Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Charlie Vega lives in the shadow of her thin, beautiful best friend, Amelia. Charlie is used to guys flirting with Amelia while ignoring her. Even her own mother pays more attention to Amelia than to Charlie. After a humiliating incident at a school dance, Charlie falls for Brian, a sweet guy from her art class. Romance blooms, which prompts unexpected jealousy from Amelia and disapproval from Charlie’s mom, who thinks Charlie should set her sights on a thinner guy. During a heated argument, Amelia’s hurtful comments drive a wedge between the friends and make Charlie question her feelings for Brian. Through Charlie’s conversational first-person narration, Crystal Maldonado explores the pressure placed on overweight people to conform in a society that equates beauty with being thin and the way this pressure intersects with Charlie’s race and gender. While Charlie embraces her identities, she’s far from immune to feelings of insecurity about her body or the desire to be thin. Charlie’s mother, who lost a dramatic amount of weight after Charlie’s father died, causes some of those feelings. When she buys a scale and insists that Charlie weight herself daily, Charlie refuses and is subsequently grounded. Maldonado’s depiction of the way that beauty expectations can come not just from peers but also from family rings true. Charlie’s relationship with Brian is sweet and tender, but like many first loves, it’s also full of awkwardness, self-doubt and jealousy. As Charlie and Brian become closer, she and Amelia begin to drift apart, forcing the girls to have tough conversations about their friendship. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an accomplished debut, and its nuanced depictions of first love, a complex mother-daughter relationship and the concept of acceptance make it stand out.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Rachel is an assistant at a Los Angeles talent management firm who is disordered about food. She considers a clove cigarette and a cup of diet hot chocolate a meal. But beyond her restrictive relationship with food, she also has an unresolved appetite for love. Not coincidentally, she meets her love interest at the counter of her favorite frozen yogurt shop, Yo!Good. Miriam, the Yo!Good server, is an Orthodox Jew, a “zaftig girl” who “surpassed plump, eclipsed heavy.” Their romance begins with the seduction of a frozen yogurt hot fudge sundae, sprints past Sabbath dinner and then slow-dances into kisses, third base and much more. To Rachel, Miriam is either a golem or a gift. Being a “Chanel bag Jew” rather than a “Torah Jew,” Rachel accepts the gift, and while she once admitted that “God isn’t, like, texting me Hi or anything,” she learns to appreciate God as well. “I’m down with it,” she says. Rom-coms are never without their complications, and as Rachel begins to consume obsessively, her actions are not without fallout. Deep down, Rachel longs not to love but to be loved, a consequence of issues with her withholding mother. “Why did it feel so much safer to be wanted or needed than to be the one who wanted or needed?” Rachel says. For those who enjoyed Broder’s The Pisces, much of Milk Fed will be welcome in its familiarity. But this is an even better book that’s enhanced by its ripeness and its dreams.
Nicky & Vera by Peter Sis (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 6-8): Acclaimed author and illustrator Peter Sis movingly celebrates Nicholas Winton, a “quiet hero of the Holocaust” in Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. After briefly depicting Winton’s childhood in England, Sis turns to his years as a young man in Europe, swiftly setting the stage and laying out the stakes: Germany, under Nazi rule, is beginning to flex its military might. Instead of going on a ski vacation in the winter of 1938, “Nicky” accepts a friend’s invitation to come to Prague and changes the course of history. Next, Sis introduces 10-year-old Vera Diamantova, an ardent cat lover in Czechoslovakia in 1938. When the German army marches into the Sudetenland, a region on the Czech-German border, Diamantova’s parents decide to put her on a train to England. Her mother has heard about an Englishman who helps children escape the Nazis. “The Englishman,” Sis emphasizes, using a larger font for this sentence, “was Nicky.” Winton ultimately saved a total of 669 children. Sis relates these events with expert pacing as he juggles Winton’s extraordinary feat; Diamantova’s departure from her home and subsequent new life in England, as well as the loss of her family to Nazi concentration camps; a timeline of the war itself; and the quiet lives both led after the war ended. Winton “never told anyone about the children,” Sis writes. Nicky & Vera concludes with an appearance Winton made on the popular BBC television program “That’s Life” in the late 1980s that saw him reunite with some of the now grown children he saved. Detailed, intricate illustrations on a muted palette of earth tones capture it all. Sis frequently and movingly incorporates smaller drawings inside of larger images. In the blueish spread in which Diamantova arrives at the train station in London, Sis shows a silhouette of her figure from behind; he fills the silhouette with colorful scenes of the family and home she left behind, a beloved cat and horse and the landscape of her home country. In a closing note that provides more detail about Winton and Diamantova, Sis writes that he always revered more celebrated individuals, but “had not paid enough attention to the reluctant and quiet heroes.” This tenderly crafted, visually layered and deeply reverent book will help young readers do just that.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 9-12): Reha, an Indian American girl, narrates Rajani LaRocca’s Red, White, and Whole in first-person free verse as she navigates what she describes as “two lives. / One that is Indian, / one that is not.” It’s 1983 and Reha, an only child, is in middle school. The differences between her two cultures–the American culture she experiences at school and the Indian culture that surrounds her at home–make her feel like she’s being pulled in opposite directions with more force than ever. But Reha adores her parents and doesn’t want to disappoint them. She studies hard and tries not to complain about feeling different. She intends to be a doctor when she grows up, even though she is afraid of blood. When her mother, Amma, gets sick with leukemia, Reha begins to feel guilty about her secret desire to not be so different from her classmates. She bargains with God and tries to be perfect so that her mother will get better. The poems in Red, White, and Whole are vibrant and lyrical, clear and smooth. In her first novel in verse, LaRocca showcases the best of what verse can do, telling a story that is spare, direct and true, every word and idea placed with intentional care. Reha’s narration shines with honest emotion, and its tenderness calls out to readers and invites them to feel what she feels at every turn. LaRocca brilliantly incorporates references to 1980s American pop culture and traditional Indian culture. Despite how difficult it is for Reha to feel like she fully belongs anywhere, she is richer because of her access to multiple sources of wisdom and stronger because she has learned to navigate a variety of cultural norms. Reha’s friendship with Rachel, whose Jewish faith plays a similar role in her life, is a smart parallel. Packed with evocative details of tween life in the ’80s, Red, White, and Whole is a sensitive coming-of-age story with all the makings of a new middle grade classic.
Highland Treasure by Lynsay Sands (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Adult Historical Romance): Lady Elysande de Valance finds love in the arms of a Highlander in Lynsay Sands’ suspenseful 14th-century romance, Highland Treasure. Elysande is the intelligent and beloved daughter of a wealthy family loyal to King Edward III. Though she’s lived in England all her life, Elysande’s Scottish-born mother, Lady Mairghread de Valance, Baroness of Kynardersley, has long maintained close ties with friends and families in the land of her birth. So when unexpected political intrigue lands the family in grave danger, Elysande places her hope in the most trustworthy men she knows. Rory Buchanan is a renowned healer and the seventh son of the illustrious Buchanan clan. Although he’s generally loathe to spend any time in England, he makes an exception to cure ailing British aristocrats. The extravagant pay funds the work he does back home and helps him build the independent fortune he will need to secure his own way in the world as a younger son. When trouble strikes Elysande’s family, he has just finished treating an English baron and is well positioned to assist. Along with his brother Alick and several of their men from home, he commits to getting Lady Elysande and the critical cargo she carries to her Scottish kin. But the mission is not as simple as it sounds. Intrigue swirls around them. Betrayal stalks them. It’s not always clear who’s a friend and who’s a foe, and Lady Elysande has been beaten so badly that when she and Rory first meet, she’s being carried in the back of a cart and wearing a full veil to obscure the damage done to her face. While the brutality of what she’s been through is disturbing, it’s also crucial to the story Sands is telling. Much like the infamous Red Wedding or Bran being thrown from the tower in “Game of Thrones,” what happens at Kynardersley (the de Valence’s family seat) animates everything that comes after. Elysande’s condition complicates an already physically grueling journey, and for a long time, no one, including Rory, can see what she really looks like. This also allows the connection between Elysande and Rory to grow in a unique way. They’re attracted to each other through conversation and collaboration. They forge a mutually respectful alliance and, eventually, a strong emotional connection without the barrier or benefit of her looks. Elysande may start out as a damsel in distress, but she inspires admiration rather than pity from those around her. That said, some readers may be uncomfortable with how Elysande is fairly explicitly framed as “not like other girls,” and with the fact that her trauma is repeatedly referenced and discussed. Overall, though, Highland Treasure is a page-turning, propulsive and, at times, bloody historical romance.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee: In Chang-rae Lee’s wildly inventive comic novel, My Year Abroad, Tiller Boardman spends the summer in his New Jersey hometown waiting to start his college junior year abroad in Italy. His mother left the family years ago. His father is sweet and supportive but entirely hands-off. Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan. He is more unformed than his years, rudderless, waiting for something to jump-start his life. That something turns out to be Pong Lou, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant, a chemist and a serial entrepreneur. Tiller meets him while working as a fill-in caddy at a local golf course. Pong and his golfing buddies are an unruly bunch of immigrants who are not quite the right fit for this traditional club. Pong is one of the most intriguing figures in recent fiction. He is generous, curious and full of energy and ideas, a kind of life force. We learn later, in one of the book’s most moving chapters, that Pong’s parents were prominent Chinese artists and university professors whose lives were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Pong, whose takeaway from the hardships of his childhood is to seek from life “a quantum of sweetness,” convinces Tiller to skip the grand tour of Europe and go with him to Asia. Tiller’s travels with Pong are filled with wild, eye-opening, often hilarious adventures. In a wonderful scene in a karaoke bar, Pong urges the tuneless Tiller to sing, and Tiller discovers the singing voice he didn’t know he had. Not everything works out quite as he’d hoped, but for Tiller it is a life-altering journey of self-discovery. A second strand of the novel follows Tiller in his life a year later, as he struggles to take to heart all he has learned about himself and assume responsibility for his own life and for those close to him. He has ended up in a drab, middle-American town, hiding out with a troubled 30-something woman and her difficult 8-year-old son, both of whom are in the witness protection program because her former husband is a gangster. Tiller’s wild year abroad is the memory of a lifetime, but during this following year is when he creates his real life with this makeshift family. In My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee has written a surprising, spirited, keenly observed novel, full of the crazy and the profound.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah: Like a wise and imaginative teacher, Kristin Hannah imbues past events with relevance and significance in her novel The Four Winds. In 1921, as a sickly, homebound teen, Elsa dreams big. One night she sneaks away from the protective eyes of her family and thrills at the attention paid to her by Rafe Martinelli, a dashing Italian immigrant. When she becomes pregnant by Rafe, Elsa is disowned by her parents, and Rafe’s family takes in the young couple. Soon Elsa becomes an indispensable member of the Martinelli farm. But when Rafe abandons his family and dust storms begin to ravage the land, Elsa and her children journey to California in search of a better life. What they find is devastation, not of the landscape but of human souls, ground down by mistreatment. Elsa finally realizes her big dream, becoming a warrior matriarch who fights for justice. The story builds to epic proportions over its four distinct parts. The spare writing in the 1921-set first section imparts the starkness of Elsa’s childhood and the barrenness of the landscape, like a Dorothea Lange photograph come alive. The second part, set in 1934, depicts family tensions as Elsa’s rootedness chafes against Rafe’s desire to leave the floundering farm. Their daughter, Loreda, exacerbates their differences through her tenacious yet rebellious spirit. In the third part, set in 1935, the drama of deprivation gives way to the thrill of the open road on the way to California. Mother-daughter sparring allows their relationship to grow, and they’re supported by fellow women in the migrant camp. But the greatest adventure awaits in the final part, amid violent protests against cotton growers in 1936. Anger over failed crops, failed marriages and failed dreams finds a worthy outlet in the migrant workers’ collective resistance against injustice. At a migrant worker school in California, feisty and eager 13-year-old Loreda is too preoccupied with the troubles of the present to endure boring history lessons, and it’s not long before she becomes an activist for change, following in her mother’s footsteps. With biting dialogue that holds nothing back, The Four Winds is classic in its artistry. Overtones of America’s present political struggles echo throughout the novel’s events. These indomitable female characters foreshadow the nation’s sweeping change through their fierce commitment to each other and to a common, timeless goal.
The Removed by Brandon Hobson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Once in a while, you come across a book that seems to exist in its own bubble of space-time. It may be set in the present, but its roots reach deep into the past. The location may be a real place, like Oklahoma, but as you read, you’re not really sure if it’s set anywhere in particular. A word for such a story might be numinous, which ably describes Brandon Hobson’s splendid The Removed. The story revolves around the Echota family of Quah, Oklahoma, as they prepare for a bonfire to commemorate the death of their son Ray-Ray. Many years before, the teenage Ray-Ray was the victim of what’s called a “bad shoot” in police lingo. The remaining family consists of mother Maria; her husband, Ernest; their daughter, Sonja; and surviving son, Edgar. Maria is patient and caring as Ernest sinks deeper into what everyone believes is Alzheimer’s disease. Sonja is a restless loner, hooking up with and discarding younger men. Edgar, just as unsettled, is an addict. The family is mired in profound grief and trauma, including trauma from the forced removal of their Cherokee ancestors to Oklahoma in the 19th century. It’s not surprising, and may not even be a coincidence, that the anniversary of Ray-Ray’s death is also the anniversary of the beginning of the Trail of Tears. Things start to change when Maria fosters a teenager named Wyatt. Exuberant, smart and talented, Wyatt can’t help but remind her of Ray-Ray. To Ernest, Wyatt is Ray-Ray reincarnated. And why couldn’t he be? In this novel, the ghosts of ancestors narrate entire chapters, animals may be familiars, Edgar stumbles into what seems like a smog-filled purgatory, and the very wind and water seem to be sentient. Hobson, a National Book Award finalist for his novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, weaves strands of the past and present so skillfully that events that would be improbable in the hands of another author are inevitable in The Removed. More than anything, in the case of the beleaguered Echota family, Hobson understands William Faulkner’s adage, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson: It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie, addressing issues of race, class, privilege and upward mobility. Ganton, Indiana, is a town whose “very soul was a trapdoor, a gateway to nothingness that few people climbed out of.” One of the lucky few who managed to escape this dying factory town is Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman who headed to Yale, became a successful chemical engineer and now lives in Chicago with her equally successful, charismatic husband, Xavier. The world seems their oyster as they celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008, but that bubble bursts when Xavier mentions he is ready to start a family. Ruth has a secret that she finally reveals to Xavier: At age 17, before graduating high school, she gave birth to a son who was whisked away and given up for adoption by her grandmother, who raised her. When Ruth returns to Ganton to search for her son, she encounters an 11-year-old white boy, nicknamed Midnight, the grandson of Lena, a close family friend. Ruth and Midnight trade narration between chapters as their lives become increasingly intertwined. Midnight’s mother died in childbirth–as did his sister–and Midnight and Ruth are lonely, heartbroken souls struggling to find their way forward. With beautifully crafted prose and a gift for dialog, Johnson takes readers on an action-packed ride toward a dramatic, revelatory conclusion. As Ruth’s grandmother warns, “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day. And it’s going to bite you. Real hard.” A fictional callback to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, The Kindest Lie also brings to mind Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, in which another young Black woman returns to her hometown to try to reconcile her past, present and future. Don’t miss this powerful debut.
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 4-8): Author and illustrator Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, who received both Newbery and Caldecott recognition for their 2015 collaboration, Last Stop on Market Street, team up for a third time on Milo Imagines the World, a nuanced tale about the fallacies of first impressions. Milo and his older sister take long monthly subway rides together, though their destination isn’t revealed until the end of the book. With notebook and pencil in hand, Milo draws the lives he imagines for the people he sees on the train. These include a “whiskered man” whom Milo sketches returning home alone to a messy apartment, a primly dressed boy and his father depicted as living in a castle and a woman in a wedding dress who celebrates a festive wedding to a man. When he arrives at the detention facility to visit his mother, Milo sees the boy he drew on the train and realizes that “maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.” He begins to envision different lives for the strangers than those he drew on the subway. Perhaps the woman in the wedding dress married another woman or that whiskered man went home to his loving family. De la Peña’s prose is precise and evocative (Milo is “a shook-up soda” of nerves), full of pleasant verbs (the train “bucks back into motion”). His story respects young readers by incorporating their complex interior worlds and the observant ways they attend to issues of class. When “a crew of breakers” exits the train, for example, and “faces still follow their every move,” Milo imagines that the breakers will be subjected to racist microaggressions when they step outside the subway. Robinson’s signature collage illustrations bring Milo and his sister’s distinct personalities to life. Milo is bespectacled and wears an eye-catching lime-colored knit hat, and his sister is deeply distracted by her phone. Milo’s own simple drawings capture his childlike sense of wonder without ever patronizing. A thoughtfully crafted addition to the small canon of books about children with an incarcerated parent, this sweet but never saccharine story is a classic in the making.
