Your Library Curated: Favorite Recent Books

  • Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton–Part travel monologue, part heartfelt, healing memoir, the uniquely structured debut book from CBS news correspondent Conor Knighton, Leave Only Footprints:  My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, is essentially a love letter to America, and to himself. Following a broken engagement, Knighton decides to take his mind off his pain by visiting all of America’s national parks, taking just a single year to do it. It’s an admirable endeavor for anyone, particularly someone nursing a broken heart, but Knighton rises to the occasion, ultimately gaining the inspiration to move on with his life through the “healing, strengthening power of nature.” Instead of lumping the parks together by state or region, Knighton creatively organizes the chapters into themes such as canyons, food, people and animals. Throughout his road tripping, he finds little nuggets that encapsulate America’s distinctiveness and beauty, such as Oregon’s vibrantly blue Crater Lake (the deepest in the U.S.), Death Valley’s Devils Hole pupfish (one of the world’s rarest fish species, found only in one water-filled cavern in the middle of the Nevada desert) and Michigan’s Isle Royale (a group of islands so remote that they’re only accessible by seaplane or boat). Knighton finds that America’s national parks are as varied as the nation’s demographics and geography–the people who make up the melting pot that is the United States as well as its varied, gorgeous landscapes. He also chronicles his own life experiences, incorporating memories of family and friends, relating how they tie in to each chapter’s theme. Along the way, he cleverly weaves in bits of history, science, geography, statistics and little-known fun facts. For example, California is home to not only the world’s highest tree (located in Redwood National Park) but also the oldest tree in the U.S., the exact location of which is a closely guarded secret. Entertaining, informative and inspirational, Leave Only Footprints will appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about America’s “best idea” and how challenging yourself can help with spiritual, emotional and personal growth. leave only footprints
  • It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Libby and Axis 360 apps)–For over 30 years, Terry McMillan has delighted readers with tales of the lives, loves, foibles and triumphs of black women. She continues with the hilarious, poignant and bighearted It’s Not All Downhill From Here. McMillan claims she writes about things that break her heart, but she clearly also writes about what makes her laugh or shake her head in gentle bemusement. In her latest novel, the narrator and star of the show is Loretha Curry, who is turning 68 (the same age as the author!). The owner of a successful beauty product business, Loretha is rich both monetarily and in most of her relationships. Loretha has a fiercely loyal posse of girlfriends she’s known for decades, including statuesque Korynthia, mean-spirited Lucky, sort of God-fearing Sadie and long-suffering Poochie, a character as close to Beth March as you’re going to get in a McMillan novel. Loretha’s mother is still alive and a corker. Her granddaughter Cinnamon adores her, as does her son, Jackson, who lives in Tokyo with his wife and two girls. Loretha, generous with both her love and her money, adores them right back. Yet there’s that heartbreak. An early tragedy in the book sends Loretha reeling, though her loved ones rally around her. Relations with her twin half-sister are sketchy, and her daughter is anchorless and an alcoholic. Loretha, who’s a bit hefty and loves her soul food, finds out she has diabetes. McMillan has no trouble creating a crowd-pleaser–even her “unlikable” women redeem themselves in the end–but she also promotes radical self-love for her characters, whether it’s through taking care of their bodies, minds and spirits, deciding who to love or deciding, indeed, whether to live at all. This is another winner from McMillan. It's not all downhill from here
  • A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones (e-book available on the Libby app):  Sunshine Vicram is one of those characters who is destined to win a cult following. Irreverent, intrepid and harboring secrets of her own, she won’t disappoint fans of Darynda Jones’ previous heroine, Charley Davidson. Jones shifts away from the paranormal in A Bad Day for Sunshine, which begins a new series–but her signature humor and suspense remain. The town of Del Sol, New Mexico, is an idiosyncratic blend of quirky, lovable characters and well-kept secrets. Sunshine returns to her hometown after being elected sheriff, only to have a teenage girl vanish on her very first day. Eerily, Sybil St. Aubin had premonitions of her own kidnapping and mailed Sunshine a letter detailing her abduction prior to her disappearance. But that’s not the only twist:  Sunshine herself was kidnapped as a teenager, a secret she and her family have been keeping to this day. As the search for Sybil brings Sunshine’s repressed memories to the surface, it also introduces the reader to the diverse cast of characters populating Del Sol–from rooster thieves to former Dixie Mafia members to a mayor who wants Sunshine gone. We also meet Sunshine’s teenage daughter, Auri, who is an aspiring detective herself. As Sunshine investigates the disappearance, Auri canvasses her high school for information on the missing girl, giving us two detectives instead of just one. Jones has a real talent for balancing suspense with laugh-out-loud humor, never losing the tension from either. Sunshine’s past is grim, as is the truth about Auri’s father, yet the book never feels bleak. The humor, sometimes absurd (like a basket of cursed muffins), never detracts from the gravity of the case Sunshine is investigating. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it’s pulled off with aplomb. Jones opens the door for future romantic subplots as well, from Sunshine’s former crush turned distillery owner, to a U.S. Marshal on a manhunt of his own, to an FBI Agent assigned to assist in the case. With its wit and suspense, A Bad Day for Sunshine is a one-night read that left me craving the next installment in the series, especially after its truly surprising final reveal. bad day for sunshine
  • Hid From Our Eyes by Julia Spencer-Fleming:  Fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ van Alstyne mysteries will be delighted to learn the Episcopalian priest and her police chief husband are back in Hid From Our Eyes. In this ninth installment of the bestselling and award-winning series, Spencer-Fleming takes a long view of the dark side of human nature via characters who investigate three unsolved murders that span decades and haunt the lives of the residents of Millers Kill, a small town in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Each murder victim was a pretty young woman clad in a pricey party dress, found in the middle of the road with no indications of who or what caused her death. In the present day, Russ van Alstyne is the police chief tasked with solving the latest murder; in 1972, he found a victim’s body during a motorcycle ride and became a person of interest in the ultimately unresolved case. It’s fascinating to move among the various time periods, meeting Russ when he was an angry just-returned-home Vietnam veteran and then again when he’s a calm and driven policeman. Spencer-Fleming tracks the frustrations of the law enforcement and medical professionals stymied by a lack of clues, witnesses, technology or some combination thereof. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are understandably tricky, especially among multiple eras, but Spencer-Fleming handles them with skill and ease, using secrets and revelations alike to ramp up the suspense and create a chain of investigation and mentorship among the police chiefs of each successive generation. She also writes with compassion for those who struggle, whether with PTSD, financial strain or, like Clare, finding a satisfying balance between nervous new motherhood and a demanding job (while maintaining sobriety and pitching in as a dogged amateur sleuth, to boot). Hid From Our Eyes lets readers spend time inside the marriage of two beloved characters and follow along as they race against time to solve a confounding murder case that is threatening Millers Kill’s sense of unity and safety. The author also explores PTSD among returning veterans, small-town politics, class conflict, gender identity, religion and more in this multifaceted novel of community and crime in a small town. Hid From Our Eyes is an exciting return to a beloved series, as well as an intriguing entry point for readers new to the world of Russ, Clare and Millers Kill. hid from our eyes
  • Godshot by Chelsea Bieker (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app):  We’ve all seen them:  people with charismatic personalities who seem to brighten a room. When they speak, we listen. In Peaches, California, that man is Pastor Vern, who leads Gifts of the Spirit Church–and the shine is often literal. When Vern wants to bring his congregants to a spiritual climax, golden glitter falls from the church’s rafters. In the eyes of his congregation, Vern often has just cause to call down god glitter, but the rest of Peaches’ residents mock the churchgoers for their blind obedience to a man who claims he’ll save their parched land. Fourteen-year-old Lacey May often faces that ridicule at school, but within the church, she and the other girls who recently became “women of blood” stand in a place of honor. Lacey May doesn’t remember the days before Peaches’ drought. She hadn’t been born yet when Pastor Vern first called down the rains that made the congregation devote itself to him. She follows this faith because the people who love her do, and because she’s heard the stories of what life could be without Vern and without his church. Some novels tackle issues with a light hand, drawing the reader into a fun story even as the author tackles difficult topics. Godshot takes another approach. Debut novelist Chelsea Bieker leans into her story’s heft. It’s a deeply affecting picture of a megalomaniac who treats his congregation as his puppets. It’s a portrayal of what can happen when people are so hungry for hope that they abandon reason. It shows a world where women’s bodies are not their own, where one man has the authority to determine what happens to those bodies. It’s a heightened portrait, but Godshot is a story that parallels some of the challenges faced in the United States today. Bieker, a native Californian, has already established her voice with bylines in McSweeney’sElectric LiteratureCatapult magazine and others. Her debut novel, though, is a shout to the world:  I’m here. I have something to say. And I can capture your imagination as I do it. godshot
