself is different that what other people may want for him. Cyrus’ sensitive first-person narration is effortlessly constructed and will draw readers in to his thoughts and feelings from the very first page. Stoddard treads familiar middle grade territory, addressing evergreen themes of friendship and loyalty, but Cyrus’ warm and supportive relationships at the firehouse and his family’s unwavering love make the story shine. Put Brave Like That into the hands of any reader struggling to figure out who they really want to be, and it’ll show them that being yourself is the bravest, if sometimes the hardest, thing you can do.
Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown: Travel. Sex. Work. Living alone. They’re universal topics, but for women, they’re often accompanied by societal expectations and restrictions. And for Molly McCully Brown, these realities are even further restrained. From birth, Brown has been without complete control of her physical self. She and her twin were born early—too early. Her twin, Frances, died. Brown went too long without oxygen in the birth canal and was born with cerebral palsy. In the essay collection Places I’ve Taken My Body, Brown reflects frequently on her connection to Frances and the ways her own body influences her movement through the world. While visiting Europe for a writing fellowship, for example, Brown writes, “A few weeks in, I’m discovering that being abroad in a wheelchair requires an intense kind of myopia that feels both necessary and dangerous. . . . I worry that, because my body goes with me everywhere, it won’t matter how far I travel, that I’ll still just be telling its same small story over and over again. That this is all wasted on me.” But it isn’t. Whether she’s writing about traveling Italy in a wheelchair or managing a classroom of adolescents in Texas, Brown offers poetic, contemplative insight about her experiences. Yes, these moments are all, necessarily, observed from the vantage point of her particular body. But even when she revisits an idea or a location, the ideas are always fresh.Brown has won awards and acclaim for her poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and her prose is equally lyrical. This affinity for poetry comes naturally for Brown because of the way poetry complements her corporeal experience. She writes, “In my daily life, I was desperate to wrench away from my body and I hated how stumblingly and ploddingly it moved, but in poetry, I found a form that not only mirrored my own slowness, but rewarded the careful attention with which I had to move through the world.” That careful attention shines in this essay collection, which opens a window into Brown’s graceful interior life.
The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams: Science journalist Wendy Williams, perhaps best known for her New York Times bestseller The Horse, turns her attention to humanity’s long-standing love of butterflies, those “flying flowers” that inhabit the natural world and have long inspired poets, artists and avid, obsessive collectors. The idea for this informative, thought-provoking account was sparked after Williams viewed thousands of astonishing butterfly specimens collected over a century and now housed at Yale University. Curious, she embarked on a two-year quest to investigate not only the insects but also our fascination with all things Lepidoptera. Williams is a consummate storyteller, and her narrative seamlessly integrates scientific facts with vivid portraits of characters as colorful as the butterflies that intrigue and inspire them. While some, like Charles Darwin, are household names, readers will also meet lesser known historical figures including Maria Sibylla Merian, whose artwork and observations provided scientific evidence of how a caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis to become a specific butterfly, and 19th-century Colorado homesteader Charlotte Coplen Hill, a mother of seven who discovered an incredibly detailed butterfly fossil. Williams also teams up with researchers and citizen scientists to explore threats to butterfly populations, including monarchs, whose life cycles are dependent upon milkweed. She retraces the work that led to the discovery of monarch overwintering sites in Mexico and delves further into the decline caused by habitat loss, climate change and other factors. While the news for butterfly populations is sobering, Williams urges us to never give up the work of conservation. She advocates for “the joining together of countless people of many different nations, across generations, in a united effort to protect at least one small joyful piece of the natural world to which we belong.” The Language of Butterflies is more than small contribution to this crucial effort.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: When Desiree Vignes returns to Mallard, Louisiana, in 1968 after running away 14 years earlier, people take note–especially because she’s accompanied by her dark-skinned 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The black citizens of Mallard believe that lighter skin is better, an idea that’s been championed since the town’s founding back in 1848. All these years later, the townspeople “weren’t used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them.” That’s just part of the masterful plot of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett’s exquisite second novel, which weaves together scenes from the 1950s through the ’90s, tackling such issues as racism, identity, gender and inherited trauma. Family ties and secrets were at the heart of Bennett’s bestselling debut, and she continues to explore these themes here, this time concentrating on sisterhood. The title refers to Desiree’s identical twin, Stella, who has turned her back on her family, married her white boss and is living in California as a white woman, a secret unbeknownst to her husband and daughter, Kennedy. This is a novel to be devoured slowly, not only for its intriguing plot and exploration of vital issues but also for its gorgeous writing. Bennett digs deep into the history of colorism and racism in America and explores how far their poisons can reach. As young girls, Stella and Desiree witness the lynching of their father by angry white men. This tragedy haunts his surviving family, its effects reverberating for generations to come. At the novel’s core is not only family but also community, from Mallard to the privileged, seemingly progressive Los Angeles neighborhood where Stella lives with her family. When a black television star and his family move in across the street from Stella, it poses a unique dilemma that unfolds in a multitude of rewarding scenes. Soon the lives of cousins Jude and Kennedy intersect with plot twists reminiscent of Twelfth Night, which the novel references. The Vanishing Half calls to mind the work of Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout. Bennett writes like a master, creating rich worlds filled with a broad cast of characters, all shining brightly in memorable moments both big and small.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: Megha Majumdar’s first novel follows three characters in contemporary urban India: Jivan, a 22-year-old Muslim woman who works at a clothing store, trying to raise her family out of poverty; Lovely, a transgender beggar woman whom Jivan tutored in English; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher who’s sure he deserves more respect and improved middle-class creature comforts. A Burning opens the day after terrorists attack a commuter train. The attack has killed a hundred people and captured the nation’s attention and anger. Jivan, who saw the burning train cars and the people trapped inside (the train station is near Jivan’s home in the slums), dares to comment sarcastically on Facebook about the attack, equating the government with terrorists. Because of these posts, Jivan quickly becomes a suspect. Lovely and PT Sir, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their own ambitions. Lovely takes acting classes and aspires to get a role in a movie, and PT Sir stumbles into a campaign rally for an opposition politician and finds himself captivated. As PT Sir gets more involved with the campaign, he begins to do favors for the party and descends into corruption. The story rotates through the three characters’ points of view and occasionally the perspectives of other peripheral characters. The chapters are very short, sometimes only a page or two, giving the novel a fast-moving, staccato feel. A Burning touches on issues that complicate life in India today: Hindu-Muslim conflict, political corruption, the promises and failures of a political system, the pressures of extreme poverty, the drive to improve one’s lot in life. Majumdar knows this world well. Born and raised in Kolkata, India, she came to the U.S. to attend Harvard University. She also did graduate work in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. This challenging and distinctive novel is a lot to balance, but Majumdar’s writing stays grounded in these three characters’ voices and in their daily lives and hopes.
Again Again by E. Lockhart: Adelaide’s life has been turned upside down by her brother’s addiction, her family’s separation and her devastating breakup with Mikey Double L. With an aching heart and an unfinished school project hanging over her head, threatening her final grades, Adelaide chooses to stay at her boarding school for the summer, walking professors’ dogs and falling in and out of love–over and over again. Through it all, she just might learn that what she really needs is herself. E. Lockhart is no stranger to the complexities of the teenage heart, and Again Again explores them in a poignant and lyrical way. As in her previous novels, such as We Were Liars and Genuine Fraud, Lockhart again plays with perception and time, treating readers to multiple versions of Adelaide’s experiences, from romantic encounters to feedback from teachers. The line between reality and fantasy becomes intentionally and wonderfully ambiguous. Call it an exploration of the multiverse or a glimpse inside a teenage girl’s mind. Either way, the creative format highlights Adelaide’s uncertainty and elevates her summer into a coming-of-age experience that readers will find relatable. While every scenario Adelaide imagines (or lives) is honest and heartfelt, the most powerful storyline in every version is her relationship with her brother, Toby. Lockhart depicts his recovery from addiction gently and respectfully, and the siblings’ attempts to find their new normal are beautifully rendered and often eclipse Adelaide’s romance as the most moving relationship in the book. On the surface, Again Again is relatively simple: Girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, emotional turmoil ensues. But Lockhart’s unique narrative structure and poetic prose stylings transform it into a thought-provoking look at what we expect and what we need from each other—and from ourselves.
Burn by Patrick Ness: Small-town Washington state, 1957: The Cold War with Russia is in full swing, the threat of nuclear war is omnipresent, the space race is in hyperspeed, and Sarah Dewhurst is making friends with the dragon her father begrudgingly hired to help on the family farm. The Dewhurst farm has fallen on hard times since the death of Sarah’s mother, so Sarah’s father is paying Kazimir the dragon, a rare Russian blue, to burn and clear a few fields for them. But Kazimir, it turns out, has an ulterior motive for taking the job. He believes Sarah is at the heart of an ancient prophecy that predicts her role in preventing the end of the world. As Sarah and Kazimir’s unlikely friendship grows, a highly trained assassin named Malcolm is sent on a divine mission by a cult of dragon worshippers to find and kill the savior mentioned in the prophecy, but he has to outrun the FBI first. When Malcolm’s and Sarah’s paths finally converge, entire worlds are literally ripped wide open. The award-winning author of 10 previous novels, including the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls (the basis for the feature film), Patrick Ness knows his way around highly original plots with fantastical elements. He’s a master at managing a plethora of tiny narrative threads, weaving them tightly together and then unraveling them with perfect pacing, an achievement as impressive as it is enjoyable to read. Burn waltzes wryly through themes of implicit bias, explicit racism and religious fanaticism as it explores the power of a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy and the possibility of parallel universes. It’s a breakneck journey full of wit, sarcasm, bravery and a generous bit of magic as the fate of the world dangles delicately out the farmhouse window and a dark storm rolls in over the fields.
The Distant Dead by Heather Young: The small town of Lovelock, Nevada, is nestled in brush-dotted hills that crouch under unending blue sky–an eerie desert landscape that sets a tone of creeping dread in Heather Young’s The Distant Dead.Young, an Edgar Award nominee for her first book, 2016’s The Lost Girls, has crafted a story that begins with a horrific discovery and expands to explore the weight of familial obligation, the far-reaching devastation of drug addiction and the ways in which guilt and boredom can curdle into something much more sinister. And so: Sixth-grader Sal Prentiss goes to the fire station to report that he’s found a burned body while, in another part of town, social studies teacher Nora Wheaton is wondering why her colleague Adam Merkel hasn’t shown up to work. He’s a math teacher and it’s Pi Day—surely he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to have math-centric fun with his class? No one else seems very concerned, not least because the enigmatic Adam keeps to himself and doesn’t engage in gossip, but Nora can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. Alas, her instincts are validated when she learns that Adam is the victim. It’s incomprehensible; what enemies could he possibly have? He’s been very kind to Sal, teaching the boy chess at lunchtime and helping him navigate a hard life with his taciturn uncles on an isolated ranch outside of town. Nora’s not confident the relatively inexperienced police will be able to solve the case, and she’s also been feeling unfulfilled, due to a dream deferred: she went to college for anthropology but left early to care for her argumentative alcoholic father. She decides to investigate Adam’s death, and Young shuttles the reader back and forth in time as she unfurls the characters’ relationships and life paths, with all their secrets and hopes and disappointments. The suspense is slow and steady in this meditative, artistic take on the murder mystery—the author’s language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient: When will people learn? This is an unusual, compelling portrait of a people and a place where the future always seems impossibly far away.