Made in China by Amelia Pang: Many Western consumers know that the cheap items we buy are made by people who are paid poorly. But fewer consumers know about the worshippers, political dissidents and others in China who are forced to make these items against their will. In the fall of 2012, an Oregon mom was going through some Halloween decorations when something fell out of her package of styrofoam gravestones. It was a letter. She opened it up to find an anonymous plea asking the reader to report to a human rights organization about the Chinese forced labor camp where the decorations were made. Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang is the story of that forced labor camp and the man who wrote the letter. His name was Sun Yi. He was once an employed and happily married man, but because he was a Falun Gong practitioner (a meditation practice that the Chinese government considers a cult), he was sent to a forced labor camp called Mashanjia. China calls these camps laogai–“reeducation through labor” or “reform through labor.” In laogai, prisoners are forced to make goods that are sold around the world. Yi was kept at Mashanjia for several years, making decorations for nearly 20 hours every single day. Readers should be aware that horrific violence occurs throughout the book. Pang’s reporting provides an unflinching glimpse into the human costs behind our cheap products, and those costs include sexual assault, torture, maiming and death. These are descriptions of the extensive torture Yi endured in the camp, as well as a chapter that deals with forced organ donation. Prior knowledge about China is not needed to understand Made in China. The book is an excellent entry-level explanation of Chinese religious and political history, and how human rights abuses intersect with billion-dollar businesses. Pang connects the dots between globalization, Western consumption and sustainability to create a clear, cohesive picture of the problem, as well as of potential solutions.
Mike Nichols by Mark Harris (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Biography): With his peripatetic creativity, knack for comic improvisation and canny ability to draw out an actor’s best performances, Mike Nichols became one of the most acclaimed theater and film directors of our time. In the sprawling yet intimate Mike Nichols: A Life, Mark Harris captures the ups and downs, the enthralling highs and ragged despair, of the man whom Harris calls “the last of a certain kind of cultural celebrity–someone who could travel between film and theater, who understood art and politics and fashion and history and money, a man of the world and of his century.” Drawing on 250 interviews with Nichols’ friends and family, Harris traces Nichols’ rag-to-riches story, beginning with the immigration of 7-year-old Igor Michael Peschkowsky (Nichols’ birth name) to New York from Berlin. From there the tale follows his father’s death when Nichols was 12, an allergic reaction that resulted in his hairlessness and his eventual move to Chicago, where he took the first steps toward his eventual success. Although he had enrolled as a student at the University of Chicago–where he met and developed lifelong friendships with Susan Sontag and Ed Asner, among others–he ultimately fell in with Paul Sills, who directed Nichols in the improvisation group the Compass Players, the forerunner of Second City. In Chicago, Nichols worked as a DJ at the famed program “The Midnight Special” on WFMT, and he also met Elaine May, with whom he developed a popular comedic partnership. Eventually Nichols left Chicago for New York City, where he would direct in quick succession the plays Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Little Foxes to great acclaim. He then moved into film as the director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Harris artfully tracks Nichols’ deep desire to work and to inspire others to embrace the power of theater and film. “Movies give us a chance to live other lives,” Nichols said, “and we walk on the set every morning thinking, Anything can happen.” Candid, colorful and chock-full of detail, Mike Nichols: A Life is the biography that Nichols well deserves.
Of a Feather by Dayna Lorentz (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 10-13): Rufus the great horned owl is the self-declared “worst owl in the history of owldom.” Next to his fledgling sister, First, 6-month-old Rufus feels like a runt. When Rufus’ mother is captured by humans while First is away from their next, Rufus is left alone, afraid and unprotected against the unknown dangers of the night. Reenie is far from thrilled to go live with her “alleged aunt” Bea, whom she’s never met, while her mother undergoes psychiatric treatment–until she learns that Bea is a falconer. As Bea raises a hawk and begins planning for passage bird season, Reenie is entranced and begins learning all she can about the fascinating sport. Rufus’ and Reenie’s stories intersect when Rufus–cold, injured and sick–is ensnared in Bea’s live trap. Bea and Reenie take Rufus in to rehabilitate him, but Reenie soon develops an attachment to him that cannot last, because the goal of rehabilitation is to release the animal back in its habitat. Besides, Reenie has learned the hard way that attachments are usually temporary. Reenie and Rufus narrate Of a Feather in chapters that alternate between their perspectives. The format is a smart choice by author Dayna Lorentz that easily allows readers to see the parallels in their situations. They’re both lost, missing their mothers and seeking the reassurance and validation they need to be able to soar on their own wings. Reenie longs to make friends, but is afraid of the vulnerability that comes with opening up. Rufus is torn between the ease of living with humans and returning to the wild to find both his mother and his higher purpose. Author Dayna Lorentz is no stranger to writing about animal-human relationships; her previous books include the Dogs of the Crowned City trilogy, written from the perspective of a dog separated from his family in the aftermath of a hurricane. Her deep research into the world of falconry and bird rehabilitation are present on every page as she conveys the exhilarating rush of working with incredible birds of prey. Though readers will pick up quite a bit of information by reading the story itself, significant back matter provides even more fuel for curiosity and discovery. Of a Feather‘s wonderful balance of nature-driven narrative and emotional storytelling will appeal to readers who love the great outdoors as well as those who prefer to stay inside with a good book.
Anonymouse by Vikki VanSickle and Anna Pirolli (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 3-7): You might think that, if a mouse were to become a graffiti artist, they would use creamy yellow paint in tribute to delicious cheese. But the prolific and eponymous(e) spray-painter in Anonymouse favors a bright berry pink that pops against the brown and beige city buildings and streets where they live and work. As digitally drawn by Italian illustrator Anna Pirolli, Anonymouse’s striking and funny acts of guerilla art offer encouragement to other urban-dwelling animals who are surrounded by high-rises and concrete, rather than trees and grass. In the painter’s tiny paws, satellite dishes become big-headed flowers, trompe l’oeil technique turns a dumpster into a chic raccoon cafe, and a well-placed image of a pink-winged bat alerts a traveling colony of the flying mammals that a nearby warehouse is a prime hangout spot. Anonymouse paints high in the sky and deep down underground, sending out cheeky signals to ants, birds and dogs alike. Animals and humans frolic in the faux shade of painted trees, enjoying the literal and figurative color added to their lives by the stealthy artist. But alas, Anonymouse must eventually move on. As the bright pink paint fades to a soft rose glow, the animals know their lives have been forever changed, and even more exciting, they begin to create art themselves. Regardless of whether Candian author Vikki VanSickle drew inspiration from the activist-artist Banksy or the Swedish artist collective Anonymouse, she has created a charming and clever rodent revel whose work, she writes, “always made the animals of the city think.” Anonymouse is a poetic and visually witty paean to the power of creativity and the ability of art to inspire and unite us. Readers will enjoy wondering what Anonymouse could be up to right now and will surely consider their own surroundings in a new, imaginative light.
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): One might wonder if anything new can be written about Paris, but Janet Skeslien Charles reminds us of the city’s evergreen appeal and unbounded potential for stories with The Paris Library, which tells of the very real, very beloved American Library in Paris and the role it played during World War II. The year is 1939, and Odile Souchet is nervously reciting the Dewey Decimal System as she prepares for a job interview at the American Library. It’s not common for young ladies of her class to get jobs, but Odile is in love with books as if they were walking, breathing bodies, and she wants nothing more than to be a librarian at a place she has loved since her childhood. It’s no surprise to the reader when she lands the job. The comfort and whimsy that young Odile once experienced at the American Library are still very much alive. However, everything changes when the Germans occupy Paris and threaten to destroy everything she holds dear. Together with the rest of the staff, Odile joins the resistance, delivering books to Jewish readers banned from entering the library. When the war eventually ends, instead of rejoicing, Odile learns of betrayals that make it impossible for her to remain in the city she loves or to work in a place she had come to know as her sanctuary. The book skips ahead to 1983 Montana, where we find Odile living alone. In all these years of calling a small American town her home, she hasn’t manage to shake off the mystery surrounding her. When a school assignment connects a lonely and curious teenage girl named Lily with Odile, a friendship is forged, and the two slowly confront the consequences of present and past choices. What makes The Paris Library such a tender read is Charles’ firsthand experience at the American Library, where she was the programs manager. This is where she first discovered the stories of the brave librarians who fought the Germans with nothing more than books. Her meticulous research brings these figures to life with Odile as their narrator. Furthermore, Charles’ Montana roots help shine light on the small-town life that Lily can’t wait to escape. Together the two storylines provide wonderful insight into relationships and friendships that transcend time and place.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): In her engrossing and darkly lyrical debut novel, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Bajan author Cherie Jones unspools a discomfiting allegory of race, class and intergenerational trauma in a far from idyllic fictional Caribbean community. It begins with a bloody fable about an act of rebellion gone wrong: A disobedient girl loses her arm to a monster because she didn’t heed her mother’s warnings about the dangers of the tunnel, that it has “monsters that live down in there, how any little girls go in there they never come back out.” This allegory becomes a touchstone–and the rest of the novel an elaboration on that cautionary tale–as headstrong Lala finds her life quickly unraveling after she marries a man that her grandmother characterizes as “a louse.” By leaving her grandmother’s house for a man whose slickness is easily mistaken for charm, Lala chooses a life she thinks will mean freedom but only brings pain and even more restrictions, setting in motion a series of tragedies with wide-reaching ramifications. Several related events–Lala’s act of defiance, her husband’s botched and deadly burglary of a wealthy British visitor and the traumatic death of their baby–occur in quick succession, but their consequences and interconnectedness are revealed at a slower pace. However, one thing is clear from the start: Life in this place they call “Paradise” is nasty, brutish and fragile, if not always short. Even as tragedies and indignities pile up, the murkiness surrounding the novel’s events will compel readers to continue reading. Questions arise about how a simple robbery went so wrong and how Baby died–but most importantly, why? What are the roots of these characters’ discontent and recklessness? A bleak and complex picture emerges through this ensemble story, with chapters that alternate between generations and time periods as well as individual points of view. When Lala’s grandmother Wilma tries to make sense of it all, her answer is all too familiar: Willful women who tempt men, who don’t listen, sow the seeds of their own destruction. In the fable, the monster might have stolen the girl’s arm, but she was “slack-from-she-born” and “force-ripe” and above all, “own-way” (disobedient). She brought it on herself; bad girls reap what they sow. On this topic, both Wilma and Lala’s husband agree. Even the police officer tasked with investigating Baby’s death identifies with Wilma’s worldview. Like the fearsome Wilma, author Cherie Jones is a powerful storyteller. Like the policeman, many readers will feel compelled to follow her into the dark even though there’s precious little joy or light to be found there.
City of the Uncommon Thief by Lynne Bertrand (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): When you see “Relevant Maps” listed as the first item in City of the Uncommon Thief‘s table of contents, you know you’re in for an epic story. What you don’t know until you finish reading, however, is that Lynne Bertrand’s first young adult novel is not only a sprawling work of precise storytelling, but also a literary Rubik’s cube–frustrating at times, but surprisingly fun. You should prepare for two hurdles before you begin reading. First, Bertrand’s prose is dense and tricky; you may find yourself consulting a dictionary as you read. Second, Bertrand has very little interest in exposition, so although she has created a vibrant world and an unusual parlance in which its characters speak, she will not hold your hand as she pushes you headfirst over its precipice. Bertrand’s titular city is unnamed and has been quarantined from the rest of the world for a long time. The city itself is composed of a thousand towers, linked together by a crisscrossing web of zip lines that teenage runners use to travel from roof to roof. We see t his new world through the eyes of Odd Thebes, a wisecracking, self-pitying bard who loves books, girls and being the smartest guy in the room. His cousin Errol Thebes is as swashbuckling as his Hollywood namesake; he’s handsome, arrogant and always ready to play the hero. When the cousins give Jamila Foundling, a mysterious servant, the task of hiding an unusual and potentially powerful stolen object, the three teens become entrenched in a tangled tale of magic, lies and the dark reality of life below the towers. Bertrand dangles revelations around every corner and has twists and turns to spare. The satisfaction of seeing the puzzle pieces of her story come together, of witnessing her trio of heroes learn what’s inside of them and who they really are, proves a satisfying reward for the reader’s hard work. City of the Uncommon Thief is genre-defying fiction at its finest, and Bertrand sticks the landing on a book that knows no fear.
Ancestor Approved by Cynthia Leitich Smith (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Middle Grade): Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids is a lively anthology of interlinked short stories and poems from a wide range of Native American writers, including Christine Day, Eric Gansworth, Traci Sorell and Joseph Bruchac, as well as editor and Heartdrum co-founder Cynthia Leitich Smith. It’s also the first anthology published by Heartdrum, an new imprint within HarperCollins Children’s Publishing dedicated to Native American stories and creators. In a web of stories as intricate as the dancers’ beaded outfits, through voices as varied as the tribes represented at the powwow, the authors create a memorable group of characters who interact and overlap at the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the biggest powwows in the United States. Some characters are already acquainted, while others are meeting for the first time. Some dance on the stage, while others are content to watch, and some are deeply in touch with their heritage and tribal traditions, while others are discovering them for the first time. Their experiences and backgrounds reflect the rich and varied vibrancy of Native communities. Readers will feel invited to celebrate these experiences as they read about the food, art and performances of the powwow. Much of American children’s literature has for too long relegated Indigenous people and their stories to the category of historical fiction. Ancestor Approved shines a long overdue spotlight on a joyful aspect of Native life in America today.
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 9-12): Things are not going well for Amari Peters. Her scholarship to tony Jefferson Academy is being revoked on the last day of school because she shoved a classmate after being subjected to continuous bullying. And as if she didn’t have enough to worry about, her older brother, Quinton, has been missing for six months after starting a secret job. The police have stopped looking for him, assuming he was involved in illegal activities and met an unfortunate end, but Amari refuses to give up. So much more awaits Amari in debut author B.B. Alston’s lively fantasy adventure, Amari and the Night Brothers. She is soon whisked away to tryouts at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, the top-secret agency where her brother once flourished. To become a Junior Agent, Amari must pass three quests, and she plans to investigate what’s become of Quinton as she does so. Alston maintains a rapid pace as he creates a magical world full of dangers that lurk around every corner and drops delectable details with obvious delight. Fantasy readers will love watching Amari master illusions and spells and discover the “truth” about creatures like leprechauns, dragons and the abominable snowman. There’s a whole world of misunderstanding out there, and sadly, Amari’s new school isn’t much different from Jefferson Academy. It’s also filled with privileged, bullying classmates who are intimidated by Amari’s intelligence. Thankfully, she makes a few trusted friends, including Dylan, whose twin sister becomes Amari’s archrival and whose older sister disappeared with Quinton. Amari’s reaction to an instructor who tells her he’s never seen “a worse prospect” for the Bureau encapsulates her determination: “I’m tired of being underestimated,” she retorts. “You’re wrong about me.” Fans of blockbuster middle grade fantasy sagas will adore this empowering, action-packed series opener featuring a confident Black heroine who is just beginning to discover her own gifts.
Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Fans of Kristin Cashore’s previous books set in the fantastical world of the Seven Realms (Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue) will pick up Winterkeep with certain expectations. Breathe a sigh of relief now: Winterkeep does not disappoint. Told in multiple narrative voices, not all of which are human, and featuring both new and returning characters, Winterkeep begins with a mystery. Why did a ship carrying Queen Bitterblue’s envoy to the nation of Winterkeep sink before its passengers could convey a critical message about zilfium, a powerful but environmentally destructive fuel mined there? Bitterblue, along with her adviser Giddon and spy Hava, departs on a diplomatic voyage to investigate, but very little goes as planned. In a seemingly parallel story set in Winterkeep’s renowned academy, a politics and government student named Lovisa–whose parents represent the continent’s two political parties, the earth-conscious Scholars and the practical Industrialists–goes in search of a mysterious hidden object. And at the bottom of the ocean, an enormous, many-tentacled creature of the deep who has grown fond of sunken ships and sparkly treasures begins to sing. There’s no straightforward good and evil in Winterkeep. Instead, there are cats and keys and cake, telepathic foxes and flying airships, dolphins that speak only in images, locked drawers and very interesting teas. And lurking in the background are tales of the Keeper, a monster of myth who keeps the land and sea in balance and rises up in fury if the balance is disturbed. By transporting the action to a new stage, Cashore ensures that Winterkeep is as accessible as possible to readers unfamiliar with her previous books, though there’s much here to reward longtime fans. Winterkeep is a tale full of plotty intrigue and characters who must uncover truths within themselves even as they navigate a world of secrets around them. The detailed world building, slow-burning suspense, emotional tenderness and nuanced perspectives on gender and sexuality, all of which have become Cashore’s calling cards, are all on full display and as enjoyable as ever.
The Crown in Crisis by Alexander Larman: In the past 30 years, the British monarchy has kept the tabloids busy with Diana, Charles, Camilla, Harry, Meghan et al. So you would be forgiven for knowing little or nothing about the royal family’s biggest scandal before our current era: when King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry his lover, Wallis Simpson. Consider filling in the gaps in your knowledge with The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to Abdication by journalist and historian Alexander Larman. The year was 1936, and Edward was a reluctant monarch, unmarried and lonely. He became enchanted by society gadfly Simpson; some even say he was obsessed with her. That she was married and American (both no-nos according to the British public) did not rein in Edward’s sexual pursuit. If having Simpson as a wife meant finessing her quickie divorce and abdicating his throne, so be it. Certainly Edward’s determination changed the course of history. Some view his pursuit of Simpson as the ultimate love story, but The Crown in Crisis takes a darker view of his behavior. Simpson seemed less invested in the relationship and was willing to walk away. Larman illustrates how Edward’s “patriarchal entitlement” to be with her, no matter what, upended her life and caused enormous suffering. The Crown in Crisis presents Edward as reckless in his love life, as well as in his political associations. (He was more sympathetic to Germany’s ascendant Nazi party than the British government would have liked him to be.) This was a man who enjoyed the perks of his wealth and privilege but shrugged off many of his responsibilities and ran his staff ragged keeping up with his whims. Larman examines all sides of this unprecedented crisis: the prime minister, the king’s courtiers, media magnates, religious leaders, Nazis, fascists, the couple’s posh friends and even the royal family. He blends previous reporting and newly published archival sources into a deeply researched account that will fascinate royal lovers and history fans alike. Many aspects of British culture have changed since 1936. In The Crown in Crisis, the appeal of palace intrigue stays the same.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-1950s contains two worlds folded into one another: Its tightknit community looks out for its own interests, but many of its businesses serve white tourists in search of a particular experience that the community feels obligated to deliver. At 17, Lily Hu is also living two lives. A good student and obedient daughter, she knows she likes girls and has begun to fall for her new friend, Kath. She also knows she can’t be open about their relationship, but the gay nightclub she’s been sneaking out to–full of white faces and casual racism–is hardly a safe haven either. Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a work of historical fiction that’s as meticulously researched as it is full of raw, authentic emotion. The book is divided into sections, with timelines that highlight historical events and situate the lives of Lily’s family members among them. Senator McCarthy’s antagonism toward Communism has made neighbors afraid of one another, and his movement also targets people who are gay and lesbian. If Lily and Kath’s relationship is discovered, the consequences for Lily’s family will be disastrous. Lily’s parents’ own stories are complicated and full of difficult choices, and they want their daughter to choose the easier path that their sacrifices have made possible. But Lily is a protagonist to be reckoned with. Her aunt’s work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sparks her fascination with space exploration. When her relationship with Kath leads to heartbreaking consequences, Lily is steadfast and faces them head-on. Lo’s writing is packed with sensory details; her descriptions of midcentury San Francisco are gorgeous, and she vividly brings its lesbian subculture to life. Among these excellent details are the pulp novels Lily reads, which allowed queer people to see themselves on the page (though such representations always ended in suffering), as well as popular music that revealed how gender could be a playground, even in a period with rigid masculine and feminine roles. This is a beautiful, brave story, and Lily is a heroine that readers will love.
The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): “This is survival,” says Nora O’Malley, a teenage con artist holed up in a bank that’s being robbed. She’s nervously plotting her escape with her girlfriend, Iris, and ex-boyfriend and best friend, Wes. There are others trapped in the bank as well, but they can’t help–not like Nora can. Not like Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie and Ashley can. See, they’re all one and the same, a Rolodex of all the identities Nora has known since she was a child. To Nora, the men with guns in the bank are just more men to con, more men she has to survive. Nora was born into a life of lies and violence. Her mother, a con artist with predilections for abusive men and the finer things in life, bestowed different identities on her daughter, giving her personalities and hair colors to match. Nora learned to assume roles such as the good girl or the victim–whatever it took to win over a mark. As Nora calls upon the skills her mother taught her in order to outwit the trigger-happy bank robbers, author Tess Sharpe unveils the stories of Nora’s past identities and recounts how Nora’s older sister, Lee, drew her away from their mother to begin a new life. Not since “Veronica Mars” have hardscrabble swagger, enormous grief and teenage noir been combined into such a satisfying piece of storytelling. The Girls I’ve Been is a heart-wrenching, perfectly paced, cinematic thriller with a Netflix adaptation helmed by “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown already in the works. One scar at a time, Sharpe reveals the connections among Nora, Lee, Wes and Iris. She examines their wound with care, rather than picking at them for shock value or cheap thrills. Every act of violence these characters have experienced, no matter how small, adds weight to their actions and deepens our understanding of who they are. Nora is an astonishingly strong protagonist, though as this thrilling book argues, she shouldn’t have to be. Like many who have experienced abuse, Nora has often felt that she had no choice but to survive. “I told you,” she says to Iris. “I’m someone who survives. We’re going to survive together.” The Girls I’ve Been is a romance, a tragedy and a story about reclaiming agency and power. It is a triumph.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Nonfiction): Joan Didion is not so much a chronicler of American culture as its velvet-gloved eviscerator. With spare and penetrating syntax that strips all excess from her narratives, she has, over the last seven decades, gone straight to the withered heart of the matter in novels and essays that have become legendary. Two of her nonfiction books, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, have taken on well-deserved iconic, even mythic, status. Didion, who is now 86, has not published anything new in a while (her memoir of her daughter’s death, Blue Nights, appeared in 2011), but for the last few years she has been digging through her archives and notebooks and selecting fragments and abandoned pieces that offer a glimpse into her working process and her earlier self. Let Me Tell You What I Mean gathers 12 previously uncollected short pieces mostly written for magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, with a few dating to the tail end of the last century. As a group, these essays are wide-ranging in subject, yet each displays the distinctive voice Didion has honed with precision. Whether she is profiling the studied perfection of then-first lady of California Nancy Reagan or the cultural significance of Martha Stewart on the cusp of her historic initial public offering, Didion allows her subjects to speak for themselves, inviting us to read between the lines and draw our own conclusions. At the height of the turbulent 1960s, this pioneer of new journalism could zero in on the discomfiting comfort of a Gamblers Anonymous meeting (“mea culpa always turns out to be not entirely mea”) or convey a proud veteran’s ambivalence about his son’s impending service in Vietnam during a 101st Airborne Association reunion in Las Vegas. Fans of Didion’s incisive fiction will delight in her candid reflection on why she abandoned the short story as a viable form early in her career. Not unexpectedly, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is secondary Didion at best, but even minor offerings from this prose master are hard to dismiss–and equally hard to resist.
Chatter by Ethan Kross: In Buddhism it’s referred to as “monkey mind”–that cascade of often critical and judgmental self-talk that runs in a ceaseless loop in our heads. In Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross provides a useful introduction to some of the intriguing research on this phenomenon and offers a toolbox full of constructive techniques for quieting our persistent inner voice or, better yet, turning it in a positive direction. When he received an anonymous threatening letter several years ago, Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, first turned inward to investigate how our default biological state creates an “inescapable tension of the inner voice as both helpful superpower and destructive kryptonite.” Any attempt to silence that voice, he explains, is doomed, but through a process of trial and error, most people can find some method of transforming it from foe to friend. Relying on a host of laboratory studies and compelling anecdotal evidence–like the story of major league pitcher Rick Ankiel, who suddenly lost the ability to control a baseball bat reinvented himself as an outfielder–Kross is an amiable guide through this fascinating and complex territory. He illustrates the value of the simple act of distancing–visualizing oneself as a third-party observer or invoking mental time travel–to gain perspective on how a momentary crisis might appear to a neutral party or with the benefit of hindsight. In one experiment, something as simple as a temporary shift from negative “I-talk” to referring to oneself in the second or third person provided dramatic benefits. And in one revealing chapter, Kross explains how placebos and rituals can help tame the worst aspects of the inner voice. “The challenge isn’t to avoid negative states altogether,” he concludes. “It’s to not let them consume you.” Anyone seeking help along that road will find Chatter a useful traveling companion.
Every Waking Hour by Joanna Schaffhausen: When rookie Boston police detective Ellery Hathaway and FBI profiler Reed Markham see missing 12-year-old Chloe Lockhart’s cellphone lying in a trash can at the edge of Boston Common, they know she’s been kidnapped. It was highly unlikely she could have simply given her nanny the slip, and what tween would abandon their phone? With this new certainty, a busy street carnival on a sunny day becomes a crime scene and Joanna Schaffhausen’s Every Waking Hour begins. Chloe’s wealthy, busy parents (Teresa, a surgeon, and Martin, a financier) are delirious with worry. They kept her under strict surveillance and are terrified as well as confounded that their efforts were all for naught. Their hypervigilance stems from residual trauma: Twenty years ago, Teresa’s young son from her first marriage was murdered alongside their housekeeper, and the killer has not yet been caught. Ellery can relate to this maelstrom of emotions more than most. She was kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer at age 14, and Reed was the young agent who rescued her. After reuniting many years after Ellery’s horrific experience, Reed and Ellery began dating, and they struggle to find equilibrium as romantic partners and workmates. Reed’s ex-wife ensures their co-parenting is contentious, Ellery has been diagnosed with PTSD, and Chloe’s case is reopening old psychic wounds even as the duo rush to find the girl before her captor completely unravels. While Chloe’s disappearance kicks off the race-against-time detective work that propels the book–Schaffhausen is skilled at building delicious and inexorable tension–the relationships that are affected by her kidnapping give the book a special resonance. Trauma underpins so many of the characters’ reactions and decisions in Every Waking Hour, and Schaffhausen addresses it with fascinating detail and great empathy, drawing on her background in neuroscience and Ph.D. in psychology. It all makes for a compelling countdown to a surprising resolution (several of them, really–there are numerous intriguing threads for reader-sleuths to follow). This book is the fourth Ellery Hathaway title, and the gasp-inducing goings-on in its final pages are sure to prime fans for yet another skillfully crafted, suspenseful installment.
American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser: In 1961, 16-year-old Margaret Erle fell in love, got pregnant and was sent to a Staten Island maternity home. She gave birth to a boy she named Stephen, but as an unwed mother, she wasn’t allowed to hold her child. She and her boyfriend, George Katz, were saving money to elope (against their parents’ wishes) and wanted to keep their son. Despite their repeated resistance, social workers forced them to sign away their parental rights, and their son was adopted by a loving couple and renamed David Rosenberg. Fast forward to 2007, when journalist Gabrielle Glaser met Rosenberg in Oregon for an article she was writing about his kidney transplant. Rosenberg revealed that he hoped the article would somehow help him connect with his birth mother. Then in 2014, he called Glaser to say that he had finally located Margaret Erle Katz. George had passed away by then, but his birth parents had indeed married and had three additional children. Rosenberg jubilantly added, “She’s loved me my whole life.” Glaser realized that Katz’s story represents the experiences of more than 3 million young women who became pregnant in the decades between World War II and 1973, the year that abortion became legal in America. Her resulting chronicle, American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption, tells a heart-wrenching tale that will resonate with many. “Stephen was part of a vast exercise in social engineering unlike any in American history,” Glaser writes. These closed adoptions made tracking down birth parents or adopted babies nearly impossible before DNA testing. To make matters worse, unscrupulous agencies often lied to both birth mothers and prospective parents. Rosenberg’s parents, for instance, were told that his birth mother was a gifted science student who wanted to continue college rather than become a mother. In truth, Katz longed for and worried about her son every day of her life–for a while they unknowingly lived just blocks away from each other in the Bronx–and her anguish rings loud and clear on the page. The results of Glaser’s extensive research read like a well-crafted, tension-filled novel. Even though its form is vastly different from Dani Shapiro’s personal DNA memoir, Inheritance, both books deal with reconciling the past and uncovering long-buried secrets. American Baby is a powerful, memorable story of “two journeys, a lifelong separation, and a bittersweet reunion” shedding light on a chapter of history that changed the lives of millions of Americans.
Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Back in the 1930s, Dr. Howard Stovall Bennett III, then known as “Ward,” was the handsome hired hand at a Reno ranch that helped women establish Nevada state citizenship to get quickie divorces. A Yale dropout, Ward got the job after his wealthy Southern family lost everything in the Great Depression. In the wonderful, sweet Better Luck Next Time, a much older Ward recounts his time at the Flying Leap Dude Ranch to an unknown listener, whose identity is revealed at the end of the book. Ward’s job is equal parts ranch hand, driver, waiter and listening ear to women biding their time until a judge will grant them a divorce. He spends hours sitting outside attorneys’ offices, listening to the women tell their stories. “It was like listening to a celestial radio that only picked up the saddest soap operas,” he says, “its dial twisted slowly by the universe across the whole unhappy bandwidth without settling anywhere for long.” The trouble starts when Nina comes to the Flying Leap. A wealthy heiress heading for her third divorce, Nina takes the heartbroken Emily, who has fled a serial cheater in San Francisco, under her wing. Soon Nina and Emily are embarking on all sorts of liquor-and-grief-fueled adventures and roping Ward in to their fun. When Ward realizes he’s falling in love with Emily, he assumes his days at the Flying Leap are numbered. A longtime magazine writer, Julia Claiborne Johnson follows up her hilarious first book, Be Frank With Me, with this more serious–but still witty and charming–offering. She paints a vivid picture of a hot, dry Reno summer during which women wait to see whether their luck has run out or is just beginning. Ward is a thoughtful narrator, telling his story with the mix of joy and melancholy that comes with being elderly. “When you get to be my age,” he muses, “things that happened fifty years ago start seeming more real to you than what happened yesterday.” Indeed, this is a story that will stay with you for a long time.
Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton: When homesteader Dell Reddick Sr. decides to purchase a headstone for the son he lost 17 years ago, painful memories among his family members set into motion a series of events he could never have predicted. Swept up in the family ordeal is Deputy Sheriff Harley Jensen, who may be the only one who can restore the peace–if his own passions for one of the family don’t get in the way. Chris Harding Thornton unravels the intrigue and suspense in meticulously detailed fashion in her solid debut novel, Pickard County Atlas. Set in 1978, the story takes place in the titular rural Nebraska county, where large tracts of farmland have been named after the people who lived there. Homesteads–many of which have folded or been abandoned–stretch over hundreds of acres, a detail which Thornton cannily uses to evoke the isolation and lonely frustration that bears down upon the remaining residents. Harley is initially called to investigate a series of unusual thefts of clothing and other items from the homes of the recently deceased, as well as evidence of trespassing at other abandoned homes. One such excursion brings him in contact with Paul Reddick, the younger brother of Dell Jr., whose body was never found after he was killed in 1960 by Korean War veteran Rollie Asher. Paul is no stranger to the law, as he has been in and out of jail on drug-related charges. Harley tries to go easy on him, knowing the trauma that Paul and his family have experienced. But when it becomes clear that both Paul and Harley are attracted to Paul’s older brother Rick’s wife, Pam, events build toward a confrontation for which neither is prepared. Pickard County Atlas takes its time; there is no real sense of urgency or high stakes confronting Harley or any of the other characters. The closest thing to a central mystery is the weird series of thefts and break-ins. But Thornton, herself a seventh-generation Nebraskan, describes the landscape and interactions of the characters in such starkly realistic detail, you cannot help but get wrapped up in the novel’s noirish atmosphere and slow-burning mystery.