  • The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app):  “Sometimes my life feels like a room with two windows and two moons,” muses Bea, who spends her days being shuttled between her divorced parents’ New York City apartments. She’s excited for her father’s upcoming wedding, not only because she adores his partner, Jesse, but also because she’ll also finally have the sister she’s always longed for–Jesse’s daughter, Sonia, a fellow fifth grader who lives in California. In The List of Things That Will Not Change, a dazzling middle grade novel from Newbery Medalist Rebecca Stead, Bea’s life is filled to the brim with good friends and wonderfully supportive adults. Sometimes Bea’s life seems downright idyllic, as when her restaurateur father stashes surprise meals in his ex-wife’s fridge, or when Bea and her friend Angus sip soda together in Bea’s father’s restaurant. But Bea has painful eczema and host of paralyzing worries, not to mention a deeply buried secret that’s quietly gnawing away at her conscience. Navigating family and friends can be tough, of course. As Bea grows more and more excited about the upcoming nuptials, her father cautions, “Family can turn their backs on you, just like anyone else. I’m sorry to say it.” Stead tackles this delicate theme in grand style, not only celebrating the glorious ways that family and friends can support one another but also showing–in quite a surprise move–how family members can occasionally be backstabbing. Even for enthusiastic, likable Bea, anger frequently gets the best of her, such as when she violently throws Angus off a chair during a game of musical chairs or when she hits an irritating classmate in the face. Bea resists going to therapy, but her therapist patiently offers helpful advice in session after session, cautioning Bea to try to start “thinking two steps ahead” of her actions and teaching her valuable strategies for corralling her fears. Plot and characters reveal themselves naturally as The List of Things That Will Not Change unfolds, and small details later reappear to tightly and brilliantly weave together a plethora of themes. Books that successfully address divorce, remarriage and their many complicated repercussions from a child’s point of view are uncommon–and all the more valuable for it. Stead has proven herself once again to be a masterful storyteller. The List of Things That Will Not Change is a messy but ultimately glorious family celebration that’s not to be missed. list of things that will not change
  • Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker:  Twelve children. Six diagnoses of schizophrenia. Two parents navigating a meager mental health care system in midcentury America. At the center of this book are the Galvins, who are unlike any family you’ll ever read about. “This could be the most mentally ill family in America,” writes author Robert Kolker. Hidden Valley Road blends two stories in alternating chapters. The first is about the overwhelmed Galvin parents, Don and Mimi, and how raising a boisterous Catholic family of 10 sons from the 1950s to the ’70s may have allowed mental illness to hide in plain sight. A “boys will be boys” attitude excused much aberrant behavior. The Galvin daughters, the two youngest, provide the emotional heart of the book. They grew up watching their brothers suffer, while also being terrified of–and terrorized by–them. Granted access to the surviving Galvin relatives, Kolker brilliantly shows how mental illness impacts more than just those who are sick, and how festering family secrets can wreak generational damage. The second story in this book details the thankless psychiatric research that has gone into defining schizophrenia and establishing treatments. This research has run parallel to the Galvins’ lives–from early beliefs that bad mothering caused schizophrenia to an institutional reliance on Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication, to more contemporary treatments involving talk therapy and other medications. Kolker walks readers through to the present day, where genetic research into schizophrenia happens largely at the whims of pharmaceutical companies. The author creates a powerfully humane portrait of those diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvin brothers has done terrible things–sexual abuse, domestic violence, murder–but Kolker is a compassionate storyteller who underscores how inadequate medical treatment and an overreliance on “tough love” and incarceration underpin so much of the trauma this family experienced. Hidden Valley Road is heavy stuff, especially for readers with mental illness or sexual abuse in their own families. But it’s a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how far we’ve come in treating one of the most severe forms of mental illness–and how far we still have to go. hidden valley road
  • The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin:  What makes a city feel the way it does? Is it the art and the music? The people and how they view themselves? What about the infinite, minuscule details of the place, whether they are recognized or ignored completely? Three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin shows us her version of the answers, and they add up to something bigger than the sum of its parts. In The City We Became, a magical novel of breadth and precision, Jemisin builds a version of New York City that is more than the borders of its boroughs. This New York is alive. Cities, we learn, are like any other living organism. They are born, they develop, they get sick, they can die. Like a hive communicating through a shared consciousness, a city is sustained by everyone and everything in it. At a certain stage of life, cities awaken avatars, people who are attuned to this consciousness, able to understand it and, from time to time, channel its power. Cities also have enemies. When a primordial evil arrives through space and time, hellbent on corrupting and destroying New York, the avatars of all five boroughs awaken to do battle–and fight off what could be the death of the city. I’ve not read another book like this in years. Jemisin takes a concept that can be abstracted to the simplest of questions (What if cities were alive?) and wraps an adventure around it. That adventure takes center stage in the many scenes that read more like a superhero movie than a fantasy novel, such as when a towering Lovecraftian tentacle bursts from the river to destroy the Williamsburg Bridge. However, Jemisin’s most beautiful passages deliver attentive descriptions of New York’s melting pot of people. Her characters’ life experiences–racial, sexual, financial–bring perspectives that are deeply important to and often missing from contemporary literature, particularly in the fantasy genre. Jemisin lives in Brooklyn, and it’s clear that New York has impacted her life in innumerable ways. I confess, I don’t know New York well myself, but reading this book left me thinking about my own city, how I’m connected to it and how far I would go to save it. To what parts of the whole have I contributed? If it were alive, what would it say? city we became
  • How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app):  After their gold-prospecting father dies, 12-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Sam are left to fend for themselves in the gold rush days of the American West. The first task of these Chinese American sisters is to bury “Ba,” and tradition dictates they place two silver dollars over his eyes–two coins they don’t have. The girls head to a bank, but all hell breaks loose when a banker casts them out with a hateful epithet. That’s just the first of many action-packed scenes in C Pam Zhang’s standout debut. Lucy and Sam’s odyssey unfolds in a series of edge-of-your-seat twists and turns, bringing to mind the classic True Grit and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, two Westerns that also feature fierce young heroines. Yet Zhang turns the genre on its head by writing a historical saga that also serves as a modern immigration novel. Before dying, Ba tells his eldest, “I grew up knowing I belonged to this land, Lucy girl. You and Sam do too, never mind how you look. Don’t you let any man with a history book tell you different.” Ma, however, offers polar-opposite advice. While Ba dreams of having a large, isolated parcel of property, Ma warns, “Gold can’t buy everything. This will never be our land.” Unfolding in a carefully structured, nonlinear fashion, the novel repeatedly questions what makes a home a home and what makes a family a family. Zhang was born in Beijing, and, she writes in her bio, has lived “in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home.” The book also wonders at the nature of truth and who can be trusted. Because boys earn a higher wage working in the coal mines, Sam begins wearing boys’ clothes and finds that this new identity suits her, thus bringing to the forefront issues of gender, identity and cultural and sexual prejudice. Zhang’s sparse prose style may initially take some getting used to, but both language and plot remain clearly focused. Daringly original, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is gritty and frequently gruesome, yet at times magical and ethereal, incorporating tiger paw prints and a buffalo sighting, along with a fog-filled view of San Francisco and the wild ocean beyond. Zhang’s laser-sharp reexamination of America’s myth-laden past is likely to help bring clarity to many issues that continue to challenge us all. how much of these hills is gold
  • They Went Left by Monica Hesse (available as an e-book on the Libby app):The aftermath of World War II is rarely addressed in YA fiction. Narratives typically conclude with scenes of liberation and celebration as good triumphs over evil, and everything returns to normal. Monica Hesse’s They Went Left begins where those narratives end. Zofia’s story opens in 1945, a few months after she and thousands of others were liberated from concentration camps and sent back into the world to reclaim what they lost. For Zofia—who witnessed her entire family except her little brother, Abek, being sent into the titular left line that led to the camp’s gas chambers—this is not a simple or easy task. Zofia is broken, physically and mentally, and has spent the months after liberation in a hospital. She clings to the memory of her final goodbye to Abek, and to the promise she made in that moment that she would find him after the war. Released from the hospital, Zofia returns to her family’s home, only to discover that all of their possessions are gone and their neighbors are openly hostile to the idea of Jewish families reclaiming their residences. Desperate, Zofia sets out across war-torn Europe to find Abek while trying to piece together the truth behind her memories. They Went Left takes readers deep into Zofia’s thoughts, pulling us along through her experiences, past and present, even as she begins to wonder whether she can trust her own perceptions and memories. Hesse’s meticulous research is evident on every page but never distracts from her propulsive plot.  Combining history, romance and mystery, They Went Left is a heartbreaking yet hopeful story of what it takes to survive after trauma.they went left   