The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz: Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell. The novel opens with a prologue set in 1975, as college-bound Samantha “Sam” McGinty is leaving behind her hometown, Erietown, but carrying plenty of emotional baggage along with her vintage suitcase. On the road trip to Kent State, she’s accompanied by her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother, Reilly. It’s a trip that hints at Sam’s childhood scars even before the story begins to unfold through a series of flashbacks, starting in 1944. After being abandoned by her ne’er-do-well parents, Ellie is raised by her grandparents, kind and decent folks whose old age has been interrupted by the demands of another round of child rearing. The youngest of 12 children, Brick grows up with a violent, alcoholic father, who is mourning the death of his favorite son, killed in the war, and a loving mother, who is also a victim of the patriarch’s wrath. By the time Ellie and Brick are teenagers–she’s a cheerleader, he’s the captain of the basketball team–the young lovers are inseparable and looking forward to college, careers and eventually marriage and a family. But those dreams are dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, a quickie marriage and a move to a dilapidated rental house near the electric plant where Brick finds employment. Before long, the young couple and their baby, Sam, have settled into a routine, with Ellie raising their child and visiting with friends, and Brick turning to a corner tavern and womanizing–with catastrophic consequences. While Schultz’s compelling narrative and realistic characters will keep readers turning pages into the night, her eye and ear for real-life details set this novel apart from other domestic sagas. Part tragic love story, part powerful testament to shifting cultural norms and the evolution of the women’s movement, The Daughters of Erietown is an impressive first novel with a big heart.
Cross of Snow by Nicholas A. Basbanes: During his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was one of America’s most highly regarded poets, a phenomenally successful bestselling writer both here and abroad. An author of stories and essays, a translator of Dante and an editor of a multivolume anthology of poetry from around the world, he played a major role in shaping middle-class culture during the 1800s. As the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, he brought a cosmopolitan vision to his writing and was influential in bringing European culture to the U.S. and dramatizing American themes overseas. (He is still the only American to have a bust of his likeness in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.) His many literary friends included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe and Charles Dickens. Longfellow and his times are brought vividly to life by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his authoritative and wonderfully readable Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He traces the poet’s life from Maine, where Longfellow knew early on that he wanted to be a professional writer, to becoming a major literary presence. Basbanes draws on a rich abundance of correspondence, diaries, journals and notebooks and gives readers generous excerpts from Longfellow and many others. At the heart of the book is the relationship between Longfellow and his second wife, Frances Appleton Longfellow. Fanny, as she was called, was educated, multilingual and skilled as an artist. She was remarkably well read and wrote very well herself, and her relationship with Longfellow thrived on intellect as much as romance. Describing their relationship, a friend once remarked, “Of all happy homes theirs was in many ways the happiest.” Longfellow usually preferred not to be involved in controversial issues but was a noted antislavery advocate who decried war and violence of any kind. His best friend was Charles Sumner, a noted abolitionist who almost lost his life for the cause of abolition when he was attacked in the U.S. Senate. Long before that incident, Longfellow published Poems on Slavery at Sumner’s request. Basbanes uses his sources well, transporting readers beautifully to the world of a poet who is often overlooked. If you enjoy literary biography, this is a book to savor.
Union by Colin Woodard: Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the bestselling American Nations Colin Woodard tackles the evolution of ideas about America’s nationhood leading up to the Civil War in Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. Part biography, part political and intellectual history, Union chronicles the tumultuous clash of regional cultures and competing visions of America’s destiny through the lives, writings and ideas of five very different men. In 1817, future historian and diplomat George Bancroft had graduated from Harvard and was heading to Germany for further study. Attending a school at the bottom of the rung was his future rival, author William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina, who became an avid proponent of slavery and secession. Sometime in February of 1818, Freddy Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland. If that name isn’t familiar, it’s because he later assumed the name Frederick Douglass after becoming a fugitive in Massachusetts in 1838. Douglass soon made a name for himself as a powerful orator for the cause of equality, both in America and on his famous 1846 visit to Britain, where English abolitionists purchased his freedom legally. In the following years, both Douglass and Bancroft met with Lincoln. These sections are some of the most powerful of the book. (It was Bancroft who asked Lincoln to write out a copy of the Gettysburg Address, now considered the definitive version and preserved in the Library of Congress.) While Douglass pressed Lincoln for equality, Simms and others in the South set forth to find ways “to dispossess” formerly enslaved people, wrenching efforts at reconstruction away from the federal government. As the narrative moves into Reconstruction and beyond, Woodard focuses on two other figures: Woodrow Wilson, who influenced the creation of a federal government that “actively resisted making diversity an official part of American life,” and Frederick Jackson Turner, a scholar best known for his “frontier thesis,” tracing the role of westward expansion in shaping American values and democracy. This choice of narrative structure makes for a fascinating journey through history. However, given the centurylong time frame, chapter titles and defined sections might have added welcome context. It’s also worth noting that not much attention is paid to women’s contributions. In the end, though, Union is timely and thought-provoking, accomplishing much more than a static history. In an author’s note dated December 2019, Woodard writes that several paths lie before us and that “the survival of the United States is at stake in the choices we make about which one to follow.”
Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay: Elizabeth Kay’s debut, Seven Lies, examines just how far a woman would go to maintain her oldest and closest friendship. June tells her story in seven parts, one part for each of the seven lies she tells her best friend, Marnie. It starts small, with the reassurance that, yes, of course Jane likes Marnie’s boyfriend, Charles. But after Charles and Marnie marry, the lies quickly grow out of control, leading to Charles’ death and throwing Jane’s own relationship with Marnie into jeopardy. The only way Jane sees to save herself is with still more lies, each one drawing her closer to losing not only her friend, but also her secret. Seven Lies is a heart-pounding portrait of a sociopath committed to maintaining control of a friendship. What makes the novel remarkable is not that Jane is a sociopath—it’s how badly you want to like her anyway. Jane has gone through trauma and has lost people, and she is trying to hold on to the one thing in her life that has always been steady. As a reader, you begin to excuse some of the small lies, some of the little inconsistencies. It isn’t too big of a stretch to then start buying into the bigger lies, the bigger indiscretions. Kay uses the gentle cadence of her main character’s voice to pull readers down the slippery slope of rooting for the bad guy. Full of uneasy suspense, Seven Lies may leave you wishing that just this once, the villain could get away with it. Be ready to wince, shudder and—above all else—exist for several hours at the edge of whatever seat you happen to be occupying.
Devolution by Max Brooks: Civil society is always fragile. When it collapses under violent threat, its citizens inevitably reveal their truest selves. With his groundbreaking first novel, World War Z, Max Brooks adapted this timeless truth–the essence of The Iliad, King Lear, War and Peace, etc.–on a global scale (with zombies). In Devolution, the author gives it another go, this time in microcosm.Greenloop is a would-be environmental utopia (with all the modern amenities) established by a bunch of well-heeled city folks in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest forest. The volcano of Mount Rainier is sleeping nearby, along with a family of sasquatch. Rainier wakes up, and so does Bigfoot. Next stop: Greenloop. The personnel of Greenloop is the ultimate catalog of urbanite hubris, idealism, cluelessness and dormant heroism. Moral fiber hits rock bottom in the character of Tony, the founder of the community, a charismatic Grizzly Man type whose phony charisma crumbles in the face of disaster. The community’s shining light is Mostar, a survivor of the Balkan conflicts of the last century. She is the prophet, the pragmatist, the ass-kicker. With these characters, and the other Greenloop residents, Brooks demonstrates how a person’s true nature comes to light in a catastrophe, when they must either summon courage they never knew they possessed, or die. Or both. In Devolution, as in World War Z, Brooks relishes what he calls “forensic horror,” a medium for understanding a disaster retrospectively, through available evidence. The novel is framed by an unnamed researcher into the events, who presents the diary of Kate Holland, a resident of Greenloop. The researcher illuminates Kate’s complex firsthand account through interviews with her grieving brother and a baffled park ranger. The transformation of Greenloop and its members—especially Kate and her slacker husband, Dan—from self-doubting basket cases into formidable warriors transcends the notion of “evolution.” It’s terrifying. Brooks is not only dealing with the end of humanity; he’s also showing us our further course toward a new, ineluctable, absolute brutality.
The Girl From Widow Hills by Megan Miranda: At just 6 years old, Arden Maynor was outside sleepwalking when a flash flood swept her away. Residents of her small Kentucky town searched for days, her mother made on-camera pleas and the national media broadcast it all. The country breathed a sigh of relief when Arden was found–and on every anniversary of that day, the media spotlight found her and her mother over and over again. The relentless attention made Arden feel hunted, “like nothing more than a character brought to life by my mother’s book.” And so, in Megan Miranda’s The Girl from Widow Hills, we get to know the Arden of 20 years later: now 26, she goes by Olivia Wells and lives in North Carolina, where she has a job she loves. She’s finally beginning to feel secure in her life’s rhythms, even forging new friendships–but then, one horrible night, she sleepwalks outside and awakens with a bloodied body at her feet. Is the looming 20th anniversary stirring up tamped-down trauma? Or is someone from the past trying to torment her anew? Newspaper articles, transcripts, book excepts and other artifacts paint a fuller picture of the rescue and its aftermath, including conspiracy theories and bizarre expectations from those obsessed with the little girl. Step by suspenseful step, Miranda lays a path for readers to follow as Olivia tries to separate dreams and reality, fear and fact–with a tenacious local detective not far behind. The Girl from Widow Hills is a creepy, compelling portrait of a life forever warped by unwanted fame, a timely theme in this era of internet celebrity and the fall from grace that often follows. (There are strong echoes of the real life 1987 “Baby Jessica” media explosion, too, wherein a toddler feel deep into a Texas well and the nation breathlessly tuned in to CNN’s live broadcast of the tension-filled, successful rescue effort.) It’s a shivery kind of fun to wonder along with Olivia whether those close to her should be trusted or feared, and to urge her on as she races to unravel the past without unraveling her sanity. She may have been rescued all those years ago, but now, only she can save herself.