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 8-12): Maisie Cannon may only be 12 years old, but she’s already found her passion in life: ballet. She’d bored by the daily monotony of school because she knows that the only lessons that will impact her future are the ones she gets at the dance studio, where she finds sanctuary amid the barres and music. So when Maisie suffers a life-changing knee injury and must quit ballet and attend physical therapy for months in order to recover, it affects her more deeply than she or her parents anticipated. Cut off from the sheer joy of dance as well as the friends with whom she shares her passion, Maisie sinks into depression and isolation. A family trip back to her roots in the Native American Makah community may be her best chance to find a new way forward. Christine Day’s second novel, The Sea in Winter is unflinching in its portrayal of Maisie’s depression and the effect it has on her relationships with her family and friends. Day conveys Maisie’s feelings of despair and hopelessness with gravity and sensitivity, treating her young protagonist’s emotions with the respect they deserve. Sharing Maisie’s story would be an excellent way to open a dialogue between young readers and adults about mental health. Day’s depiction of Maisie’s deepening understanding of her family’s Native American identity and heritage is just as well done. Scenes in which Maisie’s mother and stepfather share stories of family and tribal heritage are sure to prompt young readers to learn more about their own family stories. The Sea in Winter is a refreshing and moving story of grief and healing from one of middle grade’s brightest rising stars.
All the Colors of Night by Jayne Ann Krentz: Jayne Ann Krentz is back with the second installment of her Fogg Lake trilogy, All the Colors of the Night. This smart, witty, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romantic suspense novel has all of Krentz’s signature touches: gender equality, cooperative teamwork and an unexpected twist. The small town of Fogg Lake, Washington, is secretly home to a cadre of interesting people who have paranormal abilities. North Chastain is a paranormal investigator who’s at risk of going “psi-blind,” which means that he would not only lose his job but also have to forge a new path in the normal world. But that won’t stop him from recovering a mysterious artifact that he believes sent his father, who was also on the relic’s trail, into a coma. To find the artifact, he partners up with Sierra Raines, who works as a middleman for buyers and sellers in the paranormal antiquities trade. Sierra is no timid, naïve woman. She understands the risks that come with going after a particularly sought-after object like the one North seeks, but she’s brave and sticks with him when the danger begins to escalate. Sierra saves the day–several times–and North is mature enough to be grateful and intelligent enough to recognize her skills. Sierra’s strength does not diminish North’s; rather, it enhances it. Their partnership is refreshingly and unquestionably one of equals. If you haven’t read the first book in the series, The Vanishing, don’t let that put you off. This easy-to-follow romantic suspense novel has a breathtaking pace, well-developed characters and great chemistry between its main couple.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams: Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories. At the end of the 19th century in London, Swansby House is a place of high hopes and bustling industriousness. There, Peter Winceworth writes the letter “S” entries for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He’s also in a pickle of his own making: From childhood, he has affected a lisp as a means to get special treatment, and the stress of maintaining the ruse ensures an undercurrent of discomfiture in his every interaction. Combine that with his irritatingly extroverted co-workers and an unrequited crush on a colleague’s fiancée, and he needs a release–which comes in the form of false entries (or mountweazels) that he secretly inserts in the dictionary as an act of quiet, clever rebellion. In the present day, intern Mallory is the sole employee of Swansby family descendant David, who is determined to complete the dictionary after a century of lying fallow. Production was halted by the onset of World War I, during which the staff perished and the printing presses were melted down for munitions. David wants to give the dictionary new life by digitizing it, but first Mallory must suss out and remove the mountweazels that pepper its pages. She’s also assigned to phone-answering duty, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds: Every day, a stranger threatens violence because the definition of marriage is changing. These calls are particularly distressing because Mallory is struggling with coming out. Williams ushers readers back and forth in time as Peter and Mallory wrangle with capricious office politics, unresolved romantic feelings and the assorted indignities of being human, often to hilarious effect. The author has a gift for writing set pieces and inner monologues that at first seem quotidian and then gradually spiral–or soar–into delightful absurdity. In The Liar’s Dictionary, Williams has created a supremely entertaining and edifying meditation on how language records and reflects how we see the world, and what we wish it could be.
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 4-8): Author Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners is a joyful, tender exploration of family and diversity. The book’s narrator, a young girl, begins by describing how her eyes look different from her friends’ eyes. Her friends have “big eyes” with “lashes like lace trim on ballgowns.” But her own eyes “glow like warm tea” and “kiss in the corners.” The girl reflects on what her eyes have in common with her family’s eyes. As she plays with her mother one day, the girl sees that her mother’s eyes “crinkle into crescent moons” when she smiles. She notices that her eyes have the same sparkle as her grandmother’s and little sister’s eyes. Throughout Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, which is Joanna Ho’s first picture book, she explores themes of family and tradition to construct an intimate portrait of a young girl’s growing sense of herself. The girl draws strength from her connections to the other women in her family–connections she clearly cherishes. Guided by these strong, loving women, the girl comes to realize her place in the continuum of both her family and her culture. In addition to capturing the touching warmth of the girl’s relationships with her family, Ho uses vivid imagery, repetition and poetic phrasing to make Eyes That Kiss in the Corners truly delightful to read aloud. The girl’s lashes “curve like the swords of warriors,” while her little sister has a “two-tooth smile.” There’s a wonderful sense of intentionality to Ho’s writing, and her rhythm builds to a stirring climax in which the girl declares that her eyes “are a revolution.” Artist Dung Ho draws on motifs from the natural world to bring scenes from the girl’s life and imagination to the page. Every spread bursts with flowers, butterflies and birds in riotous shades of yellow, orange, pink and green. The girl’s grandmother’s stories of traditions and legends have a dreamier quality as Ho employs swirls and soft spirals of misty blue. These evocative illustrations reinforce the sense of connection to family and culture, depicting how one generation speaks volumes to the next. In the hands of less talented creators, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners would be a simple exploration of how physical differences make us all unique or special. But Joanna Ho’s powerful language and Dung Ho’s dazzling illustrations have instead created a celebration of family and heritage that’s both luminous and revelatory.
Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): At the edge of a forest that haunts his family, Owen Merrick cares for his baby sister and grieving father. The witch who took Owen’s mother has transformed the trees into sirens that lure people to violent deaths. The sirens are Owen’s sworn enemies, but when he is caught in the woods one day and a siren named Seren rescues him, a tentative trust builds between them. Into the Heartless Wood is a fantasy novel that packs an emotional punch as it explores how doing the right, kind and gentle thing can require far more courage than waging war. Joanna Ruth Meyer’s choice to place sirens–typically associated with the sea–in a forest setting is wonderfully imaginative. Owen’s cozy home contrasts with scenes of train travel and the bustle of the city. The train runs through the forest, however, which threatens to overtake the kingdom as the witch extracts more souls. The battle between the witch and the king–and the consequences that befall Owen’s father, an astronomer who foretells some of what’s to come by interpreting messages from constellations–are grand and violent. Seren wants to break with the witch’s destructive ways, and she goes to fantastical lengths to help defeat her and keep watch over Owen. The witch is genuinely scary, and scenes involving the removal of souls are shocking in their cruelty. Though kingdoms rise and fall, the human soul is at the center of this invented world. Like the woods just beyond Owen’s home, Into the Heartless Wood is easy to get lost in and hard to come back from, thanks to Meyer’s excellent world building.
Hold Back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Ever since Alva’s Da, the latest in an ancestral line of caretakers of the loch near their village, murdered her mother seven years ago, Alva has been secretly planning her escape to a new life in town. Recently, her father has begun disappearing at night, demanding that Alva not leave their cottage after dark–which is a problem since Alva needs to meet her friend Ren, a boy from the nearby town who’s bringing her the supplies she’ll need to make her escape. Alva is beginning to worry that Da suspects something. When Da shows Alva that one of the nets he’s set around the loch’s depths has been shredded with mysterious precision and demands that she replace it with a new net, it seems to confirm her concerns. And then she sees the first creature. Drawing on Scottish mythology, author Melinda Salisbury pulls readers into a world of ribbon dances and tea trays, where woolen cloaks and silver horseshoes abound and dark, damp caves hold ancient secrets. She combines these folkloric motifs with the contemporary issue of climate change: The bustling town’s mill is draining the loch to dangerously low levels, allowing that which has long been concealed by the water’s depths to emerge. As Alva begins to question every assumption she’s ever made about her father, the loch and the villagers who have always shunned them, time may be running out. The creatures only appear after dusk, but the chilly autumn days are giving way to the long nights of winter. Misty, atmospheric and suspenseful, Hold Back the Tide alternates between tenderness and violence as it explores how the choices we make influence our environment and why that matters. Who are the monsters here, and who is just trying to survive? It’s perfect for readers who loved Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races and Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island, or anyone who wants to curl up with a blanket, a cup of tea and a good story on a gloomy day.
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: In folklore, magpies are said to bring bad luck, but that certainly wasn’t the case for Charlie Gilmour. An abandoned baby bird helped this young British author finally exorcise the long shadow cast by his biological father, who abandoned him as an infant. Gilmour’s remarkable memoir, Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie, explains in lively, compelling detail how caring for this bird prepared him to become a father himself. With razor-sharp wit and storytelling, Gilmour interweaves the story of this bird, whom he and his partner named Benzene, with that of his past. His biological father, Heathcote Williams, was a poet, actor and activist very much in the public eye. After Heathcote left, Gilmour’s mother eventually married Pink Floyd musician David Gilmour, who adopted Charlie. Despite the fact that Gilmour ended up having what he calls “a dream childhood,” thoughts of the elusive Heathcote haunted him. “Heathcote has lived and breathed in my head all my life,” he writes, “a sort of animated scarecrow constructed from secondhand stories and snatched encounters.” Heathcote, who was an amateur magician, would occasionally appear in his son’s life, only to vanish once again. When Gilmour was an adult, he spent a little time with Heathcote, who was by that point approaching death, and Gilmour paints a searingly honest portrait of this culmination of their fraught relationship. Gilmour freely admits that he was an unlikely candidate to become a wildlife rescuer, writing, “Even healthy animals haven’t has the best of luck in my hands.” Nonetheless, the tiny, ailing Benzene grew up and thrived–while proceeding to take over the household. Undeterred by Benzene’s free rein–not to mention her droppings–Gilmour became completely smitten by, if not obsessed with, the magpie, even holding birthday parties for her with invited guests. Benzene’s life “seems more akin to that of a medieval prince than to that of a bird,” Gilmour writes, “filled as it is with music, flowers, shiny baubles, and meat.” Benzene became so tame that Gilmour feared releasing her into the wild, and at the end of the book he cautions readers not to follow his example but to consult wildlife rescue organizations instead. Nonetheless, he reveled in the experience, concluding, “Caring for this creature this past year has brought me out of myself, made me see it’s not just catastrophe that lurks in the unknown; there’s beauty to be found there too.” Worthy comparisons can be made between Featherhood and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, and Gilmour was also influenced by Philip Roth’s memoir Patrimony. Gilmour’s upbringing could hardly be more different from Tara Westover’s, but like Educated, Featherhood represents the debut of a talented young writer reckoning with an unusual past.
I Dream of Popo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 4-8): A young girl stays in touch with her beloved grandmother, Popo, when her family moves to the United States from Taiwan in this exuberant picture book. Inspired by author Livia Blackburne’s personal experience of emigrating from Taiwan when she was 5 years old, the book also features the work of Taiwanese American illustrator Julia Kuo. In plainspoken yet evocative first-person narration, the girl recalls her favorite memories of her grandmother, beginning from her babyhood: “I dream with Popo as she walks me in her arms.” Readers see the growing girl and Popo walking in the park, celebrating the new year with special foods and looking at a globe to find San Diego, where the girl moves with her parents. Even though they are apart, Popo remains part of the girl’s life as the two connect online, which is cleverly shown in a fun double-page spread of each person’s screen, complete with the small reverse-camera image in the upper right-hand corner. Kuo’s colors are bright and vibrant, while subtle details effectively capture the differences of daily life in the U.S. and Taiwan. Readers see Chinese characters on a wall calendar and the skyline of Taipei in the backdrop of the park. During their online video call, the protagonist eats a bowl of cereal for breakfast while Popo uses chopsticks to eat her dinner of noodles. In her new home, the young girl gradually adjusts and makes new friends, “kids with hair of every color and skin of every shade.” Another clever spread shows two sheets of drawings the girl makes at school; she illustrates pictures of the English words she is learning alongside the Chinese characters. As she becomes more familiar with English, she begins to lose some of her first language, and its words become “hard to catch, like fish in a deep well.” But when they return to Taiwan for a visit, her mom reassures her that she can still hug Popo “as tight as before.” I Dream of Popo balances the bittersweet experience of being separated from family with an affirmation of the enduring bond between grandmother and granddaughter. Its backmatter, which includes reflections and family photos from both the illustrator and author, adds context and depth to its depiction of the contemporary immigrant experience. This is a lyrical and heartfelt tribute to the power of love across geography and generations.
The Push by Ashley Audrain: It’s easy to think of intimate, single-POV novels as somewhat simple narrative exercises, but Ashley Audrain’s gripping debut is proof that this is an illusion. In the hands of the right storyteller, even the most compact novels can be works of great complexity. The Push unfolds through the mind and pen of Blythe, an aspiring writer whose decision to become a mother is weighted against her own difficult childhood. Blythe is determined to be the mother she never had, but her first child, Violet, doesn’t make that easy. Blythe’s husband gets along with their daughter fine, but Blythe can’t help but think that something is off, particularly when their second child gives her the kind of parenting relationship she always wanted. Even then, the feeling that something is not quite right about Violet persists, until it goes so far that Blythe’s entire world is altered in a single shattering moment. The Push is a dazzling exercise in both economy of language and vividness of expression. Audrain’s grasp of Blythe’s inner life–her fears, her hopes, the details that linger in her mind–is so precise and mature that we get lost in this woman’s often troubling world. That feeling propels the novel forward at a blistering pace, but Audrain doesn’t stop there. This is just one woman’s side of the story–a woman who’s a writer, at that–so even as we feel we know Blythe, we can’t help but wonder how much of what she’s telling us is fiction. That this suspicion can coexist with the intimacy of Blythe’s narration is proof of Audrain’s skill as a storyteller and makes the book that much more spellbinding. The Push announces Audrain as a sophisticated, compelling writer, perfect for fans of thrillers and intimate family dramas alike.
Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Picture Book): LeUyen Pham’s Outside, Inside addresses the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic for young readers with sensitivity and compassion. “Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed,” Pham’s narration begins. “Everybody who was outside…went inside.” The book’s first spread shows a bustling street filled with people going about their daily life. Two people walk dogs; a man rides a bicycle and a child rides a scooter; children greet each other on the stoop of a building; people carry bags of groceries. We see the same street on the next spread, but now it’s empty–save for a girl’s cat, who will serve as our guide throughout the book. The girl, who anchors the story, looks hesitantly out the window at the absence of neighbors on the street. After emphasizing that this migration from outside to inside was something that happened all around the world, Pham pays tribute to the medical personnel and essential workers to whom the book is dedicated in to striking spreads. Detailed vignettes in a more restrained and muted color palette depict sobering and honest scenes of sadness, struggle, solitude and grief. Next, we peer into indoor lives, as Pham shows us an out-of-work family opening bills at the kitchen table with expressions of dismay and a child grown weary of virtual learning. Throughout, however, she also shows us scenes of kinship, community and camaraderie. Families work, play and bake together; medical staff bring a birthday cake to a woman in a hospital bed. Highlighting another meaning of “inside,” Pham reminds us how “we were all changing a tiny bit inside.” The book briefly addresses the reason for our indoor migration–“because everyone knew it was the right thing to do.” Pham doesn’t sugarcoat the impact that the pandemic has had on our lives, but COVID-19 also isn’t explicitly mentioned until a detailed and moving closing author’s note. Most children will have heard enough about the virus that laying it out explicitly in the text is unnecessary. Eagle-eyed readers, however, will notice the phrase “COVID-19” on a doctor’s whiteboard. Pham narrates Outside, Inside in the past tense, perhaps as a reminder that even this pandemic, too, shall pass. A brightly colored double gatefold imagines the day in the future when we’ll all be outdoors and near one another again. In the meantime, this deeply felt book will make waiting for that day a little bit easier to bear.