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel:  Emily St. John Mandel follows her bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, with a more intricately layered–and better–novel about having money, not having money and the guilt, sorrow and panic of gaining it and losing it. The Glass Hotel is also, by the way, a bit of a ghost story.  The Hotel Caiette, the glass hotel of the title, is a super luxury hotel in a remote corner of Vancouver Island, a “five-star experience where your cell phone doesn’t work.” A young local woman named Vincent winds up working there as a bartender after some youthful bohemian years off the island. She is smart, witty and elegant. She catches the eye of Jonathan Alkaitis, the investment-fund mogul who owns the hotel and who soon invites her to become, essentially, his trophy wife. It’s a transaction she accepts. She moves to a posh house in Connecticut and thrives among the uber-wealthy. But it turns out that Alkaitis is running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. When it collapses, Vincent eventually begins a third life as an itinerant cook on an international container ship. Mandel’s narrative does not unfold as directly and cleanly as this summary suggests. Rather, the story circles through time, deepening with each pass. This is one of its wonders. Another is how lively and sometimes mysterious the novel’s minor characters are. Vincent’s half-brother Paul, for instance, doesn’t steal money but instead appropriates an essential part of Vincent’s creative being. Alkaitis’ beloved older brother was a talented artist who died of a drug overdose, and that shapes Alkaitis’ interactions with one of his more vulnerable investors, an artist who painted a portrait of the brother. The wily Mandel even brings back characters from Station Eleven to playfully suggest that we are reading about a parallel universe. Mandel is a vivid and observant storyteller. Some small observations make you laugh out loud. For example, that you can distinguish wealthy people from the Western U.S. from wealthy people of New York, because the former are prematurely weathered from all their skiing. But other observations are more somber. As Mandel writes, “There are so many ways to haunt a person, or a life.” In this novel, the hauntings are literal and metaphorical. The Glass Hotel is a dark, disturbing story but also an enthralling one. glass hotel
  • Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app):  The ability to write 240 witty characters on social media does not necessarily translate to being someone whose books you want to read. But that’s what happened with Samantha Irby, whom I first knew as the person consistently killing it on Twitter, making me laugh out loud with her tweets on “Judge Mathis” and “Succession.” (She’s obsessed with both.) It was later that I realized she also writes stunningly astute, hilarious essays about topics both serious (becoming a stepmother) and less so (her slightly lazy beauty rituals). But like all the best essayists, Irby brings deeper insights to even her most lighthearted work. In “Girls Gone Mild,” Irby reflects on her extreme reluctance to go out, not that she’s rounding the corner to 40:  “Remember when you could be roused from a night spent on the couch in your pajamas, curled around a pint of Chubby Hubby, and goaded into joining your friends at the bar even though you’d already taken off your bra? Yeah, I can’t either, but I know those days existed. I have the liver damage to prove it.” By the end of the essay, Irby has made peace with her new slower pace of life. It’s simultaneously funny and poignant, as are all the entries in this unflinching collection. Perhaps the most powerful is “Body Negativity,” in which Irby catalogs the many ways women are expected to perform upkeep on our appearances so we have glowing skin, flowing eyelashes, smooth foreheads and snow-white teeth. But guess what? Irby has discovered that, unless it makes you feel good, none of that really matters:  “I have threaded, I have microbladed, I have trimmed, I have tinted, I have filled in, I have styled, I have contoured, and I have microfeathered my stupid eyebrows, and none of those things has ever had a discernible impact on my life. Now I do nothing, and it’s fine!” Frankly, Irby’s radically honest writing in Wow, No Thank You. makes me feel better–or at least less bad–about myself. She gives a welcome voice to what so many women in 2020 are feeling:  overleveraged, underappreciated, exhausted, bloated–but hopeful. wow no thank you
  • Heaven and Hell by Bart D. Ehrman:  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 72% of Americans believe in heaven, a place where “good people are eternally rewarded.” A sizable majority (58%) also believes in hell, the place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.” These rates are even higher among Christians. If these beliefs truly guide the actions of their adherents, then it’s arguable that heaven and hell are the two most influential pieces of real estate in American society. It was therefore fascinating to learn from Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell:  A History of the Afterlife that this concept of the afterlife is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Ehrman’s subtitle is a bit misleading, since it’s not an actual history of these places. He is not rewriting Paradise Lost. Instead, he details the development of our ideas about heaven and hell. Starting with Mesopotamia, Ehrman carefully traces how ancient ideas of death as an “eternal sleep” developed into our current conception of death as a place of retribution or reward. Ehrman argues that, far from being set in stone, our views of heaven and hell have evolved in response to crises confronting the societies that ultimately created modern Christianity. Our view of the afterlife, it turns out, owes more to Greek mythology, Plato and Greek theologians of the first millennium than it does to the Old Testament or even Jesus’ words and actions. This is a complex history, and it could easily become confusing or, worse, boring. But Ehrman has avoided both pitfalls. As the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ehrman has the expertise necessary to make this difficult subject comprehensible. Even better, his witty, self-deprecatory style makes Heaven and Hell an enjoyable read. Most importantly, this is an optimistic book. Professor Ehrman invites us to revisit a “truth” that most of us hold almost instinctively and, in the process, to lose the fear of the afterlife that can prevent us from fully living our present lives. heaven and hell
  • Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore:  The harrowing, heartfelt debut novel from Elizabeth Wetmore tells the story of a West Texas town reeling from an oil boom and a brutal rape case in the late 1970s. Surrounded by a harsh and beautiful landscape, the town of Odessa serves as a microcosm of the U.S., allowing Wetmore to explore themes of motherhood, sexism, capitalism, violence, immigration and race. The story opens on 14-year-old Glory, the unrelenting sun shining down on her, her rapist fast asleep. Covered in cuts and bruises and suffering from organ damage, Glory silently wills herself to walk, to escape. To live. She comes to the farmhouse porch of pregnant Mary Rose, who sends Glory inside when the assailant, a young white man, comes to claim his “girlfriend.” Mary Rose denies Glory’s presence and holds tight to her rifle as she waits for the cops to arrive. After they take the villain into custody, Mary Rose can’t shake the feeling that she’s failed the girl. She’s compelled to testify in the case, which causes a rift between her and her husband. When Mary Rose subsequently moves into town, she meets her new neighbor Corrine, who’s drinking herself into oblivion as she mourns the recent loss of her husband. We also meet spunky 11-year-old Debra Ann Pierce, who steals cans of food to help a homeless war veteran. As the trial nears, Mary Rose receives daily threats from drunk townsfolk who call her horrible things. With her children at home with Corrine, Mary Rose takes the stand to testify. It’s been hours and hours since she’s breastfed her newborn baby, and her vulnerability in this moment–and her sacrifices to get here–will leave readers contemplating the very nature of justice. As these women navigate what is decidedly a man’s world with feminine grace, Valentine becomes a testament to the resilience of the female spirit. Wetmore’s prose is both beautiful and bone-true, and this mature novel hardly feels like a debut. You’ll wish you had more time with each of these powerful women when it’s over. valentine
  • Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon:  Ariel Lawhon’s Code Name Helene is a spellbinding work of historical fiction inspired by the real story of Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, a woman so extraordinary that your first instinct might be to believe she is imaginary, like James Bond. In 1936 Paris, Nancy, an Aussie expat, cleverly bluffs her way into becoming a freelance journalist at the European branch of the Hearst newspaper group. It’s a career chosen out of necessity rather than a calling, but Nancy is nonetheless very good at it, earning respect from her male colleagues for her bravado and instincts. It isn’t long before she falls in love with a wealthy French industrialist named Henri Fiocca. The two marry and make Marseille their home, where Nancy is ready to spend the rest of her life as Henri’s supportive housewife. Truthfully, Lawhon could have stopped Nancy’s story here and left it as one of the most sensual romance novels you’ve ever read. But there is more to life than romance, as Nancy discovers in 1940 when Henri is drafted to fight the Germans. Alone, anxious and restless, Nancy starts by driving an ambulance for the wounded but soon finds her way deeper and deeper into the French Resistance until she emerges as one of its most powerful leaders. Nancy, also known as Madame Andree the fighter, Lucienne Carlier the smuggler, Helene the spy and the White Mouse, becomes the most wanted person on the Nazi target list. She is real, this really did happen is the mantra you may find yourself repeating, in awe at every page. In her acknowledgments, Lawhon describes the extraordinary life of Nancy as first and foremost a story about love and marriage. Right away it seems preposterous to consider a story about a woman who seemed to magically summon weapons for the Allied Forces, who killed a Nazi with her bare hands, who saved thousands of lives, a love story. But let the story sink in, and Nancy and Henri’s enduring love will indeed rise to the surface. code name helene
  • Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit:  Most Americans learn about pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation in elementary school. But few know that besides the men and women seeking religious freedom, more than half of the Mayflower passengers were investors, indentured servants and crew members who were hired to stay the first year in the New World. Even fewer know about the murder of one colonist by another that occurred in the settlement’s early years. This crime and the social, political and religious anxieties that surround it are at the heart of TaraShea Nesbit’s new novel, Beheld. In 1630, 10 years after the Mayflower landed, the inhabitants of the Plymouth colony eagerly await the arrival of a new ship bringing fresh supplies and more colony members–members who will help grow the community and pay off debt to their initial investors. But not everyone is optimistic. Alice Bradford, wife of the colony’s governor, longs to meet her stepson but worries he won’t accept her as his father’s second wife. Former servants John and Eleanor Billington, resentful of perceived mistreatment at the hands of Governor Bradford and military adviser Myles Standish, are keen to share their grievances with the newcomers. When the Bradfords spot religious agitator Thomas Morton among the passengers, it seems like the new ship is bringing nothing but potential problems to their struggling shores. Nesbit tells this story of conflict and contradiction in alternating chapters from both the empowered and the powerless. The voices of the women are especially strong, particularly Elizabeth, whose friendships and reminiscences of the colony’s earlier days offer insight about the women of the plantation. There were many crimes that occurred in Plymouth Plantation, and the killing that took place in 1630 was obviously not the first murder. Wampanoags had been killed since the Europeans’ arrival, and Myles Standish himself was involved in the death of Neponset warrior Wituwamat, an incident that even many of Standish’s white peers found troubling. But the murder of one settler by another was the first death that made the community question whether the colony was truly following a righteous path. Land ownership, religious observation and different accounts of events all play their part in this clever, insightful novel that digs deeply into our country’s conflicted origins. beheld
  • Afterlife by Julia Alvarez:  The first months of the 2020s have brought us excellent books by Latino authors. One is Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land. Another is Afterlife, Julia Alvarez’s first novel for adults in over a decade. It couldn’t be more timely, a moving portrait of a retired English professor and novelist dealing with her husband’s sudden death and the plight of fellow Latinos in her Vermont town. Antonia Vega is still reeling a year after the death of her husband, Sam, a beloved local doctor. Since then, she has been so adrift that she sometimes pours orange juice into her coffee. Ever the novelist, she often quotes favorite authors, from Wallace Stevens to Shakespeare, to help her cope. Family and neighborhood events complicate Antonia’s grief. As Alvarez has done so beautifully in previous books, she offers a memorable portrait of sisterhood, as Antonia is one of four sisters who emigrated years ago from the Dominican Republic. The oldest sister and a former therapist, Izzy has been known to engage in irregular behavior, as when she wrote to Michelle Obama “to offer to design her inauguration gown.” Her latest escapade is more consequential:  She gets lost on the drive to Antonia’s 66th birthday party, and the other sisters, including Tilly and fellow therapist Mona, frantically search for her. In a parallel story, a man named Mario, one of several undocumented Mexicans who work at the dairy farm next to Antonia’s house, asks her to help him bring his girlfriend to Vermont. But he doesn’t tell Antonia the whole truth about their situation. The withheld information leads to complications neither he nor Antonia could have anticipated. In one moving scene after another, Alvarez dramatizes the sustaining power of stories, whether for immigrants in search of a better life or for widows surviving a spouse’s death. True to its title, Afterlife cannily explores what it means to go on after a loss. As Alvarez writes about Antonia, “The only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them.” This is a beautiful book. afterlife
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler:  Micah Mortimer is a single, middle-aged man whose life is governed by routine. On Mondays, he mops his floors. Fridays are for vacuuming. He runs every morning. He lives alone, managing an apartment building. And he finds most people perplexing. “Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.” Micah’s carefully calibrated world is upended when he returns from his morning run to find a teenage boy named Brink on his stoop. Brink is the son of Micah’s college girlfriend, and he is convinced Micah is his father. They quickly determine the math makes that scenario impossible, but Brink lingers. He’s gotten into some trouble in college and is reluctant to go home and face his parents. Brink’s presence triggers a chain of events that threaten not only Micah’s daily routine but also his entire carefully structured life. Soon he finds himself rethinking his place in the world. Not a word is wasted in this slim, beautiful novel. Reading Anne Tyler is always pure pleasure, and Redhead by the Side of the Road is the author at her best. This joyful book is a powerful reminder of how much we need human connection. redhead by the side of the road