On the Horizon by Lois Lowry and Kenard Pak (available as an e-book and an e-audiobook on the Axis 360 app): In 1940, when two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry was 3 years old, her father made a home movie of her as she played on a beach in Hawaii, where Lowry’s family lived. Years later, while watching the film, Lowry realized the USS Arizona, the battleship that sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was visible on the horizon. The poignancy of the image stayed with the author and served as one of the inspirations for her book On the Horizon. Each of On the Horizon’s three sections intertwine Lowry’s personal history with vignettes of sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack and of civilians in Japan, where Lowry moved with her family after the end of the war. Lowry’s desire to connect with and understand other people and their experiences unites the poems. In “Girl on a Bike,” for example, Lowry recalls the day she stopped outside a schoolyard to watch children playing. In an extraordinary coincidence, one of those children, a boy named Koichi Seii, grew up to become the Caldecott Medalist Allen Say. Say and Lowry never met in Japan, but years later, Say recalled seeing Lowry and her green bicycle outside his school that day. Lowry’s experiences–as a young child in Honolulu and a girl who grew up in Japan–provide her with a unique perspective on the major events that bookend World War II. But one of On the Horizon’s greatest strengths is that Lowry expands her gaze and incorporates the experiences of others. Although the USS Arizona was, that day on the beach, so far away as to appear “on the horizon,” Lowry employs a literary zoom lens to capture poignant portraits of the ship’s crew, including the members of the Navy band and commanding officer Captain Isaac Campbell Kidd. In “Captain Kidd,” Lowry links Kidd’s name to memories of her grandmother’s stories of pirates before revealing that, during the attack, Kidd ran to the bridge of the ship: “His Naval Academy ring / was found melted and fused to the mast. / It is not an imaginary thing, / a symbol of devotion so vast.” Through deceptively plainspoken prose layered with imagery and linguistic artistry, On the Horizon’s remarkable poems are a powerful reminder of our shared humanity in times of conflict and war. Simply put, they are an extraordinary gift from one of America’s most distinguished writers.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix: In his funny, gory new romp, Grady Hendrix conjures horror heroines out of a surprising demographic–the carpool moms of 1990s suburbia. They looked like “carpool drivers, skinned-knee kissers, errand runners, secret Santas and part-time tooth fairies, with their practical jeans their festive sweaters…But when the time came, [they] went the distance.” And how. Life in the Old Village, Patricia Campbell’s suburban South Carolina enclave, has always been safe, if a little unstimulating. But that’s before Patricia is attacked in her yard by an elderly neighbor gone feral, and soon she finds herself driving around her neighbor’s attractive relative, James Harris, and inviting him into her house for ice cream with the family. Life is suddenly far from boring, but when Patricia’s suspicions about James begin to escalate, she takes the matter to her true crime book club. According to her friends, Patricia’s just projecting a titillating plot onto their ploddingly dull daily lives. But when children from the poor neighborhood across town start dying, the club is forced to grapple with the possibility that Patricia’s new friend may be the monster she claims he is. And as if one monster isn’t enough, the women must confront another enemy at least as terrifying: the patriarchy. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires takes place in the same universe as Hendrix’s Stoker Award-winning horror novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is loosely based on his own childhood. Hendrix writes in an author’s note that his latest novel was inspired by the strength of his own mother and others like her: women easy to write off, but hard to defeat. “I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom,” Hendrix explains. “As you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.” In turns heartwarming and enraging, bloody horror and social critique, this genre-bending vampire story helps cement horror as a frontier for feminist storytelling.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: When Stars Are Scattered is the extraordinary story of Omar Mohamed’s experience of growing up in a refugee camp, as told by Mohamed to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson (Roller Girl). Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, live a simple and often dull life in a refugee camp in Kenya. Forced to leave their home and their parents behind in a civil war-torn Somalia when they were very young, they have spent the majority of their lives being able to depend only on each other and on Fatuma, the kind-hearted woman who lives in the tent across the path from them. But although they are safe from the war itself, the camp’s resources are scarce. They don’t have enough to eat, let alone access to the medical care that the nonverbal Hassan needs or the education that Omar desperately longs for. So when Omar has a chance to attend school, he is overjoyed. But the opportunity means that he will have to leave Hassan alone for several hours a day, forcing Omar to choose between improving life for his family in the future and his responsibility to his brother in the present.Images and text work together beautifully in this graphic novel. Jamieson’s characteristically orderly panel layout makes for a cohesive story that flows effortlessly. Soft lines and simple backgrounds allow dialogue and relationships between characters to take center stage. Jamieson’s illustrations—particularly, the vivid expressions on characters’ faces—enhance and deepen the book’s emotional impact. When Stars Are Scattered is a timely and important story, told in a format that ensures it will be accessible and appealing for readers of all ages.
Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Girl with songs in her heart moves from Ohio to New York City. Girl meets guitarist with hypnotic eyes and a deep voice. Girl falls hard for guy, who falls harder–for the drugs and alcohol that permeate the “rise to stardom.” Perfect Tunes begins here but isn’t just about the connection between Laura and Dylan, fueled by lust, alcohol and drugs. The tragedy of Dylan’s death not long after the 9/11 attacks turns Laura’s life into one she never could’ve envisioned. Pregnant at 22, grieving the death of someone she barely knew but was admittedly obsessed with, Laura sets aside her dreams of recording an album to become a mother to Marie. Duty engulfs her, and in a blink, 14 years pass, her musical talent relegated to teaching others or playing classes for babies. When teenaged Marie starts experiencing some dark moods similar to Dylan’s, Laura is drawn back to the past as she wrestles with where she is in the present. Author Emily Gould covers much ground through Laura’s and Marie’s relationships and inner dialogues, ruminating on how we see ourselves, from that euphoric anything-can-happen attitude that accompanies youth to the mundanity common to all lives. The trappings of Gould’s writing are millennial, but her portrayal of the desire for self-actualization and understanding is universal. This ground isn’t new in fiction, certainly, but Laura’s and Marie’s voices each stand out for their honesty and poignancy. Gould’s women are as fearless as they are fearful, as full of bravado as nagging doubt and depression. The crush of expectations and the need to perform (in all senses of the word) never let up, and Laura’s drive to return to music gets a kick in the pants just as Marie is grappling with life’s hard edges. Emotional and at times cringingly self-conscious, Perfect Tunes explores the mother-daughter bond through a distinctly youthful lens. Gould’s strength lies in her powers of observation, her ability to wrap words around a specific time and place in the lives of these particular women.
The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: The discovery of unpublished work by a now departed writer is always a treat. When that writer is Madeleine L’Engle, it is undeniably cause for celebration. The Moment of Tenderness collects 18 short stories found among L’Engle’s papers by her granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis. Dating primarily from the 1940s and ’50s, all but one were written before A Wrinkle in Time made L’Engle a household name. The stories cover myriad genres, with only a couple falling into the category of speculative fiction that we’ve come to associate L’Engle with (and oddly, these are among the least successful stories in the collection). The early stories in the book center on childhood and adolescence, and Voiklis surmises in her introduction that these—and indeed, many of the stories—are autobiographical in nature. They beautifully capture the sense of loneliness and yearning that is common to smart, somewhat isolated children. “The Mountains Shall Stand Forever” and “Summer Camp” both provide subtly chilling portraits of the cruelty children can adopt in order to run with the pack. Similarly, there is a Shirley Jackson-esque discomfort in “The Foreigners” and “The Fact of the Matter,” two of the numerous stories set in an insular rural Vermont community and narrated by a central character named Madeleine. Before turning to fiction writing, L’Engle tried her hand at acting, and that experience informs stories about young, single women trying to make it in theater in New York City. These, like some of the Vermont stories, offer sharp slices of the midcentury American zeitgeist, when certain possibilities for women were just beginning to open up. L’Engle here enters the territory of such masters of the form as Alice Munro, John O’Hara and John Cheever. Some of the stories are so affecting—in particular, the elegiac title story, the aforementioned “The Foreigners” and the somewhat shocking “That Which Is Left”—that it is surprising they did not find publication in L’Engle’s lifetime. Voiklis points out that her grandmother did recycle some of this material later as episodes in novels or incidents in memoirs, a fact that provides a glimpse into the writer’s process. “You have to write the book that wants to be written,” L’Engle once said. Due to the timelessness of her Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time, many people may think of L’Engle as a children’s author or a science fiction writer, or both. The engaging stories in The Moment of Tenderness collectively offer a different, fuller view of this talented master.
Heiress for Hire by Madeline Hunter (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Bestselling author Madeline Hunter begins a brand new historical romance series with a mystery inheritance from an eccentric benefactor, a roguish investigator and a secretive widow. There is no love lost between Chase Radnor and Minerva Hepplewhite. In fact, Minerva is slightly delighted to whack Chase over the head when he sneaks into her home. She still holds some rather negative feelings for Chase, seeing as he previously accused her of murdering her late husband. But now he’s tumbled back into her life to inform her that she’s inherited a fortune, and from his very own uncle no less.Why? Well, no one seems to have any idea. While Minerva is grateful for the financial windfall, she’s also perplexed by both the duke’s decision and his death, leaving the unlikely pair to put aside their differences to find some answers. Minerva is a lively, independent heroine. Readers will fall in love with her the moment she decides to tie up and interrogate Chase for his intrusion. She’s frequently exasperated by his needling and the fact that he looks so good doing it. As an investigator, Chase has a natural disposition for solving puzzles and to him, Minerva is a puzzle yet unsolved. He isn’t sure he can trust her, but respects her intelligence and know-how and sees this as a large advantage in finding answers regarding his uncle’s death. Expect to have a goofy smile on your face for a bulk of the book as the two go head-to-head, while slowly learning to value the other. Heiress for Hire feels like a mix of Knives Out (minus the hunky Chris Evans in a cable knit sweater) and Clue, with a touch of “Scooby Doo.” It’s an entertaining whodunnit with a slew of entertaining side characters and suspects. Thankfully, the mystery elements only enhance Minerva and Chase’s slow burn. And let’s talk about this slow burn, which is worthy of the ultimate chef’s kiss. After an an initial period of suspicion and mistrust, Chase and Minerva’s working relationship is built on respect for one another’s intellect. They’ve clearly made snap judgments about one another without truly considering how the other would feel, especially with Chase’s prior accusations against Minerva. The underlying mystery is the perfect catalyst to get them in close quarters and allow their strengths to shine. It’s a gradual and wonderfully agonizing seduction that will leave readers begging for these two nerds to just kiss already. This fantastic beginning may be Hunter’s best series starter yet. With its memorable characters, a murder mystery and a perfectly paced romance, Hunter is at the top of her game in Heiress for Hire.