Outlawed by Anna North: This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and a lot of fun. North’s tale is set in a world in which women are expected to procreate and are persecuted if they don’t. Furthermore, a devastating flu-like illness has killed nine out of every 10 people. The women who survive and remain fruitful, it’s said, will be spared further sickness. Unfortunately, 18-year-old Ada, who assists her mother as a midwife, fails to bear a child for her husband after a year of marriage. Accused of witchcraft, she flees to a convent to atone for her “sin” but then learns of a place that may be more fitting, known as the Hole in the Wall. It turns out to be less of a place and more of a cultlike gang of fellow outcast women. The leader of the group, who is regarded as “Not he, not she,” but simply the Kid, promises to build a nation of the “dispossessed, where we would not be barren women, but kings.” At first Ada is received with suspicion and skepticism, but when the Kid needs a doctor, her skills as a midwife and familiarity with medicines make her a useful addition to their clique. Before long, the Kid becomes a mentor figure to Ada, teaching her to ride, shoot and fight, while preaching the gospel of Christianity. The novel takes its time in establishing the world and its characters, in particular Ada’s place in her new nonbinary world. But once the setup is complete, North picks up the pace with the Kid’s plan to rob a bank and, in doing so, take over an entire town. Ada becomes the tiebreaking vote among the gang in favor of the Kid’s plans, giving way to more customary Western shootout action against the sheriff who has been pursuing Ada from the start. North, a renowned journalist who won a 2016 Lambda Literary Award for her novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, easily subverts expectations as her characters struggle to find their identities in a patriarchal world.
The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Starting a book series is among the trickiest things for a writer to do. After all, stories that unfold over multiple volumes often need quite a bit of exposition, so first books run the risk of spending too much time laying the groundwork and losing the reader halfway through. Then there’s the problem of the ending: Is it better to end with a cliffhanger halfway through a high-stakes scene or in the proverbial calm before the storm? Amid all this, writers must craft a compelling narrative out of a partial story. Writing is hard enough without these added difficulties. The Frozen Crown, Greta Kelly’s debut and the first installation of her Warrior Witch duology, builds an evocative setting, a tantalizing magical system and a compelling and complex set of protagonists so well that it feels like a full story with some missing pages. Were it a standalone novel, I would have thrown it across my apartment for its unanswered questions. But as the first of a set, such as a visceral response is a testament to its success. Kelly’s world is hard to resist (and well worth the investment), and the sequel demands to be read, both to finish a gripping story of politics, revenge and illicit magic and for my own peace of mind. Princess Askia Poristkaya e-Nimri of Seravesh, to use her full title, is on the run. Her country has been overrun by the expansionist Emperor Radovan of Roven and his fire witch, Branko, as they carve their way down from the north. So Askia has turned southward, hoping to leverage her familial ties to the court of Roven’s rival empire, Vishir, to secure an army with which she can reclaim her home and birthright. But Askia’s task is complicated by a dangerous secret: She is a death witch, one who can see, hear and commune with ghosts, and both Roven and Vishir contain many who would hunt, hurt or kill her if they knew. Furthermore, her standing in the Vishiri court is tenuous, and Radovan’s plots follow wherever she goes. Kelly’s setting evokes the geography of the Caucasus: Roven’s climate, naming conventions and culture are inspired by the Slavic kingdoms of modern-day Russia, while Vishir is something of a conglomerate of several civilizations from Persia and the Middle East. However, this is no historical fantasy in the vein of Guy Gavriel Kay. Instead, these inspirations are clearly intended to provide a broad structure rather than information regarding the plot itself. Its details are more of a piece with K.S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the B**** Queen, from the queen seeking allies in a foreign and often hostile land to a society that exists in an uneasy and strained truce with magic. The story is told in a direct, sometimes terse first-person narration, which fits Askia’s blunt personality. There are moments when this writing style feels unpolished, and though it serves the characters well, it may end up clashing with the ambition of Kelly’s thematic vision. The Frozen Crown tackles so many problems, from sexism and the pitfalls of ambition to the nature of good and evil themselves, that it runs an unusual risk. While it feels and reads like a fantasy epic, it could easily veer into the darker territory occupied by the likes of Joe Abercrombie and Alex Marshall, simply because there may be too many conflicts for these characters to resolve in only two books. However, The Frozen Crown is dynamic and promising enough for both it and its forthcoming sequel to be worth the read, regardless of how the story ends.
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands is a Victorian thriller that blends gothic, supernatural and comedic elements to genre-defying results. While it certainly works well as a mystery, its humor is reminiscent of the late Terry Pratchett, and its satirical tone will appeal to readers who aren’t typically among the historical mystery crowd. Set in 1893 London, The House on Vesper Sands opens with a bizarre and eerie suicide. A seamstress jumps from the window of her patron Lord Strythe’s house after stitching a cryptic message into her own skin. The case falls into the lap of Inspector Cutter, whose dry humor and barbed tongue set him apart from his dull-witted counterparts. Along with Cutter is Gideon Bliss, an ecclesiastical scholar impersonating a police sergeant. Bliss is investigating the disappearance of his uncle and of a match girl named Angie Tatton. He believes that these vanishings may be connected to the suicide, and though often comically hapless and earnest, is determined to solve the puzzle. Cutter and Bliss’s double act is complemented by Octavia Hillingdon, a feminist and journalist looking for a story more compelling than her usual society page assignments. Many disparate strands come together to form this mystery–the aforementioned suicide, the disappearance of several working-class women and the bizarre actions of the mysterious Lord Strythe. Initially the setup for these different threads feels a bit tedious, but once they are woven together the pacing picks up considerably, to the extent that the end of the novel is explosively compelling. While many historical mysteries focus on the upper class (genteel ladies solving murders or intrepid police inspectors navigating the world of the ton), O’Donnell examines the world of working-class Victorian London and champions those who inhabit it. The missing women here are all working class and overlooked, but their plight is no less important to Cutter or Octavia. It’s a vividly painted atmosphere that feels so real to the reader, you can almost smell the gin and coal dust. The characters and humor that make The House on Vesper Sands shine would lend themselves well to a series–this novel is sure to make readers hunger for more.
Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 10-14): To kill the beloved protagonist of a previous book in the opening pages of a companion novel and make that death the new book’s premise would be the act of a truly brave, bold children’s author. Yet that’s exactly what Gary D. Schmidt does in Just Like That, but trust me, Schmidt knows exactly what he’s doing. Set in 1968, Just Like That is part of an outstanding series that began with Newbery Honor recipient The Wednesday Wars and continued in Okay for Now, a finalist for the National Book Award. In structure, the books are reminiscent of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale trilogy. While each book can be read separately, overlapping characters and themes enrich each other in understated and often profound ways. The series’ well-deserved legions of fans will experience the gut punch of grief that engulfs Meryl Lee Kowalski, who loses her best friend and feels as though “everything in the world, absolutely everything in the world, has become a Blank.” Unable to face life at home in Hicksville, New York, she heads to the coast of Maine to begin eighth grade at a private boarding school, the prestigious St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy. In the meantime, a boy named Matt Coffin is alone and on the run from a violent past, reeling from the murder of his best friend. He slowly builds a friendship and then a budding romance with Meryl Lee, as both young teens wrestle with grief and try to find their place in the world. Schmidt is a master at slowly creating wonderful relationships, often turning foes into friends in unexpected but believable ways. Meryl Lee initially feels lost among St. Elene’s grand, staid grounds and ultra-rich, snobby girls, but a group of students gradually allow their own strengths and friendships to emerge and blossom. St. Elene’s is run by a kind, wise leader, Dr. Nora Macknockater, who takes both Meryl Lee and Matt under her wind. Throughout all three books of this series, Schmidt reveals his genius for turning literary references into organic parts of his plots. In this case, Meryl Lee reads The Wizard of Oz as she and Matt try to find their way “home,” which isn’t easy since her parents are divorcing. Matt will remind readers of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as he is pursued by a dangerous Fagin-like character named Leonidas Shug, an ongoing tension that builds to a dramatic conclusion. Schmidt incorporates current events into all three books, particularly the horrors of the Vietnam War, and Just Like That also features a hilarious and plot-pivotal appearance by none other than Spiro Agnew. Just Like That takes place in Harpswell, Maine, where the writer Elizabeth Strout spent part of her childhood. Like Strout, Schmidt creates small worlds that contain the full piercing range or human nature and emotions, and he captures comedy and tragedy equally well. He writes gently but realistically about subjects including domestic violence, illness, death and grief, but his pages are also always filled with hope. As Dr. MacKnockater tells Meryl Lee, “The world can be such an ugly place. It takes a special person, a truly accomplished person, to make it a beautiful place.” Just Like That is a riveting, award-worthy novel from a truly accomplished writer. Don’t miss it.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): George Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo and was a National Book Award finalist for his short story collection Tenth of December. But the acclaimed author has also taught for more than 20 years in Syracuse University’s prestigious MFA creative writing program. There, in a semester-long class, he and his aspirants parse Russian short stories in translation to better understand how masters of the form such as Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol built their work from the ground up. For an emerging writer, Saunders believes, this process is akin to “a young composer studying Bach. All of the bedrock principles of the form are on display.” Now, in a true gift to writers and serious readers, Saunders has adapted the core of this coveted class into a commodious new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. With infectious enthusiasm and generosity of spirit, Saunders delves into seven stories that he calls the “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world”: three by Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy and one each from Ivan Turgenev and Gogol. (The actual syllabus at Syracuse contains about 30 stories.) The primary texts of the featured stories are included in the book, and after each one, Saunders launches into his “seminar,” providing insights–both his own and some gleaned from students over the years–into the structure and subtleties of these works. On the surface, this may seem a dry endeavor. However, in Saunders’ hands it is anything but. His love of literature is palpable, and his obvious qualities as an artful teacher are on full display. Saunders takes a different tack with each story, sometimes providing pulse-by-pulse dissections, other times analyzing the building of character or even how the excesses of a story somehow manage to contribute to rather than detract from its greatness. He also supplies an “afterthought” to each story’s analysis, in which he shares a personal anecdote from his own life as a writer and reader. While the genesis of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain can be found in the creative writing classroom–and writers at any level of their careers will glean priceless pearls from nearly every page–the genius of Saunders’ book, and his clear intention in offering it up, is to elucidate literature for the engaged reader, deepening the reading experience. It is also a blueprint for a greater engagement with humanity. “The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world,” Saunders writes. “It can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.”
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas: Angie Thomas returns to the Garden Heights neighborhood in Concrete Rose, a powerhouse prequel that explores the life of Maverick Carter, the father of The Hate U Give‘s protagonist, Starr. As the book opens in 1998, Maverick is a carefree 17-year-old kid. He’s happy to spend time with his girlfriend, joke around with his cousin and deal a bit for the King Lords alongside his best friend–just enough to help his mom bring in a little extra cash, since his dad has been in prison for nine years. But when Maverick finds out he’s the father of a 3-month-old boy, his world changes in an instant. He accepts his responsibility on the day he receives the results of the paternity test and begins to raise the child, even as the boy’s mother disappears. As the weight and exhaustion of fatherhood begin to add up for Maverick–on top of balancing high school, work, relationships with his friends and maybe-still girlfriend, and the sudden, violent killing of someone who was like a brother to him–Thomas chronicles the makings of a character that readers have only previously known as a mature man and father figure. Along the way, Maverick wrestles with loyalty, revenge, responsibility and the siren song of the streets–one that promises a fat life down a hard road to ruin. Thomas also reveals the meanings behind Maverick’s name and his children’s names and deepens our understanding of the resonance of Tupac’s lyrics in these characters’ lives. The Hate U Give became a literary phenomenon because of the depth and authenticity of Thomas’ characters, and those elements shine once again in Concrete Rose. Though it can be read as a standalone work, this prequel adds so much to our understanding of The Hate U Give that reading them together will be especially rewarding.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour: In his debut novel, Mateo Askaripour offers a witty yet thrilling examination of the complexities of race in corporate America. The novel centers on Darren Vender, a 22-year-old Black man who shares a Brooklyn brownstone with his mother and works as a shift leader at Starbucks. Despite graduating at the top of his high school class, Darren did not go to college and seems to lack ambition. That changes after a chance encounter with Rhett, the CEO of a buzzy tech startup called Sumwun, who invites Darren into the ruthless world of corporate sales. At Sumwun, Darren’s attempt to climb the corporate ladder is met with multidimensional racist resistance. Sumwun’s director of sales and Darren’s direct supervisor, Clyde, is a quintessential racist. He disproportionately criticizes Darren and employs incredibly demeaning language while doing so. However, Sumwun also features more subtle forms of racism. For example, white employees often remark that Darren resembles Black celebrities who look nothing like Darren–and who look wildly different from each other. While fighting for his upward mobility at Sumwun, Darren risks alienating his family, friends and himself. Eventually, an unfortunate incident rattles the foundation of Sumwun and sends Darren on a life-changing and culture-shifting journey that is full of twists, turns and some truly profound messages. Black Buck is an ambitious book. While being an intellectual and captivating work of satire, it also serves as an instruction manual for Black and brown people working in white-dominated spaces. Askaripour embeds tokens of wisdom in his well-crafted plot and delivers direct messages of advice and encouragement to readers. There is great risk in such ambition, but Askaripour is a fine writer and superbly executes his vision. This is an entertaining, accessible and thorough look at America’s race problem, a book both of the moment and one for all seasons. It’s a necessary read for those living under the weight of oppressive systems as well as for those looking to better understand their complicity within them.
Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): An earthquake isn’t a single moment. The event itself might be destructive, rending the earth apart and slamming it together along fault lines, but the effects begin before that moment and can extend long after the fracture. Nadia Owusu plays with this metaphor in Aftershocks. Her father’s death when Owusu was in her early teens was a central tremor in her life. Owusu adored her father, whose work with the United Nations carried the family across continents. Her relationships with her mothers were more complicated: her birth mother, who abandoned Owusu and her sister after their parents’ divorce; her aunt, who took the girls in afterward; and her stepmother, with whom Owusu competed for her father’s attention. Later, when her stepmother suggested that Owusu’s father may not have died of the cancer listed on his death certificate, Owusu wrestled with her understanding of the family that raised her. “Sometimes I think my memories are more about what didn’t happen than what did, who wasn’t there than who was,” Owusu writes. “My memories are about leaving and being left. They are about absence.” Owusu’s complex racial and national identities also inform her sense of self. The nationalities of her Ghanaian father, Armenian American birth mother and Tanzanian stepmother influence Owusu’s daily life, and moving between continents–Africa, Europe, North America–leaves her feeling even more out of place. Owusu, a Whiting Award-winning writer and urban planner, explores how those cultures have intersected with an influenced her personal experiences. Aftershocks is an intimate work told in an imaginative style, with the events that shaped its author rippling throughout her nonlinear story. The structure mimics the all-consuming effect that a moment–a personal earthquake–can have on a life.
The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm (Ages 8-12): In the year 2091, millions of miles away from Earth, 11-year-old Bell and a handful of other kids are growing up on Mars. Sent there as orphaned infants, they have never known another life, another home or another family. Along with several adults, they make up the American settlement, where their days seems rather mundane, except for the fact that they live in outer space, complete with dust storms, flying meteorites, planetary rovers and algae-based food. The settlement has very strict rules. Chief among them is, “No contact with foreign countries, ever.” Any contact with the Martian outposts from other countries is forbidden. But the red planet is a mysterious and desolate place, and, feeling isolated, the children are eager to explore. They’re never told why they can’t visit the other outposts, so they venture out and discover new challenges, but are soon discovered and reprimanded. Though they long to return to the other settlements for camaraderie, they are eventually forced to seek help when all the adults fall ill with a mysterious virus. Holm peels back decades of secrets to expose previous relationships and disagreements between the Martian settlements while exploring the tension between independence and community. She returns often to the metaphor of a lion’s pride, which Bell discovers in a book early on in the story. In a dangerous environment, lions and perhaps humans, too, must provide and rely on communal support to survive. Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolated setting and threat of unknown illness sometimes cause The Lion of Mars to feel eerily contemporary and timely. Three-time Newbery Honor author Jennifer Holm is known for her stories of family and relationships, but this is her first venture into science fiction. Although she constructs a lived-in vision of life on a Martian outpost that will please sci-fi fans, the story she tells remains rooted in the outpost’s ad-hoc family and anchored by Bell’s down-to-Earth narrative voice. The Lion of Mars looks past the red dust to reveal how our communities shape us just as much as our environments.