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

It’s been a hot minute since we’ve posted about our new books. Then again, it’s been a hot minute since we’ve had new books to post about. We’re all finally getting caught up with unpacking boxes and processing/cataloging books. Here are some of the newest additions to our physical and digital collection:

  • The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel:  It’s been eight years since we last saw Thomas Cromwell, and Hilary Mantel fans have been waiting impatiently ever since. Even though we knew how this story ends, we still need Mantel to guide us through the final days of the relationship between Henry VIII and his most famous adviser. The wait is over. The Mirror & the Light opens where Bring Up the Bodies left off. Cromwell has just witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn. Days later, he is haunted by the memory of the late queen, as well as the five suitors who were also put to death for allegedly having consorted with her. But mostly it’s business as usual:  The wedding of the king to third wife Jane Seymour, the dissolution of the monasteries, repressing tax rebellions in the north and the endless jockeying for position among England’s aristocratic families are all in a day’s work for the Renaissance’s hardest-working Privy counselor. As Cromwell goes about the king’s business, he is troubled by more than these events. Ghost-laden memories arise from a childhood spent as his father’s punching bag and his later years in Europe as a mercenary soldier and financial fixer. Another visiting ghost in the form of his previous employer, Cardinal Wolsey, continues to trouble him. Cromwell’s attempts to form a religious alliance with the Protestant German states through Henry’s marriage to Anna of Cleves backfires, an incident that wounds the king’s pride beyond repair. Cromwell is blamed, and the aristocracy, who have never accepted his origins as the son of a blacksmith, turn on him. The Mirror & the Light is the longest book of the trilogy, as if Mantel didn’t want to give up her relationship with Cromwell, but that won’t bother readers who may feel the same way. No other contemporary writer has so thoroughly and uniquely entered the mind of a historical character. Told from an unusually close third-person perspective, The Mirror & the Light is lushly written, suspenseful even though you might know its outcome and has occasions of unexpected wry wit. This is the kind of storytelling that so completely transports you, you look up from a chapter not quite knowing where you are. Mantel has, quite simply, redefined historical fiction with this trilogy. Cromwell may be gone, but long live Hilary Mantel. mirror and the light
  • Nobody Will Tell You This but Me by Bess Kalb:  In 2011, Bess Kalb received a rambling voicemail from her beloved grandmother, Bobby Bell, reminiscing about how she would fly between Florida and New York every week to babysit Kalb as a baby while Kalb’s mother worked. “I was an old lady! But I loved you. And I’d sit there in their terrible apartment by the hospital and I’d watch you. We’d watch TV, we talked, it was fine. Every week for the first year of your life. Can you imagine? You started talking at nine months. You said ‘hi.'” From that first word on, the dialogue between these two has never stopped, even though Bobby Bell died at age 90 in 2017. At her funeral, Kalb read a transcript of that voicemail as part of her eulogy, and afterward she decided to write a book about her grandmother’s life. However, Kalb, a comedy writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” put a unique spin on the project, using her grandmother’s voice to write the book in first-person. And kudos to Kalb, who pulls off this daring approach brilliantly, allowing readers to hear her grandmother’s inimitable voice in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me:  A True (As Told to Me) Story. In the prologue, Bobby offers a running commentary on her own funeral, noting, “The worst part was the dirt.” Not surprisingly, given Kalb’s chosen career, there are laughs galore throughout the book, as when Bobby gives fashion advice, career advice, boyfriend advice or says, “God knows I never wanted you to be a writer. But I knew you would. I told you, Bessie–you should be a teacher. Make a salary. Have the summers off to travel.” Yet this account runs much deeper than a typical comedy routine. Kalb frequently shares the immense challenge of imagining her grandmother’s voice, writing, “It’s turned me into a riddle, a series of boxes to unlock, pages to riffle through in your mental filing cabinet. Bess, I’m not a riddle–I’m a corpse.” Calling her book “a matrilineal love story,” Kalb describes the lives of several generations of women, starting with Bobby’s own mother, who immigrated to America alone at age 12 from Russia in the face of religious persecution. These many enthralling tales (along with family photographs) unfold in a carefully structured yet nonlinear fashion (think “This Is Us”). The result is lively and fascinating, funny yet poignant. Kalb processes her own grief as she writes, sharing how she reacted in the days following her grandmother’s death. With heartbreaking honesty, she notes in her grandmother’s voice, “Ha. You can write all you want, but you’re still at a desk in a world where I don’t exist.” In a bold stroke of literary bravura, Kalb has turned the formula for writing memoirs inside out, bringing her grandmother’s distinctive voice back to life and sharing it with a legion of lucky readers. nobody will tell you this but me
  • The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps):  Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing recounts a fascinating narrative of Vietnam through the alternating voices of Huong–a woman born in Vietnam in 1960–and her grandmother, Dieu Lan. Que Mai is an acclaimed Vietnamese poet, and her vivid images, along with the simplicity of her prose, make the novel propulsive and haunting in its depiction of a deep, nuanced landscape. Early on, Que Mai writes, “Only through honesty can we learn about the truth.” That truth is, at times, hard to confront. The Vietnam War-set opening scene–as Huong and her grandmother seek shelter from bombs, only to find that the available hiding places are full of people or cold water or both–is difficult to process, but the novel begs us to keep reading, to see how the two women’s narratives converge, to understand the legacy and complexity of family and place. In alternating chapters, Que Mai moves between Huong’s visit to Hanoi in 2012, her survival of the Vietnam War with her late grandmother and Dieu Lan’s harrowing stories of how war, poverty and North Vietnam’s land reform movement ripped their family apart. Dieu Lan’s community turns on her as a result of the politics of the land reform movement, and she is chased off her land, forced to abandon her family and remake her entire life. These historical chapters reveal the complexities of this family and how it has been ruptured by generations of conflict, bolstering our comprehension of how colonialism, violence and the landscape impact a family’s past and present. While many recent novels from authors like Ocean Vuong and Viet Thanh Nguyen give glimpses of the Vietnamese American experience, The Mountains Sing offers a tale of Vietnamese history through a Vietnamese lens:  neighbors caring for and turning against each other, families split apart by war and attempts at reunification on various scales. We also see the ways that food (foraging for it, cooking it, sharing it, eating it) can bring communities together and rip them apart. Above all, we see how war impacts the individual. Huong and Dieu Lan are remarkably drawn characters. They’re complex, likable, flawed women, and each is searching to connect with family and understand her community and history. Their pain and joy make the novel and landscape sing. mountains sing
  • Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel (available as an e-book and e-audiobook on the Libby and Axis 360 apps):  Stephanie Wrobel’s compulsively readable debut, Darling Rose Gold, explores Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), psychological disorder in which a child’s caregiver, often the mother, seeks to gain attention from the medical community for made-up symptoms of the child in her care. Earlier novels about this rare phenomenon focus on the modes of abuse the mother employs to gain attention, like starvation or putting ipecac in her child’s food to induce vomiting. Wrobel instead begins her eerie tale when Patty Watts is about to be released from prison after serving five years for aggravated child abuse. The reader learns the details of what Patty did to her daughter, Rose Gold, only in flashback chapters:  “By the time I was ten,” Rose Gold remembers, “I’d had ear and feeding tubes, tooth decay, and a shaved head. I needed a wheelchair…I’d had cancer scares, brain damage scares, tuberculosis scares.” Despite finally realizing that her own mother was the cause of all her suffering, Rose Gold still has ambivalent feelings about her mother’s sentencing and imprisonment:  “Some days I was thrilled. Some days I felt like a vital organ was missing.” The rippling effects of Rose Gold’s horrific childhood build up over the five years she’s on her own, until she’s 23 and the need for revenge begins to take hold. After Patty is released, their small town’s inhabitants are amazed to hear that Rose Gold has taken her mother into her own home–and even lets her care for her newborn son. Wrobel explores this bizarre mother-daughter relationship in chapters that alternate between each woman’s point-of-view, both past and present. Each woman displays Jekyll and Hyde-style personalities, and the reader is kept guessing about which one will emerge the stronger. This creepy psychological thriller is sure to be enjoyed by those who devoured Gone Girl, Girl on the Train and domestic thrillers from authors like Megan Abbott and JP Delaney. darling rose gold
  • The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren (available as an e-book and e-audiobook on the Axis 360 and Libby apps):  When picking up a Christina Lauren (CLo) book, readers can count on a delicious blend of emotional ups and downs, slice-of-life hilarity and happy endings worthy of an ugly cry (or at least a beautiful, artful tear that rolls down your cheek). The queens of romantic comedy celebrate their 25th book with The Honey-Don’t List, in which two employees of married DIY superstars must keep the couple from imploding in public. Carey Duncan has worked for the Tripps for over a decade; they’re like a second family. Unfortunately, Rusty and Melissa Tripp cannot stand each other. With a new home improvement Netflix show on the horizon, disaster looms as the Tripps and their crew embark on a promotional road trip. Carey’s role as mediator gets a boost in the form of James McCann, an engineering whiz and new addition to the team. While on the road, the two must contend with close quarters, unexpected chemistry and wrangling the Tripps’ marital dramatics. Carey is the ultimate sweetheart. She’s dedicated to those close to her and earnestly expresses her emotions. There’s a raw quality to her that motivates others to be better and, to her occasional annoyance, brings out the protective nature of her friends and family. Carey lives with a movement disorder that often affects her hands, and while it’s a routine part of her life, she’s also cognizant that others may view it as a defining characteristic of who she is. For frequent readers of Lauren’s work, Carey likely tops many lists of favorite CLo heroines because of her goodness. She’s a genuinely kind person, and sometimes we all need a reminder that those kinds of people exist, fictionality aside. The Honey-Don’t List‘s leading man, James, is just as charming. The pair get off on the wrong foot–James is the new guy with big ideas, whereas Carey is far more experienced in the idiosyncrasies of her bosses. They eventually realize that there is strength in numbers, and with extended time on the road, they’ll need to rely on each other to keep the Tripps’ sham marriage from getting out. The tenderness James exhibits toward Carey is a magnificent reminder that love isn’t about forcing someone to match our ideals, but that it comes from adjustment and widening our hearts to make room for the unexpected. The comedic beats are sharp and always impeccably timed to temper some of the more serious moments. These moments feel like well-placed reminders that everything is going to be OK. CLo fans will be delighted that their writing is as rock solid as ever, and newcomers should look forward to beginning what will undoubtedly become a life-long love affair with the author duo. honey don't list

Your Library Curated: A Few New Books

  • Writers & Lovers by Lily King:  Once in a while you come across a novel whose protagonist is so engaging that you find yourself thinking, Oh no! or Don’t do that! interspersed with sighs of relief and some heartfelt rejoicing when things go right for a change. Lily King’s Writers & Lovers is one of those novels. Casey Kasem, born Camila Peabody, is a struggling writer trying (and failing) to make ends meet as a waitress, living in her landlord’s converted shed and walking his dog in the morning to get a break on the rent. She lacks health insurance. She’s $70K in debt, and though she has many supportive friends, her love life is in shambles. On top of this, her beloved mother recently died, suddenly and prematurely, and no one seems to know why. Casey’s father, a jerk who’s bitter over Casey’s failure to become a golf pro, is a waste of space. King is one of those rare writers who can entwine sadness, hilarity and burning fury in the briefest of moments. There’s a lot of this in her restaurant scenes, which are so finely observed that you may wonder if King ever worked in a sad little eatery once upon a time. Though some of Casey’s co-workers are funny and caring, others leaver her quivering with rage. King’s other characters are just as well-drawn, including Oscar, Casey’s somewhat older lover. He’s a successful writer, a widower, a Kevin Costner look-alike and father of two adorably rambunctious boys. Then there’s Casey’s other lover, Silas, who’s younger and unsettled. King doesn’t hesitate to bring up how financial insecurity impacts love; should Casey move in with Oscar and the boys just because she’s about to be evicted and can’t afford rent? Nor can Casey choose whether to write for love or money; she has to write for both reasons. Casey’s story, like so many stories in real life, is messy. She’s messy. But King’s book isn’t. It’s a pleasure.  writers & lovers
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (e-book available on Axis 360 app):  We’re living in a moment when predatory men are being held responsible for the power they wield against women–especially younger women. Typically we hear about it when the now-adult women discuss their abuse years later. In My Dark Vanessa, first-time novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell gives voice to a 15-year-old girl who enters into a relationship with her teacher. Vanessa Wye is a bright but socially disconnected girl at a Northeastern boarding school. Jacob Strane, a literature teacher who is 27 years her senior, zeros in on her loneliness and grooms his young student for an inappropriate relationship. Vanessa’s narration switches back and forth from the early 2000s, when she is an enthralled student keeping the relationship a secret, to 2017, when a reporter from a feminist blog reaches out to her in the hopes that she’ll discuss Strane’s abuse. It turns out that Strane had other victims, and they have come forward. Russell has clearly done her psychology homework on how sexual abuse transpires. Her storytelling is particularly strong when she shows how manipulation and coercion operate, and how predators intentionally choose isolated victims whose distress is unlikely to be noticed. Still, as both a teen and an adult, Vanessa balks at the characterization that she had no agency. The reader is able to see heartbreaking results that Vanessa can’t yet bear to look at, and this conflict is utterly gripping. It’s painful for the reader to view Vanessa’s experience through a more critical lens than she does, and this divide between reader and narrator will surely prompt the audience to ask questions about the interactions they’ve had in their own lives.    my dark vanessa