Network Effect by Martha Wells (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Life isn’t easy in the great, wide universe. Especially if you’re a SecUnit who’s hacked your governor module in order to watch thousands of hours of human media feeds. Or if you’re responsible for the health and safety of a crew of humans who seem just so incredibly bent on getting themselves killed, either on standard survey missions or in attempted hostile incursions from the Corporation Rim. Despite the downsides of caring for humans (most notably, caring for them interferes with television time), Murderbot is content with its position within Preservation Station and with the life and associates it has collected over the years. But when an old acquaintance kidnaps Murderbot’s crew and demands its help as ransom, Murderbot is forced away from the media feed to save the day (again) and get its humans back safe and sound. Network Effect is the first novel-length work in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries saga and the fifth entry in the series overall. Like Wells’ previous novellas starring Murderbot, Network Effect is a masterclass in tone. Murderbot’s sarcastic, adolescent humor suffuses the book, giving readers the distinct feeling of reading real-time logs directly off Murderbot’s strange, twisted core processor. The result is, at times, laugh-out-loud insights into human behavior. At others, it’s the feeling of intruding on someone as they try to understand exactly how to relate to their fellow sentient beings—and often fail. Despite its name, Murderbot is the most awkwardly human character to come out of science fiction in a long time. Of course, Network Effect is far from a book on philosophy. If it is, it’s a book on philosophy wrapped in the perfect space opera, full of mysterious alien remnants, thrilling firefights inside of sentient space ships and political and corporate intrigue. Wells’ fight scenes are kinetic and tactical, juxtaposing visceral descriptions of Murderbot’s organic parts sloughing off with occasionally balletic fight sequences between Murderbot, its drones and whatever targets it happens to be facing off against. The result is not for the overly squeamish, but it is also gory within reason. After all, Network Effect is a book based in humor as much as it is in action.New readers to the Murderbot Diaries universe need not fear; although it is well worth your time to go back and binge-read the first four novellas in the series, Network Effect delivers on its promise as a stand-alone story (one that, somehow, miraculously, only contains a few spoilers for the rest of the series). Although not every relationship is explained to its fullest, the book contains everything readers need to know about Murderbot and its team. And for longtime students of the many (mostly sarcastic or mildly annoyed) moods of Murderbot, this will be a satisfying return to some fan-favorite characters. No matter your background with sentient murder robots, Network Effect is the perfect fare for any seeking the perfect weekend binge read or escapist vacation.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Those who remember all too well the tragedy of September 11, 2001, may not recall another tragedy that occurred in its immediate aftermath. On November 12, American Airlines Flight 587, en route from New York City to the Dominican Republic, crashed in Queens, killing all 260 people on board, the vast majority of whom were of Dominican descent.The tragic stories of the lives lost on board Flight 587 and those of the families left behind, as well as author Elizabeth Acevedo’s own memories of trips to visit relatives in the Dominican Republic, inspired Clap When You Land. The book sees Acevedo return triumphantly to the novel-in-verse format of her multiple award-winning debut, The Poet X. Sixteen-year-old Camino Rios is meeting her father at the Santo Domingo airport. He lives in the United States much of the year but spends summers in the Dominican Republic. Camino, whose mother died a decade earlier, dreams of moving to New York City for college and then medical school. She can’t wait to finally be closer to her beloved father. Thousands of miles away in New York City, Yahaira Rios has just said goodbye to her father, who supports her love of competitive chess and always encourages her to follow her dreams. Yahaira misses him when he returns to the Dominican Republic each summer, but this year, her feelings are more complicated. She’s recently learned a secret about her father that she hasn’t admitted to anyone. Both Yahaira and Camino are on the cusp of a terrible loss—and of a profound discovery about their families and the surprising, sometimes uneasy connection between them. Clap When You Land explores themes of heredity, class and privilege, as well as the complex, conflicted emotions the girls feel toward their birthplaces and homes. Acevedo handles all of these themes with a lyricism and sensitivity to language that make Camino’s and Yahaira’s struggles and joys, both individual and shared, all the more powerful. Readers unaccustomed to verse narratives will quickly settle into the book’s generally short stanzas and conversational tone. Passages that are more deliberately poetic in style, such as the description of a burial that uses short lines to make the text resemble a deep hole, or a scene of violence in which the verses—like the narrator’s thoughts—grow increasingly fragmented, encourage readers to read slowly and even pause in order to fully experience both the characters’ powerful emotions and Acevedo’s tremendous skill at conveying them and transforming them into art. Clap When You Land gets its title from the Dominican tradition of applauding when a plane touches down safely at its destination. By the story’s end, readers will be ready to give Yahaira, Camino and Acevedo herself a standing ovation.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: What Sue Monk Kidd has done with her latest novel is far from predictable, but she is steering her formidable narrative talents into somewhat familiar territory. How does one write a compelling, evocative and, most importantly, new take on one of the most analyzed and fictionalized people who’s ever lived? With a tremendous narrative voice. The Book of Longings follows Ana, a young girl growing up under the reign of Herod Antipas with dreams of making her ideas resound across the ages. Ana’s sharp thoughts and probing mind eventually bring her into contact with an 18-year-old man named Jesus of Nazareth, who just happens to be as intellectually precocious and open as she is. Their curiosity about each other turns to romance, and Ana finds herself wrapped up in one of history’s great sagas, through it all searching for new and lasting ways to carry her own voice not behind Jesus’ but alongside him. The gripping conceit at the heart of this novel stems from the idea that, if Jesus were married, his wife might be completely erased by the history that followed their relationship. This raises spellbinding questions. What kind of spirit would have been so compelling to Jesus? What kind of strength would she possess? And most importantly, how hard would she fight to be heard? Kidd’s narrative, etched into the emotionally precise and tactile prose of Ana’s first-person voice, doesn’t always answer these questions directly.The Book of Longings is not an attempt to rewrite history. Instead it’s an exploration of a triumphant, fierce spirit and the stories she aches to tell. There’s an exuberance to Ana that vibrates off every page, and that is a testament to Kidd’s gifts.
The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate: Whether you’re a card-carrying member of the ASPCA living with two rescue dogs, four cats and seven goldfish, or you shudder at the idea of taking care of another creature, you’re going to love Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Bob. I fall into the former category, but Applegate had me at her glossary of canine terms, which features such entries as “Tug of war string: a long piece of fabric or leather (though never long enough) used to lead humans during walks.” The One and Only Bob is the long-awaited sequel to Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winner, The One and Only Ivan, a novel inspired by the story of a gorilla kept caged at a mall for 27 years. Applegate once again delivers excellence. The star of this show is Bob, a scrappy mutt who longs to be more of a hero than he currently is. He’s honest, wise and hilarious, but in his own words, he “ain’t a saint.” A four-legged philosopher, Bob waxes eloquent about his life as a dog, sharing his desperate times, when he thrown out of a truck as a puppy and forced to live on the streets, to his sweeter times now that his human, Julie, cares for him. But Bob is conflicted about being a pet. He doesn’t like the sound of the word and sometimes finds it demeaning. Though he’s small in stature, Bob is not one to be belittled. Julie takes Bob to visit his best friends, Ivan and Ruby, every week at the zoo, until one week, a fearsome hail storm spins into a tornado. The storm sends Bob’s world into a wet and terrifying tailspin. But just as crisis sometimes brings out the best of humanity, Applegate reveals that it does the same for animals. Applegate’s prose is full of moments of true beauty, philosophical musings and more than a bit of laugh-out-loud humor. When I read, I like to turn down the corners of pages that contain phrases or scenes I particularly love. By the end of The One and Only Bob, the review copy I was reading looked like an accordion. Every page of it reads like a gift, and it has wisdom to offer readers of every age, free for the taking.
All Adults Here by Emma Straub: No one engages a reader quite like Emma Straub. I was 30 pages into warmhearted new novel, All Adults Here, before I even realized it. Her writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend. Events take place in a small, fictitious town in New York’s Hudson Valley and center on the Strick family. The matriarch is 68-year-old widower Astrid, who witnesses an acquaintance being struck and killed by a school bus. This brings to light Astrid’s long-standing animus toward the victim, who, years ago, informed Astrid that her eldest son, Elliot—now a successful builder, married with kids—had been spotted kissing another boy. The fact that Astrid admonished Elliot, albeit subtly, has plagued her ever since, particularly now that she is in a same-sex relationship with her hairdresser, Birdie. Indeed, gender and sexuality are some of the central themes of the novel. Astrid’s daughter, 37-year-old Porter, pregnant via a sperm bank, embarks on an affair with her former high school boyfriend, who is married with kids. Astrid’s youngest son, Nicky, and his wife have sent their daughter, Cecelia, to live with Astrid after a scandal involving online pedophilia in her former Brooklyn school. At Cecelia’s new school, she befriends August, who is transitioning into Robin. Along the way, Straub imbues the novel with her trademark humor and comic turns of phrase, particularly Porter’s one-liners. Straub has taken on a lot of issues—gender politics, abortion, bullying, sexual predators—and it’s to her credit that the subject matter never seems heavy-handed or detracts from the momentum. The characters are believable, and events unfold naturally. I found myself stepping onto a few trapdoors while trying to predict the plot. Having read Straub’s other novels, I should have known better; she’s always one step ahead.
We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly: Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest novel is a work of historical fiction that pulses with contemporary relevance. We Dream of Space chronicles the lives of three siblings during the month leading up to the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. Life in the Nelson-Thomas home is anything but easy. Mom and Dad fight constantly, and the family feels “like its own solar system,” with members who are “floating objects that sometimes bumped or slammed into each other before breaking apart.” Twins Bird and Fitch couldn’t be more different. Fitch loves arcade games but can’t control his temper (a cruel outburst gets him suspended from school), while Bird thrives in her classes (the budding engineer spends her spare time drawing schematic diagrams of everything from VCRs to cassette tapes). Big brother Cash feels he isn’t particularly good at anything, especially since he’s repeating seventh grade, putting him in the same class as the twins. Kelly develops the siblings’ personalities through short, focused chapters, allowing their stories to emerge naturally as the book progresses. Much to Bird’s delight, science teacher Ms. Salonga, who hopes to become a teacher in space like Christa McAuliffe, organizes students into flight crews as part of Space Month. Lively classroom scenes add to the anticipation of the launch. Bird yearns to one day blast off to become NASA’s first female mission commander. In a series of touching inner monologues, she imagines conversations with Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik. Kelly vividly resurrects the 1980s with references to President Reagan, Madonna and Atari and integrates astronomy metaphors throughout her prose as the Challenger’s fateful liftoff approaches. Her sensitive description of that terrible day captures the shocking impact of the tragedy, particularly for classroom viewers like Bird and Ms. Salonga, whose enthusiasm and empathy provide a stark contrast to the Nelson-Thomas parents. We Dream of Space offers an exceptional portrayal of the endless ways in which parental dysfunction affects every member of a family. It’s also a celebration of the need for optimism, compassion and teamwork in the face of disasters both individual and communal.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas: Catherine House, the debut novel by Elisabeth Thomas, defies categorization; it is a coming-of-age story, a thriller, science-fiction and a Gothic novel all at once. These elements should feel incongruous, but in the strange world of Catherine House they blend together in a way that makes perfect internal sense. Ines is a young woman running from her past. Once a dedicated student, her life changed dramatically during her senior year of high school, leading to a horrific tragedy. With nowhere left to go, Ines is fortunate to have been accepted into Catherine House, an elite, unconventional university. Isolated in the Pennsylvania woods, Catherine House’s campus is at once beautiful and moldering. Students agree that for three years they will focus solely on their course of study with no interaction with the outside world—no TV, no radio, no calls or visits home. The book’s mid-1990s means that students don’t have access to Wi-Fi or cellphones either. If they should fall behind in their studies or violate the university’s rules, they are sent to a facility called The Tower for “restoration” and contemplation.Ines is never quite sold on Catherine House’s exclusive charms. While other students, like her roommate Baby, focus entirely on succeeding in the rigorous course study, Ines sees the decaying grandeur of Catherine House for what it is: an institution hiding secrets in plain sight. Among these secrets is the university’s research and highly secretive experiments into a mysterious substance called plasm. Catherine House employs that wonderful Gothic convention of an inexplicable sense of wrongness, which pervades the narrative. We see the institution through Ines’ point of view; she craves its sanctuary, but is simultaneously also too cynical to accept it. There is never a moment when Ines, or the reader, can fully let her guard down and trust that any of Catherine House’s strange rituals and traditions are benign, and as Ines’ curiosity about plasm becomes a fixation, the atmosphere of the novel takes on an even more sinister feel. Much of Catherine House is devoted to building the world that Ines and her friends inhabit, a narrative strategy that delays some of the suspense. However, by crafting a truly immersive experience, Thomas ratchets up the sense of dread as both Ines and readers begin to see Catherine House for what it truly is. With a compelling narrator and truly inventive setting, Catherine House embraces Gothic conventions even as it defies expectation and utilizes them in new and exciting ways. It challenges the genre while embracing it and takes readers on a truly unique journey.