Root Magic by Eden Royce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 8 to 12): Though debut author Eden Royce currently lives in the United Kingdom, it’s clear she is still deeply rooted in the culture of the Gullah nation to which she belongs. Royce’s previous short stories were informed by the traditions of these descendants of enslaved people living along the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, and her first middle grade novel is also set in this evocative milieu. Root Magic finds the South, as well as its main characters, twins Jezebel and Jay, on the verge of some big changes. Their beloved grandmother has just died, and they’re about to turn 11. Their grandmother was a practitioner of what’s known as root magic, a rich and complex set of spells and charms passed down through generations, and it’s the twins’ turn to begin learning from their uncle Doc the knowledge that has been such a source of strength for their family. Recently, however, root magic has also been a source of stress. An increasingly aggressive police officer has been cracking down on its practitioners, and the new girls at school mock Jezebel for her family’s practices. What’s more, Jezebel and Jay are in different grades for the first time, and Jezebel fears they’re starting to grow apart. And then there are the mysterious voices she hears calling her by the river… Royce’s storytelling is atmospheric and more than a little spooky, filled with haints and boo-hags, protection charms and curses. But the novel is also set during a specific historical period–the fall of 1963–and so these supernatural elements play out against an equally vivid backdrop of real historical events, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, police intimidation tactics and the integration of Charleston schools. Root Magic successfully blends mystical elements with historical ones for a novel that explores Gullah culture as well as the social upheavals of the 1960s. Readers who are easily frightened might want to read with the lights on–but if they do, they’ll discover a thoughtful story about a family taking on all obstacles, seen and unseen, together.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation. One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing. From one point of view, certain actions seem perfectly reasonable, but another storyline may reveal their harm. In particular, two of these stories are on a collision course. The most important and sympathetic thread involves Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers. The other involves an older enslaved man, Amos, who decides to take on the role of preacher as a way to attain power for a worthy goal: He wants to protect his female partner from the plantation owner, Paul. Amos negotiates with Paul and offers to use his role as a religious leader to help run the plantation and keep the peace. Those sound like reasonable objectives given the constraints Amos is under, but the exercise of power is never that clean, and a multitude of betrayals, cruelties and tragedies arise from that Faustian bargain. Amos’ new responsibility means encouraging his fellow enslaved people to cooperate with Paul’s plans to force them to have children in order to increase his workforce. Samuel and Isaiah’s love violates these plans because they only want to be with each other, but that kind of love doesn’t produce offspring. Thus Amos’ religiosity and Isaiah and Samuel’s love are inherently at odds, and as religion takes hold of the plantation, it makes outcasts of two young men whom the community had long embraced. Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today. The Prophets traces the origins of a host of social ills, such as the use of religion as a tool for social control. Likewise, observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers. For example, Puah, a teenage girl who must fight every day to protect her body and soul, feels frustrated by the favor that Be Auntie, an influential older woman, extends to the boys and men in their group. Puah concludes, “Men and toubab shared far more than either would ever admit.” The men she refers to are her fellow enslaved people, and “toubab” is a Central and West African word for white people. These are observations about Black men and white patriarchy that Black women still struggle with in the 21st century. Similarly, Puah grieves for the way that Auntie and other women cast her as being “grown” before her time. That’s another modern-day problem: Black children are judged as adults, and young Black women are sexualized and blamed for their own abuse. These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry. This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.
Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Tessa Johnson is a writer. The words pour out of her into romance novels that star heroines with brown skin like hers–and that feature the boys of her dreams, of course. So when Tessa and her family move to Long Beach, California, and she enrolls in a highly selective art school, she’s thrilled at the opportunity to spend hours each day honing her craft. But faced with sharing her work with other artists for the first time, Tessa’s anxiety skyrockets. Her writer’s block is so intense that, for weeks, she can’t write a single word. What if she never gets her groove back? Who is she if she’s not a writer? When her best friend, Caroline, suggests that finding a boyfriend might jump-start her novel, Tessa zeros in on her classmate Nico, who’s model-handsome and a fellow writer. But as she pursues Nico, her friendships with Caroline and her goofy yet caring neighbor Sam begin to fall apart, and Tessa starts to suspect that she’s looking for validation in all the wrong places. In her charming debut novel, Happily Ever Afters, Elise Bryant nimbly blends bubbly, will-they-won’t-they teen romance with a frank look at issues ranging from impostor syndrome and identity to race and mental health. Bryant treats the tough stuff with nuance and compassion through conversations among a richly drawn cast of diverse and appealing characters. From a scene in which Tessa and her new friend Lenore bond in the restroom over surprise periods, to Sam’s easy interactions with Tessa’s brother, Miles, who has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, to Caroline’s ability to firmly but gently draw her own boundaries, Happily Ever Afters is filled with delightful examples of strong, healthy friendships. Crucially, these friendships ultimately guide Tessa to strengthen her most important relationship: with herself. Happily Ever Afters captures just how difficult–and rewarding–high school can be. Though the title telegraphs how her story will end, Tessa’s journey to get there is all her own.
Lore by Alexandra Bracken (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Readers who love complex, mythology-based fantasies, meet your newest obsession. For seven days every seven years, Greek gods must walk the earth as mere mortals during a period they call the Agon. Well, they don’t do so much walk as fight for their lives. After thousands of years, many of the gods haven’t survived, as they’ve been hunted down by the descendants of ancient Greek heroes. Each heroic bloodline is sworn to protect a god, but these hunters are also eager to slay other families’ gods in order to seize the deities’ divine power and immortality. Once an Agon ends, the family reaps the benefits of their deity’s powers, which they can use to build family-owned business empires. For example, a god’s healing powers can help create a pharmaceutical company, the powers of war are a boon to a weapons manufacturer, and so on. Seventeen-year-old Melora “Lore” Perseous is the descendant of Greek hero Perseus, and as the last of her bloodline, she’s gone to great pains to remove herself from the Agon’s brutality. A rival bloodline led by Wrath, a hunter who slayed Ares and inherited his powers to become a god himself, viciously murdered Lore’s family during the last Agon, and though Lore is a highly skilled fighter, she went into hiding to avoid sharing her family’s fate. But when the Agon begins again in New York City, Athena, one of the last remaining gods, comes knocking at Lore’s door. In exchange for Lore’s help to survive the Agon, Athena agrees to slay Wrath, their shared enemy, who’s set on slaughtering the other gods in order to ensure he–and no one else–inherits their powers. Bestselling author Alexandra Bracken, whose Darkest Minds series was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2018, strikes a notably darker tone here than in her previous work. Lore’s world is a violent place, and Bracken doesn’t hold back. Though keeping track of hunter family genealogies as well as the histories of gods both old and new can be cumbersome at times, readers eager for detail-oriented world building will find Lore enthralling. Bracken’s well-drawn characters drive the narrative, keeping it anchored in gritty prose and high-stakes emotions. Lore is a wildly inventive and ambitious blend of reimagined Greek mythology and contemporary urban fantasy.
One of the Good Ones by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; YA Fiction): Footage of Black Americans being brutalized and even killed at the hands of police has been part of our media landscape for years. It may be hard to open a book and read about fictional brutality that hews so closely to reality that it feels like salt poured on a wound, but in their second novel, sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite aren’t simply picking at a scab. They are digging deep to help flush out an infection created by generations of injustice. Three timelines tell the story of Kezi, a straight-A teen activist who dies in police custody after she attends a protest. In the present, Kezi’s younger sister, Happi, must deal with the grief that has enveloped her family. Just before Kezi’s death, Shaqueria, a down-on-her-luck actor, hopes for the break that will give her a way out of her circumstances. And in the distant past, Happi and Kezi’s great-grandmother Evelyn bears witness to the horrors of an unust world. When Happi sets out on a road trip across the country to honor Kezi’s memory–a trip they’d planned to take together–the connections between the three timelines emerge. As Happi comes to terms with her loss and learns more about her family’s history, the Moulites introduce hallmarks of American history such as sundown towns and the Negro Motorist Green Book. Barreling through subtlety, the novel goes out of its way to bridge the gap between readers who may be unfamiliar with this history and readers who known it all too well. One of the Good Ones initially appears to share a premise with Angie Thomas’ influential 2017 novel, The Hate U Give. Like Thomas’ protagonist, Starr, Happi is navigating a world where she and her family are unsafe because of the color of their skin. However, once the puzzle pieces of the Moulites’ novel start coming together, it takes a sharp turn toward the unexpected. Stylistic differences as well as an incredible act of violence will shatter any comparisons to Thomas’ novel. Part history lesson and part mystery thrill ride, One of the Good Ones makes a pointed case for the power of sisterhood and the resilience of Black women.
The Awakening of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, teams up with acclaimed YA author Tiffany D. Jackson to tell the story of the time that the American icon spent in prison for charges related to a series of burglaries. The Awakening of Malcolm X opens in a courtroom in 1946, where Malcolm and his friend Shorty are betrayed by Malcolm’s white girlfriend and sentenced to separate prisons. So begins a nightmare from which Malcolm cannot awaken. Amid the inhumane conditions and cruel treatment at the Charlestown State Prison, it isn’t long before Malcolm realizes how far he has strayed from the ideals his family raised him to hold. His family never abandons him, however, and as they visit him in dreams, through letters and in the flesh, they help him pick up the pieces of his life and lay the foundation for his future as a leader. When Malcolm is transferred to a facility that provides opportunities for rehabilitation, he joins its successful debate team and the Nation of Islam. When he is finally released, though his mind is still full of questions, he is armed with the confidence and self-awareness he will need to make a difference for his people. Shabazz and Jackson’s retelling of the experiences that transformed Malcolm at one of the lowest points in his life makes for a powerful read. As he dwells on his upbringing, readers will see significant connections between the foundation Malcolm’s parents laid for him in the Garveyism movement, which advocated for racial separation, Black economic independence and Pan-Africanism, and the self-love Malcolm eventually finds in the Nation of Islam, which is presented as a sort of homecoming. Shabazz and Jackson don’t sugarcoat the ugly side of American society in this moment in history, and mesmerizing scenes in which the personal meets the political infuse the story with the fire and passion for which Malcolm X is so well known. The Awakening of Malcolm X is a welcome invitation to consider the light that Malcolm X shone on society’s injustices and what it continues to reveal today.
The Cousins by Karen M. McManus (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Karen M. McManus’ latest thriller is a layered whodunit that takes its time unpacking several generations’ worth of deceit and cruelty. When Mildred Story invites her three grandchildren to spend the summer working at the resort she owns on Gull Cove Island, it’s a loaded proposition. Milly, Aubrey and Jonah barely know each other, and they don’t know their grandmother at all. Mildred is wealthy, and her decision to disinherit her children left the Story family fractured and alienated from one another. The Cousins at the heart of this mystery are tentatively curious to learn more about their family, and once they reach the island, secrets begin to come to light. The story jumps around quite a bit by design, as chapters alternate from each cousin’s perspective and also flash back to their parents’ youth. The suspense ebbs and flows while each Story’s story plays out. Milly had hoped to grow close to the grandmother she’s named for, but Mildred flatly ignores her in favor of Aubrey. At first, Aubrey is flattered by the attention, until she realizes she’s being rewarded for compliance (but compliance with what, exactly?). Jonah keeps his head down, but his strategy of trying to stay in the background only takes him so far; when the spotlight finds him, it’s damaging to everyone. McManus populates the island’s atmospheric, Hitchcockian scenery with eccentric characters, many of whom have ties to the Story family, and slowly reveals the event that shattered their lives. The conclusion that follows is terrifically choreographed. A relationship predicated on false identity turns out to be clever foreshadowing; readers who enjoy a romantic storyline intertwined with their mysteries will be all in. Curl up with The Cousins on a chilly day, and you’ll swear you can hear howling wind and crashing waves just outside your door.
A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card): Environmental racism, police and FBI malfeasance, gentrification and other social injustices are front and center in Aya de León’s novel A Spy in the Struggle. Even COVID-19 makes a brief appearance. All of these of-the-moment elements come together to make up a compulsive tale set in Holloway, a poor but proud neighborhood near San Francisco. The book’s opening tells you almost everything you need to know about its protagonist, Yolanda Vance. An associate in what turns out to be a corrupt law firm, she rats the otherwise prestigious company out because it’s just the right thing to do. For Yolanda, doing the right thing is paramount. It’s almost as important as being the right thing. The daughter of a charismatic but adulterous Southern preacher and a woman who too often let lowdown men lead her astray, Yolanda decides early in her life to let nothing get in the way of her success. That includes men, racism, sexism and any other “ism” out there lying in wait to trip her up. Her focus and determination pay off when the FBI, in what seems like an act of gratitude, hires her and gives her a very special assignment. Yolanda learns that an eco-activist group called Black, Red and GREEN! is making things difficult for a Microsoft-size government contractor called RandellCorp, which has invaded Holloway without offering residents any but the most low-level jobs. Moreover, the behemoth company is dumping carcinogens in an old railway yard even as they pretend to be greener than Kermit the Frog. Yolanda’s job is to infiltrate Black, Red and GREEN! and report on the comings and goings of its members. But this story isn’t just about a rock-ribbed conservative whose eyes are opened; it soon morphs into something darker and more kinetic. A Spy in the Struggle is as gripping as it is surprising, dropping readers into the thick of things before they even know it.
Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Libby or Overdrive app with your library card): Angela M. Sanders’ first book in a new cozy mystery series, Bait and Witch, balances paranormal whimsy and small-town charm. Josie Way had her dream job in the Library of Congress but had to drop out of sight after overhearing a conversation that pointed to political corruption. She essentially creates a do-it-yourself witness protection program by taking a job in the library of rural Wilfred, Oregon, hoping to lie low until things resolve back in Washington, D.C. She’s barely unpacked her bags when a body is discovered on the library property, and her concern that she may have been the intended target prompts her to investigate. Oh, and the books on the shelves at Wilfred’s library? They’re able to talk to her–no big deal. Sanders fills the town of Wilfred with eccentric locals and blends in a plot about the library property being sold and potentially converted into a retreat center. These elements all collide when Josie’s life back east catches up with her. However, the story’s real heart derives from Josie’s gradual discovery that she’s a witch. From becoming fast and intimate friends with a local cat to developing an ability to recommend books she’s never read or even heard of, Bait and Witch is playful yet grounded, setting up a final confrontation when the decision to refuse or embrace her powers is critical. Sanders’ light touch leaves lots of possibilities for Josie’s future stories. There’s a potential romance simmering on a back burner, as well as Josie’s commitment to stay and help bring Wilfred’s library into the modern era without alienating any longtime patrons. Most evocatively, Bait and Witch ends with Josie receiving her grandmother’s grimoire, or book of spells, and preparing to learn more about her powers. Some of us think all librarians are at least a little witchy (in the best way), but it’s a delight to read about someone whose powers derive in part from stories and the feelings that readers attach to them. This is a fine debut that promises more bookish fun to come.
The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): The real Lady Jane Franklin sponsored a number of expeditions to find her explorer husband, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, after he and his men went missing in the Arctic. Though there’s no record of an all-female expedition, that hasn’t stopped Greer Macallister from writing a cracking good story about one in her fourth novel, The Arctic Fury. Virginia Reeve is the leader of the all-female company, and when the book opens, she’s on trial for the murder of one of its members. The year is 1853, and the courthouse is in Boston, though the alleged homicide happened not far from the North Pole. Big-hearted Virginia is strong and rough around the edges, and much of her fortitude is born of trauma, having lived through both the horrific winter of 1846-47 and the accidental death of her mentor, a pathfinder named Ames whom she loved with a platonic fervor. Virginia’s crew is motley enough. Among them are a woman who handles the sled dogs, a cartographer, an illustrator, a writer, a ladies’ maid and her pampered mistress, Caprice. Though Caprice and Virginia cross swords early on, the hardships of their trek allow them to value each other’s qualities. Macallister’s book, written in prose as crisp as an Arctic summer, reminds us that women had all kinds of adventures during this period, from heading out into the frontier to holding conventions for women’s rights and writing antislavery books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Arctic Fury is a tribute to one young woman’s leadership and genius for survival.
Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): We humans like to imagine that we know what our animal friends are thinking, but in Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley actually burrows into the craniums of a menagerie that includes a horse, a dog, a raven, some rats and the humans they interact with, resulting in a remarkable novel that splits the difference between Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm. At the outset, a careless trainer leaves a stall unlocked, and the curious filly Paras (short for Perestroika) wanders away from the racetrack and into the City of Lights. Paras knows the things a thoroughbred would know–her lineage, for instance–but not much else. In the city, Paras meets a worldly dog named Frida, who has been forced to fend for herself since her owner went missing. Like any street survivor, Frida knows how to avoid the gendarmes and which tricks will con treats from the citizenry. The adventure shifts into high gear when the pair is introduced to a raven, Sir Raoul Corvus Corax, whom Smiley imbues with intelligence, twitchiness and a certain French je ne sais quoi. With winter approaching, Frida and Paras face some crucial decisions regarding housing and food. While neither is equipped with the capacity for long-term logistical planning, their animal instincts kick in, propelling them to a surprising conclusion. Smiley has created an otherwordly universe in which her makeshift animal family supports one another in an environment that, while not necessarily hostile, is certainly hazardous. Perestroika in Paris takes its place alongside the likes of Through the Looking-Glass, in that it will reward both precocious young readers and their parents with a sense of wonder and whimsy.
The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell’Antonia (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): KJ Dell’Antonia’s The Chicken Sisters opens when Amanda Pogociello applies to “Food Wars,” a show that features culinary rivalries. As a practical woman, she has little hope that she’ll be chosen, but her story is compelling: In the late 19th century, two sisters founded two fried chicken joints, Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s, in nowheresville outside of Merinac, Kansas. The rivalry continues to the present day. Amanda works for the more upscale Chicken Frannie’s. Her mother, Barbara, operates Chicken Mimi’s, and Amanda is persona non grata there. Barbara wouldn’t even let Amanda use Mimi’s restroom when she was pregnant and desperate. To Amanda’s shock, the producers at “Food Wars” are intrigued. The first prize is $100,000, which both eateries need badly. Amanda contacts her sister, Mae, a semi-celebrity who fled Merinac at the first chance she got and is now a snooty lifestyle guru. Mae dismisses the idea of appearing on “Food Wars” because it’s beneath her and a rival to her own show, which is (of course) named “Sparkling.” But when Mae gets fired, she’s quick to change her mind. What follows upends the expectations of Amanda, Mae, their kids, Barbara, just about everyone who lives in this little Kansas hamlet and even the show’s producer, a sweetly cutthroat woman named Sabrina. The tale itself upends any expectations of rural, Green Acres-esque silliness. Yet Dell’Antonia, the author of How to Be a Happier Parent, takes her characters seriously, albeit always with gentle humor. In the end, “Food Wars” proves to be a catastrophe for Barbara and her daughters, as old wounds, resentments, postponed dreams and layers of grief are peeled back and allowed to heal. And the mean girls of “Food Wars” and “Sparkling” get what’s coming to them. It all works to make The Chicken Sisters a delight.
Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Ijeoma Oluo, author of the bestselling book So You Want to Talk About Race, offers a historical and sociological view of the toxic white male identity in her new book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Oluo persuasively argues that American society is structured to preserve the power (and tastes) of white men and outlines how we got here. Our now-ingrained power structure wasn’t inevitable but was purposely designed to center white men. Looking back at centuries of American history, Oluo shows how white male entitlement took hold from the early beginnings of this country–from slavery to westward expansion to the genocide and displacement of Indigenous Americans; from cowboy mythology glamorizing the violence of “Buffalo Bill” Cody to the modern-day obsession with spoiled but dangerous white men like Ammon Bundy. Americans are taught that the United States is a meritocracy and that anyone who tries to get ahead will be rewarded with opportunities. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out. With example after example–the male feminists of the early 20th century, NFL owners, presidential candidates and even their supporters–Oluo deftly shows how the society that white men built now rewards mediocre white men, regardless of their skills or talent, while punishing women and people of color for anything less than perfection. Unfortunately, when ordinary white men do not receive the unmitigated success they feel is their right, they turn their disappointments and anger on these women and people of color instead of on the elite white men who hoard opportunities and power for themselves. Because of this, disaffected white men are now the biggest domestic terror threat in the United States. Oluo expertly shows how inequality, toxic masculinity and an unequal power structure deeply hurt all Americans, including white men. Through careful research and scholarship, she breaks down the system that sustains the status quo while shedding light on the ways others can also dismantle this system to ensure a more equitable future for all. It’s an essential read during times of political upheaval and unsure futures.
Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon: Seventeen-year-old Sunny Dae is one of three nonwhite students at his high school; the other two are his best friends. He spends his days using his anxious energy to imagineer practical effects accessories for LARPing, a type of role-playing game in which participants dress up as the characters they play. His parents are workaholics obsessed with keeping up with the well-to-do families in their new neighborhood. His older brother, Gray, is back at home after flaming out as a musician in Los Angeles, licking his wounds in the basement, his rock-star dreams drowned out more and more every day by the dull reality of khakis and neckties. When Cirrus Soh, a beautiful new student with swagger to spare, mistakes Gray’s old room–decked out with rock ‘n’ roll posters, guitars and a totally metal wardrobe–for his, Sunny is happy to reinvent himself in the mold of his fallen rock god brother. Convinced Cirrus would recoil is she ever saw his real room or his real self, Sunny starts wearing his brother’s clothes, hides away the nerdy details of his life and, most consequentially, tells Cirrus he is the frontman of a rock band. Sunny’s rock ‘n’ roll charade gives him a confidence and bravado he’s never felt before. With help from his brother and best friends, he even manages to put together an actual rock band. However, author David Yoon isn’t interested in telling a coming-of-age story in Super Fake Love Song, but rather a story about coming to know ourselves. Who is Sunny, and why is he so willing to leave the person he was before he met Cirrus behind? “If there were no shame,” asks Sunny, “would we be freer?” Young men openly discussing and dismantling patriarchal shame in positive ways with their peers? You love to see it. It can be difficult for romantic comedies to strike the perfect balance between romantic and comedic, but in his sophomore outing, Yoon makes it look easy. Every character here is richly drawn, oozing with personality and overflowing with quippy one-liners that keep the laughs coming even as the emotional stakes increase. Roll down your windows and turn your speakers up to 11, because Super Fake Love Song is the real deal.
Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han: Simon Han’s debut novel scrutinizes the American dream through the Chengs, who have recently emigrated from China. The family settles in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where Patty works in semiconductors and Liang is a photographer. Their son, Jack, spends the first six years of his life in China, where his grandparents raise him until his parents are ready for him to join them in the United States. His sister, Annabel, is born in the U.S., and her relationship to China is abstract, as she has never been there but speaks Mandarin at home. Things aren’t going particularly well with 5-year-old Annabel. At school, she’s practicing manipulation on a friend, and other parents are leery of her. When she begins sleepwalking, Jack deems himself her protector. In Nights When Nothing Happened, Han explores all that can get lost in the spaces between people. A fateful Thanksgiving Day serves as the crux of the story, but the tale spans much further than that, back to the mysterious death of Liang’s mother when he was an infant, which has haunted him his whole life. While the book is driven more by characterization than by plot, Han delivers the few pivotal moments with such skill that they are jaw-droppers. Han displays incredible range as a novelist, oscillating between honest, almost tangibly real scenes, opaque dreams and refractive memories. He portrays Annabel’s and Jack’s points of view with remarkable integrity, while Liang and Patty are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, doing their absolute best for their children while grappling with their pasts. Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.
Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett: If you think you know all about the brain, think again! According to neuroscientist and Northeastern University professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett (How Emotions Are Made) in her delightful new book Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, “your brain is not for thinking.” This is the titular half-lesson that introduces this slim tome of short, informal essays, which are “best read in order, but you can also read them out of sequence.” Instead of including all the scientific specifics in the book itself (which, quite honestly, could get tedious if you’re reading for pleasure), Barrett handily moves the full explanations and references to her website, sevenandahalflessons.com, and merely includes an appendix with selected details at the back of the book. Barrett poses some interesting questions, such as “Why did brains evolve?”–busting the myth that it was for thinking and revealing that it was actually for body-budgeting, providing energy efficiency for our ancestors much like a renewably fueled car. She writes with precision and clarity as she covers topics as broad as the tricky business of comparing different species’ brains, the fact that all mammals’ brains are built from a single manufacturing plan and the difference between brains and minds. Barrett uses comparisons to everyday things and practices to help readers understand the brain’s complexity. For example, in the chapter “Your Brain Is a Network,” she likens the brain’s vast collection of interconnected parts to the internet’s network of linked devices and the intricate dispatch routes of transportation networks. As a result, interesting concepts such as tuning (strengthening the connections between neurons) and pruning (when less-used connections weaken and die off) are presented in approachable ways. Some topics are less fun but still worthy of consideration, such as the heartbreaking effects of adversity, poverty and neglect on the brains of developing children. Barrett also explains what sets our brains apart from those of other species, highlighting the things that make us human, such as social reality, creativity and communication. The brain can do a great deal of impressive things yet still misunderstand itself. On the path to better self-knowledge, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain sheds some light on our most powerful organ and its intriguing processes.
Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton: ‘Tis the season to be Dolly! In Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, the lovable, candid, tell-it-like-it-is singer shares her own story through the lyrics of her songs. While fans love Parton for her crystal-clear vocals and her charming, witty stage presence, she’s always thought of herself as a songwriter first, and this book illustrates her deep devotion to music that captures a moment or tells a heart-rending tale. As she reveals, “I write a lot from my own heart. But I also just have a big imagination. When I was young, we didn’t go to the movies, so I just created my own stories. It’s kind of embedded in me to make up songs and stories.” Chock-full of never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia from Parton’s archives, every chapter tells a portion of her biography. Using lyrics from 175 of her songs–including “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene”–she traces the journey from her Tennessee mountain childhood to her role on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” her 9 to 5 days and her bluegrass albums. As she provides a glimpse into the origins of each song, Parton notes that she has “never shied away from any topic, whether it was suicide or prostitution or women’s rights or whatever…Whatever it is, I can say it in a song, in my own way.” Parton tells her stories with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. Her book invites us to sit a spell as she weaves her enchanting storytelling web around us, wrapping us in the warm, silky threads of her voice and comforting us with her presence.
White Ivy by Susie Yang (e-book and e-audiobook available on Libby and Axis 360 apps): Ivy Lin is no monster, but sometimes, when sufficiently motivated, she does monstrous things. She doesn’t just covet what others have; she is consumed by cravings for wealth, status and a boyfriend whose all-American (in her mind, this means white and patrician) good looks are nothing like her own. In Chinese American author Susie Yang’s debut novel, we meet Ivy at several different stages of life. She grows from fretful child to moody and self-loathing junior grifter. By her late 20s, she has evolved into a smooth, sophisticated adult, determined to attain her American ideal by any means necessary. Her looks and circumstances have improved, but her desperation never fully evaporates. Rather than a traditional thriller, White Ivy is a slow-burning, intricate psychological character study and coming-of-age story full of family secrets and foreboding. Ivy isn’t an outsider simply because she’s an immigrant; she stands out even within her own deeply dysfunctional Chinese American family. Their treatment of Ivy exposes the minor harms of everyday life–the tiny slights and subtle hits that leave marks that never fade. Alienation appears to be Ivy’s natural state, and this is never more clear than when she is closest to getting what she wants: popularity, respect and, most of all, a romantic relationship with her childhood crush, the beautiful scion of an old-money New England family. Despite the book’s inevitable ending, Yang allows her main character ambiguity. Ivy is strangely, uncomfortably relatable and ultimately unknowable. Her transgressions are mostly minor, yet her sometimes vicious inner monologue shows that she has the capacity for far harsher misdeeds. Perhaps that is the point–that the dividing line between ordinary wrongs and acts of true evil is razor thin. So when signs start to suggest that something very bad is about to happen, the violent act is all the more jarring. Ivy brings to mind other desperate, liminal characters, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Readers will find a lot to appreciate in this sharply observed psychological thriller.
Paper Bullets by Jeffrey H. Jackson: Although it’s been 75 years since the end of World War II, accounts that reveal the resilience of ordinary individuals in the face of the Nazi regime continue to emerge into the historical record. In Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Jeffrey H. Jackson, a Rhodes College professor specializing in European history, unearths the fascinating story of two women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, whose “resistance activity grew organically out of life-long patterns of fighting against the social norms of their day.” After 20 years of immersion in the art scene of Paris, Lucy, a photographer and writer who published under the name Claude Cahun, and Suzanne, an illustrator whose professional pseudonym was Marcel Moore, found themselves under German occupation on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. The two women had retreated there in 1937 out of concern for Lucy’s chronic health problems, posing as sisters to hide their true relationship. Jackson links the women’s involvement in resistance work to their personal experiences as artists and lesbians whose lives constantly put them at odds with expectations placed on them as the daughters of wealthy families in France. These expectations included gender identity and expression, which they explored in both their personal lives and art as a fluid spectrum between masculinity, androgyny and femininity. Jackson’s previous works include Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris, and he is adept at bringing the vibrancy of 1920s and 1930s Paris to life, including the cafes, nightclubs and personalities that were part of the thriving gay and lesbian community to which Lucy and Suzanne belonged. This carefully researched volume also includes fascinating photographs, artwork and excerpts from the women’s letters and articles. The author’s attention to detail and prodigious research skills are also on display as he recounts the saga of the German occupation of Jersey and the women’s growing determination to do something to resist. They began small enough, ripping down German posters and announcements and making graffiti. They also created their own anti-Nazi artwork and slipped subversive messages (the eponymous “paper bullets”) onto the windshields of police cars or into the pages of German-language magazines on local newsstands. Their efforts at fomenting doubt among the occupying forces escalated, eventually leading to their arrest, imprisonment in solitary confinement and a dramatic trial in which they were sentenced to death in November of 1944. Their sentence was later commuted, but they remained confined until the war ended. The final section of Paper Bullets details these women’s postwar lives. Lucy died in 1954, Suzanne in 1972. In an epilogue entitled “Why Resist?” Jackson addresses some of the issues that led to the women’s commitment to the cause of freedom. Their story, he notes, “invites us to look at a history of the war from the bottom up, to think about the complexities of ground-level responses to conquest.” Impeccably researched and meticulously sourced, Paper Bullets is a welcome and timely portrait of courage and creativity.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans: Racism is an insidious beast. It can find its way into any situation, as Danielle Evans shows in the stories and novella in The Office of Historical Corrections. Evans emerged as an important voice in American literature with her 2010 debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and she once again demonstrates impressive artistry and humor as she chronicles shocking episodes of discriminatory behavior. In “Happily Ever After,” Lyssa works in the gift shop for a replica of the Titanic, but she never gets to work the museum’s princess parties because, her boss says, of historical accuracy: There were no Black princesses on the Titanic. In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” a white college student poses for pictures in a Confederate-flag bikini and is surprised by the pain it causes Black students. Other stories dig deeper, such as “Anything Could Disappear,” about a Black woman forced to care for a 2-year-old Black child who is deliberately left next to her on a bus by the child’s white caregiver. Not every story deals with race, as with the funniest story, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” in which a “genius artist” stages public apologies to the women he has wronged. However, most stories do, and the sharpest piece is the title novella, about a government agency that adds emendations to incorrect placards at historical sites, a job that becomes surprisingly dangerous. As a child, the novella’s protagonist consoled a Black friend who had lost a debate tournament, declaring her a better debater than her white competitors. “But it’s never going to be enough,” replied the friend. Evans’ book shows that that painful truth hasn’t disappeared.
We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper: The true crime genre has been so successful in podcasting that one might forget it originated in publishing. Becky Cooper, formerly of the New Yorker, has already drawn comparisons to In Cold Blood with her true crime masterpiece, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence–and for good reason. On a winter night in 1969, Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in the Harvard anthropology department, was brutally murdered in her Boston apartment. Aspects of the crime scene suggested that her murderer may have had some knowledge of ritualistic burials. For decades, rumors suggested that a powerful archeology professor killed her. Cooper, herself a Harvard graduate, finally decided to find out. Over the course of 10 years, Cooper turns over every stone trying to identify Jane’s killer. She perseveres mightily in her investigation, driven in part by the way she identifies with the quirky, complicated victim. This identification may draw in readers who see themselves in Jane, too. But for others, the author’s embrace of a stranger who died 50 years prior may never quite gel. The book is strongest when we’re empathizing with Jane–her romantic foibles, grappling with sexism within academia–rather than with the author. For aspiring journalists, Cooper’s impressive work in We Keep the Dead Close is a masterclass on how to do investigative reporting. She dug deep into archival research and interviewed most everyone involved in the case, drawing uncomfortable information out of her sources with particular skill while still withholding judgment. Along the way, the narrative ventures down rabbit holes and zigzags from Cambridge to Hawaii to Iran to Labrador. Cooper’s 10-year investigation is a meandering one that may drag on for readers who want a neat and tidy resolution. For everyone else, there’s so much to chew on in We Keep the Dead Close. The resolution, when it comes, is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.
The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): In his 12th novel, Jonathan Lethem returns to speculative fiction to tell a provocative tale of an isolated Maine peninsula after an apocalypse. In this particular apocalypse, known as “the Arrest,” some mysterious process has incrementally disables the world’s supply of gasoline, pixels and gunpowder. There’s no TV, no internet, no internal combustion engines, no firearms. This is a challenge for all the residents on the peninsula, but it is especially hard for Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, known as Journeyman, who once had a successful career as a Hollywood script doctor but now works as a butcher’s assistant and a bicycle deliveryman, pedaling in the shadow of his younger sister, Maddy, a local communal farmer. The peninsula’s isolation is enforced by a surly group of tribute-demanding bullies called the Cordon. Are they keeping outsiders out or insiders in? In there life, civilization or, better yet, electricity beyond their barricades? Busting past the Cordon comes Peter Todbaum in his nuclear-powered vehicle called the Blue Streak. Peter is Journeyman’s former Yale roommate and movie-making collaborator, and he arrives hoping to rekindle his estranged relationships with Journeyman and Maddy as well as his lifelong movie project, Yet Another World, a dystopian, apocalyptic love story. He comes bearing an endless supply of the rarest of rare–brewed coffee. He first enthralls and then alienates almost everyone with his endless stories and fabrications. And this is just the beginning. Lethem is a beguiling and very smart writer. Told in short, breezy chapters, The Arrest vibrates with sharp, satiric observations and layers upon layers of strange, often funny mashups of popular 1970s and ’80s end-of-the-world books and movies. Ultimately, Lethem’s plot resolves itself, but in ways that do not fully satisfy. This is deliberate. As his fans know, Lethem often plays a deeper game. There are some answered and many unanswered questions in The Arrest–so many that Lethem seems to be suggesting that even at the end of days, the familiar shapes of stories are insufficient, and life itself offers fewer resolutions than we hope for.
I’ll Be Seeing You by Elizabeth Berg (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): “This book is a diary of my parents’ decline.” So opens novelist Elizabeth Berg’s new biographic memoir, I’ll Be Seeing You. Yes, her prologue speaks bluntly, but don’t be deterred. Though this book does bear witness to the inevitability of aging and loss, it is nonetheless a small gem shining with Berg’s signature largesse–generous gifts of poetic insight, close observance, vulnerability, honesty, humor and grace. Berg’s father, a tough U.S. Army “lifer,” is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while his wife of more than 67 years tries to cope. Though he’s always been autocratic and demanding, Berg’s father unconditionally adores his wife. “She was the place where he put his tenderness,” Berg writes. Eventually, his gradual descent into dementia, along with his wife’s advancing age, force the couple to move from their longtime home into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility. Berg and her sister try to negotiate and navigate this upheaval with their parents’ best interests at heart, but complications arise. Their father is increasingly confused and isolated, and their usually even-tempered mother becomes angry–an understandable reaction to her two-pronged grief over losing her husband to dementia and leaving a beloved home. “My mother was enraged,” Berg writes. “Her heart was breaking because her house was being taken from her, which is to say that her life was.” From the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011, short diary entries focus mainly on the events of Berg’s aging parents’ lives, as the author and her sister step in to be their parents’ loving–and often frustrated–family caregivers. “It’s hard to know how to rescue someone. It’s hard to know how to help them in the way they need to be helped,” she writes in one entry. Such rueful reflections are blended with an appreciation of ordinary moments, making each entry a story in miniature–cameos of the joys and pains of family life, and the challenges and rewards of caregiving for loved ones. Readers familiar with Berg’s novels know that her stories wonderfully encompass the comforts of beauty and wry humor, but they never sugarcoat life’s hard truths. The same is true of I’ll Be Seeing You, which mines the wisdom hidden in difficult times. “Life is a minefield at any age,” Berg writes. “If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”
Memorial by Bryan Washington (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): It sometimes feels like romantic relationships are becoming harder and harder to navigate. Meeting someone, getting to know them, constantly finding ways to communicate about everything, searching for common ground, trying and failing to move forward or take a leap of faith–it’s all exhausting. The routine isn’t entirely disheartening, though, and to the most curious of minds, it can be fertile ground for analysis and creation. So it is with Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, a celebratory lamentation of modern love. The novel follows two men who are in love with each other. Through a major miscommunication, Benson, a Black day care worker in Houston, ends up living with his boyfriend Mike’s Japanese mother, who doesn’t seem all too happy to be the guest of someone she has never met before. Mike, on the other hand, is a chef who must travel to Japan to help his father, who is dying of cancer, through his final days. As the novel begins just before Mike’s departure, the two men are unsure of their path forward together. This classic will-they-won’t-they scenario gives Memorial a timeless feel, but by placing two gay men at the center of this familiar setup, Washington poses fresh questions about contemporary romantic relationships with quiet grace. From the intermittent use of text messages and shared photographs to the mastery of a decade of slang, his writing is invigorating, reminding the reader of the realities every human must face and how we’ve all learned to communicate them. Memorial is more than just a love story–though it is a very good love story. It’s this generation’s response to centuries of love stories, to a whole history of them. It’s what is coming; it’s what is here.
To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu: Short stories in science fiction are frequently answers to questions. What if, an author wonders, an incomprehensibly powerful alien being were inspired by an ice sculpture? Or what if there were nations in cyberspace, separate and distinct from their real-world counterparts? What if a world on the brink of annihilation could be saved by a poet? Or a teacher? Each of these questions is explored in a story in Cixin Liu’s new collection, To Hold Up the Sky. These stories span three decades of his writing career, from 1985 to 2014, and although many have been published before, all are new to his English-speaking audience. As with any writer over such a long period, Liu’s style evolves from the earliest stories to the more recent ones, and yet they are all immediately recognizable as his work. In some ways, Liu’s point of view is rare among science fiction novelists of his international stature. Unlike most of his peers in the Western science fiction scene, whose worlds frequently comment on fundamental human failings or the dystopian struggles of an inconsistently ethical society, Liu’s work is suffused with an understated optimism. To Hold Up the Sky is no different. In fact, he hints at this in the foreword, where he mentions that in his writing, he is always attempting to depict “the relationship between the Great and the Small.” To him, the “Small” is all of humankind, and at this project’s core, there’s a presumption that humans are always more united than we are divided, that our communal nature is our defining characteristic as a species and that free will, along with the frailties and flaws that it allows, is essential to that collaborative instinct. (And yes, that does sound like a contradiction, but this is addressed and dispensed within one of the stories in To Hold Up the Sky.) This realistic but positive outlook is shared by a few other science fiction writers–Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Becky Chambers and Iain M. Banks come to mind–but rarely is it as essential to a speculated universe as in Liu’s prose. As a result, few writers achieve quite the same flavor of optimistic apocalypse or infuse existential dread with such a tangible thread of hope. Throughout To Hold Up the Sky, Liu brings his collections of ice sculptors and poets and computer scientists and military engineers teeteringly close to oblivion. He does so knowing that the crisis is finite, and that humanity in its feeble entirety will either survive, learn and grow, or simply…stop. And he insists that there is beauty either way. I am not certain if I agree with this sentiment. It is both too cynical and too idealistic for me. But either way, Liu is far too good a writer for me to put this book aside.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, follows main character Harold on an improbable long walk across England as he comes to terms with his failures. Similarly, Miss Benson’s Beetle, Joyce’s fifth novel, tracks main character Margery Benson as she aims to make her own unlikely journey to an island called New Caledonia in the southwestern Pacific, to track down an elusive golden beetle. In 1950, the war is over, but rationing and shortages continue in London. Margery is a lonely 40-something soul, teaching home economics to snarky high school girls. When the girls go too far in making fun of her, Margery snaps and flees the school, snatching a pair of lacrosse boots in fury and frustration, an act that reminds her of her long-deferred goal of finding the golden beetle of New Caledonia. But it’s a preposterous dream. Margery has no academic credentials, no passport, no knowledge of New Caledonia and no money. Nevertheless, she persists, planning her journey and interviewing assistants. What follows is an epic, obstacle-filled journey from London to Australia and at last to New Caledonia, which in 1950 is a French colony. Margery and her assistant, Enid Pretty, arrive on the island woefully underprepared for the final part of their quest. Miss Benson’s Beetle balances the light–including comic moments that highlight the discrepancies between stolid Margery and flighty Enid–with the dark, such as Margery’s trauma-filled youth. As with Harold Fry, the main character’s inner journey is the real one. Margery finds human connection she didn’t know she was missing and, through that connection, a deeper purpose in life. The novel also has a marvelous, economical way of contrasting the drab gray of postwar London with the vivid colors, sounds and smells of New Caledonia. Joyce’s fiction has been slotted into “uplit,” a publishing term for novels that contain some dark moments but ultimately offer an uplifting ending. For readers who seek escape, Miss Benson’s Beetle is just right.
Cary Grant by Scott Eyman: Film historian Scott Eyman takes a fresh look at a movie legend in the sparkling biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Drawing upon extensive interviews and archival materials, including the star’s personal papers, Eyman shows that Grant (1904-1986), king of the romantic comedy and the very definition of dashing, was a man of contrasts forever troubled by his working-class past. Born into a poor household in Bristol, England, Grant, whose real name was Archibald Leach, did not have a happy childhood. His father was an alcoholic. His depressed mother spent decades in an institution, while Grant was told that she was dead. At 14, he engineered his own expulsion from school in order to chase a career in show business. From stilt walking, acrobatics and pantomime in English music halls to American vaudeville revues and the Broadway stage, he didn’t stop until he’d landed in Hollywood. In 1932, Grant made his first big film, Blonde Venus, with Marlene Dietrich. By 1939, he was a full-blown star. Absent-minded scientist (Bringing Up Baby), wisecracking socialite (The Philadelphia Story), ice-cold government agent (Notorious)–there was no bill he didn’t fit. During the late 1940s, Eyman writes, “Grant had first crack at nearly every script that didn’t involve a cattle drive or space aliens.” But Grant’s past seems to have left him permanently scarred. Although he maintained a suave public persona and was widely cherished by friends and fellow actors, the truth about him was, of course, more complicated. As the author reveals, Grant has a reputation for stinginess and self-absorption and could be a mean drunk. On set, he was often anxious and tense. Eyman’s consideration of the inner conflicts that drove Grant results in a wonderfully nuanced study of his life. Along with the star’s many marriages and bitter divorces, Eyman explores the rumors surrounding his sexuality and his LSD use, recounting it all in clean, unaffected prose. He mixes Grant’s personal story with several decades’ worth of Hollywood history, and his film analyses are eye-opening. Grant was “a man for all movie seasons.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
The Kidnapping Club by Jonathan Daniel Wells: Urbane and bustling, New York City is often considered the epitome of “Northern-ness.” However, in the decades before the Civil War, the city’s interests were very much in line with those of Southern cotton farmers. Through its finance, insurance and shipping industries, New York probably profited from slave labor more than any other city in the country. The city would do almost anything to appease the Southern states, even if it meant sending its own citizens into slavery. The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells is an eye-opening history of antebellum New York. Wells, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, meticulously details two of New York City’s dirtiest secrets: the city’s illicit backing of the illegal transatlantic slave trade and the Kidnapping Club that helped reinforce it. From the 1830s until the start of the Civil War, and with the support of the city’s judiciary, vigilantes in the Kidnapping Club as well as the police abducted Black New Yorkers on the pretext that they were escaped slaves. With little or no due process, hundreds of men, women and even children were snatched, jailed and then sent south. The broader effects of New York’s illegal slave trade were even more horrific, resulting in the abduction, enslavement and frequently death of hundreds of thousands of West Africans. There are many villains in this thoroughly researched and fascinating history, including police officers Tobias Boudinot and Daniel Nash, Judge Richard Riker and Mayor Fernando Woods. Yet The Kidnapping Club is more than a story of villainy. It’s also a history of heroes, including David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist who put his body between the victims and their snatchers; Elizabeth Jenkins, who fought against segregated transportation over a century before Rosa Parks; and James McCune Smith, an abolitionist and the first African American to hold a medical degree. Most important of all, The Kidnapping Club restores the names of the abducted: Ben, Hester Jane Carr, Isaac Wright, Frances Shields, John Dickerson and countless others whose lives were destroyed and humanity erased–until now.
Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood (e-book available on the Libby or Overdrive apps): Debut author Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduces us to detective Lillian Pentecost and her right-hand woman/chronicler, Willowjean Parker, a mid-1940s pair that resembles a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Their investigation into the murder of prominent New York City matriarch Abigail Collins–found with her head bashed in inside her late husband’s locked-from-the-inside study–almost takes a back seat to the intrepid detectives themselves. Willow grew up with a traveling circus, and Lillian suffers from multiple sclerosis, making them as instantly intriguing as any classic detective tandem, whether it be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or the aforementioned Wolfe and Goodwin. Written with witty prose, Fortune Favors the Dead is often humorous and fun–nowhere near the stuffy analytical voice of Dr. Watson. Instead, with its cast of suspects (all conveniently listed at the start of the book to help readers keep track), it has the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery, and there’s a delightful dose of noir thrown in for the more hardcore pulp fiction crowd, too. All the tried and true methods of detection are evident here, as Willow follows cagey suspects (including a mysterious medium/spiritualist and a cynical university professor) around the city and interviews everyone from the family of the deceased to the waitstaff. There’s even a local police detective who begrudgingly accepts Lillian’s involvement in the case against his better judgment, a la Inspector Lestrade. Oh, and that case they’re working on? It’s as mysterious and fun a caper as you will ever read, with plenty of misdirection and intrigue to keep you guessing. You don’t need a clairvoyant to realize this duo will be around for years to come.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (e-book available on the Axis 360 app): Jess Walter’s first novel in eight years arrives with the weight of high expectations. His last, Beautiful Ruins, was a surprising and well-deserved bestseller. His previous fiction–including crime novels, a 9/11 tale and short stories–were rapturously reviewed. In The Cold Millions, Walter tries another mixed genre, the Western historical novel, and shows he is a master at investigating the “hobo” world of 1909. The star of the book is Spokane, Washington, a “boomtown that just kept booming.” It is here, amid skid row poverty and mansions of wealth, that 19-year-old rabble rouser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn intersects with two orphaned young men, Rye and Gig, who are the protagonists of the story. The book is uneven, however, and falls short of the romanticism of Beautiful Ruins. There is fine detail on dark anarchy and dank jail cells, but unlike Walter’s funny version of Richard Burton in Ruins, Flynn is so focused (one might say didactic) as to be wooden. Her leadership of the dismal class struggle becomes repetitive. Rye and Gig are callow, and even though Gig is a book lover and Rye a striver, they don’t fully inhabit their space. Readers may be far more interested in the villain, a robber baron named Brand, and a smart circus performer named Ursula the Great. When these two are cavorting, The Cold Millions shines. Walter has devised some fantastic set pieces, including a riot that leads to a dreadful scene of jail overcrowding. The freedom of the road, the lawlessness of the police, the spectacle of a few cynical power figures making life miserable for the huddled masses–it’s all enlivened by Walter’s vivid writing. A reader can feel the rails rattling under the trains that thunder through the mountains. A new life, the 20th century, is roaring into being. As Rye thinks to himself, “History is like a parade.” Forget the book’s shortcomings; it’s good to have Jess Walter back.