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich:  Louise Erdrich’s prolific output has done nothing to water down the quality of her writing. If anything, after 3 decades of storytelling, she knows her groove and tells her tales in an assured, leisurely fashion. In this way, her latest novel is less a tightly plotted story than a recounting of an episode in American history with character sketches filled in along the way. Certain themes can be relied upon throughout Erdrich’s body of work, most notably the injustice handed out to Native American tribes by the powers that be. The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s on North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation, is no exception. It’s based on the extraordinary story of the author’s grandfather, Thomas Wazhushk, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., where he took on Congress in 1953. Pixie Paranteau is Wazhushk’s niece. She takes a leave of absence at her job at the Jewel Bearing Plant to search for her sister, Vera, who was last seen in Minneapolis. Though she doesn’t find her sister, she finds love in the arms of a promising young boxer named Wood Mountain, himself the victim of racism in the ring. (When he is winning a round against a white fighter, the bell rings 15 seconds early.) Pixie, her uncle Thomas, grad student Millie Cloud and other Turtle Mountain inhabitants have a common enemy in Senator Arthur V. Watkins, who is bent on reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. If Watkins wins his election, it would mean the end of the Turtle Mountain community and tribes living on reservations throughout the U.S. Erdrich weaves an element of the supernatural throughout these events, with Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returning as a ghost. The Night Watchman serves as a timely reminder that history seems to have a habit of repeating itself.   night watchman
  • Deacon King Kong by James McBride:  In Deacon King Kong, the venerable James McBride’s first novel since winning the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a grief-stricken church deacon nicknamed Sportcoat shoots Deems, a 19-year-old drug dealer, at a Brooklyn-area housing project called the Cause Houses in 1969. The shooting shocks the community of the Causes Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church and triggers a chain of subplots that McBride explores in touching and intriguing ways. Such a web of interconnected relationships could produce confusion when from the pen of a less talented writer. McBride, however, gives every character finely tuned identities and experiences. Aside from Sportcoat and Deems, there in Officer Potts Mullen, a worn-down white beat cop who yearns for the heart of cynical yet warm-hearted pastor’s wife Sister Gee. Soup is a recently released ex-convict and Nation of Islam convert who seeks to heal the community that he used to hurt. Italian mobster Tommy Elephante, also known as the Elephant, is the neighborhood boogeyman who is pursuing a treasure hunt left behind by his deceased father. These subplots are tied together by a mysterious link that reveals itself over time. These are just a few of the threads that comprise the web of experiences that generate the book’s ultimate protagonist, the Cause Houses. The characters are mere microorganisms; the Cause is the body. McBride imagines the project building not just as a setting but also as a living being that speaks, laughs, cries and, most importantly, loves. Deacon King Kong engages with serious issues including grief, poverty, drug use and gun violence, among others. At the same time, it is an incredibly funny novel. McBride’s comedic language and timing are precise and dynamic. Comedy is cultural, and in a truly exceptional move, he gives authentic comedic voices to characters with wide-ranging racial and cultural backgrounds. Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions. Deacon King Kong reaffirms James McBride’s position among the greatest American storytellers of our time.   deacon king kong
  • Actress by Anne Enright:  Celebrity often looks glamorous to outsiders. And who wouldn’t have envied the life of Irish actress Katherine O’Dell? Her daughter, Norah, acknowledges her mother’s elegance, like the way she’d leave a last bite of toast on her plate with “a little wavy-over thing she does with her hand, a shimmy of rejection or desire.” Even at the breakfast table, her mother was a star. But as Anne Enright reminds us in Actress, celebrity is often accompanied by gloom. This touching novel charts a star’s decline, from early Broadway and Hollywood fame in 1948 to her sad later years, when she was reduced to degrading stage roles and a commercial for Irish butter. One of the saddest ironies is that Katherine, “the most Irish actress in the world,” wasn’t Irish. She was born in London to a stage-actor father who never had a great career. Katherine’s life was more successful–and more checkered, with relationships with domineering men, suspected interactions with IRA members and struggles with mental illness, culminating in her rash decision to shoot a producer in the foot after he declined to produce one of her scripts. All of these events are relayed from the perspective of Norah, a novelist, who travels to London to meet people from Katherine’s past and seek answers to several mysteries, among them the identity of her father. Actress is at its best when Enright examines the complexities of the unusual mother-daughter bond. Memorable descriptions of even secondary characters make this book a treat, as when Norah reminisces about her thespian grandfather who “carried his handsome like an unwanted gift–one he offered to the world, but could never quite give away.” Late in the novel, when ruminating on events that can harm, Norah says, “You can also be destroyed by love.” As Enright shows, love often looks glamorous, but sometimes it’s only a guise.   actress
  • Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman (e-book available on Axis 360 app):  Judy Vogel is caught in a downward spiral. She is mourning both the recent loss of her parents and the anticipated loss of her best friend, who is dying of cancer. Judy’s promising career as a children’s author has stalled, and she now supports her family by writing for a wellness website. She has also lost all sense of connection with her husband, a pothead who suffers from severe anxiety and works as a “snackologist,” but they cannot afford to divorce. They are separated but live together in the same house and pretend everything is normal for their teenage son, Teddy. But what Judy grieves the most is the increasing loss of closeness to her only child as he grows into a young man. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Judy discovers a strange coping mechanism when she begins to carry their sheltie, Charlotte, everywhere in an old baby sling, to almost everyone’s dismay. In this intriguing novel, Laura Zigman doesn’t sugarcoat but instead lays bare Judy’s feelings with heartbreaking honesty. Every middle-aged woman who has ever felt invisible, lost or depressed will connect with some aspect of Judy’s life. Indeed, Zigman labels her work “semi-autobiographical fiction,” which may explain its devastating authenticity. At the same time, Zigman cleverly wraps her story in genuine hilarity. Judy’s continuous, cynical commentary is priceless, especially when discussing Teddy’s Montessori school. What at first might seem like a depressing premise is in fact both refreshingly truthful and highly entertaining. As a result of this unique mix, this novel is both unpredictable and delightfully original. For those seeking a good laugh and a good cry, look no further than Separation Anxiety. separation anxiety
  • Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis (e-book available on Axis 360 app):  Ashley Hawkins has always felt at home when she’s outside in nature. She’s grown up around the mountains and trails of Tennessee, and wilderness survival skills run in her blood. She even earned the nickname “*Butt*-kicker Ashley” from her old friend Davey–before he mysteriously disappeared on a solo hiking trip. Unlike many of her friends, Ashley is intimately aware of the woods’ pragmatic ruthlessness, not just their potential for keggers and drunken hookups. Against her better judgment, Ashley agrees to go to the Smoky Mountains with friends for a weekend of hiking and partying–only to stumble upon her new boyfriend in a compromising position with his ex. Stunned and heartbroken, Ashley feels into the night, completely alone, without her backpack, phone or even her shoes. When she suffers a fall in the darkness and her injuries cause her to become increasingly disoriented, the forest that’s always been a place of solace for her becomes instead a site of mortal danger. Will Ashley suffer the same fate as Davey? Be Not Far From Me, a brutal survival tale from Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis, doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the harsh realities Ashley encounters in the woods or the excruciating decisions she must make in order to stay alive. As Ashley summons reserves of strength she didn’t know she had, she also comes to terms with the difficult circumstances of her past that have made her stronger–and given her the resilience she will need to keep going. Readers will be utterly captivated by Ashley’s harrowing, hopeful fight to survive. be not far from me