The Black Cabinet by Jill Watts: When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, he was praised for the significant advances African Americans made during his administration. One editorial said black Americans had “lost the best friend they ever had in the White House.” The New Deal did provide African Americans with substantial assistance and more reason to hope, but FDR needed the support of Southern Democrats in Congress to advance his agenda, and he was reluctant to take actions on race that would upset them. What he was able to achieve came largely thanks to the efforts of an informal group of black activists, intellectuals and scholars working within the government. As historian Jill Watts shows in her meticulously researched and beautifully written The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, these “black cabinet” members succeeded in stopping or modifying many policies that would have made institutionalized racism even worse than it was. At the center of this effort was Mary McLeod Bethune. A passionate advocate for civil rights and the first African American woman to head a federal division, Bethune was an educator, the founder of a college and a magnetic and strong-willed personality with a talent for organizational politics. Watts includes portraits of many other figures, as well, including Robert Weaver, who, in the 1960s, became the first African American to serve in a White House cabinet position. Two other African American women, though not part of the black cabinet, also played crucial roles. Eva DeBoe Jones, a Pittsburgh manicurist, was able to organize a meeting that led to many black voters deserting the Republican Party. College graduate Elizabeth McDuffie was a maid at the White House who was close to the Roosevelts and helped manage their relationship with the black community. This absorbing look at a pivotal point in civil rights activity before the 1950s and ’60s is well done and should be of interest to us all.
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon: Anna Solomon’s The Book of V. is painted on a much larger canvas than the author’s previous novels, each of which focused primarily on one place and time period–1880s Dakota Territory in The Little Bride and 1920s Gloucester, Massachusetts, in Leaving Lucy Pear. The novel opens in 2016 with Lily, a 40-something Brooklyn wife and mom who’s grappling with the woman she has, and hasn’t, become. The narration then drops back to early-1970s Washington, D.C., where Vivian, or Vee, the young wife of a power-hungry senator, is about to host a party. Just as quickly, the story drops all the way back to ancient Persia, where 17-year-old Esther (yes, the biblical Esther) is about to be handed off to a Persian king who has done away with his first queen, Vashti, and now plans to select a new bride from his kingdom’s population of beautiful young virgins. Solomon keeps these three stories moving as Lily, Vee and Esther find themselves in precarious situations. Lily second-guesses her marriage and contemplates an affair while trying to care for her sick mom, who doesn’t approve of Lily’s ambivalent style of feminism. Vee is cast out of her political life, with no clear path forward, while Esther is suddenly the queen of Persia and also under house arrest. Although the characters and their stories differ markedly from one another, Solomon’s omniscient narration serves as a lovely, wry guide. The Book of V. offers plenty of thoughtful interiority while spinning a fast-moving story. Lily’s meditations on feminism, motherhood, friendship and middle-class striving will resonate with many readers. The novel’s unexpected retelling of the Esther story is imaginative yet, in its own way, faithful to the original. In her acknowledgments, Solomon credits inspiration for the structure of her new novel to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which also follows three different women in three different time periods. As with The Hours, The Book of V. connects its three characters’ stories not only thematically but also narratively, with a surprising yet inevitable and satisfying conclusion.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels: Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star imagines a difficult prodigal son homecoming. It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson has returned to his small southern Ohio hometown. Six years before, Brian left home for New York City, where he found friends, a measure of acceptance and love with his partner, Shawn. Now Brian is 24 and ill with late-stage AIDS. He’s also alone; Shawn has already died, isolated in a hospital ward. Brian’s family doesn’t know—or rather, they’ve chosen not to accept—that he is gay. The novel rotates through the first-person perspectives of Brian; his mom, Sharon; and his 14-year-old sister, Jess. Sharon is paralyzed, unable to figure out how to be a parent to Brian and remain a wife to Travis, who pretends that his son isn’t gay and isn’t sick. Observant Jess, who shares with her brother a love of whales and David Bowie songs, struggles to find her place in this changed world. And Brian narrates through a series of video recordings from the camera he carries with him, as Shawn asked, so those who die of AIDS won’t be forgotten.Soon, word of Brian’s return, along with the suspicion that he has AIDS, gets around town. Friends, strangers and their own extended family begin to shun Brian, Sharon, Travis and Jess, often in overtly hateful ways. Sickels does an excellent job showing the mix of panic, homophobia and bullying that AIDS once engendered. He also evokes the mid-1980s and rural small-town life with the right amount of period and place detail. Brian’s narration occasionally feels too composed and lyrical for a 24-year-old man talking into a camera, but that’s a small quibble. While the story is bleak, it moves along at a clip, offering some surprises and a couple of unlikely, brave heroes. The Prettiest Star is a sensitive portrayal of a difficult time in our recent history.
My Vanishing Country by Bakari Sellers: Family trauma–even inherited trauma–can take a tremendous toll on children. But as Bakari Sellers makes plain in My Vanishing Country, family trauma can also be a source of strength. Sellers’ story is remarkable. When he was 22, he unseated a 26-year incumbent to become the youngest legislator in South Carolina. In that role, he championed policies addressing rural poverty, including access to heath care and improved educational opportunities. He became a CNN political analyst in the wake of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and today he is a successful attorney. These accomplishments required persistence and resilience. In My Vanishing Country, Sellers beautifully evokes the South Carolina low country, the haunted landscape of his childhood, to explain how its backbreaking poverty and history of relentless racism molded him. But the greatest influence on his life was an event that occurred years before he was born, when his father, Cleveland Sellers, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges for his role in the Orangeburg Massacre. The fact that many people have not heard of the Orangeburg Massacre is in itself an excellent reason to read My Vanishing Country. Sellers meticulously recounts how and why eight South Carolina highway patrol officers fired upon a crowd of black student protesters at South Carolina State University, killing three students and wounding 27 others. The massacre affected every members of the Sellers family, including the yet-unborn Bakari. Though they each still bear the painful effects of that event, their trauma has also become a source of power–the power to endure tragedy and achieve their goals. My Vanishing Country is more than a memoir. It’s a loving celebration of a father’s gift of fortitude and determination to his son.
The Outlaw’s Daughter by Margaret Brownley (available as an e-book on the Libby app): It’s not every day that the “meet cute” starts with a shotgun…but not every heroine is Ellie-May Blackwell. Tough, strong and stubborn–not to mention fierce when she needs to be–Ellie-May brooks no nonsense and protects what’s hers, whether that’s her two children, her struggling farm or the memory of her late husband, Neal Blackwell. Neal is viewed with reverence by most of the town of Haywire, Texas, after dying a hero’s death while saving children from a burning schoolhouse. Ellie-May is not viewed nearly as kindly. The child of a notorious outlaw, she knows all too well how it feels to be treated as guilty by association. So when Texas Ranger Matt Taggert shows up with suspicions that Neal participated in a stagecoach robbery the day before he died, well, Matt’s lucky that all he gets is a shotgun pointed in his face. He’s not welcome. His suspicions aren’t welcome. And most unwelcome of all are the doubts he plants in Ellie-May’s heart—doubts that make her question everything she thought she knew when she finds a sack full of banknotes stuffed under her front porch. Ellie-May is a heartbreakingly relatable character. On the one hand, she desperately wants to prove wrong all the whispers and taunts that say she’s no better than her father, but on the other hand, she’s ferociously determined to protect her son and daughter from being tarred by the same brush. The children think of Neal as a hero and she’d do anything to keep from shattering that ideal. That turmoil would be enough to twist any woman into knots, even without the distraction of a certain very handsome, very appealing Texas Ranger. But then Matt goes and makes himself even more desirable by being kind to her children and genuinely compassionate about Ellie-May’s background, approaching it from a place of true understanding, since the death of their own father led Matt’s brother to spiral out of control and become an outlaw himself. Indeed, struggles and sufferings in their past are something that all of the key characters in this story share, from Matt’s grief over his father’s loss and his brother’s downfall, to Ellie-May’s bruised spirit over the town’s scorn, to her farmhand Anvil’s past as a vagrant, to Jesse, the teenage sidekick Matt accidentally picks up (my favorite character, I must confess), whose father crawled into a bottle after losing his wife. Even Neal, Haywire’s local saint, had a painful secret in his past that kept him from ever finding peace. Margaret Brownley is not gentle with her characters, and they’re the better for it. The troubles they’ve faced have tempered them, making them wiser, stronger, kinder. More loyal. More generous. And ever more deserving of the happy endings they all find in the end.
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: I only had to read the title of Ilana Masad’s debut novel to be hooked. It doesn’t spoil the plot to learn that within the first few pages of All My Mother’s Lovers, the mother in question, Iris, dies, leaving behind her daughter, Maggie; her husband, Peter; her son, Ariel; and at least some of the titular lovers. Iris left each of these men a letter to be read in the event of her death. Maggie, appalled at the revelation of her mother’s secret life, takes it upon herself to hand-deliver them. Lucky for her, all these chaps live within driving distance. Like Maggie, the reader spends much of the novel wondering why Iris, whose marriage and family have been a source of endless joy, would want to step out on her husband—and not once, but multiple times until the day of her death. Was she trying to work out the trauma of her ghastly first marriage? Sort of, but not really. The reasons don’t add up, reminding the reader of life’s untidiness. Maggie, after all, knew her mother for 27 years and had no idea who she really was. Indeed, the two women were pretty opaque to each other. Iris could never quite approve of her daughter’s sexuality, and Maggie actually believed, for a long time, that her mother disliked her. Masad’s writing style is easy and straightforward, even if her characters aren’t. Maggie was a bit of a mess even before her mother’s death. She’s prickly, rude and histrionic but craves love even as she’s wary of it. She and Ariel have made a lifelong game out of being mean to each other, and both children are polar opposites of their gentle, wise, accepting dad. Masad gives Peter a counterpart in Maggie’s meltingly sweet girlfriend, Lucia. It’s not a coincidence that the beginning and end of the novel find Lucia and Maggie in an intimate situation. A story of good but difficult characters and the openhearted people who love them, All My Mother’s Lovers is a compassionate and insightful work.
Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander: In the English summer of 1939, Eileen Alexander’s life seemed sun-dappled. A recent graduate of the University of Cambridge and the only daughter in an upper-class Jewish family with powerful political connections, she was beloved in her circle of brilliant friends and embarking on a promising future. Even a hospital stay after being flung from a car could not blight her charmed life; she began a correspondence with the guilt-stricken driver, which quickly blossomed into flirtation, and then romance. As the course of her life shifted abruptly and against her will that year, like the lives of so many at the onset of World War II, Alexander responded with unflappable humor and irrepressible intellect, both of which shine through in Love in the Blitz, a collection of her letters to her paramour and eventual husband. Alexander’s letters were purchased by chance in an eBay auction, and they detail not only her romance with their recipient but countless other moments of humanity and hopefulness in the face of harrowing circumstances. England was under siege, and Alexander illustrates some of the worst of it: air raid warnings in the night, the stress of being packed with family into a small shelter, the heartache of lost friends and classmates. That Alexander’s sense of humor remained so resolutely intact throughout only serves to highlight the occasional glimpse of sadness or weariness, and you admire her all the more for it. Alexander’s unassailable wit makes her an accessible narrator, someone in whom we see pieces of our friends, our sisters and, we hope, ourselves. She flirts salaciously with her lover, making references to their “mollocking,” gossips cheerfully and good-naturedly about their friends and offers hysterical observations at every turn. For a book of war correspondence, it’s peculiar to note that it’s a laugh-out-loud sort of work, but Alexander’s candor makes her wartime experience real to us. When she shows up for work only to find her workplace bombed, we feel the impact of that moment as though we’re standing next to her. When she stops in her tracks in one letter to wonder if she will ever forget the things she has seen, we pause with her. After reading Love in the Blitz, events on the 20th-century world stage no longer seem so removed from our own age. We can only hope to conduct ourselves as Alexander did: with tenacity, optimism, tenderness and a perfect zinger for everything.
Fairest by Meredith Talusan (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Self-expression always happens in a cultural context. For writer and journalist Meredith Talusan, the journey to self-knowledge was long and very culturally influenced. Talusan was raised as a boy in an unstable home in the Philippines. As a person with albinism, her pale skin, blond hair and poor eyesight set her apart from her relatives, some of whom spoke Tagalog, some of whom spoke English. As she grew, she gained power through her intellect and self-awareness, earning top marks in school. Eventually she became aware that she harbored deep feelings for boys. Had Talusan stayed in the Philippines, she likely would have embraced the role of “bakla,” a playful, effeminate gay man.Instead, Talusan’s nuclear family immigrated to California shortly before their home life imploded. In the face of her mother’s addictions and her father’s absence, Talusan buckled down, continued to excel academically and was admitted to Harvard. Here the memoir snaps into a different register, becoming less dreamy and more journalistic as Talusan recalls her intellectual and sexual awakening. Rail-thin and often assumed to be a white boy, Talusan finds a place for herself in Harvard’s gay community by identifying as a twink, a slang term for young gay men who are usually slim and clean-shaven. Talusan cultivates this persona by purchasing trendy outfits and hitting the gym. Eventually she begins dating a man she adores, but she feels incomplete. Through another friendship with romantic undertones, Talusan realizes what’s missing—she wants the freedom to express her feminine gender identity—and her life changes again. She navigates what gender transition and passing mean for her, ultimately finding yet another cultural identity and means of self-expression. At each step of her journey, Talusan interrogates the complex intersection of who she feels herself to be and how others perceive her. Through this fearless self-awareness, Talusan demonstrates her intellect, creativity, sexuality and, most of all, a true dedication to expressing her inner self. For anyone who has wondered how their identity is impacted by the ways others see them, Fairest is an extraordinary story of one woman’s self-reckoning.
Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton–Part travel monologue, part heartfelt, healing memoir, the uniquely structured debut book from CBS news correspondent Conor Knighton, Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, is essentially a love letter to America, and to himself. Following a broken engagement, Knighton decides to take his mind off his pain by visiting all of America’s national parks, taking just a single year to do it. It’s an admirable endeavor for anyone, particularly someone nursing a broken heart, but Knighton rises to the occasion, ultimately gaining the inspiration to move on with his life through the “healing, strengthening power of nature.” Instead of lumping the parks together by state or region, Knighton creatively organizes the chapters into themes such as canyons, food, people and animals. Throughout his road tripping, he finds little nuggets that encapsulate America’s distinctiveness and beauty, such as Oregon’s vibrantly blue Crater Lake (the deepest in the U.S.), Death Valley’s Devils Hole pupfish (one of the world’s rarest fish species, found only in one water-filled cavern in the middle of the Nevada desert) and Michigan’s Isle Royale (a group of islands so remote that they’re only accessible by seaplane or boat). Knighton finds that America’s national parks are as varied as the nation’s demographics and geography–the people who make up the melting pot that is the United States as well as its varied, gorgeous landscapes. He also chronicles his own life experiences, incorporating memories of family and friends, relating how they tie in to each chapter’s theme. Along the way, he cleverly weaves in bits of history, science, geography, statistics and little-known fun facts. For example, California is home to not only the world’s highest tree (located in Redwood National Park) but also the oldest tree in the U.S., the exact location of which is a closely guarded secret. Entertaining, informative and inspirational, Leave Only Footprints will appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about America’s “best idea” and how challenging yourself can help with spiritual, emotional and personal growth.
It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Libby and Axis 360 apps)–For over 30 years, Terry McMillan has delighted readers with tales of the lives, loves, foibles and triumphs of black women. She continues with the hilarious, poignant and bighearted It’s Not All Downhill From Here. McMillan claims she writes about things that break her heart, but she clearly also writes about what makes her laugh or shake her head in gentle bemusement. In her latest novel, the narrator and star of the show is Loretha Curry, who is turning 68 (the same age as the author!). The owner of a successful beauty product business, Loretha is rich both monetarily and in most of her relationships. Loretha has a fiercely loyal posse of girlfriends she’s known for decades, including statuesque Korynthia, mean-spirited Lucky, sort of God-fearing Sadie and long-suffering Poochie, a character as close to Beth March as you’re going to get in a McMillan novel. Loretha’s mother is still alive and a corker. Her granddaughter Cinnamon adores her, as does her son, Jackson, who lives in Tokyo with his wife and two girls. Loretha, generous with both her love and her money, adores them right back. Yet there’s that heartbreak. An early tragedy in the book sends Loretha reeling, though her loved ones rally around her. Relations with her twin half-sister are sketchy, and her daughter is anchorless and an alcoholic. Loretha, who’s a bit hefty and loves her soul food, finds out she has diabetes. McMillan has no trouble creating a crowd-pleaser–even her “unlikable” women redeem themselves in the end–but she also promotes radical self-love for her characters, whether it’s through taking care of their bodies, minds and spirits, deciding who to love or deciding, indeed, whether to live at all. This is another winner from McMillan.
A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones (e-book available on the Libby app): Sunshine Vicram is one of those characters who is destined to win a cult following. Irreverent, intrepid and harboring secrets of her own, she won’t disappoint fans of Darynda Jones’ previous heroine, Charley Davidson. Jones shifts away from the paranormal in A Bad Day for Sunshine, which begins a new series–but her signature humor and suspense remain. The town of Del Sol, New Mexico, is an idiosyncratic blend of quirky, lovable characters and well-kept secrets. Sunshine returns to her hometown after being elected sheriff, only to have a teenage girl vanish on her very first day. Eerily, Sybil St. Aubin had premonitions of her own kidnapping and mailed Sunshine a letter detailing her abduction prior to her disappearance. But that’s not the only twist: Sunshine herself was kidnapped as a teenager, a secret she and her family have been keeping to this day. As the search for Sybil brings Sunshine’s repressed memories to the surface, it also introduces the reader to the diverse cast of characters populating Del Sol–from rooster thieves to former Dixie Mafia members to a mayor who wants Sunshine gone. We also meet Sunshine’s teenage daughter, Auri, who is an aspiring detective herself. As Sunshine investigates the disappearance, Auri canvasses her high school for information on the missing girl, giving us two detectives instead of just one. Jones has a real talent for balancing suspense with laugh-out-loud humor, never losing the tension from either. Sunshine’s past is grim, as is the truth about Auri’s father, yet the book never feels bleak. The humor, sometimes absurd (like a basket of cursed muffins), never detracts from the gravity of the case Sunshine is investigating. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it’s pulled off with aplomb. Jones opens the door for future romantic subplots as well, from Sunshine’s former crush turned distillery owner, to a U.S. Marshal on a manhunt of his own, to an FBI Agent assigned to assist in the case. With its wit and suspense, A Bad Day for Sunshine is a one-night read that left me craving the next installment in the series, especially after its truly surprising final reveal.
Hid From Our Eyes by Julia Spencer-Fleming: Fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ van Alstyne mysteries will be delighted to learn the Episcopalian priest and her police chief husband are back in Hid From Our Eyes. In this ninth installment of the bestselling and award-winning series, Spencer-Fleming takes a long view of the dark side of human nature via characters who investigate three unsolved murders that span decades and haunt the lives of the residents of Millers Kill, a small town in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Each murder victim was a pretty young woman clad in a pricey party dress, found in the middle of the road with no indications of who or what caused her death. In the present day, Russ van Alstyne is the police chief tasked with solving the latest murder; in 1972, he found a victim’s body during a motorcycle ride and became a person of interest in the ultimately unresolved case. It’s fascinating to move among the various time periods, meeting Russ when he was an angry just-returned-home Vietnam veteran and then again when he’s a calm and driven policeman. Spencer-Fleming tracks the frustrations of the law enforcement and medical professionals stymied by a lack of clues, witnesses, technology or some combination thereof. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are understandably tricky, especially among multiple eras, but Spencer-Fleming handles them with skill and ease, using secrets and revelations alike to ramp up the suspense and create a chain of investigation and mentorship among the police chiefs of each successive generation. She also writes with compassion for those who struggle, whether with PTSD, financial strain or, like Clare, finding a satisfying balance between nervous new motherhood and a demanding job (while maintaining sobriety and pitching in as a dogged amateur sleuth, to boot). Hid From Our Eyes lets readers spend time inside the marriage of two beloved characters and follow along as they race against time to solve a confounding murder case that is threatening Millers Kill’s sense of unity and safety. The author also explores PTSD among returning veterans, small-town politics, class conflict, gender identity, religion and more in this multifaceted novel of community and crime in a small town. Hid From Our Eyes is an exciting return to a beloved series, as well as an intriguing entry point for readers new to the world of Russ, Clare and Millers Kill.