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman:  It may be hard to believe in these days of seemingly endless political campaigns, but once upon a time, presidential candidates disdained personally stumping for political office. Asserting oneself through the written word was considered vain, undignified and beneath the status of a public figure. This is not to say they stayed silent:  Through “anonymously” written biographies, pamphlets and authoritative histories like Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, they made themselves known and helped themselves become, for the most part, exalted. (Try as he might, John Adams didn’t fare so well in his attempts, and even Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had their partisan cynics and critics.) In this eye-opener of a read, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, Craig Fehrman resurrects many such presidential pages, along with a plethora of facts and foibles about their writers–and ghostwriters. Alexander Hamilton and Ted Sorensen were among these invisible helpers, and their tales are here, too. For both the scholar and the casually curious, there is a lot to learn about our presidents. This story cannot be told without layering in the birth of the publishing industry and the growing pains of transportation, and Fehrman weaves a detailed tapestry from these threads. From salesmen on horseback to today’s online clicks, authors have struggled to reach their readers. As Fehrman explains, “The most interesting thing about Obama and Lincoln are the differences”–as in, riding a horse to a distant general store with the hope that any book might be there in one era, and downloading an eBook onto one’s phone in the next. There are the predictable standouts–Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt and Kennedy–and some outstanding surprises, such as Coolidge, Truman and Reagan. Whiffs of scandal puff up now and then. Jefferson spoke mightily of human rights but kept his slaves. Kennedy earned his Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, or did he? Every candidate used the power of the written word to open the door to the White House and, later, secure his legacy. Fehrman ensures their words will continue to matter. author in chief
  • American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson:  We live in an era that feels awash in crime case forensic evidence. Every day, news comes of DNA tests that have exonerated long-imprisoned innocents or nabbed villains in cold cases. An entire generation has grown up watching the CSI franchise on television, and jurors tend to expect some Gil Grissom-like savant to testify, even when that’s not realistic. That was hardly the case a century ago. Police relied on third-degree interrogations, and science just wasn’t in the picture. But slowly, a handful of forensic pioneers changed the criminal justice landscape. One of the most prominent was Edward Oscar Heinrich, a largely forgotten figure whose riveting story is revived in Kate Winkler Dawson’s American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI. After finishing her well-regarded Death in the Air, Dawson was looking for a follow-up project when she stumbled on the voluminous Heinrich papers at the University of California at Berkeley. She literally had to persuade the university to catalog the neglected collection so she could do her research. It produced archival gold. Heinrich was a headline name in the 1920s and ’30s as a key criminologist in high-profile murder cases. Dawson structures her book around his most mysterious and sensational cases–among them, a bloody train robbery that netted almost no money, the killing of a priest solved in part through handwriting analysis and the multiple trials of a Stanford University employee who may or may not have bludgeoned his wife in her bathtub. Heinrich forged the way in blood pattern analysis, ballistics, forensic photography, polygraphs and criminal profiling. Yet he was often frustrated by juries who were baffled by his work, and importantly, he wasn’t always right. He trusted forensic science too much; as Dawson reminds us, we now know that handwriting, blood and gun evidence is far from flawless. Like Heinrich himself, she argues, we need to continue pushing forward in the never-ending quest for true justice.   american sherlock
  • No Bad Deed by Heather Chavez (e-book available in Libby app):  Heather Chavez’s No Bad Deed is a fast-paced, high-anxiety tale of a good Samaritan’s offer of assistance gone very, very wrong. On her drive home from work after a 12-hour shift at her veterinarian practice, Cassie Larkin pulls over to mop up a spilled drink–and sees a man throw a woman into a ravine. A shocked Cassie calls 911 and, despite the dispatcher’s exhortations to stay in her minivan, she gets out and stumbles down a steep hill in an attempt to save the woman. The attacker offers a terrifying bargain–“Let her die and I’ll let you live”–before running off, stealing Cassie’s van (as well as her wallet and keys) along the way. The woman lives, and Cassie pushes through her shock and fear to give a statement to Detective Ray Rico, who tells her, “Every crime is personal, even the random ones.” But Cassie can’t imagine how on earth this crime could have anything to do with her, nor can she figure out why Rico seems to be regarding her with skepticism rather than focusing on catching the criminal who knows where she lives and has the keys to her house. Exhausted and distraught, she pushes the weirdness aside and goes home, hoping the police will soon catch said criminal and resolving to start fresh tomorrow. Alas, rather than a festive day with a candy-filled finale, Cassie’s Halloween ends on a strange and terrifying note. Her husband Sam takes their 6-year-old daughter trick-or-treating and then disappears. Cassie wonders if he’s having a affair, but can’t believe that he would abandon their child. Chavez, a former newspaper reporter, does an excellent job of pulling the reader along with Cassie as she tears around town assembling clues in an effort to figure out what the hell is going on. Thanks to the uncanny timing, Cassie wonders if Sam’s disappearance is related to the bizarre assault she witnessed. That would be a wild coincidence, but as the hours pass and the danger and strangeness increases, Cassie’s sense of reality warps and changes, and her instincts are increasingly at odds with what she’s seeing and hearing. No Bad Deed is an exciting exploration of what might happen when a person’s ordinary life is suddenly thrown into chaos, and knowing whom or what to trust is no longer possible. It’s also a delightfully Harlan Coben-esque tale of the ways in which the past can influence the present–for better or much, much worse.   no bad deed
  • The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee and Pascal Campion:  It’s hard for Daniel to leave his warm bed and cozy apartment, but without a babysitter, he must accompany his parents to their nighttime janitorial job. While they work, they make up stories, transforming the empty conference rooms, messy kitchen and echoing hallways into a magical realm. Welcome to The Paper Kingdom. Author Helena Ku Rhee writes from her own personal experience, having also gone with her parents to their night custodial jobs. Her narration rings with honesty as Daniel’s voice changes from sleepy and surly to curious but frustrated as he sees how hard his parents work to clean up the messes created by the office workers. Illustrator Pascal Campion expertly uses colors to build a sense of atmosphere on every page. Readers will feel the warm glow of a lamp, hear the squeaky shine of newly mopped floors and see the blur of the city through bleary eyes. The facial expressions of Daniel and his parents are simple but convey their emotions (especially their exhaustion) clearly and unmistakably. Campion’s digital brushstrokes vary from soft and vague to finely detailed. Plants become bold strokes of color, while bathroom-stall doors are sharp and precise. This variety–along with a few magical touches–brings readers into Daniel’s sleepy, dreamlike state and makes every page feel like a slightly hazy memory. The Paper Kingdom salutes the sacrifices that parents make for their children and movingly acknowledges the work of those who toil while the city sleeps. It’s an affectionate tribute to the bonds of family and the unexpected memories we form when we perform seemingly mundane tasks together. It’s also an homage to the way imagination sometimes works when we are young, and how reality and the possibility of dragons can mingle. paper kingdom
  • The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app): When a body of historical literature is as vast as the one on Winston Churchill in World War II, it’s fair to ask whether the world needs yet another entry. But when the author is a master of popular history like Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile:  A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz–the engrossing story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister–needs no additional justification. Larson begins his account with Churchill’s assumption of power on May 10, 1940, on the eve of the British evacuation of Dunkirk, and continues for exactly one year. That highly consequential span saw, among other events, the fall of France, the London Blitz (Germany’s relentless aerial bombardment that killed nearly 45,000 Britons) and Churchill’s tactful but persistent courtship of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that culminated in the securing of material assistance vital to sustaining Britain’s war effort. It was also a year in which Churchill time and again displayed his unsurpassed gift for inspiring a beleaguered nation–through his oratory and through the sheer force of his personality–to persist through some of the darkest days of the war, when German bombs rained death nightly on Britain’s cities, and invasion seemed imminent. But The Splendid and the Vile isn’t merely a story of war and diplomacy. Larson devotes considerable attention to daily life inside the Churchill household, including frequent weekend excursions at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers, where social gatherings often stretched into the early morning hours amid intensive war planning. Larson also humanizes the prime minster through stories of his teenage daughter, Mary, struggling to make the awkward transition into adulthood in the midst of war’s chaos, and his son Randolph, whose marriage was crumbling under the weight of a gambling addiction. While Britain didn’t defeat Hitler in Churchill’s momentous first year, it unquestionably stared down annihilation and survived. Enlivened by Larson’s effective use of primary sources and, above all, by his vibrant storytelling, The Splendid and the Vile brings a fresh eye to a familiar story of courage, determination and hope.   splendid and the vile
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann (e-book available on Axis 360 app): Colum McCann’s ambitious new novel tells the true story of the friendship between two men brought together by tragedy. The title, Apeirogon, refers to a shape with an infinite but countable number of sides, and this image serves as a metaphor for both political complexity as well as the episodic manner in which the story unfolds. Palestinian Bassam Aramin’s life was transformed when, jailed as a teenager, he became interested in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Upon release, Bassam co-founded Combatants for Peace, a grassroots movement committed to nonviolence in Israel and the West Bank, and got a degree in Holocaust Studies in England. After Bassam’s daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli border guard in 2005, he joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization founded for Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost relatives to the violence. There, he met graphic designer Rami Elhanan, 19 years his senior, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in 1997. The two men have made it their lives’ work to travel together all over the world, telling their daughters’ stories in their quest for peace. Apeirogon takes place during a single day as the men make their separate ways to a monastery in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in Bethlehem, where they have a speaking engagement. Bassam leaves from his home in Jericho, traveling through checkpoints, worries he will be stopped for having a headlight out, and Rami is on his motorcycle, crossing in and out of Israel-occupied territories. As in earlier novels, McCann mixes history and fiction, shifting narrators, place and time into a seamless though sprawling whole. Through 1,001 brief fragments that lead up to and away from two monologues, one by each man, McCann interweaves their lives with topics as diverse as soccer, avian migration and, in a tip of the hat to Let the Great World Spin, Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope strung over the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in 1987 Jerusalem. Segment after segment evokes the experiences of McCann’s protagonists, their families and the divided land in which they live. McCann’s protagonists believe that if a country’s commitment to peace leads the way, the most complex politics will sort themselves out. Apeirogon makes space for this belief, a placeholder for a future where irreparable loss transforms violence, where grief leads to reconciliation. apeirogon

Your Library Curated: A Few New Books

  • 1774 by Mary Beth Norton:  American colonists loved tea and wished to acquire it cheaply. Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773, however, made that impossible. As an anonymous New York Writer at the time explained, colonists would pay “a duty which is a tax for the Purpose of raising a Revenue from us without our own consent, and tax, or duty, is therefore unconstitutional, cruel, or unjust.” It was an effort to help the financially struggling East India Company. In protest, some ports halted or sent back their shipments of tea. In Boston, in December of 1773, men disguised as Native Americans destroyed 342 chests of tea. The term “Boston Tea Party” wasn’t used until the next century, but the action was controversial and set in motion crucial actions and discussions that lasted until mid-April 1775. The vigorous debates regarding freedom and liberty during that period prepared the country for what was to follow in 1776. Drawing on correspondence, newspapers and pamphlets, noted historian Mary Beth Norton brings that 16-month period vividly alive in her meticulously documented and richly rewarding 1774: The Long Year of Revolution. Support for resistance to King George III was far from unanimous. Loyalists sought to deal rationally with Parliament on the Tea Act and other issues. The proposal to elect a congress to coordinate opposition tactics came not from radical leaders but from conservatives who hoped for reconciliation with Britain. Loyalists to England, not the revolutionaries, were the most vocal advocates for freedom of the press and strong dissenting opinions. But shortsighted decisions from London often moved these conservatives in the opposite direction. This important book demonstrates how opposition to the king developed and shows us that without the “long year” of 1774, there may not have been an American Revolution at all.   1774
  • The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer (e-book available in Libby app):  Typically, the phrase “true crime” brings to mind stories of serial murderers–not of, say, thieves and traffickers of rare eggs. But in The Falcon Thief:  A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, Joshua Hammer has crafted a story that will fascinate readers craving a dramatic true tale of confident criminals, denizens of shadowy underworlds and the law enforcers who strive to catch and punish them. First the bad guy. Jeffrey Lendrum is an audacious criminal who travels the world stealing rare eggs from birds of prey and selling them to uber-wealthy falcon enthusiasts in the United Arab Emirates. Our hero, Andy McWilliam, is a career police officer who rose to the top of the U.K.’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, thanks to his success tracking and capturing wildlife-related criminals such as badger-baiters, zookeepers and real estate developers. But his specialization, of course, is ornithological crime solving. Hammer’s exploration of the factors that culminated in egg trafficking is thorough and fascinating, offering context and entertainment alike. He plumbs the origins of falconry, which began as a means of survival (peregrines were trained hunters) and over the centuries evolved into the high-dollar, high-stakes sport it is today. In Dubai, there’s a falcon hospital, research center and the President Cup, a racing event with an $11 million purse. It’s mind-boggling, but in Hammer’s hands it makes a bizarre kind of sense:  Rather than collecting jerseys and memorizing stats, falcon-obsessed men (they’re all men, it seems) steal and collect eggs, keep meticulous notes and are always planning their next get. The wealthiest members of this group in the UAE hire out such tasks to men like Lendrum who thrive on the adrenaline rush of plundering nature. Hammer paints a vivid portrait of the thrill of the chase and the long-term relationships between criminal and police officer–both of them smart and daring, neither of them willing to give up. The Falcon Thief also shines a light on the world of wildlife crime:  its perpetrators, addicted to their pursuits; its wealthy and Machiavellian masterminds; and our heroes, who work toward ensuring that all creatures are safe from the greedy and devious few. Ultimately, this book is a fine tribute to McWilliam and to others dedicated to conservation, and a compelling deep dive into the psyche of a very specific sort of criminal. falcon thief

Your Library Curated: A Few New Books

  • Things in Jars by Jess Kidd:  Fiction that transports us back to another time can, at its best, make us feel at home in an era into which we’ve never set foot. Unless, of course, the author doesn’t want us to feel at home. In the realm of great fantasy fiction set in a past we think we know, it’s often to a storyteller’s advantage to lure us in with a false sense of familiarity, only to reveal something else entirely. With Things in Jars, Jess Kidd has woven a spellbinding alternate version of Victorian London that is both recognizable and like getting lost in some mist-shrouded parallel world only spoken of in myths. It is into this version of London, where tattooed ghosts lurk near their own gravestones and seven-foot-tall housekeepers spend their idle time reading potboiler fiction, that Kidd drops Bridie Devine, a private detective with such distinctive style and intense charisma that we fall in love with immediately. When we meet her, Bridie is coming off a tough, failed case, but she’s got a new one on the horizon. The secret child of a wealthy man is missing, and the child may be much more than just a lost little girl. Armed with her own wits and accompanied by an unlikely spectral assistant, Bridie sets out to learn the truth about the child and along the way finds some ties to a past she tried to leave behind. Equal parts historical thriller and fabulist phantasm, Things in Jars is instantly compelling, but what sets it apart is the prose. There’s a playful, lithe familiarity to it as Kidd dances across delightfully apt phrases like a master. Even as the novel sweeps you up in its narrative, it also sweeps you up in it sentence-by-sentence construction, making it both a whirlwind read and a novel you could happily get lost in for weeks, dissecting every paragraph. Things in Jars is the kind of lavish, elegant genre treat that makes you wish Kidd would churn out a new Bridie Devine mystery every three years until the end of time.   things in jars
  • Weather by Jenny Offill:  Lizzie Benson, the protagonist of Jenny Offill’s smart, provocative new novel, Weather, has a lot on her mind. Lizzie has opted out of a Ph.D. program and is underemployed at a university  library in Brooklyn. She is the major supporter of her younger brother, Henry, whose addictions were the primary reason Lizzie abandoned graduate school in the first place, and her husband is losing patience. She actively avoids a bigoted neighbor, is cowed by the officious crossing guard at her son’s elementary school and frets over the dwindling attendance at the workplace meditation class. Not to mention her bum knee. After the 2016 election, her pessimism increases. Lizzie’s former thesis adviser, Sylvia, who is now the host of a popular “doom and gloom” environmental podcast called “Hell and High Water,” hires Lizzie to field her listeners’ questions. Lizzie finds herself spending hours in a highly polarized virtual world, addressing the concerns of survivalists, doomsday preppers, climate-change deniers and panicky environmentalists. She grows obsessed with the psychology behind disaster planning and survivalism, exacerbating the situation by web surfing and watching reality shows on extreme couponing and animism. But as worrying as these issues are, nothing quite compares to Lizzie’s enmeshed relationship with Henry, whose fragile hold on sobriety is tested by a wife and a new baby. Like Offill’s award-winning Department of Speculation, Weather is short, absorbing and disturbingly funny. Its structure–quotations, lists, jokes, articles and emails mixed with Lizzie’s trenchant observations–echoes our current fragmented world and ever-shortening attention spans. As the tensions between the doomsday predictions and everyday relationships fray and fester, Lizzie finds it more and more difficult to keep from tipping over into despair. She begins to look to her loving family for stability, even as she tests their patience. The title itself connoting climate conditions and the human ability to withstand and survive change, Weather feels both immediate and intimate, as Lizzie’s concerns become eerily close to our own.   weather

Your Library Curated: Best New E-Books

  • Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon (e-book available on the Libby app):  The Vietnam War has generated a substantial body of literature since its end in 1975, but the same can’t be said of the civil war that raged simultaneously in the country of Laos. Paul Yoon’s novel Run Me to Earth, a pensive tale of war’s savage toll on innocents during and after the conflict, partially remedies that absence. As Yoon explains in an author’s note, more than 2 million tons of ordnance rained down on Laos, a country half the size of California, between 1964 and 1973. That’s more than was dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War II. Thirty percent of these cluster bombs failed to explode on impact, leaving a residue of lethal, baseball-size “bombies.” Amid this version of hell on earth, three local teenagers–Alisak, Prany and his younger sister, Noi–are recruited to work for a doctor named Vang who ministers to the war-ravaged civilian population. When these well-meaning but untrained children aren’t struggling to aid the doctor in an abandoned farmhouse converted into an ill-equipped government hospital, they’re navigating speedy motorbikes across bomb-strewn fields, guided only by “safe lines” of sticks and their own daring. When helicopters arrive to evacuate the three young characters (as well as the hospital’s remaining patients, save for the dying, who are left behind), Yoon follows them to a prison camp run by Laotian rebels, a small town in southern France and even New York’s Hudson River Valley. Their subsequent acts of revenge, self-sacrifice and profound courage all resonate with their wartime experiences, when they were, in the words of one character, “still just children. Children hired to help others survive a war.” Run Me to Earth is a melancholy reminder that valor isn’t limited to those who win medals on the battlefield, and that to many noncombatants, the question isn’t who wins or loses, but whether one will survive the madness. run me to earth
  • When You See Me by Lisa Gardner (e-book available on the Libby app):  It begins with a femur. When a couple detour off their hiking trail in the Georgia hills and find the weathered leg bone, and the more female remains, it seems likely to be the work of a known predator. But an ever-growing group of investigators discovers there’s more to this laid-back community than just one notorious monster. When You See Me is most frightening when it shows us the boogeymen we meet and interact with every day. Lisa Gardner’s latest novel once again unites Sergeant D.D. Warren and Flora Dane, the survivor of a brutal abduction who has repaid some of that abuse in the years since. They make a good team, especially since only one is bound to obey laws. Flora and Keith, her maybe-boyfriend who adds tech skills to the team, investigate the small town near the burial site with Warren and FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy. Chapter narration alternates between Warren, Flora, Quincy and a young, mysterious figure who is unable to speak; for her, this is anything but a cold case. When her story intersects with the investigation, the stakes and tension ratchet up quickly. Warren, Dane and Quincy struggle to square the folksy demeanor of people they interview with what appears to be a fairly long, dark history of criminal behavior. It’s hard to know who to trust when talking to people well-trained in the art of people-pleasing to ensure repeat business. Meanwhile, the one person desperate to tell the truth and exact justice has lost her voice entirely. The twists and turns keep peeling veils off an evil nobody wants to look at head-on, and it all culminates in a breakneck final act. The forensic analysis of shallow graves can unearth a lot of clues, but When You See Me also looks at the ways evil is handed down from one generation to the next. It’s a mystery that will keep you up late at night, haunted by the events within its pages.   when you see me
  • The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley (e-book available on Axis 360 app):  In his 1962 novel, Mother Night, the late Kurt Vonnegut let loose the tale’s moral on the first page: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Clare Pooley revisits that theme in The Authenticity Project, but with a twist: “Everyone lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth instead?” “Keeping up appearances” was a posh British blood sport long before the days of social media, but in the era of Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and a hundred more, many of us succumb to the siren song of “building our brand” by relentlessly editing the public-facing image of our lives. While that curated presentation has an element of truthiness to it, it’s ultimately unsatisfying and leaves followers believing their own lives fail to measure up. So what happens when an aging, formerly semi-famous artist decides to entitle a blank journal The Authenticity Project, launch into an admission of how his life is not meeting expectations and leave the book in a public place for the next person to expand, ignore or discard? As you might guess, the person who finds it, a cafe owner named Monica, decides to contribute. And so, as much by happenstance as through intentional actions, the journal makes its way halfway around the world (and back again), with contributors adding their respective warts-and-all memoirs. The secret sauce that spices this book is that all the diarists are busybodies to some degree, so they wind up interacting in strange and unexpected ways. Much like a Twitter or Facebook feed, the book is composed of fairly short chapters (each from a different character’s point of view), and while it moves along at a bracing clip, the thread is always easy to follow. The story’s confessional tone is in many ways a logical extension of Pooley’s popular pseudonymous blog, Mummy Was a Secret Drinker, but TMI is always balanced by TLC. And while Pooley’s characters’ lives, much like our own, often look better from the outside, they all ultimately reconcile what they pretend to be with what they actually are.    authenticity project