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app): We’ve all seen them: people with charismatic personalities who seem to brighten a room. When they speak, we listen. In Peaches, California, that man is Pastor Vern, who leads Gifts of the Spirit Church–and the shine is often literal. When Vern wants to bring his congregants to a spiritual climax, golden glitter falls from the church’s rafters. In the eyes of his congregation, Vern often has just cause to call down god glitter, but the rest of Peaches’ residents mock the churchgoers for their blind obedience to a man who claims he’ll save their parched land. Fourteen-year-old Lacey May often faces that ridicule at school, but within the church, she and the other girls who recently became “women of blood” stand in a place of honor. Lacey May doesn’t remember the days before Peaches’ drought. She hadn’t been born yet when Pastor Vern first called down the rains that made the congregation devote itself to him. She follows this faith because the people who love her do, and because she’s heard the stories of what life could be without Vern and without his church. Some novels tackle issues with a light hand, drawing the reader into a fun story even as the author tackles difficult topics. Godshot takes another approach. Debut novelist Chelsea Bieker leans into her story’s heft. It’s a deeply affecting picture of a megalomaniac who treats his congregation as his puppets. It’s a portrayal of what can happen when people are so hungry for hope that they abandon reason. It shows a world where women’s bodies are not their own, where one man has the authority to determine what happens to those bodies. It’s a heightened portrait, but Godshot is a story that parallels some of the challenges faced in the United States today. Bieker, a native Californian, has already established her voice with bylines in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, Catapult magazine and others. Her debut novel, though, is a shout to the world: I’m here. I have something to say. And I can capture your imagination as I do it.
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app): “Sometimes my life feels like a room with two windows and two moons,” muses Bea, who spends her days being shuttled between her divorced parents’ New York City apartments. She’s excited for her father’s upcoming wedding, not only because she adores his partner, Jesse, but also because she’ll also finally have the sister she’s always longed for–Jesse’s daughter, Sonia, a fellow fifth grader who lives in California. In The List of Things That Will Not Change, a dazzling middle grade novel from Newbery Medalist Rebecca Stead, Bea’s life is filled to the brim with good friends and wonderfully supportive adults. Sometimes Bea’s life seems downright idyllic, as when her restaurateur father stashes surprise meals in his ex-wife’s fridge, or when Bea and her friend Angus sip soda together in Bea’s father’s restaurant. But Bea has painful eczema and host of paralyzing worries, not to mention a deeply buried secret that’s quietly gnawing away at her conscience. Navigating family and friends can be tough, of course. As Bea grows more and more excited about the upcoming nuptials, her father cautions, “Family can turn their backs on you, just like anyone else. I’m sorry to say it.” Stead tackles this delicate theme in grand style, not only celebrating the glorious ways that family and friends can support one another but also showing–in quite a surprise move–how family members can occasionally be backstabbing. Even for enthusiastic, likable Bea, anger frequently gets the best of her, such as when she violently throws Angus off a chair during a game of musical chairs or when she hits an irritating classmate in the face. Bea resists going to therapy, but her therapist patiently offers helpful advice in session after session, cautioning Bea to try to start “thinking two steps ahead” of her actions and teaching her valuable strategies for corralling her fears. Plot and characters reveal themselves naturally as The List of Things That Will Not Change unfolds, and small details later reappear to tightly and brilliantly weave together a plethora of themes. Books that successfully address divorce, remarriage and their many complicated repercussions from a child’s point of view are uncommon–and all the more valuable for it. Stead has proven herself once again to be a masterful storyteller. The List of Things That Will Not Change is a messy but ultimately glorious family celebration that’s not to be missed.
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker: Twelve children. Six diagnoses of schizophrenia. Two parents navigating a meager mental health care system in midcentury America. At the center of this book are the Galvins, who are unlike any family you’ll ever read about. “This could be the most mentally ill family in America,” writes author Robert Kolker. Hidden Valley Road blends two stories in alternating chapters. The first is about the overwhelmed Galvin parents, Don and Mimi, and how raising a boisterous Catholic family of 10 sons from the 1950s to the ’70s may have allowed mental illness to hide in plain sight. A “boys will be boys” attitude excused much aberrant behavior. The Galvin daughters, the two youngest, provide the emotional heart of the book. They grew up watching their brothers suffer, while also being terrified of–and terrorized by–them. Granted access to the surviving Galvin relatives, Kolker brilliantly shows how mental illness impacts more than just those who are sick, and how festering family secrets can wreak generational damage. The second story in this book details the thankless psychiatric research that has gone into defining schizophrenia and establishing treatments. This research has run parallel to the Galvins’ lives–from early beliefs that bad mothering caused schizophrenia to an institutional reliance on Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication, to more contemporary treatments involving talk therapy and other medications. Kolker walks readers through to the present day, where genetic research into schizophrenia happens largely at the whims of pharmaceutical companies. The author creates a powerfully humane portrait of those diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvin brothers has done terrible things–sexual abuse, domestic violence, murder–but Kolker is a compassionate storyteller who underscores how inadequate medical treatment and an overreliance on “tough love” and incarceration underpin so much of the trauma this family experienced. Hidden Valley Road is heavy stuff, especially for readers with mental illness or sexual abuse in their own families. But it’s a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how far we’ve come in treating one of the most severe forms of mental illness–and how far we still have to go.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: What makes a city feel the way it does? Is it the art and the music? The people and how they view themselves? What about the infinite, minuscule details of the place, whether they are recognized or ignored completely? Three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin shows us her version of the answers, and they add up to something bigger than the sum of its parts. In The City We Became, a magical novel of breadth and precision, Jemisin builds a version of New York City that is more than the borders of its boroughs. This New York is alive. Cities, we learn, are like any other living organism. They are born, they develop, they get sick, they can die. Like a hive communicating through a shared consciousness, a city is sustained by everyone and everything in it. At a certain stage of life, cities awaken avatars, people who are attuned to this consciousness, able to understand it and, from time to time, channel its power. Cities also have enemies. When a primordial evil arrives through space and time, hellbent on corrupting and destroying New York, the avatars of all five boroughs awaken to do battle–and fight off what could be the death of the city. I’ve not read another book like this in years. Jemisin takes a concept that can be abstracted to the simplest of questions (What if cities were alive?) and wraps an adventure around it. That adventure takes center stage in the many scenes that read more like a superhero movie than a fantasy novel, such as when a towering Lovecraftian tentacle bursts from the river to destroy the Williamsburg Bridge. However, Jemisin’s most beautiful passages deliver attentive descriptions of New York’s melting pot of people. Her characters’ life experiences–racial, sexual, financial–bring perspectives that are deeply important to and often missing from contemporary literature, particularly in the fantasy genre. Jemisin lives in Brooklyn, and it’s clear that New York has impacted her life in innumerable ways. I confess, I don’t know New York well myself, but reading this book left me thinking about my own city, how I’m connected to it and how far I would go to save it. To what parts of the whole have I contributed? If it were alive, what would it say?
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app): After their gold-prospecting father dies, 12-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Sam are left to fend for themselves in the gold rush days of the American West. The first task of these Chinese American sisters is to bury “Ba,” and tradition dictates they place two silver dollars over his eyes–two coins they don’t have. The girls head to a bank, but all hell breaks loose when a banker casts them out with a hateful epithet. That’s just the first of many action-packed scenes in C Pam Zhang’s standout debut. Lucy and Sam’s odyssey unfolds in a series of edge-of-your-seat twists and turns, bringing to mind the classic True Grit and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, two Westerns that also feature fierce young heroines. Yet Zhang turns the genre on its head by writing a historical saga that also serves as a modern immigration novel. Before dying, Ba tells his eldest, “I grew up knowing I belonged to this land, Lucy girl. You and Sam do too, never mind how you look. Don’t you let any man with a history book tell you different.” Ma, however, offers polar-opposite advice. While Ba dreams of having a large, isolated parcel of property, Ma warns, “Gold can’t buy everything. This will never be our land.” Unfolding in a carefully structured, nonlinear fashion, the novel repeatedly questions what makes a home a home and what makes a family a family. Zhang was born in Beijing, and, she writes in her bio, has lived “in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home.” The book also wonders at the nature of truth and who can be trusted. Because boys earn a higher wage working in the coal mines, Sam begins wearing boys’ clothes and finds that this new identity suits her, thus bringing to the forefront issues of gender, identity and cultural and sexual prejudice. Zhang’s sparse prose style may initially take some getting used to, but both language and plot remain clearly focused. Daringly original, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is gritty and frequently gruesome, yet at times magical and ethereal, incorporating tiger paw prints and a buffalo sighting, along with a fog-filled view of San Francisco and the wild ocean beyond. Zhang’s laser-sharp reexamination of America’s myth-laden past is likely to help bring clarity to many issues that continue to challenge us all.
They Went Left by Monica Hesse (available as an e-book on the Libby app):The aftermath of World War II is rarely addressed in YA fiction. Narratives typically conclude with scenes of liberation and celebration as good triumphs over evil, and everything returns to normal. Monica Hesse’s They Went Left begins where those narratives end. Zofia’s story opens in 1945, a few months after she and thousands of others were liberated from concentration camps and sent back into the world to reclaim what they lost. For Zofia—who witnessed her entire family except her little brother, Abek, being sent into the titular left line that led to the camp’s gas chambers—this is not a simple or easy task. Zofia is broken, physically and mentally, and has spent the months after liberation in a hospital. She clings to the memory of her final goodbye to Abek, and to the promise she made in that moment that she would find him after the war. Released from the hospital, Zofia returns to her family’s home, only to discover that all of their possessions are gone and their neighbors are openly hostile to the idea of Jewish families reclaiming their residences. Desperate, Zofia sets out across war-torn Europe to find Abek while trying to piece together the truth behind her memories. They Went Left takes readers deep into Zofia’s thoughts, pulling us along through her experiences, past and present, even as she begins to wonder whether she can trust her own perceptions and memories. Hesse’s meticulous research is evident on every page but never distracts from her propulsive plot. Combining history, romance and mystery, They Went Left is a heartbreaking yet hopeful story of what it takes to survive after trauma.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: Emily St. John Mandel follows her bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, with a more intricately layered–and better–novel about having money, not having money and the guilt, sorrow and panic of gaining it and losing it. The Glass Hotel is also, by the way, a bit of a ghost story. The Hotel Caiette, the glass hotel of the title, is a super luxury hotel in a remote corner of Vancouver Island, a “five-star experience where your cell phone doesn’t work.” A young local woman named Vincent winds up working there as a bartender after some youthful bohemian years off the island. She is smart, witty and elegant. She catches the eye of Jonathan Alkaitis, the investment-fund mogul who owns the hotel and who soon invites her to become, essentially, his trophy wife. It’s a transaction she accepts. She moves to a posh house in Connecticut and thrives among the uber-wealthy. But it turns out that Alkaitis is running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. When it collapses, Vincent eventually begins a third life as an itinerant cook on an international container ship. Mandel’s narrative does not unfold as directly and cleanly as this summary suggests. Rather, the story circles through time, deepening with each pass. This is one of its wonders. Another is how lively and sometimes mysterious the novel’s minor characters are. Vincent’s half-brother Paul, for instance, doesn’t steal money but instead appropriates an essential part of Vincent’s creative being. Alkaitis’ beloved older brother was a talented artist who died of a drug overdose, and that shapes Alkaitis’ interactions with one of his more vulnerable investors, an artist who painted a portrait of the brother. The wily Mandel even brings back characters from Station Eleven to playfully suggest that we are reading about a parallel universe. Mandel is a vivid and observant storyteller. Some small observations make you laugh out loud. For example, that you can distinguish wealthy people from the Western U.S. from wealthy people of New York, because the former are prematurely weathered from all their skiing. But other observations are more somber. As Mandel writes, “There are so many ways to haunt a person, or a life.” In this novel, the hauntings are literal and metaphorical. The Glass Hotel is a dark, disturbing story but also an enthralling one.
Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app): The ability to write 240 witty characters on social media does not necessarily translate to being someone whose books you want to read. But that’s what happened with Samantha Irby, whom I first knew as the person consistently killing it on Twitter, making me laugh out loud with her tweets on “Judge Mathis” and “Succession.” (She’s obsessed with both.) It was later that I realized she also writes stunningly astute, hilarious essays about topics both serious (becoming a stepmother) and less so (her slightly lazy beauty rituals). But like all the best essayists, Irby brings deeper insights to even her most lighthearted work. In “Girls Gone Mild,” Irby reflects on her extreme reluctance to go out, not that she’s rounding the corner to 40: “Remember when you could be roused from a night spent on the couch in your pajamas, curled around a pint of Chubby Hubby, and goaded into joining your friends at the bar even though you’d already taken off your bra? Yeah, I can’t either, but I know those days existed. I have the liver damage to prove it.” By the end of the essay, Irby has made peace with her new slower pace of life. It’s simultaneously funny and poignant, as are all the entries in this unflinching collection. Perhaps the most powerful is “Body Negativity,” in which Irby catalogs the many ways women are expected to perform upkeep on our appearances so we have glowing skin, flowing eyelashes, smooth foreheads and snow-white teeth. But guess what? Irby has discovered that, unless it makes you feel good, none of that really matters: “I have threaded, I have microbladed, I have trimmed, I have tinted, I have filled in, I have styled, I have contoured, and I have microfeathered my stupid eyebrows, and none of those things has ever had a discernible impact on my life. Now I do nothing, and it’s fine!” Frankly, Irby’s radically honest writing in Wow, No Thank You. makes me feel better–or at least less bad–about myself. She gives a welcome voice to what so many women in 2020 are feeling: overleveraged, underappreciated, exhausted, bloated–but hopeful.
Heaven and Hell by Bart D. Ehrman: According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 72% of Americans believe in heaven, a place where “good people are eternally rewarded.” A sizable majority (58%) also believes in hell, the place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” These rates are even higher among Christians. If these beliefs truly guide the actions of their adherents, then it’s arguable that heaven and hell are the two most influential pieces of real estate in American society. It was therefore fascinating to learn from Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife that this concept of the afterlife is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Ehrman’s subtitle is a bit misleading, since it’s not an actual history of these places. He is not rewriting Paradise Lost. Instead, he details the development of our ideas about heaven and hell. Starting with Mesopotamia, Ehrman carefully traces how ancient ideas of death as an “eternal sleep” developed into our current conception of death as a place of retribution or reward. Ehrman argues that, far from being set in stone, our views of heaven and hell have evolved in response to crises confronting the societies that ultimately created modern Christianity. Our view of the afterlife, it turns out, owes more to Greek mythology, Plato and Greek theologians of the first millennium than it does to the Old Testament or even Jesus’ words and actions. This is a complex history, and it could easily become confusing or, worse, boring. But Ehrman has avoided both pitfalls. As the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ehrman has the expertise necessary to make this difficult subject comprehensible. Even better, his witty, self-deprecatory style makes Heaven and Hell an enjoyable read. Most importantly, this is an optimistic book. Professor Ehrman invites us to revisit a “truth” that most of us hold almost instinctively and, in the process, to lose the fear of the afterlife that can prevent us from fully living our present lives.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore: The harrowing, heartfelt debut novel from Elizabeth Wetmore tells the story of a West Texas town reeling from an oil boom and a brutal rape case in the late 1970s. Surrounded by a harsh and beautiful landscape, the town of Odessa serves as a microcosm of the U.S., allowing Wetmore to explore themes of motherhood, sexism, capitalism, violence, immigration and race. The story opens on 14-year-old Glory, the unrelenting sun shining down on her, her rapist fast asleep. Covered in cuts and bruises and suffering from organ damage, Glory silently wills herself to walk, to escape. To live. She comes to the farmhouse porch of pregnant Mary Rose, who sends Glory inside when the assailant, a young white man, comes to claim his “girlfriend.” Mary Rose denies Glory’s presence and holds tight to her rifle as she waits for the cops to arrive. After they take the villain into custody, Mary Rose can’t shake the feeling that she’s failed the girl. She’s compelled to testify in the case, which causes a rift between her and her husband. When Mary Rose subsequently moves into town, she meets her new neighbor Corrine, who’s drinking herself into oblivion as she mourns the recent loss of her husband. We also meet spunky 11-year-old Debra Ann Pierce, who steals cans of food to help a homeless war veteran. As the trial nears, Mary Rose receives daily threats from drunk townsfolk who call her horrible things. With her children at home with Corrine, Mary Rose takes the stand to testify. It’s been hours and hours since she’s breastfed her newborn baby, and her vulnerability in this moment–and her sacrifices to get here–will leave readers contemplating the very nature of justice. As these women navigate what is decidedly a man’s world with feminine grace, Valentine becomes a testament to the resilience of the female spirit. Wetmore’s prose is both beautiful and bone-true, and this mature novel hardly feels like a debut. You’ll wish you had more time with each of these powerful women when it’s over.
Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon: Ariel Lawhon’s Code Name Helene is a spellbinding work of historical fiction inspired by the real story of Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, a woman so extraordinary that your first instinct might be to believe she is imaginary, like James Bond. In 1936 Paris, Nancy, an Aussie expat, cleverly bluffs her way into becoming a freelance journalist at the European branch of the Hearst newspaper group. It’s a career chosen out of necessity rather than a calling, but Nancy is nonetheless very good at it, earning respect from her male colleagues for her bravado and instincts. It isn’t long before she falls in love with a wealthy French industrialist named Henri Fiocca. The two marry and make Marseille their home, where Nancy is ready to spend the rest of her life as Henri’s supportive housewife. Truthfully, Lawhon could have stopped Nancy’s story here and left it as one of the most sensual romance novels you’ve ever read. But there is more to life than romance, as Nancy discovers in 1940 when Henri is drafted to fight the Germans. Alone, anxious and restless, Nancy starts by driving an ambulance for the wounded but soon finds her way deeper and deeper into the French Resistance until she emerges as one of its most powerful leaders. Nancy, also known as Madame Andree the fighter, Lucienne Carlier the smuggler, Helene the spy and the White Mouse, becomes the most wanted person on the Nazi target list. She is real, this really did happen is the mantra you may find yourself repeating, in awe at every page. In her acknowledgments, Lawhon describes the extraordinary life of Nancy as first and foremost a story about love and marriage. Right away it seems preposterous to consider a story about a woman who seemed to magically summon weapons for the Allied Forces, who killed a Nazi with her bare hands, who saved thousands of lives, a love story. But let the story sink in, and Nancy and Henri’s enduring love will indeed rise to the surface.
Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit: Most Americans learn about pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation in elementary school. But few know that besides the men and women seeking religious freedom, more than half of the Mayflower passengers were investors, indentured servants and crew members who were hired to stay the first year in the New World. Even fewer know about the murder of one colonist by another that occurred in the settlement’s early years. This crime and the social, political and religious anxieties that surround it are at the heart of TaraShea Nesbit’s new novel, Beheld. In 1630, 10 years after the Mayflower landed, the inhabitants of the Plymouth colony eagerly await the arrival of a new ship bringing fresh supplies and more colony members–members who will help grow the community and pay off debt to their initial investors. But not everyone is optimistic. Alice Bradford, wife of the colony’s governor, longs to meet her stepson but worries he won’t accept her as his father’s second wife. Former servants John and Eleanor Billington, resentful of perceived mistreatment at the hands of Governor Bradford and military adviser Myles Standish, are keen to share their grievances with the newcomers. When the Bradfords spot religious agitator Thomas Morton among the passengers, it seems like the new ship is bringing nothing but potential problems to their struggling shores. Nesbit tells this story of conflict and contradiction in alternating chapters from both the empowered and the powerless. The voices of the women are especially strong, particularly Elizabeth, whose friendships and reminiscences of the colony’s earlier days offer insight about the women of the plantation. There were many crimes that occurred in Plymouth Plantation, and the killing that took place in 1630 was obviously not the first murder. Wampanoags had been killed since the Europeans’ arrival, and Myles Standish himself was involved in the death of Neponset warrior Wituwamat, an incident that even many of Standish’s white peers found troubling. But the murder of one settler by another was the first death that made the community question whether the colony was truly following a righteous path. Land ownership, religious observation and different accounts of events all play their part in this clever, insightful novel that digs deeply into our country’s conflicted origins.
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The first months of the 2020s have brought us excellent books by Latino authors. One is Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land. Another is Afterlife, Julia Alvarez’s first novel for adults in over a decade. It couldn’t be more timely, a moving portrait of a retired English professor and novelist dealing with her husband’s sudden death and the plight of fellow Latinos in her Vermont town. Antonia Vega is still reeling a year after the death of her husband, Sam, a beloved local doctor. Since then, she has been so adrift that she sometimes pours orange juice into her coffee. Ever the novelist, she often quotes favorite authors, from Wallace Stevens to Shakespeare, to help her cope. Family and neighborhood events complicate Antonia’s grief. As Alvarez has done so beautifully in previous books, she offers a memorable portrait of sisterhood, as Antonia is one of four sisters who emigrated years ago from the Dominican Republic. The oldest sister and a former therapist, Izzy has been known to engage in irregular behavior, as when she wrote to Michelle Obama “to offer to design her inauguration gown.” Her latest escapade is more consequential: She gets lost on the drive to Antonia’s 66th birthday party, and the other sisters, including Tilly and fellow therapist Mona, frantically search for her. In a parallel story, a man named Mario, one of several undocumented Mexicans who work at the dairy farm next to Antonia’s house, asks her to help him bring his girlfriend to Vermont. But he doesn’t tell Antonia the whole truth about their situation. The withheld information leads to complications neither he nor Antonia could have anticipated. In one moving scene after another, Alvarez dramatizes the sustaining power of stories, whether for immigrants in search of a better life or for widows surviving a spouse’s death. True to its title, Afterlife cannily explores what it means to go on after a loss. As Alvarez writes about Antonia, “The only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them.” This is a beautiful book.
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler: Micah Mortimer is a single, middle-aged man whose life is governed by routine. On Mondays, he mops his floors. Fridays are for vacuuming. He runs every morning. He lives alone, managing an apartment building. And he finds most people perplexing. “Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.” Micah’s carefully calibrated world is upended when he returns from his morning run to find a teenage boy named Brink on his stoop. Brink is the son of Micah’s college girlfriend, and he is convinced Micah is his father. They quickly determine the math makes that scenario impossible, but Brink lingers. He’s gotten into some trouble in college and is reluctant to go home and face his parents. Brink’s presence triggers a chain of events that threaten not only Micah’s daily routine but also his entire carefully structured life. Soon he finds himself rethinking his place in the world. Not a word is wasted in this slim, beautiful novel. Reading Anne Tyler is always pure pleasure, and Redhead by the Side of the Road is the author at her best. This joyful book is a powerful reminder of how much we need human connection.