Your Library Curated: Best New Books

  • The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez:  The best science fiction stories create a bridge between ambitious, precisely calculated genre concepts and the deep, emotional truths that unite us all. Keeping the balance between intricate sci-fi backdrops and delicate matters of the heart is a high-wire act that only succeeds with tremendous care, passion and narrative grace. In his debut novel, The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez has announced himself as a graceful, spellbinding storyteller with the gifts to pull it off. The Vanished Birds charts, in its carefully selective way, centuries of human history and advancement, ultimately catapulting us into a future carved out of glittering corporate-run space stations and far-flung starships that zip through folds in spacetime. It’s into this future, where time is as much of a commodity as any physical good, that Jimenez drops Nia Imani, a woman whose job as captain of a time-folding ship means she’s constantly losing time. Months of travel for her mean years lost on either side of the journey, and this constant sense of detachment has left her unmoored. Then she meets a mysterious boy who fell from the sky onto a distant planet, a boy with a gift for music who could also be destined for much more. Together, they find a bond neither dreamed possible, but powerful forces also want the boy, and a struggle lies ahead. Though Jimenez’s prose feels right at home in a universe of interstellar travel and space station settlements, The Vanished Birds soars highest when the author is navigating the complex emotional avenues through which much of this deeply human story unfolds. The book never fails to deliver the science fiction goods, and fan of high-concept leaps will be satisfied, but the book’s emotional core is what makes it fly. The Vanished Birds strikes a breathless balance between the conceptually dazzling and the emotionally resonant, and it’s in that balance that a bright new voice in genre fiction is born.   vanished birds
  • A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris:  Fresh from an unexpectedly complicated job in Mexico, Lizbeth Rose is shepherding a mysterious crate from her native Texoma to the nation of Dixie when her train derails and her cargo is stolen. As the only member of the crew left alive and in fighting condition, she attempts to infiltrate the small town of Sally, with the unexpected aid of some old friends from Mexico. Lizbeth must now find her missing cargo, outwit a mysterious order of white supremacists and seek vengeance for the deaths of her crew members. And she must do so in Dixie, accompanied by a Russian wizard pretending to be her husband, and without her precious guns. A Longer Fall, Charlaine Harris’ sequel to An Easy Death, is just as gritty as its predecessor. Harris’ prose is blunt and uncomplicated, matching Lizbeth’s general sensibility, and lending the novel a welcome readability. This straightforward style meshes well with the first-person narration, implying that the protagonist is relating events in her own words as she remembers them. Each character is filtered through Lizbeth’s biases, resulting in a refreshingly direct story, albeit one in which everyone uses roughly the same cadence and vocabulary and some of the plot twists are foreshadowed into predictability. The most remarkable aspect of A Longer Fall, though, is the fluency of Harris’ alternate history. Her fractured United States features references to Alexei Romanov’s hemophilia, Russian and Coptic Orthodox theology and the racial dynamics of the Reconstruction-era American South, to name a few. While Texoma communities tend to write their own rules, both Dixie (the former South) and the Holy Russian Empire (California) operate under established hierarchies. In Dixie, these structures are founded on gender and race, while the Holy Russian Empire’s society revolves around religion, genealogy and magical ability. Lizbeth encounters these systems as an outsider both to these specific cultures and to the idea of a firmly hierarchical social structure in general, and her difficulties making sense of them form the central obstacles in both An Easy Death and A Longer Fall. Well, except for the people who keep trying to kill her, of course. longer fall
  • A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen:  For Moira, it starts at a concert. Her concert, actually; she’s a beloved pop star, known as MoJo, and she’s on stage at Madison Square Garden when news of a flu-like outbreak called multi-generational syndrome (MGS) sends her fans into a panic. Moira follows the crowd into the streets of New York City and recognizes her chance. The world may be ending, but this is her shot at freedom from her overbearing father. Rob and Sunny find themselves in quarantine after Rob’s wife, Elena, is fatally injured during a riot. Rob can’t bring himself to tell Sunny her mother has died, and he spends each subsequent day wrestling with the resulting lies. Krista is watching over her dying boyfriend–a victim of the MGS pandemic–when opportunity literally knocks on her door. She chooses life and joins a group fleeing to save themselves. These four survivors come together in San Francisco, an unlikely group fused by Moira’s pending nuptials, Krista’s role as an event planner and Rob’s desperation to keep his daughter at his side. A Beginning at the End, the second imaginative novel by technical-and sportswriter-turned-novelist Mike Chen (Here and Now and Then), examines the hysteria of a world where some adopt an “every individual for him-or herself” attitude. Relationships fall apart as most of the world’ remaining population wrestles with a PTSD-like condition. Even against a science fiction backdrop, humanity is the center of Chen’s post-apocalyptic tale. Krista banks on her clients’ desire to find some joy in the midst of a bleak world. But the real hope comes from the characters’ desires to hide their pasts–and then their willingness to reveal their true selves to one another as they seek something worth living for. “I’m out here because I love people, and that’s the American Dream today. We mourn, we rebuild, we respect the things we have,” explains one of the men who helped Moira flee her pop-star past, effectively summarizing the crew’s ongoing hope. Chen’s fast-paced tale is an optimistic look at how our humanity can bring out the best in us, even in the darkest times.   beginning at the end
  • To the Edge of Sorrow by Aharon AppelfeldTo the Edge of Sorrow, Aharon Appelfeld’s novel about a band of Jewish refugees hiding from German patrols in the forests of Ukraine, could have been just another World War II story of strikes and counterstrikes, bullets exchanged and bombs exploding. But thankfully, Appelfeld instead gives readers an up-close, deeply moving story of characters haunted by grief and loss yet buoyed by courage and hope in the most adverse conditions. The novel follows the group’s day-to-day efforts to survive, seen through the eyes of the young narrator, 17-year-old Edmund. Haunted by his forced separation from his parents and from his non-Jewish girlfriend after the relentless advance of German soldiers, Edmund find uneasy comfort among this resistance group. Guided by a somewhat reluctant leader, Kamil, the group initially strives simply to endure. Searching for food, medicine and shelter is the focus of their everyday existence. They raid local villages and farms to gather only what they need, leaving behind enough for the innocent farmers and families they’re robbing. The only luxury the group affords itself is the few books confiscated along the way, books whose words offer inspiration, comfort and faith. But the Germans are always close behind and are determined to root them out, forcing the group deeper into the mountains of Ukraine. Infrequent reports over a stolen transistor radio and contact with other refugees are the group’s only real links to developments in the war and their place in it. It’s only upon  learning that the Germans are shipping Jews by train to death camps that the group’s mission changes to one of attack and rescue. Edmund eventually earns his place as a soldier within the group’s ranks and participates in the raids. Nevertheless, most of the story revolves around the group itself, composed of stalwart victims of persecution who display enduring compassion for each other as well as relentless faith in humanity. The author of more than 40 critically acclaimed books, Appelfeld (1932-2018) weaves a memorable chronicle of those who sought to persevere at the height of one of the world’s worst moments.   to the edge of sorrow
  • A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (e-book available on Axis 360 app):  Storyteller par excellence Isabel Allende brings to life an epic saga in A Long Petal of the Sea. During the Spanish Civil War in 1938, medic Victor Dalmau aids the fight against ruthless General Franco by tending the wounded under the worst possible conditions, while Roser Bruguera, a young piano student, becomes the lover of Victor’s soldier brother. After Victor’s brother is killed and the Franco-led fascists gain control of Spain, Victor and Roser, fearing even greater atrocities, join the sea of desperate refugees fleeing to France. There, they are detained under horrific conditions in a camp by the sea. To escape their precarious status as refugees, Victor and Roser marry without love to gain passage on Paulo Neruda’s Winnipeg, the real-life ship that carried more than 2,000 Spanish refugees to a new life in Chile in 1939. Over the next 55 years, and through the rise and fall of another cruel dictator, Victor and Roser build a life together in South America, based first on shared loyalty, and later on something more. Against a backdrop of violent political and social upheaval, the lives of Allende’s characters quietly unfold in unexpected ways that prove both riveting and satisfying. Allende, a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, explores what it means to live in freedom and under tyranny, to feel displaced and at home. As with Allende’s bestselling novel House of Spirits, subtle touches of magical realism add richness to the story. Although Allende writes of political events and personalities from distant lands and decades in the past, readers may feel a very real sense that these events have much to say about the world today. Some may find hope in Victor’s and Roser’s abilities not just to survive such dark times but also to eventually heal and thrive. For those familiar with Allende’s earlier work, this novel will not disappoint. For those new to Allende’s writing, A Long Petal of the Sea will prove a captivating introduction. long petal of the sea
  • Almost Just Friends by Jill Shalvis (e-book available on Axis 360 app):  Jill Shalvis is back with the fourth installment of her contemporary Wildstone series, Almost Just Friends. Just like every other book she’s written, you can count on this one to make you feel good. Shalvis has a knack for creating charming characters who are vulnerable yet strong. They’re likable, relatable and possess the ability to face any challenge head-on. On her 30th birthday, at a celebration she neither asked for nor wanted, the reality of Piper Manning’s life rings true:  She is responsible for “gathering and keeping all us misfits together and sane.” That’s her friends talking, but the same goes for her family–Piper is the glue that holds them together. She’s raised her siblings, build a career as an EMT and has started refurbishing her grandparents’ lake house. Once she sells the valuable property, she’ll finally have the money to pursue her dreams of becoming a physician’s assistant. But change is scary. Despite the responsibilities Piper has had for over half her life and now her yearning for the next chapter, taking the first step is harder than she thought. And despite all the planning, hoping and wishing she holds close in her heart, falling in love doesn’t factor into the chaos of her life. Then she meets Camden Reid, a secretive DEA agent and Coast Guard reservist. Camden, a man in search of an anchor but with no interest in romance or love, finds Piper to be both a conundrum and irresistible. He’s drawn to her strength and vulnerability (which we’ll call the “Shalvis specialty”), and Piper challenges him more than anything he’s ever experienced. Almost Just Friends is the message we need for this new decade:  Everybody struggles with change and challenge and hardship, but if you’re brave and take a leap of faith, you can be happy.     almost just friends
  • Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston (e-book available on the Axis 360 app):  Over the past 50 years, Zora Neale Hurston has been restored from nearly forgotten to a canonical writer, in no small part due to the efforts of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. One of the seminal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston is most known today for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and for her nonfiction works of black history and folklore. But before she published those books, she honed her craft by writing short stories. Between 1921 and 1937, Hurston published 21 stories, some widely anthologized but many virtually lost–until now. Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick collects all 21, including eight “lost” stories, for the first time in one volume. Editor Genevieve West located the recovered stories in periodicals and as unpublished manuscripts, and the hallmarks of Hurston’s distinctive writing are on full display:  her use of rural black dialect, the wickedly sly humor she finds in day-to-day life, the folkloric underpinnings of her many tales. The world Hurston re-creates is a circumscribed African American world, where white characters are relegated to the sidelines and rarely figure into the consequences of the plot, if they appear at all. The agency that Hurston affords her community is one of the defining delights of her art, which explores identity, class and gender within the African American experience. Many of Hurston’s stories take place among the denizens of rural Eatonville, Florida, also the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God and the actual community where Hurston grew up. Other stories are set among urban landscapes, particularly in Harlem, where the fledgling writer moved in 1924. West points to “The Back Room,” one of the recovered stories, as unique among Hurston’s work for its depiction of what she calls “New Negro” life during the Harlem Renaissance. “The Conversion of Sam,” another found story, is an early effort written before Hurston’s own move to New York. It has a less defined urban setting but nonetheless depicts a migrant’s experience and explores familiar Hurston themes of sexual attraction, courtship and the interplay between men and women. As with any collection of stories, quality varies greatly, but these narratives comprise a rich tapestry of Hurston’s matchless vision and talent. After this period as a short story writer, Hurston mostly turned her attention to novels and to the indelible folklore collections she assembled. These would prove the bedrock of her literary reputation, but these early stories are also a welcome and illuminating component of her legacy.  hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick