Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, February 14, 2020

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

From My Shelf

Andrews McMeel Publishing: Pillow Thoughts IV: Stitching the Soul by Courtney Peppernell

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Kings County by David Goodwillie

Laugh and Learn

Bill Bryson is a funny man. He's also bright, self-deprecating and incredibly curious about a wide assortment of topics. All of those qualities are vividly displayed in this trio of books I've selected from his impressive body of work.

Though he was born in Iowa, Bryson has spent a significant portion of his adult life in the United Kingdom. His first extended sojourn ended in 1993, but before he departed for America, he embarked on what he calls "a kind of valedictory tour around the green and kindly island that had for two decades been my home." Notes from a Small Island (Morrow, $16.99) is the affectionate, if idiosyncratic, record of that farewell journey.

Once he returned to the United States, it didn't take long for Bryson's wanderlust to emerge, and in 1996, he launched an assault on the 2,169 miles of the Appalachian Trail. In A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Anchor, $7.99), Bryson chronicles the highs and lows of that sometimes Sisyphean journey. Along the way, he discourses knowledgeably on a range of subjects that include natural history, geology and the trail's colorful past.

But as Bryson demonstrates in his latest book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Doubleday, $30), his talents aren't confined to travel writing. This hefty volume is a comprehensive, informative and consistently entertaining tour of "this warm wobble of flesh" we call the human body. The book is packed with startling factoids, portraits of physicians and scientists both well-known and obscure, and useful information to help ward off disease and understand it when it strikes.

At a time when many intelligent people strive to learn more about less, an encounter with polymath Bill Bryson can be a bracing change of pace. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

From My Shelf

Andrews McMeel Publishing: Pillow Thoughts IV: Stitching the Soul by Courtney Peppernell

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Kings County by David Goodwillie

Mini Imaginaries

Unicorns, sasquatches, monsters, oh my!

"Oscar is hungry. But he's eaten EVERYTHING. (Including his stable.)" What is a famished unicorn to do? In Lou Carter and Nikki Dyson's board book Oscar the Hungry Unicorn (Orchard Books, $10.99), the pink-bodied, rainbow-maned unicorn tries to fill his belly by eating a witch's house, a pirate ship, a fairy meadow, even a DJ at a cave party. Oscar, flashing his unamused and unimpressed side-eye throughout the entire book, is sure to elicit giggles from children ages zero to five.

A follow-up board book, Crix Sheridan's The Sasquatch and the Lumberjack: Family (little bigfoot, $12.99), isn't exactly what one might expect from the title. The Lumberjack's family meets the Sasquatch, right? Nope! The friends who met in The Sasquatch and the Lumberjack here bring their families together for group activities like motorcycling, fishing and making music. Every double-page spread features different family members in action and a single word--GRAMMIE, SISTER, MA--to identify the (lumberjack or sasquatch) family member. Colorful and full of movement, this board book is a fun introduction to simple family words for kids ages zero to three.

Pre-readers will almost certainly find Elise Gravel's big-eyed, horned monster anything but frightening. In I Am Scary (Orca, $10.95), a monster attempts to convince a child and their dog that it is very scary: "Look at my pointy TEETH! Look at my huge EYES!" The dog is alarmed but the child remains stoic, even when the monster lets out a mighty "ROAAAAR!" In fact, the child thinks the monster is cute. With a pleasant ending that caretakers are sure to love, the scary monster and the child find a better way to relate than through fear.

--Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

From My Shelf

Andrews McMeel Publishing: Pillow Thoughts IV: Stitching the Soul by Courtney Peppernell

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Kings County by David Goodwillie

Write that Book You've Been Putting Off

In her stellar interview with the Paris Review, Toni Morrison spoke of her pre-writing ritual: a cup of coffee as daylight arrives. "Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process." 

Few writers coax the rest of us to get up and simply get started--to become that conduit--as memorably as Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, $16). Lamott's hilarious homage to "Sh***y First Drafts" and merely making a routine out of showing up are enough to get a pencil in hand or fingers on the keys.

Casting for inspiration? Cull from your own life; as Emily Dickinson advised, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola's Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, $20) is a definitive text for expanding ideas of what creative nonfiction can be, with insight and encouragement in spades.

Got kids writing at home? See Walter Dean Myers's Just Write: Here's How! (HarperCollins, $7.99). Myers's titles number over 100, and the six-time Coretta Scott King Award-winner and two-time Newbery Honoree offers clear-headed advice and candor about writing for young adults: "My own life showed me the value of stories, and I've spent my career trying to write the books I wanted to read as a teen." 

Or try your hand at writing for the screen with Blake Snyder's classic how-to Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need (Michael Wiese Productions, $22.95). The title isn't hyperbole; entertaining and eminently readable, it'll have you drafting in no time.

So write what you know, or what you don't, what you've wanted to read or what you want to watch. (But first: coffee.)

--Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

From My Shelf

Andrews McMeel Publishing: Pillow Thoughts IV: Stitching the Soul by Courtney Peppernell

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Kings County by David Goodwillie

Xtravaganza Realness

Earlier this year, in our Reading with... Juli Delgado Lopera, the author of the novel Fiebre Tropical (Amethyst Editions, $17.95) mentioned as a favorite book Joseph Cassara's The House of Impossible Beauties (Ecco, $16.99). Lopera said, "The writing in that book is so delicious, I literally wanted to eat it up." Having heard only good things about it, I needed no more prodding.

It's about the 1980s in New York City. About the look. The pose. The walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, honey! Angel is building the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in the ballroom scene as she mothers other lost souls and runaways. Her family turns tricks in the streets and turns heads at the balls, transforming an eked-out living into glittering royal realness with the love and support they have to offer one another. Times may be hard, but Cassara stitches an elegant, silky gown of a novel from a beauty so raw you'd be forgiven for thinking it was impossible.

Fiebre Tropical, too, is an outstanding work of art. It's a nuanced tragicomedy about a Colombian teen with a sharp sense of humor as she develops a crush on the evangelical pastor's daughter, meanwhile managing her unhappy family in their new city of Miami. I adored every page.

And to top off my recent reading of queer Latinx brilliance, the poems of Roy G. Guzmán in Catrachos (Graywolf, $16) have been especially gripping. The "Queerodactyl" cycle of poems that describe the poet as a kind of dinosaur contain such magnificent lines as, "Twerking in church,/ I outperformed the candles," and "After they locate & excavate your wing fossils,/ perseverance might be the trait you're known for."

Maybe you, like me, have been hearing good things about these writers. Now is a great time to eat every delicious word!

--Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

From My Shelf

Andrews McMeel Publishing: Pillow Thoughts IV: Stitching the Soul by Courtney Peppernell

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Kings County by David Goodwillie

Revisiting Mildred D. Taylor's Logan Family Saga

My antiracist reading this summer includes the usual suspects (White Fragility; How to Be an Antiracist), but just as crucially, I've been spending time with Mildred D. Taylor's Logan family.

Outspoken, whip-smart Cassie Logan entered my life in the fourth grade, when I discovered her story in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Puffin, $8.99). Unusually for Depression-era Mississippi, Cassie's tightly knit Black family owned their land, and the book tells of a year when they fought to keep it. I also loved Taylor's powerful sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken (Puffin, $8.99); they're both as rich and compelling now as they were 25 years ago. But there's more to their story, and I've been relishing and learning from the new-to-me chapters of the Logan Family Saga.

Taylor's 2001 prequel, The Land (Puffin, $7.99), chronicles the childhood of Cassie's biracial grandfather, Paul-Edward Logan, and his quest to acquire his own land. The Road to Memphis (Puffin, $9.99) follows the teenage Cassie, her brother Stacey and several friends as they spirit a friend out of town after a racially charged altercation with three white men. (Bonus: the reissued paperbacks feature covers by 2020 Caldecott Medalist and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Kadir Nelson.)

Taylor's concluding Logan novel, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come (Viking, $19.99), picks up Cassie's story in adulthood. She travels the country, finds both love and grief, and goes home to Mississippi to participate in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Taylor, who won the 2020 CSK-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, returns to her perennial themes of justice, equality, fierce pride and the Logans' deep love for their land and one another. Their strength and dignity in the face of discrimination are a potent reminder that Black people have suffered long enough: it's time for white Americans to do better.

From My Shelf

Andrews McMeel Publishing: Pillow Thoughts IV: Stitching the Soul by Courtney Peppernell

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Kings County by David Goodwillie

Black Excellence in Comics

Black cartoonists like Jackie Ormes, George Herriman and Ollie Harrington paved the way for the diverse voices and perspectives in today's comics, and the myriad styles in which Black artists practice their craft.

Illustrator James Otis Smith worked with Ted Fox graphically to adapt Fox's 1983 Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem's Legendary Theater (Abrams ComicArts, $18.99). Smith's evocative shades of nightclub blue bring to life Fox's sprawling history of the Apollo Theater and its many legendary performers. The neon marquees that punctuate each chapter, announcing Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Prince, Chris Rock and Jay-Z, remind readers that behind one of the country's foremost cultural institutions is American history itself.

From Harlem, Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie take us to 1978 Yopougon, the working-class section of Abidjan. During this postcolonial era, the Ivory Coast flourished and its illustrious capital, Abidjan, was an international destination, and both a playground and place of promise for its inhabitants. In Aya: Life in Yop City (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95), readers see in the protagonist Aya an image of her own ascendant nation: anchored by tradition, yet curious to see all that lies beyond its bounds. Readers who pick it up might find parallels between the youthful antics of Aya, Adjoua and Bintou and many Western coming-of-age stories. Aya: Life in Yop City perhaps most closely finds an analogue as a West African Sex and the City, wherein young women contend with the pitfalls and rewards of love, friendship, and adulthood.

Bttm Fdrs (Fantagraphics, $24.99) by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore confronts the darker realities of urban life in a surreal neon palette. As slumlords build luxury condos in historically Black neighborhoods, a seemingly self-propelling force of slime emerges from every drain, toilet and cellar. Daniels and Passmore's social commentary on gentrification in the not-for-the-squeamish style of David Cronenberg brings a dark comedy to the country's urgent housing crisis.

--Emma Levy, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness

Travelers' Tales Guides: French Like Moi: A Midwesterner in Paris by Scott Dominic Carpenter

Book Candy

Nine Novels That Predicted the Future

Mental Floss noted "9 books that predicted the future."


"How many words are there in the English language?" Ask


Annals, for instance. The Guardian considered "words we think we know, but can't pronounce."


The University of Texas at San Antonio "is turning historical Mexican recipes into free e-books," Gastro Obscura noted.


"How Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, 'my most difficult book': a 1989 documentary." (via Open Culture)

Paris Never Leaves You

by Ellen Feldman

With a sweeping narrative that spans Paris during the Nazi occupation and New York City a decade later, Paris Never Leaves You is an unforgettable story of resistance, trust, faith and love. Starting with the novel's opening pages, Guggenheim fellow Ellen Feldman (Next to Love; Terrible Virtue; Scottsboro) immediately grabs readers' hearts and never lets go.

In 1944, Charlotte Foret is a young widow and mother working in a Paris bookshop while the city is under siege. One day, a Nazi soldier enters the bookstore and begins browsing quietly. Charlotte is fearful, and wary of his motives. During his repeated visits to the store, he often brings smuggled food for Charlotte and her 18-month-old daughter, Vivi. Charlotte gradually learns his name--Julian Bauer--and that he is a physician as well as a soldier. As Paris becomes increasingly dangerous, Charlotte realizes that her and Vivi's best chances for surviving the war mean putting their complete trust in Julian, even if it requires that Charlotte must make an unthinkable, immoral and life-changing decision.

Ten years later, Charlotte is a highly respected editor at the prestigious, male-dominated New York publishing house of Gibbon & Field. At the firm's helm is Horace Field, an old friend of Charlotte's father who sponsored her and Vivi's passage to America after the war ended. Charlotte owes everything that they have in their new life to Horace. In addition to working for Horace, Charlotte and Vivi live on the upper floor of the large home that he shares with his emotionally distant and resentful wife, Hannah, a psychoanalyst.

For more than a decade, Charlotte has remained guarded and vigilant against the painful memories of the death of Vivi's father, her relationship with Julian and the guilt she feels about perpetuating a deception during a desperate time. An inquisitive, smart teenager, Vivi begins asking questions and is the target of anti-Semitism at school. When mysterious letters start arriving for Charlotte at the office, her strong façade cracks, and she turns to the closest person to her--Horace--who also knows what it is like to be haunted by what happened during the war.

While they share a bond that extends beyond their living arrangements and their professional connection, Charlotte and Horace both remain fiercely protective and secretive: "No one but a fool would try to erase the past. The only hope was to stand guard against it." Horace also lives with his own physical and emotional wartime scars: he is a wheelchair-bound Medal of Honor recipient. Everyone believes that he received his wounds for valiant reasons. "It wasn't a mission, only a battle, and there was nothing heroic about it, but a heroic mission makes for a better story, and we're in the business of selling stories," Horace confesses to Charlotte.

Feldman's decision to set Paris Never Leaves You in the publishing world reflects the idea that all of us, like Charlotte and Horace, are "in the business of selling stories." Each of the characters must answer the same question that Feldman is asking of her readers: What is the story that we're selling to ourselves and to the world? Are they the same or different stories? Regardless of individual circumstances, everyone has a secret shame, a hidden truth or a concocted falsehood that remains unspoken. Those are the experiences destined to haunt us forever, imprinted upon our souls.

Paris Never Leaves You also prompts an excavation of what it means to be deceptive or untruthful, and whether there are circumstances, such as saving someone's life, that provide more leniency for such deception. The demarcation line where the answer lies can only be determined by each of us, Feldman seems to be saying. Charlotte presents one persona to the world and to her daughter, but internally wrestles with another version of herself. Julian is plagued by the dichotomy between the man he shows to the world and the man he perceives himself to be. Hannah has little self-awareness and feels compelled to always maintain her public persona, even with her husband. Though Horace perhaps views himself as he is, he cannot forgive himself for his actions during the war and won't give anyone else a chance to do so. Is it ever possible, Feldman asks, to make peace with our past?

The best works of historical fiction have a way of illuminating the present, allowing readers to better understand themselves through well-defined characters reflected in the prism of time. In Paris Never Leaves You, Ellen Feldman does this beautifully in a multi-layered, tender story that explores the emotionally charged, often parallel terrains of truth, deception, love and heartbreak. --Melissa Firman

St. Martin's Griffin, $16.99, paperback, 368p., 9781250622778

St. Martin's Griffin: Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

The Fixed Stars

by Molly Wizenberg

In another writer's hands, this could have been awkward. Molly Wizenberg's previous bestselling memoirs--A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table and Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage--are to a large extent valentines to Brandon Pettit, with whom she opened Delancey, a beloved Seattle restaurant. Wizenberg's blindsidingly beautiful new memoir, The Fixed Stars, is about how she initiated a divorce from Pettit after an incapacitating crush on a woman compelled her to rethink her marriage and sexuality. She also gives her morality some squinty-eyed accounting. "Are you allowed," she wonders, "to grieve if you've caused the death?"

To explain how she arrived at this brutal reckoning, Wizenberg begins with her youth. Born in 1978, she grew up a privileged only child in Oklahoma City; her lifetime aversion to feather ruffling ("I came out of the womb eager to please") is a big part of what will make her decision to end her marriage so shocking to Wizenberg's fans, who have come to know her rule-observant personality. She seems a little shocked herself.

Wizenberg always considered herself straight: "I liked boys," she writes in The Fixed Stars. "That was who I was." At 20, she lost her virginity to a man. A year or so later, a woman she was working with at Whole Foods seemed to be trying to woo her: "This was the same time period when I had my 'lesbian' haircut, and it was probably because of that haircut that Laura invited me to a party." A couple of weeks later, Laura asked her out on what sure seemed like a date, during which Wizenberg played her hand: she told Laura that this was the first time she had ever found herself attracted to a woman. Laura "must have said something in response.... She must have told me she couldn't, or she wouldn't. She didn't touch me. Nothing happened. I went home."

Down the heterosexual romantic path Wizenberg proceeded. She met Pettit in 2005, after they enjoyed an e-mail exchange that he had initiated: he was an admirer of her celebrated (and now dormant) food blog, Orangette. Pettit moved from New York to Seattle, where Wizenberg was based; they got married, opened Delancey in 2009, and had a baby in 2012. Wizenberg was 36 and being something of a homebody, taking care of her child, doing bookkeeping for Delancey, and foraging for time to write, when she received a jury duty summons that proved more existentially consequential than most.

Wizenberg found herself smitten with Nora, the trial's female defense attorney, of whom she takes stock from the jury box: "I knew only that she was a woman in a suit. But I think she looked like something more than that, something I didn't have: the will to stand apart, to crumple up the script." This isn't the first time the eager-to-pleaser takes pleasure in dashed expectations. As Wizenberg recalls when recounting her 15-years-earlier fizzle with Laura, "I told her what I wanted. I became someone who surprised me, someone interesting." Another time she surprises herself: Wizenberg e-mails Nora many months after the trial is over, having been unable to stop thinking about her.

The problem with being "someone interesting," as Wizenberg interprets the phrase, is that things tend to go less smoothly for such people. This is a trade-off that she is willing to make to follow her heart, but not without tearily registering the collateral damage suffered by her young daughter and by Pettit. Wizenberg is also bracingly candid about the ways that her marriage had been unfulfilling, although sex seems to have had nothing to do with it. For all the wonderful particularity of Wizenberg's story--from the Seattle-restaurant-scene backdrop to her calibrated foray into open marriage--The Fixed Stars is essentially a timeless tale: someone finds herself drifting from her spouse and decides to stray.

This is not to say that the gender of Wizenberg's crush object is beside the point, and she writes with grace, acuity and punch about her efforts to untangle her sexuality, and to untangle it further when things with Nora become untenable. She no longer sees things as simply as she did as a precocious eighth grader who, in an attempt to shore up compassion for gay people (including a cherished uncle who died of AIDS), selected homosexuality as the topic of a research paper. In it, she argued for the "born this way" theory of sexual orientation.

The adult Wizenberg understands the allure of such fixed ideas: "Astronomers know that every star is in motion, and that each moves along its own trajectory, according to its own properties. The constellations we see are temporary human creations, our effort to draw order and meaning from a mostly unknowable universe, to tell ourselves stories, to guide our way home across endless oceans." A Homemade Life and Delancey are marvelous guides, complete with recipes, for living a food-centered life; The Fixed Stars is a guide (of sorts) for a more improvised life, in which recipes are jettisoned and which, Wizenberg is finding, better suits her tastes. --Nell Beram

Abrams Press, $25, hardcover, 256p., 9781419742996

St. Martin's Griffin: Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

Ellen Feldman: On the Stories We Tell Ourselves and Others

Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of several novels, including Terrible Virtue (optioned for a feature film), Scottsboro (shortlisted for the Orange Prize), and The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (translated into nine languages). Her novel Paris Never Leaves You was just published by St. Martin's Griffin. Feldman grew up in northern New Jersey and attended Bryn Mawr College, from which she holds a B.A. and an M.A. in modern history. After further graduate studies at Columbia University, she worked for a New York publishing house. Feldman lives in New York City and East Hampton, N.Y., with her husband and a terrier named Charlie.

Your novel is set during World War II and in the 1950s, yet feels relevant to our time. Was this aspect of the novel intentional or did those themes emerge during the writing process?

It's a truism that a novel or even nonfiction about the past always says as much about the period in which it's written as the era about which it's written. I never set out to draw parallels between the time I'm writing about and the one in which I'm writing, yet they invariably arise. Some are similarities of political and social trends. Others have to do with the universality of human experience. We all have moments from the past that haunt us. Sometimes they're momentous like Charlotte's. Sometimes they're minor but still shame-inducing or at least cringe-making. How do we deal with the past? Do we try to erase it, ignore it, flaunt it, or maintain an uneasy guard against it? It's up to each of us to figure out how to live with our own yesterdays.

There's a line that is repeated throughout the novel: "It had taken Hitler to make her a Jew." Without giving away too much of the plot, could you talk more about that particular phrase and what that means?

While the phrase "It had taken Hitler to make her a Jew" takes on a specific significance in Paris Never Leaves You, it is also a more general observation made by actual Holocaust survivors. Many Jews in Germany, Austria, France and Holland were assimilated. They considered themselves members of their respective nationalities first and Jews second. Few were religiously observant. There are myriad stories of Jewish men, Anne Frank's father among them, who fought for their countries in WWI and believed the anti-Jewish laws did not apply to them. As a result, many of them didn't flee when they could. They discovered too late and tragically that the Third Reich made no such distinctions among Jews. Every last one, determined by blood, not choice or affiliation, must be exterminated.

What was the inspiration for this novel?

I wish I could put my finger on the moment the idea for this book came to me. What I do know is that in my extensive reading about WWII, I encountered many heroic women who fought for the Resistance or spied for the Allies or risked their lives to help defeat the enemy. And as I read, I began to wonder about other women who were not blessed, or cursed, with such courage and tried to live normal lives under horrendous conditions. To what lengths would a woman like that go to save herself and, more chillingly, her child?

What about this time period makes this a source of interest for you?

I'm a firm believer that our memories go back a generation to our parents' reminiscences. The war and the Holocaust cast a long shadow over my childhood and youth. Moreover, though I didn't understand this until I began to study history, I was a beneficiary of the buoyant new America that emerged from the war, an era and a place that is as much a part of my writing about WWII as the war itself.

Many of your works feature strong women characters. Why is this important?

Though I don't write autobiographical fiction, I do write about autobiographical themes. Having gone to women's schools, having come of age during many times of upheaval in various women's movements, I'm interested in how hard women have to fight and what they have to endure to reach some kind of self-realization. I was brought up to be one kind of woman. I discovered I wanted to be another. How I tried to resolve the conflict, how I continue to struggle with it is one of the guiding forces behind my work.

Tell us about your writing routine, your approach to writing.

Writing is a passion for me, but I treat it as a job. Early every morning, after walking our rescue terrier, Charlie, and going for a run in Central Park, I head for one of two libraries, either by bus to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, or on foot to the New York Society Library, 14 blocks from our apartment. Both have spaces for writers. I love the solitude they provide and the concentration they foster, but I also enjoy running into other writers in the halls for a moment's chat. Then at five or six, depending on when the library closes, I head home. The walk to and from the closer library is especially welcome because it gives me time to contemplate what I'm going to write that day and what I did write. Invariably, something I hadn't thought of while facing the laptop screen stops me dead on the street.

What do you most want readers to understand or learn from this book?

I'm not sure I want readers to learn any specific lesson from the book. I do want them to think about what morality means in extenuating circumstances. I said that part of the inspiration was the question of what an ordinary woman would do under extraordinary circumstances. Would she grasp at some shred of happiness? Would she sacrifice her scruples for her child? And how would she live the rest of her life with the knowledge of those choices? In researching an earlier book, I came across many people whose parents had hidden their suffering in the war. The costs of living a secret were varied--shame, alienation, anger--but there was always a toll. As a novelist, I have no answers, only questions--and a story that I hope captures readers and resonates in their own lives. --Melissa Firman

Molly Wizenberg: A New Version of Life

(photo: Dorothée Brand)

Molly Wizenberg is the author of two bestselling books, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table and Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, and the James Beard Award-winning blog Orangette. She has written for the Washington Post, the Guardian, Saveur and Bon Appétit, and she also cohosts the podcast Spilled Milk. With chef Brandon Pettit, Wizenberg cofounded the award-winning Seattle restaurants Delancey and Essex. Her memoir The Fixed Stars is out now from Abrams Press.

My first thought when I read The Fixed Stars was that you are very brave for having written it--not just because you're so candid about your personal life but because you recount the end of your marriage to Brandon, whom readers of your previous books grew to love right along with you. Were you at all worried that your fans would be upset with you for leaving him?

I have to imagine that some of them will be. I mean, I'm as judgmental as anybody, and I know I'd have some thoughts about me, if I weren't me. I've struggled plenty with the judgments I've put on my own self--about the demise of my marriage, the decisions I made, what it means for our daughter, what it means for me as a writer. I could go on and on. I've been brutal to myself. Writing this book helped me to engage some with that inner monologue, to start to turn it into a dialogue, put it on the page and step back from it, actively interrogate my judgment and shame. They're not gone, but they're quieter. I don't expect that everyone will like what I've done and who I am--no, no. But I'm okay with myself now, more days than not.

I'm sure you've wondered this yourself: How do you think your life would have proceeded if you had never laid eyes on Nora?

I think my life would have proceeded for a while as it was, and maybe indefinitely. But someone or something else would have, at some point, woken me up like Nora did. That's what seeing her felt like, like waking up. I think it's a very human thing to have moments like that, when we find ourselves in a certain situation where we suddenly see ourselves, our potential, our lives from a different angle. I'm not talking specifically about sexuality; for some people, it's about religion, or profession, or... I don't know. Sometimes you visit a new place, and you just know you've got to live there, and you upend everything to realize a whole new version of your life. Nora was that certain situation for me.

Likewise, what do you think would have happened if you hadn't had the courage to tell Brandon about your crush?

I can't imagine not having told him. There were plenty of common silences in our marriage, I now see--things that we'd stopped trying to talk about because talking got us nowhere--but not telling him this felt impossible. The shift in my sexuality was shattering. Hiding it made me miserable, because I was hiding myself. Either I hid forever, or I told him. It didn't feel like a choice. Telling him was horrible, but it was a relief.

There's a remarkable and devastating scene in The Fixed Stars in which you tell Brandon that you want to try an open marriage. You write about all the reading you did on the subject, and you've obviously put a lot of thought into the topic. From what you've learned, do you think that it would be possible for an open marriage to endure and stay strong, or do you think that wanting an open marriage is necessarily a sign that for the person who initiates it, the marriage is irredeemably broken?

The only people who can say anything for sure about a relationship are the people in it, and I'm no (!) expert on open relationships. But from the meager amount I have learned, and from what I see in friends who successfully navigate open marriages, I can say that relationships work best when both (or all) partners are equally invested and committed. This goes for any relationship, right? Open or monogamous. That sense of being equally invested is, of course, a shifting thing; not everybody will feel the same way about it every single day. But at base, it seems to me that all partners should be similarly invested in the work of the relationship--in talking through everything, talking and talking and talking, and in listening.

Brandon and I went about opening our marriage under conditions, I think, that doomed it from the start. We weren't equally committed to it--not really. My desire propelled us, which wasn't necessarily a problem; the problem was that we didn't have equal stakes in the situation, and we continued as though we did. We learned a lot, and we talked more openly than maybe ever before, but we fell apart under the strain.

That said, we've both marveled at how that brief attempt at opening our marriage helped make our divorce less bitter and more collaborative. Because of all the emotional work we put into opening our relationship, our communication was more intentional, less reactive, than it would have been otherwise. I know that for sure.

If another author had written The Fixed Stars, what do you think you would have wished for her?

Oh, God, uh, how about universal acclaim and a castle with a moat? --Nell Beram

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

From BOOM! Studios: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Ryan North, illustrated by Albert Monteys, with color assistance by Ricard Zaplana (Archaia/BOOM! Studios, September 2020)

This is the first faithful adaptation in graphic novel form of Kurt Vonnegut's classic anti-war novel, which was published in 1969. Part science fiction and part based on Vonnegut's experience as a POW in Dresden during the 1945 firebombing, the book stars Billy Pilgrim, who runs a successful optometry business, has a loving family, and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time and travels to the planet Tralfamadore, reads fictional SF novelist Kilgore Trout and meets Kurt Vonnegut. His journey is at once a farcical look at the horror and tragedy of war, where children are placed on the frontlines and die ("so it goes" is one of the book's refrains), and a moving examination of what it means to be fallibly human. The tale found special resonance because it was published at the height of the Vietnam War.

Vonnegut's black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America's attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959, and then with Cat's Cradle in 1963. Graham Greene called him "one of the best living American writers." He died in 2007.

"Like most people, Kurt Vonnegut has been one of my favourite writers since I first read his books decades ago, and it was honestly a terrifying challenge and then a true joy to adapt his most famous work for a new medium," said writer Ryan North. "Terrifying at the start because this is Kurt Vonnegut, and I've loved him forever, and I didn't want to screw this up. And then joy as Albert's pages came in and my script was transformed into something wonderful and clever and heartfelt and real. I'm so proud of the work we've done together, and I believe that can be seen when you read it.

"My goal was to make a book that felt like it was indigenous to comics, that if someone could read it without somehow having heard of Slaughterhouse-Five, they would think 'Oh what a great comic!' and not 'Oh, that was a solid adaptation of a prose novel.' I wanted a book that lived and breathed its medium from the first page. Throughout it we tried to do things that were essential to comics, that you could only do IN comics, so that the book itself would argue for its own existence. I hope we've succeeded!"

North said, too, that he wanted "to convey how much heart the book has, how much of the original soul of the book and of Kurt himself is in it, and how much comics can help readers who are maybe scared off by Big Books of 20th Century Western Canon. Comics are intrinsically fun, fun to read, fun to look at: hold up a page of prose next to a page of comics and your eye will always go to the comics first. It's my hope that this new medium will bring new attention to Vonnegut's work, and also reach people that a novel perhaps couldn't. It's a book that honours the original Vonnegut text while also transforming it into something more modern for current audiences. And it's a terrifically moving comic."

North emphasized that the message of Slaughterhouse-Five is "as unchanged in the graphic novel as it was in the original prose novel: that war is a tragedy, a horror, and it is made by humans, and inflicted on humans, and it may be as inevitable as glaciers--but also, that humans are not all bad, and some are good, and we humans can still have hope."

North is the Eisner Award-winning writer of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler and the writer responsible for Dinosaur Comics, the Eisner and Harvey Award-winning Adventure Time comic book series for BOOM! Studios, the bestselling anthology series Machine of Death and the New York Times bestselling and Eisner-Award winning Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series for Marvel Comics. North has also written a New York Times bestselling series of choose-your-own-adventure books based on Shakespeare's classic plays Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. His latest book, How to Invent Everything, is a complete cheat sheet for civilization. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

For artist Albert Monteys, too, at first the idea of adapting Slaughterhouse-Five into a graphic novel was overwhelming. He said, "My first reaction when BOOM! proposed the project was 'this can't be adapted, it is what it is, it's structure is purely literary.' Then I got to read Ryan's wonderful script and I understood that not only was it possible, but a graphic novel was the best format to adapt Slaughterhouse-Five. A book about a man unstuck in time told in a medium that can be defined as a series of images unstuck in time, where the reader reconstructs the narrative. After I understood that, the rest was easy. All we needed was a lot of hard work!"

Monteys called the collaboration "very enriching." He explained: "I usually write my own comics, and usually when I draw someone else's script, I feel like I'm wearing someone else's suit. I felt Ryan's script as mine from the first moment, the same way that Vonnegut is part of my writing influences so this suit did fit very naturally. Ryan's script had so many good ideas I felt compelled to do justice to them."

A longtime fan of Slaughterhouse-Five, Monteys added that while he thought he had the book "all figured out," in working on the graphic novel, "I've discovered a whole new book! I've made connections and found new meanings in places I didn't notice before. To sum it all up, I've discovered what they mean when they talk about classic works that never stop talking to us. Slaughterhouse-Five is definitely one of those. Vonnegut managed to put so much life in such deceptively simple language.

"There is definitely a message about war and what it does to people, but that, as valuable as it is, is just the surface of Vonnegut's book. Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about trying to find meaning and failing to do so. That's why the book resonates with us to this day. It's about fleeting moments of joy, of sadness, of confusion and definitely, it is a book about those moments when we realize we're, after all, lost at sea."

He added that he and Ryan have "been very faithful to Vonnegut's book, but we also acknowledge the condition of the book as a graphic novel adaptation in the book itself. That means we've taken a few liberties which, what a paradox, actually bring us closer to Vonnegut than an absolutely literal adaptation."

Monteys is a Spanish graphic novelist and illustrator, best known for his work in El Jueves, a weekly satirical magazine that he directed from 2006 until 2011. Monteys also created the series Carlitos Fax for the children's magazine Mister K. In 2014, he founded a satirical monthly publication Orgullo y Satisfacción (Pride and Satisfaction) with several other cartoonists, and began to publish a science fiction comic, ¡Universo! (Universe!) in Panel Syndicate, winning a 2017 Eisner Award nomination for Best Digital Comic.

From BOOM! Studios: The Sacrifice of Darkness

The Sacrifice of Darkness by Roxane Gay, Tracy Lynne Oliver, art by Rebecca Kirby, coloring by James Fenner (Archaia/BOOM! Studios, October 2020)

The Sacrifice of Darkness is the full-length graphic novel adaptation of Roxane Gay's 2013 short story "We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness." Set in a world that has lost the light of its sun, the story follows the journey of a woman and a man through this new, frightening landscape. As the narrative explores notions of identity, guilt and survival, the characters find that sources of light and hope remain, even in perpetual night.

Gay is the bestselling author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, Hunger: A Memoir of My Body and Difficult Women, in which "We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness" was originally published. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and her writing has appeared in a plethora of publications and collections, including Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, Best American Short Stories 2012, McSweeney's, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review and many more. The Sacrifice of Darkness is also not her first foray into the graphic medium: in 2017 she wrote six issues of Marvel's Black Panther: World of Wakanda.

"Some stories don't leave you and such was the case with my short story 'We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness,' " said Gay. "When BOOM! Studios approached me about writing a graphic novel, I immediately knew what kind of story I wanted to tell--one about family and sorrow, faith that survives in a world of darkness, true love and an indelible bond between two people with the world against them."

Writing with Gay is Tracy Lynne Oliver. Based in Los Angeles, Oliver has published pieces in Medium, Fanzine and Occulum, and her story "This Weekend" appeared in the anthology Best Microfiction 2019. The Sacrifice of Darkness is her first graphic novel.

" 'We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness' was one of my favorite Roxane Gay stories, so I was more than thrilled with the opportunity to transform it into a graphic novel format," said Oliver. "I once again fell in love with the characters and their struggles and yearning for love, warmth and light in this dark, cold world they were thrust into. I am so excited for readers to see this story brought to life in such a visually stunning way."

Gay called it a "thrill" to work with Oliver to bring breadth and depth to the world she created in her short story. "She is an amazing collaborator who always pushes me creatively."

Comic artist and illustrator Rebecca Kirby drew The Sacrifice of Darkness. Based in Philadelphia, Pa., she is the creator of Biopsy and Cramps, original comics that were featured on Vice and Waves as well as in Fantagraphics Now: The New Comics Anthology #4.

Kirby said she had a great time illustrating the story Gay and Oliver crafted. "It's been an incredible experience working with everyone as we create a graphic novel full of striking contrasts and tender moments splashed across the page. I hope fans will have just as great an experience reading it."

The Adoption Thriller

CrimeReads examined "the adoption thriller. There are no higher stakes than who takes responsibility for a child."


"Watch comics legend Alex Ross paint an incredible Marvel mural." (via Gizmodo)


D.H. Lawrence "on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when relationships collapse." (via Brain Pickings)


Author Philip Marsden chose his "top 10 books about adventures" for the Guardian.


"Sleeping among the books of a library in an ancient village in China." (via domus)


Open Culture looked back to "when Astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote the first work of science fiction, The Dream (1609)."

Henry Holt & Company: The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi

Literary Perfumes

FragranceX highlighted "15 literary perfumes for book lovers of all genres."


CrimeReads wondered: "Why do so many physicists write crime novels?"


"Four-year-old lands book deal for his 'astonishing' poetry," the Guardian reported.


The CIA used this novel as a propaganda tool. Mental Floss revealed "10 Facts About George Orwell's Animal Farm."


"The Internet's greatest archive of food history needs a new curator," Gastro Obscura reported.


"How Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, 'my most difficult book': a 1989 documentary." (via Open Culture)


Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Luster by Raven Leilani

Eerily Prescient 2020 Plague Novels

The BBC highlighted several "eerily prescient 2020 plague novels."


"W.E.B. Du Bois devastates apologists for Confederate monuments and Robert E. Lee (1931)." (via Open Culture)


"Eat like you're in the USSR with 'the Soviet diet cookbook,' " Gastro Obscura wrote. And Russia Beyond sampled "classical Russian characters and the traditional dishes they ate."


"Orson Welles narrates animations of Plato's Cave and Kafka's 'Before the Law,' two parables of the human condition." (via Open Culture)


Penguin showcased "eight of history's most influential literary circles."

Houghton Mifflin: Igniting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology) by Robin Lafevers

Magical Facts About the Magic School Bus

In memory of the late Joanna Cole, Mental Floss revisited "12 magical facts about The Magic School Bus."


Video: "A Traveler's Guide to Westeros, Episode 1: The North."


Author Matthew Kneale chose his "top 10 books about tumultuous times" for the Guardian.


"Thoreau was actually funny as hell," Lit Hub promised.


"Explore the beautiful pages of the 1902 Japanese design magazine Shin-Bijutsukai," Open Culture invited.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Every Frenchman Has One

Olivia de Havilland, one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood's Golden Age, died on Sunday, July 26, at age 104, in Paris, France, where she had lived for more than 60 years.

Feisty, graceful, friendly, funny and seemingly ageless, de Havilland is best remembered for her roles in a range of films. She made nine movies with Errol Flynn and was nominated for five Oscars. The two she won were for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). Her other nominations came for Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Snake Pit (1948) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Other films included The Adventures of Robin Hood and They Died with their Boots On.

In her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, originally published in 1962, she focused on her sometimes bumpy adaptation to French customs, culture and the language after she married a Frenchman and moved to Paris. Ultimately she was very happy in her new home. Paraphrasing Caesar on Gaul, she said, "I came. I saw. I was conquered."

And even in 1962, when she was only 46, she imagined people thought she was long dead, writing, "And so, when I wonder if you know that I live in France, I'm sure you don't, because I am certain that you think me peacefully interred, and in good old native American soil. If that's the case, you're in for a surprise. By golly, I'm alive, all right, and I do live in France, and not under but on top of solid Parisian limestone."

Every Frenchman Has One was reissued in 2016, when de Havilland turned 100, with a new interview with the author. The book is available from Crown Archetype ($16).

Rediscover: Pete Hamill

photo: David Shankbone

Author and newspaper journalist Pete Hamill died this week at age 85. For more than 40 years, Hamill was a celebrated and award-winning reporter, columnist and the top editor of the New York Post and the Daily News; a foreign correspondent for the Post and the Saturday Evening Post; and a writer for New York Newsday, the Village Voice, Esquire and other publications. The New York Times, one of the few New York City newspapers Hamill didn't work at, called Hamill "a quintessential New Yorker--savvy about its ways, empathetic with its masses and enthralled with its diversity--and wrote about it in a literature of journalism. Along with Jimmy Breslin, he popularized a spare, blunt style in columns of on-the-scene reporting in the authentic voice of the working classes: blustery, sardonic, often angry."

Hamill also wrote more than 20 novels, more than 100 short stories, biographies, essays and screenplays. Among his works of fiction, the Times cited "The Gift (1973) and Snow in August (1997), both of which drew on his youth; Forever (2003), the story of a man granted immortality as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan; North River (2007), a Depression-era tale of a man and his grandson; and Tabloid City (2011), a stop-the-presses murder yarn." His story collections were The Invisible City: A New York Sketchbook (1980) and Tokyo Sketches (1992). His nonfiction included Irrational Ravings (1971), A Drinking Life (1994), Piecework (1996), Why Sinatra Matters (1998), Diego Rivera (1999) and Downtown, My Manhattan (2004). At the time of his death, Hamill was working on a book about Brooklyn that was to be published by Little, Brown.

Rediscover: John Lewis

John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime representative called the "conscience of the Congress," died on Friday at age 80. A speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, one of the first Freedom Riders, and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was best known as the leader of the voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, when he was brutally beaten by state troopers--a scene repeated on television that helped passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law several months later.

He told his story and the history of the civil rights movement in several books, including Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998), Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (2012), Wake Up America 1960-1963 with Andrew Aydin (2015), Civil Rights and the Promise of Equality (2015) and Run: Book One with Andrew Aydin (2018). The most enduring and powerful of his books was the series March, done in graphic novel form, with Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell and published by Top Shelf Productions. In 2016, March: Book Three became the first graphic novel to receive a National Book Award. The entire trilogy is available as a slipcased set ($49.99).

The Writer's Life

Reading with... Legna Rodríguez Iglesias

photo: Laura Rodríguez

Legna Rodríguez Iglesias was born in Camagüey, Cuba. Her work includes the poetry books Mi pareja calva y yo vamos a tener un hijo, Miami Century Fox and Transtucé; the story collection La mujer que compró el mundo; and the novel Mi novia preferida fue un bulldog francés, released in English as My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog (McSweeney's, July 14, 2020, translated by Megan McDowell). Among her awards are the Centrifugados Prize for Younger Poets, the Paz Prize, the Casa de las Américas Prize in Theater and the Julio Cortázar Ibero-American Short Story Prize. Spinning Mill, a chapbook of her work, was recently published in English translation by CardBoard House Press (translated by Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann). She lives in Miami, where she writes a column for the online journal El Estornudo.

On your nightstand now:

I don't have a nightstand. I have a crib next to the bed with a baby inside. A flesh-and-blood learning book. A love book.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I can list a long list of favorite books that I read as a child. But I am going to simplify it to two unforgettable titles, which are already classics of children's literature:

Momo by Michael Ende
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Your top five authors:

I'm not sure if those authors must be alive or dead, so I will say five living authors, constantly changing:

José Kozer
Herta Müller
Elfriede Jelinek
Tana Oshima
J.M. Coetzee

And then five dead authors, who also change:

Georges Bataille
Thomas Bernhard
Samuel Beckett
William Faulkner
Yasunari Kawabata

Book you've faked reading:

The Magic Mountain, too fat for my 18 years old.

Book you're an evangelist for:

When you read Faulkner novels, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novels and Carson McCullers novels, for example, you spend a lot of time thinking about those stories, not because of what they tell, but because they are written in such a way that characters could be yourself. Light in August, Breakfast of Champions and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, they could be enough to spend a good part of my life thinking about them. Then another good part of my life talking about them. Not interpreting them, but talking about all the rash, all the sputum, all the wonder they caused.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I remember the opposite, having stopped buying very good books from Cuban authors in ugly Cuban bookstores, for some horrible cover. I hope that thanks to the cover of my book, everyone buys it (joke).

Book you hid from your parents:

My books.

Book that changed your life:

Almost all, the moment I read them, they change it for me. Never forget the way my mind changed, my body, everything, while reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter or Light in August, for example. I became someone else and everyone knew it.

Favorite line from a book:

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, 'I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.' --from Light in August by Faulkner

Five books you'll never part with:

I hope to be able to keep with me each of the books of all the aforementioned authors--each and every one crossed the Caribbean Sea with me when I left Cuba. In each of my foreign moves they have accompanied me; they are my curse.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I can think of many, but right now, due to its validity and currency, I would like to read Breakfast of Champions for the first time, by Kurt Vonnegut, another of my top authors.

Natasha Trethewey: The Lens of That Burning Question

photo: Nancy Crampton

Natasha Trethewey is a former two-term United States Poet Laureate and the author of five collections of poetry. She is currently the Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University. In 2007, she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Native Guard. Memorial Drive (out today from Ecco/HarperCollins) is her second book of creative nonfiction.

Is this the book you thought you were writing when you began the project?

Not at all. When I first said that I needed to do it, it was after I had begun to get a lot of press about me as a writer, after the Pulitzer and after being named U.S. Poet Laureate. Because of that, there were many newspaper stories or profiles in which my mother was mentioned as sort of an afterthought, the backstory. She was basically summed up in a line as this victim to whom this terrible thing had happened, and it really bothered me. I decided that if that tragedy was going to be part of the backstory that was recorded again and again, then I wanted to be the person to write her story, so she would not be simply reduced to a murdered woman. What I wanted to do was to show how important she was, her life, my time with her, her death, and my becoming who I am and becoming a writer. I thought one of the ways to do that was to tell the story of who she was, and I imagined it as more like a sort of biography of her. I would have researched her the way I have researched historical figures I wrote about in poems.

It didn't work out that way. Instead, I think probably the moment that I looked at Shakespeare's Sonnet 3, those lines I used--"Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime"--I knew that I was the biography, in many ways. That what she was able to make in me was one of the best records of who she was, and how remarkable and resilient she was.

How did you choose this title? Not person, action, relationship, but place--with obvious allusion to memory/memorializing.

You hit the nail on the head. As a writer I think one of my enduring projects is the drive toward memory and memorialization, and contending with the contentions and overlaps between personal memory and cultural or historical memory, what gets recorded and what gets left out of the record. So I knew that that was my project, because that's what I was trying to do in Native Guard, that's what I was trying to do in Domestic Work, is record part of my community, where I grew up in Mississippi, that was disappearing. These old people were dying, and it took me a long time to make that connection, that my mother had literally died on Memorial Drive in the shadow of the largest monument to the Confederacy. And that symbolically had something to do with my drive to memory and memorialization, and insisting that things that often get left out and forgotten are remembered.

It must have been painful in some ways to reenter this trauma. Was it worth it?

Oh, yeah. I mean, it was really difficult, and even now I find that having to talk about her and the book in this way keeps the grief that usually is farther away right up on the surface. So I'm living with it differently now than I usually do. But one of the things that I will never forget is when I first met Dan Halpern, who is my editor, and he had read just a few paragraphs of a scene that I had written when I was proposing the book, and he said to me that he fell in love with her just from that. And I thought, if that's what can happen then, yeah, it's worth it. She'll be remembered. She'll be known by people. And at least they'll know what she meant to me. That's a way of knowing her, too.

When you write a book like this, or in general: Do you write with an audience in mind, or for yourself first?

That's an interesting question that I hadn't thought about as related to this book. I think I might answer differently if I were thinking about poetry. Or maybe not. Because I was writing in response to what I told you about at the beginning, the newspaper articles that just recorded her as victim or murdered woman, I really was always having an audience in mind. Someone that I had to say oh, no, no, no--this is who she was, too. But at the same time, I think I must have been writing to myself, because of the things that I learned in the process. I knew many different things by the time I got to the end than when I started. I began to understand more things that I had willfully erased, things that were driving me internally on a subconscious level but that I hadn't allowed myself to think about consciously. And so in that way, I was revealing myself to myself. Which is of course why for me that other epigraph comes in: "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." I didn't know where I was headed.

And maybe that's the problem in the question, because how could you ever not be writing for yourself?

Right, but it's a good question, because it makes you think about the not competing, but the multitude of motivations for writing a book project like this.

How different is the writing of prose versus poetry?

On the most basic level, the silly level, it has always been harder for me to write more. I've always been better at writing less. Give me an assignment in a class to write a seven-page paper--somehow I'm not going to be able to get to that. Poems are so much smaller and more compressed; that just seems my natural inclination. But I think that I write prose like that. I imagine there was so much more that could have been in this book and part of this story, but it sort of crystallizes around one or two threads. For me it felt like a very long extended poem that had to do some of the things that I want a poem to do, as it moves, as it turns to certain motifs, certain images, certain words.

Turning to poetry--does a book like Native Guard begin as a project, where there's a book idea and then it is filled with poems? Or do you write poems and then realize you have a book?

I almost always begin with a problem, some historical question that I want to ask myself, I want to ask the nation. I want to examine and explore from many different angles. When I am focused on something like that, it's as if I could look at anything and it will somehow be filtered through the lens of that burning question that I've been asking myself.

When my students are worried about what they're going to write about or whether the poems that they're writing will somehow hold together, I talk to them about their obsessions, the things that we can't get away from, that have an impact on how we see the world and the things in it. If you trust that, that's what will come through in your poems, and your poems will hang together more than simply because you're the person that wrote them. You're the vision behind them.

What are you working on next?

This book took a lot out of me, and so I'm in a place of trying to fill back up. There are things that I'm interested in, so I'm reading. It has a lot to do with my home state, and cross-mapping memory and memorialization, with Confederate monuments, sites of lynchings, which sort of engrave white supremacy on the landscape. I know that's what I'm thinking about, so I know that I won't be able to look at a tree without thinking about it. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Kelli Jo Ford: Dreaming the Impossible

photo: Val Ford Hancock

Even before Kelli Jo Ford's debut, Crooked Hallelujah (Grove, $26, reviewed below), was released, it garnered accolades: the seventh chapter, "Hybrid Vigor," won the Paris Review's Plimpton Prize in 2019, and Ford's pre-publication manuscript won the 2019 Everett Southwest Literary Award from the University of Central Oklahoma. Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and her #OwnVoices novel-in-interlinked-stories offers a narrative featuring multiple generations of a matriarchal Cherokee family. Ford lives in Virginia with her husband, the poet Scott Weaver, and daughter.

Some of the chapters from Crooked Hallelujah were previously published individually. When did you know this would be a novel-in-stories?

I think for a while I was writing stories as they came, one after another. But they were all clearly coming from the same place. The longer I followed that trail, the more I realized I was telling a larger story. I think novel-in-stories became clear fairly early on. It was very important that each story/chapter stands up individually as its own complete movement.

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine probably had/has such a profound influence on me that all I really imagined doing was creating this place and these people and telling the story of both. To me, Love Medicine is the perfect work of fiction. That is the book that I kept going back to over and over, in terms of dreaming the impossible.

The matriarchal family in which you were raised is not unlike the multi-generations in your book. How much of your own background is infused into your characters?

I had powerful women figures in my life from the time I was born. The book is fictional, but I took great inspiration from the strength of the women who raised me. And in the ways that we are bound to one another, despite our failures. I was born into a household (not literally! I was born in the Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Okla.) of four generations of women. My great-grandmother was my rock. My mom was young and brash and strong and determined to give me a better life. My grandmother is a strong woman who is driven and guided and saved by her religion. You can look at that and see my life. But then I also created characters who get to make their own mistakes and find their own love and adventures. It's a fine line. And a hard one to explain to loved ones! I am still protected by gracious, strong women who only want me to succeed.

Have any of these women read your book?

I have asked my mom to read it almost every step of the way. And that was hard. It's hard to feel like you think you recognize some aspect of yourself or your life in a book. And perhaps it's even harder when the book is a work of fiction, so the characters are also, by the nature of making a story work, behaving in ways that obviously feel like NOT you. But my mom is incredibly proud of the work I've done. She has, I believe, pre-ordered 15 copies. Now that I'm a mom, I have some sense of the kind of love it takes to be so proud of your kid and to encourage them to follow their dreams, even if those dreams may hurt a little or a lot.

Reney has to leave to claim her individuality and find a sense of peace. What does that say about her place in her Native community?

I think when Justine and Reney first leave the Cherokee Nation, that is an act of survival. Justine sees the life she is making for Reney and understands that something drastic has to happen. I am not sure Reney ever really knows what her place is in the Native community. She is Cherokee and knows she is Cherokee. To her, being Cherokee is being raised in a multi-generational family of strong Cherokee women, being in their protection. Maybe she's Choctaw, too, in some kind of way. But she doesn't really know what any of it means, especially as she gets older and is separated from the Cherokee Nation by miles and years. She's searching for connection.

Might we see Reney again in another book?

I am not sure! I have had visions of what Justine does not long after the book ends, that her mama instinct would kick in if she felt unsure of Reney's well-being. Of course, if there is ever to be more of Justine's story, Reney would be there, too.

Religion provides both solace and suppression here. Does your family ever discuss the horrific history of Christianity-fueled abuse, especially in the government-sanctioned schools? Did you grow up with a strong faith? Is that faith a part of your adult life?

In terms of my family of three, with my daughter and husband, yes, we have talked about the role of Christianity in the history of this country and the part it played in genocide. I'm not sure I've talked much with the rest of my family. Probably with my mom, but not with family members who are strongly religious. I grew up in and around the Holiness church, like Reney did in the book. I feel like I got to glimpse the religion and see some of the beauty of the great faith. But religion wasn't forced upon me. I didn't have to rebel against it to free myself, as Justine did in the book. I don't claim a faith now. I pull deeply from Christianity because that's what I know. I pull from the Zen tradition. And I find a lot of what I need in nature. But I don't have a faith with a capital F.

#OwnVoices activism continues to change the publishing world. Do you ever feel pressure to be a representative of "your people," of BIPOC literary voices?

No! But mostly because I would make a terrible representative. I'm a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I am proud of that. I am proud of who I come from. But I live a long ways away from the Cherokee Nation. I didn't grow up hearing our songs at stomp dances. I wish I did, but I got to grow at the feet of my great-grandmother, sleeping beneath a pew on a pallet, hearing tambourines and Holiness shouting.

I don't want any of us to carry the weight of being representative of our people. That's not fair. We should get to tell stories that reflect our experiences, whatever they are. There isn't only one way to be Native or write a Native story. The literary world seems to be opening up more. I'm excited about a lot of authors right now, people like Erika T. Wurth, Brandon Hobson, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Andrea L. Rogers, Tiffany Midge, Rebecca Roanhorse, Terese Mailhot, Tommy Orange. Other Native authors continue to do the amazing work they've always done: Susan Power, David Treuer, Stephen Graham Jones, Louise Erdrich. It's a rich, exciting time in Native Lit, and I'm hoping more doors will open for BIPOC writers.

And we can't disappoint your groupies--what can we next expect?

I have a rough start for a novel about a mother and daughter who get mixed up with a fundamentalist sect in Northeast Oklahoma. I think I'll always write about mothers and daughters and faith, too. It's too early to say much, but I'm interested in exploring the intersection of fundamentalist Christianity and white supremacist militias, which in this case happens to take place in the Cherokee Nation.

Thank you for asking about new work. It's good to think about and makes me want to get back in it! --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Future Issue 4

TEST TEST Rediscover: Love Medicine

Native American writer Louise Erdrich's debut novel, Love Medicine (1984), follows five Ojibwe families on fictional reservations in North Dakota and Minneapolis. It begins in 1981 with the death of June Morrissey on her way home for Easter Sunday, and ends in 1985 when her former husband reunites with their son. The chapters between are layers of interconnected stories beginning in 1934. These alternating first-person viewpoints focus on the Kashpaws, Lamartines and Morrisseys, with appearances by the peripheral Pillagers and the Lazarres, as their lives intersect across generations in positive and negative ways--even as a love triangle. Erdrich's characters struggle with individual and tribal identities, as well as what it means to belong to a community. She wrote several more books about the families introduced in Love Medicine: The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), Tales of Burning Love (1997), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), Four Souls (2004) and The Painted Drum (2005).

Erdrich has twice revised Love Medicine since its initial publication, first in 1993 then 2009, sometimes adding or removing whole chapters. Among many other accolades, it won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. A paperback of the latest version of Love Medicine was published in 2016 by Harper Perennial ($16.99). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review



by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani's first novel, Luster, is a rocket-paced, sensual fever dream of sex, trauma, relationships and conflicting perceptions.

Edie is in her 20s and struggling, with her crappy shared Bushwick apartment, her low-level position in children's publishing, her uninspired sexual choices and her irritable bowel syndrome. Her parents are dead, but the psychic wounds they inflicted are not. Her painting is not going well, and she is a Black woman in New York City. "Racism is often so mundane it leaves your head spinning, the hand of the ordinary in your slow, psychic death so sly and absurd you begin to distrust your own eyes." Early on, her affair with Eric seems different, refreshing, in spite of, or because of, the 23-year age gap. Then Edie gets fired and evicted, and she spirals, landing, weirdly, in the middle of someone else's marriage. She knew from the start that Eric was in an open marriage--his wife set a lot of rules for his relationship with Edie. But suddenly she finds herself taken in, literally, by Rebecca, living in their guest room in New Jersey and asked to mentor this white couple's adopted Black daughter, Akila. Surreality seems to be Edie's default, but now the funhouse mirror tilts again.

Edie's first-person narration is nearly stream-of-consciousness, long sentences overflowing with imaginative visual impressions and self-deprecation. Her particular blend of despair, panic and self-destruction is spellbinding. Luster is intoxicating and surprising, never letting readers settle into recognizable patterns. Leilani has crafted an unforgettable novel about a young woman making her own way. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Race, sex, shifting social rules, art, inspiration and digestive troubles plague the compelling protagonist of this debut novel.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, hardcover, 240p., 9780374194321

The Tunnel

by A.B. Yehoshua, trans. by Stuart Schoffman

The Tunnel, a novel by venerable Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua (Friendly FireThe Retrospective), is a gentle fable about aging, marital love and understanding between two peoples in conflict. Zvi Luria is a retired engineer at 73, whose recent MRI reveals the beginning of frontal lobe atrophy. His wife, Dina, a prominent pediatrician, encourages him to seek out a part-time job with his former employer, hoping that may slow his cognitive decline.

Zvi lands a position as an unpaid assistant to Asael Maimoni, a young engineer, and the two become involved in an unusual project--the construction of a secret army road across the massive Ramon Crater in Israel's Negev Desert. As part of the design, Asael proposes a tunnel. It would allow an exiled Palestinian family to continue to reside atop a hill that also features archeological ruins dating from the third century B.C.E., a symbol of the "human predicament arising from two nations living in the same homeland."

The machinations that lead to the design of a "modest, homey tunnel," and bring Zvi and Asael to the project's end, are less interesting than is Yehoshua's wry portrait of a proud, accomplished man who's been given a glimpse of his destiny, but who nonetheless is determined to live out his remaining days in dignity and with purpose. In a country that's riven by conflict, Yehoshua's depiction of the interactions between the Israeli civil servants and the Palestinian family at least hints at the possibility of reconciliation, if not full-fledged peace. The Tunnel could have been a depressing account of decline, but instead becomes one that chooses optimism over despair. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this tenderhearted story, an aging Israeli engineer works on an improbable road-building project as he fights against his failing memory.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, hardcover, 336p., 9781328622631


by Lynn Steger Strong

In Lynn Steger Strong's Want, a deep sense of need and desire thrums beneath perfectly concise, staccato prose that tells the story of a woman caught in the frustrations (and fury) of living a life she never imagined for herself.

Elizabeth and her husband have several degrees, two children and a mountain of debt. On the brink of declaring bankruptcy, the two cobble together jobs to try to make ends meet. But keeping up appearances is starting to push Elizabeth over the edge. She leaves work to walk the city for hours on end. She texts her best friend from high school, with whom she has a fractured, nearly non-existent relationship as an adult. She contemplates asking her wealthy but eternally disappointed parents for money. Most importantly, she wants. She wants to understand the world, and her place in it. She wants to have a dream, a vision, hope. "I want to not be someone who says no all the time to every impulse," she says to herself, to no one, to anyone who will listen. "I want to not make every choice because it is my only choice."

The word "want" appears in the text more than 200 times in Strong's aptly titled novel, taking on every possible nuance and definition associated with it. The pages crackle with a sense of desire, of need, of desperation and hope and longing in this smart story of a woman who wants--no, needs--to find herself, rather than acquiescing to what others want for and from her. Want is a novel of modern womanhood that is not to be missed. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A powerful novel of what it means to be a woman who wants for more than what she has, even if she's not certain she deserves it.

Holt, $25.99, hardcover, 224p., 9781250247544

Crooked Hallelujah

by Kelli Jo Ford

Kelli Jo Ford, whose fiction has already earned several prizes, including the Paris Review Plimpton Prize, makes a magnificent #OwnVoices novel debut with Crooked Hallelujah.

In 1974, 15-year-old Justine lives in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma with her aging Granny and embittered mother, Lula. Almost seven years ago, Justine's father delivered his family to Beulah Springs Holiness Church for service and vanished: "Lula held herself together with a religion so stifling and frightening that Justine... never knew if she was fighting against her mother or God himself." Her first act of rebellion--sneaking out to meet an older boy--ends in rape. The traumatized, silenced teen gives birth to Reney, sealing their symbiotic relationship for life: "Mom was my sun and my moon," Reney later observes.

In the decades that follow, Justine works hard to break the cycle of abandonment and neglect for Reney. Despite floundering relationships with useless men, Justine eventually marries Pitch, whom she can't live without--no matter how many times they leave each other. Justine and Reney move to Texas, where Reney settles into a ready-made family, finding comfort and support in Pitch's family's farm, most especially with Pitch's debilitated mother, another forsaken woman, although she's still married to his philandering father. As Reney matures, she seems doomed to repeat her mother's mistakes but eventually finds the strength to drive far, far away.

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Ford adroitly, affectingly weaves Indigenous history into her spellbinding narrative, exposing displacement, cultural erasure and socioeconomic disparity. The interlinked story structure allows for an intriguing, vast cast, without losing sight of Justine and Reney. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: In this splendid novel-in-stories, a multi-generational family of Cherokee women work to break painful cycles in their lives.

Grove, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9780802149121

Rules for Being Dead

by Kim Powers

Kim Powers's haunting and spellbinding novel Rules for Being Dead reads like an intoxicating blend of the best of Shirley Jackson, Alice Sebold and Fannie Flagg. But Powers has created an original novel that is both a tender coming-of-age tale and a fascinating mystery that builds to a nail-biting climax.

Set in a small Texas town in 1966, the novel begins with the suspicious death of Creola Perkins, an unhappily married 44-year-old grade-school teacher, wife to alcoholic dreamer L.E. and mother to sensitive 10-year-old Clarke and epileptic seven-year-old Corey. The novel is told from various points of view--chiefly from the grieving Clarke and the earthbound spirit of Creola, who moves among the living and can see into the future but can't uncloud the last few days of her life. Was Creola's death an accident, suicide or murder? While the spirit of Creola wanders the small town wondering why she's not in Heaven or Hell, her final days start coming into clearer focus. At the same time, Clarke (who is beginning to realize he's attracted to male classmates) starts playing detective and comes to the conclusion that his mother's death was caused by his father (who already has a new girlfriend). When he finds a gun in his father's underwear drawer, he sets a plan in motion.

With a deceptively subtle, breezy writing style, Powers (Capote in Kansas) pulls readers into his tasty and tantalizing mixture of empathetic characters, Southern gothic coming-of-age comedy, mystery and magical realism. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: This captivating mixture of mystery, coming-of-age and magical realism will be catnip for book clubs--gripping readers from the first page to the last.

Blair, $25.95, hardcover, 312p., 9781949467352

The Wild Laughter

by Caoilinn Hughes

Few nations felt the sting of the global recession that began in 2007 more than Ireland, when its roaring "Celtic Tiger" economy imploded. Caoilinn Hughes (Orchid & the Wasp) sets her second novel--a taut, acerbic family drama--against the backdrop of that economic cataclysm in her native land.

Like many of his countrymen, farmer Manus Black falls for the lure of a can't-miss investment in apartments in Spain and Bulgaria, only to lose all when the real estate market collapses. Overnight he's transformed from a comfortable, if hardworking, landowner to an impoverished debtor staring financial ruin in the face in a heavily mortgaged house "that had gone up in value by three hundred percent in a decade and dropped nearly that again in year." By the fall of 2014, his financial woes are compounded by the relentless advance of terminal cancer, an affliction that leads him to hint to his sons, Cormac and Doharty, the novel's narrator, that he wants their assistance in hastening his departure from the world.

The Black siblings are loyal to their imposing father, and dutifully go about trying to carry out his last wishes. But when their hastily researched and haphazardly executed plan goes awry, legal consequences ensue, compounding the tragedy of Manus's death and heightening the tensions that frequently bubble to the surface in the family. With frequent flashes of humor, "the thing austerity couldn't touch," Hughes skillfully captures the flickering tension between brothers separated by two years. The Wild Laughter is a compact but potent novel that explores its themes of love, loyalty and sibling rivalry with keen insight. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: In Caoilinn Hughes's keenly observant second novel, a dying father's last wish provokes a family crisis.

ONEWorld Publications, $24.95, hardcover, 208p., 9781786077806


by Jill McCorkle

Early loss, and how it reverberates for decades in the lives of those who experience it, is the subject of Jill McCorkle's pensive Hieroglyphics. After more than 60 years of marriage, octogenarians Lil and Frank Wishart abandon their lifelong home in Massachusetts to move to Southern Pines, N.C., to be close to their daughter. Frank, a retired college professor with a particular interest in ancient burial practices, and Lillian, who ran a dance studio, are united by tragedy. In Lil's case, it's the death of her mother in the fire at Boston's Cocoanut Grove night club in November 1942 that claimed 492 victims, when Lil was 10. Frank suffered the loss of a parent at the same age: his father was killed in a December 1943 train accident--another real-life event.

Shelley Lassiter and her six-year-old son, Harvey, round out the foursome of characters from whose points of view McCorkle tells her story. Abandoned by Harvey's father, Shelley works as a court reporter in Southern Pines. Harvey, born with a cleft lip, is a sweet boy who has developed a fascination with murderers like Lizzie Borden and the Menendez brothers, and who insists to Shelley that their house--the same one where Frank went to live after his father's death--is haunted.

McCorkle (Life After Life) unobtrusively braids the stories of these characters, gently revealing how the traumas of Lillian and Frank's early lives indelibly shaped their perspective on the world, while subtly connecting Frank's story with that of Shelley and Harvey. McCorkle's storytelling skill almost gives the impression she's simply eavesdropping on her character's lives. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: This novel is a quiet yet revelatory exploration of how people persist in the face of tragic loss.

Algonquin Books, $26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9781616209728

Blacktop Wasteland

by S.A. Cosby

Aficionados of good noir have certain expectations: a moral dilemma, a crime, a double cross, a chase and wittily blunt dialogue, all unfolding against a pitiless landscape. S.A. Cosby's unforgettable Blacktop Wasteland has all that, but it doesn't play out in the genre's customary white metropolis. The novel revolves around a Black family living in Virginia's Red Hill County--"no one's destination," as lifelong resident Beauregard Montage puts it.

Things aren't going well for Beauregard. The garage he owns with his cousin is losing customers to a new (white-owned) shop. He's got a mother in a nursing home that needs to be paid, a kid who needs braces, another who needs glasses and still another who won't make it out of Red Hill if Beauregard can't cover her fall college tuition. He's been flying right for a while now: five years in juvie will do that, plus he wants to do better for his kids than his long-absent father did for him. But when Beauregard is invited to be the getaway driver in a diamond heist in another county, does he really have a choice?

Blacktop Wasteland starts with a car chase, and Cosby (My Darkest Prayer) never takes his foot off the accelerator. He's a natural storyteller and a nimble writer (one character is "as useful as a white crayon"). And Cosby works the magic performed by only the best noir scribes: somehow he gets readers to root for the protagonist as he commits a crime. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Noir moves out of the city and into rural Virginia in this high-octane thriller centered on a Black mechanic forced by mounting debt to take part in a diamond heist.

Flatiron, $26.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781250252685

A Saint from Texas

by Edmund White

As one of the godfathers of gay literature, Edmund White (City Boy) has written significantly and beautifully about male sexuality. In the sumptuously imagined novel A Saint from Texas, he takes as a subject female sexuality and how the social taboos against expressing it openly shaped the lives of a pair of Texas belles.

Narrating from the present day, Yvonne de Courcy (née Crawford) recalls her formative years and those of her identical twin, Yvette. Self-described Dallas deb Yvonne doesn't pretend that her youthful ambitions were marked by virtue: even as a teenager, she had set her sights on social climbing. Meanwhile, Yvette began slipping off to attend a Catholic church, and from college she made her way to a convent in Colombia. There another nun sparked feelings that altered Yvette's destiny, as she explains in letters to her sister that Yvonne includes in her narrative.

Not lost on Yvette is that her childhood molestation by her father steered her away from men. While Yvonne was spared their father's abuse, she's not much more attracted to the opposite sex than her sister is--"Don't forget that you and I are a little bit gay around the edges," she writes late in her life to her twin. As in White's previous work, A Saint from Texas itemizes the costs--and for Yvette they are especially high--of suppressed sexuality. Readers who prefer novels with something measurable at stake may wish that A Saint from Texas had more of a storytelling arc, but White's filigreed detail work, conveyed through Yvonne's taffeta-touch narration, is breathtaking. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: In this gorgeously appointed novel, an elderly Texas belle tells her story and that of her identical twin, whose abuse by their father set her on a spiritual path.

Bloomsbury, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781635572551

The Death of Vivek Oji

by Akwaeke Emezi

Returning to adult fiction after the success of their 2019 National Book Award finalist YA novel Pet, Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi brings readers a deep, tender look at a family unraveling around the tragic and early loss of someone they loved but never understood. 

"They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died," the first chapter says in its arresting entirety. Born to Chika and Kavita, with a starfish-shaped birthmark on his foot identical to a scar his grandmother had on hers, Vivek comes into the world "after death and into grief." As a tween, he suffers from inexplicable blackouts, and Chika considers him too sensitive. As an older teen, Vivek finds solace and love among friends who accept him and in his impossible yet undeniably passionate relationship with cousin Osita. When Vivek's fabric-wrapped corpse is left on his parents' doorstep without explanation, Kavita desperately searches for explanations about his life and death, while Osita grapples with how much of the truth he should tell. 

By turns raw and gentle, this gorgeous #ownvoices drama features a cast of diverse nationalities, sexual orientations and gender identities. The mixture of third- and first-person narration reconstructs a life, largely from secondhand accounts. Emezi (Freshwater) beautifully captures an ordinary family in all its loving, hurtful, messy glory, then thoughtfully demonstrates that pressure placed on one member can backfire and undermine the entire unit. A spot-on pick for thoughtful book club discussion, The Death of Vivek Oji wraps up heartache with hope. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: In this gorgeous novel from National Book Award finalist Akwaeke Emezi, a grieving family searches for answers when its youngest member is found dead.

Riverhead Books, $27, hardcover, 256p., 9780525541608

The Nesting Dolls

by Alina Adams

Just follow the rules and everything will be all right. That's what Daria Gordon tells her two young daughters--and herself--when her family is snatched from their home in 1930s Odessa, Ukraine, and taken to a Siberian work camp. But conditions at the camp are appalling, and Daria is forced to make impossible choices to survive. Daria's granddaughter, Natasha, a brilliant mathematician, has always heard a similar refrain: work hard and you will be rewarded. But when she's denied a place at university because she is Jewish, Natasha begins to make different and potentially dangerous choices. In her sweeping debut novel, The Nesting Dolls, Alina Adams braids together the stories of five generations of strong women, extending all the way to Daria's great-great-granddaughter, Zoe, in present-day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Like her grandmothers, Zoe has heard a particular set of messages her entire life: work hard, don't shame the family, find a nice Russian Jewish boy to marry. While she's helping plan her grandparents' anniversary party, Zoe meets Alex, an entrepreneur who seems to check all her family's boxes. But the more she gets to know Alex, the more Zoe wonders if he's really right for her--and the more she wonders whether she'll find happiness by following everyone else's rules. Bittersweet, richly detailed and often wryly entertaining, The Nesting Dolls is a compelling family saga, a commentary on the sacrifices women make for their loved ones and an incisive glimpse into the effects of the Soviet state on its citizens' lives. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Alina Adams's debut is a sweeping historical saga following five generations of women in a Russian Jewish family.

Harper, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9780062910943

The Two Mrs. Carlyles

by Suzanne Rindell

San Francisco's massive and deadly 1906 earthquake lasted approximately one minute, yet its aftermath created a dramatic divide in Cora, Flossie and Violet's friendship. The trio's longtime bond from their childhood in St. Hilda's Home for Girls through their young adulthoods of affluence lies at the heart of The Two Mrs. Carlyles, an evocative and fast-paced novel of historical suspense from Suzanne Rindell (Three-Martini LunchThe Other Typist).

A tragedy moments before the San Francisco earthquake presents the three with a life-changing decision, yet subsequent odd occurrences lead Cora and Flossie to sever their relationship with Violet. Bereft at their betrayal, Violet's determination to reinvent herself parallels San Francisco's civic rebirth, depicted in a symbolic yet subdued fashion. "Bit by bit, the city poked its head up from the ashes, rising shyly at first, curling into the air like a seedling sending its first green shoots up from the soil, feeling for sunlight. Folks began to rebuild. California is like a woman.... California really had reconfigured herself."

When Violet meets and marries wealthy scion and arts patron Harry Carlyle, her life transforms further while mysteries surround the couple: Why does Harry's longtime housekeeper Miss Weber dislike Violet so intensely? Are the unexplained happenings throughout Harry's mansion due to Violet's spells or a sinister presence? And is Harry's first wife, Madeleine, dead or alive?

The Two Mrs. Carlyles is an atmospheric thriller with both a fairy tale and gothic feel. With well-drawn characters and Violet as her deeply unreliable narrator, Rindell deftly unveils how wealth has the power simultaneously to elevate and destroy our relationships with the people we love. --Melissa Firman, writer and editor at

Discover: A gripping, twisting novel of historical suspense set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake explores trust and deception among lifelong friends.

Putnam, $27, hardcover, 432p., 9780525539209

Age of Consent

by Amanda Brainerd

Amanda Brainerd's debut novel, Age of Consent, is a bracing, full-throttle dive into female coming-of-age in 1980s New York City. Justine grew up in New Haven with well-meaning, artistic parents who were often distracted by trying to keep their avant-garde theater afloat. Eve, in contrast, grew up with an overbearing mother on Park Avenue. The two become close friends while stuck in a preppy Connecticut boarding school. They long for the future lives they envision for themselves in New York City. But when they have the opportunity to spend a summer living and interning there, the experience changes them in ways they could not have imagined.

As haunting and nostalgic as a sepia-toned photograph, Age of Consent captures a fascinating era. From the cocaine-fueled art scene to the hangover-hazy Hamptons, the world that Brainerd conjures is one defined both by lingering old-world glamour and crippling new-world carelessness. Poised at this crumbling intersection, Justine and Eve encapsulate the bittersweet desperation of young adulthood; as their desires reach new peaks, they are continually disillusioned. While their experiences at boarding school develop them as vulnerable but strong young women, their exploration of the complex social world of Manhattan reveals the uncomfortable truths behind the imagined lives they have constructed. Readers will enjoy the whiplash pace even as--like the novel's characters who become increasingly numb to the thrill--they yearn to pump the brakes before it's too late. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Age of Consent reveals the vulnerable, human heart at the center of a place and time cloaked in addiction, neglect and regret.

Viking, $26, hardcover, 336p., 9781984879523

Bear Necessity

by James Gould-Bourn

British-born author James Gould-Bourn bursts onto the U.S. literary scene with a charming, deeply comforting story about a father and son entrenched in grief.

After a car accident claimed the life of Danny Malooley's beloved wife--and mother to their son, Will--father and son grapple with their loss, trying to shore up their shattered world. Matters hit rock bottom when Danny suddenly loses his construction job and cannot pay the bills. But worst of all is the fact that 11-year-old Will has refused to speak to anyone--including his dad--since his mother's death.

Depressed, destitute and desperate, Danny ambles through a park one day and spots street performers entertaining passersby and raking in money. This proves a moment of enlightenment as he decides, on a lark, to join their ranks. Barreling through a host of amusing complications, he secures an old panda bear suit and sets off to earn some money covertly.

Meanwhile, Will struggles with his lingering silence and being taunted by older kids at school. When the boy is bullied in the park one day, a goofy-looking, dancing panda performer unexpectedly comes to his rescue.

Heartfelt themes and wit further elevate charming plot twists and a well-tuned cast of quirky, supporting characters who prove that the spirit of friendship can build bridges to greater understanding and brighter days. Gould-Bourn is a perceptive writer who has crafted a moving, sensitive story that is also very funny. Bear Necessity is a perfect literary antidote to anxious, troubled times. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: In this delightful story, a grieving British father and his young son who refuses to speak learn to communicate with each other through a dancing panda bear.

Scribner, $26, hardcover, 320p., 9781982128296

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

by Frances Macken

Frances Macken's darkly complicated You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here follows three Irish girls as they aspire to escape their dead-end hometown of Glenbruff. Working-class Katie, pretty, rich girl Evelyn and hanger-on Maeve are introduced as happy 10-year-olds running free, imagining the local quarry, wet bogs and abandoned buildings as wondrous faraway habitats. They plan for bigger, better lives together elsewhere but, like all childhood friendships, this trio's loyalties ebb and flow with the tides of their personal dramas.

As teenagers, Katie and Evelyn have a pact to study art in Dublin and become famous artists, while Maeve is happy to take a local job. The plan falters when Katie is accepted to art school and Evelyn isn't. Infighting among the three girls turns incendiary when Aidan and Peadar, brothers the girls have crushes on, are more interested in Pamela Cooney, who recently moved from the big city.

Luckily for the lead trio, Pamela's moment in the spotlight is quickly snuffed out when she suddenly disappears. She obviously met with foul play, but what isn't clear is how much Katie, Evelyn and Maeve know about what happened to their rival.

Macken highlights every scrappy kid's desire to free him- or herself from small-town thinking and limited opportunities. The author shines brightest when depicting a friends-for-life camaraderie mixed with hurtful actions only real friends can forgive one another for. Readers are immersed so deeply in the day-to-day mini-dramas of these girls that it's surprisingly easy to dismiss their apathy toward Pamela's disappearance and wholeheartedly root for their escape from Glenbruff. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: An epic story of three girls growing up in a small Irish town, dreaming of more exciting lives elsewhere.

ONEWorld, $25.95, hardcover, 288p., 9781786077653

The Aunt Who Wouldn't Die

by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, trans. by Arunava Sinha

As spare as it might initially seem, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay's wickedly entertaining novel, The Aunt Who Wouldn't Die, manages smoothly to illuminate gender inequity, cultural biases, socioeconomic disparity and familial dysfunction through a three-generational ghost story.

At 18, Somlata is wed to her 32-year-old husband, the "blissfully unemployed" youngest of an aristocratic family in serious decline. In the crumbling, sprawling household, Somlata discovers the newly dead Pishima, the family's tyrannical de facto matriarch. Married at eight, widowed at 12, Pishima endured a long life of isolated deprivation. In death, her ghost entrusts Somlata with a secret wooden box of vast riches, not as a gift, but as postmortem revenge against the family members who were more jailers than caregivers. Only Somlata can see and hear Pishima, who is now unabashedly raging, rude, even lewd. Between Pishima's taunting and needling, Somlata claims her own agency, unexpectedly silencing her detractors, manipulating the extended family toward recovery, reclaiming her philandering husband, birthing the long-awaited next generation and eventually providing Pishima some semblance of peace.

The Bengali octogenarian author's novel arrives in the U.S. with significant history already attached. Originally published in 1993, the novel--considered a contemporary classic--was adapted as the film Goynar Baksho in 2013 by director Aparna Sen. Award-winning translator Arunava Sinha clearly relished his work here, especially in resurrecting Pishima, whose post-death vocabulary becomes impressively profane: "It's not every day that a translator can dip into the gutter running through their heads in search of suitable words while performing a literary enterprise," Sinha muses in his ending note. For lucky English-speaking readers, that performance proves to be a splendidly engrossing feat. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Amidst an aristocratic family's downfall, three generations of women claim agency--in life and in death--in this delightful and short Bengali novel.

HarperVia, $22.99, hardcover, 160p., 9780062976321

It Is Wood, It Is Stone

by Gabriella Burnham

A restless young woman struggles to find agency in Brazilian American author Gabriella Burnham's novel It Is Wood, It Is Stone. Linda's husband, Dennis, announces that he's been awarded a temporary professorship in São Paulo, Brazil, on the day she meant to tell him she was leaving him. She doesn't share her intention and decides to go, leading to a crisis she explains through a brutally honest monologue to Dennis. Her plan to leave "was less a solution and more like a heartbeat trying to break free from its rib cage," she tells him.

But São Paulo, instead of freeing her, creates even more claustrophobia. Unable to be truly independent because of language barriers and her own insecurities, Linda feels trapped in her apartment with Marta, their day maid. Marta is an enigma to Linda, who, for a time, stops leaving the apartment "for fear that Marta might grow roots in our bedroom and reorganize the air so that I could no longer breathe."

Linda sees Dennis as conventional and predictable, yet she wishes for his pragmatism, saying, "My goal was to find a wormhole, a channel to escape the odds, so that I too could achieve those things." Linda's escape comes through Celia, a captivating Brazilian woman. Their brief affair simultaneously gives Linda freedom and creates a tipping point in her marriage. She assures Dennis, "I wasn't looking to turn away from you; I wasn't looking to replace you; I was searching for another version of myself."

This debut novel is striking in its confident, close study of a complex woman in a fragile marriage. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: A discontented young woman moves to Brazil with her husband, exposing her insecurities and leading to a crisis that tests her marriage.

One World, $26, hardcover, 224p., 9781984855831

Louisiana Lucky

by Julie Pennell

In Julie Pennell's Louisiana Lucky, three sisters from Brady, La., share a lottery jackpot of $204 million, and the outcomes result in a novel that is breezy and enjoyable, filled with charm and wit, romance and wisdom.

The Breaux sisters, all in their 20s, are hard-working, middle-class and bonded by family. One night a month, the lottery-playing girls gather for dinner and drinks and watch the Powerball drawing on television. Hanna, the oldest, lives with her struggling contractor husband and two kids in an inherited Victorian house in disrepair. Callie, the middle sister, is a still-single, brilliant journalist selling herself short working at a local paper. And Lexi, the youngest, is a hairdresser engaged to a vet school student with an overbearing, controlling, high-society mother. Each sister dreams of taking home the jackpot. Every month, they play two random and one predetermined number, as well as meaningful numbers selected from the heart--years parents have been married, house numbers, date they met a true love, number of kids. When their ship finally comes in, each sister takes home $68 million (before taxes), but that's when the real trouble starts. New choices and challenges upend the manageability of their former lives.

Pennell (The Young Wives Club) spins fresh perspective into classic adages like "be careful what you wish for" and "money is the root of all evil." She delivers a winning story--with appealing characters and a well-conceived, page-turning plot--about ordinary people changed by money in their individual ways. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: This richly entertaining story follows three sisters who share a winning lottery jackpot that upends their lives.

Atria, $16.99, paperback, 320p., 9781982115630

What Happens at Night

by Peter Cameron

A journey to adopt a baby in a distant, northern European city tests a married couple in What Happens at Night, a menacing, suspenseful novel by Peter Cameron (Coral Glynn), its mood occasionally lightened by grim humor in the dialogue. Their journey from the United States had been difficult even before they arrive at their gloomily grandiose hotel. The wife is life-threateningly ill, which has made it nearly impossible for them to adopt. The nearby orphanage may be her last hope for a child before she dies, and to ensure her husband still has a family when she is gone. But there's another institution nearby that draws travelers to make the long train ride: a healer named Brother Emmanuel.

A vaguely surreal setting (the available food is either an elaborate meal with far too many courses or whatever can be scrounged from the bar; the room doors were salvaged from an old opera house) and fellow residents at the hotel who are either mysterious or too intimate by turns create a sense of unease. The atmosphere untethers the unnamed couple, leading them to doubt what they thought they knew about themselves and why they came there. Their lack of options beyond waiting and the absence of purpose in most of their day leaves them with little to do but question, and the novel will keep readers on tenterhooks, wondering how the tension will break. By the end, the couple will undergo changes far beyond the adoption of the child that brought them there. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: A desperate journey to a remote city shakes everything a married couple believes they knew in this quiet novel of psychological suspense.

Catapult, $26, hardcover, 320p., 9781948226967

The Kids Are Gonna Ask

by Gretchen Anthony

In The Kids Are Gonna Ask, the funny, fast-paced, multi-format second novel from Gretchen Anthony (Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners), a well-intentioned quest to uncover a family secret upends the lives of two Midwestern teens and their grandmother when their story goes viral. 

When Bess McClair came home pregnant after a ski trip her senior year of college and decided to become a single mother, her mother, Maggie, welcomed the distraction from her grief over the recent death of her husband. She didn't pressure Bess to identify the father of the babies, fraternal twins Savannah and Thomas. Thirteen years later, Bess died in a freak accident, leaving Maggie and the kids no way to find the "biodad."

Now 17, the McClair twins run an amateur podcast notable for spawning the Internet phenomenon Zombie Baby. Studio owner Sam Tamblin listens to the breakout episode, in which Thomas mentions wishing he could meet his father, and offers to produce a podcast about the twins' search for him. When paternity privacy activists get wind of the fledgling show, the twins become the center of a media circus railing against them as dupes of an "angry feminist" agenda and questioning their right to conduct a public search.

Using third-person narrative, podcast and voicemail transcripts, e-mails, text message conversations and more, Anthony constructs a portrait of the difficult and delicate process of adolescence, when the search for one's identity becomes entangled with peer relationships and ambitions for the future. Smart yet surprisingly sweet, this meditation on family and media is as captivating as a favorite podcast. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Teenaged twin siblings broadcast their search for their unknown father in a podcast that invites national attention and criticism in this multi-format novel.

Park Row, $17.99, paperback, 416p., 9780778308744

The Disaster Tourist

by Yun Ko-Eun, trans. by Lizzie Buehler

Pristine beaches, spectacular landscapes, cultural landmarks might have been the go-to tourist destinations once upon a time, but in Yun Ko-eun's sly, compelling novel, The Disaster Tourist, scenes of death and destruction are where people really want to go.

Jungle, where Yona Ko has been working for 10-plus years, is one of these travel providers, and her professional success makes her a personal target of Team Leader Kim's sexual abuse. She's not alone, but Human Resources offers nothing more than "This kind of incident happens all the time.... If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." When Yona finally submits her resignation, Kim instead offers her a month-long break, assigning her to evaluate one of the company's less-popular packages.

Yona chooses "Desert Sinkhole," which promises "volcanoes, deserts and hot springs all in the same location." She arrives on the island nation of Mui and joins five others to explore vestiges of genocide, perilous hazards and continued misfortune. When it's time to go home, Yona gets separated from the group on the journey to the airport--without her passport, wallet, luggage and only her dying phone. She manages to return to the resort, where the manager eventually presents her with a marketing plan to boost Mui's disaster-desirability and thereby save the residents from obscure starvation. Yona can hardly refuse.

Yun's English-language debut arrives in an agile translation by Lizzie Buehler. This disturbing novel might initially feel far-fetched, but Yun skillfully exposes an insatiability both to create and to consume anomalous experiences at any cost. With deft ingenuity, she transforms seeming surreality into chilling reality. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: This sly novel compellingly exposes global voyeurism--at any cost.

Counterpoint, $16.95, paperback, 208p., 9781640094161

Everything Here Is Under Control

by Emily Adrian

In Everything Here Is Under Control, Emily Adrian's emotionally nuanced adult debut (after YA novels Like It Never Happened and The Foreseeable Future), two childhood friends confront their shared past in order to move forward. Amanda is struggling under the physical and emotional toll of being a new mother. Her partner, Gabe, is doing his best, but in the screaming face of their newborn, Amanda is not sure it is enough. Exhausted and hurt, she drives to her hometown to stay, uninvited, with her childhood best friend, Carrie. The two used to be inseparable, but the years that have passed since Carrie's teenaged pregnancy have divided them. To rediscover their friendship and survive motherhood, both women must face the harm they have done to one another, even if it was in the name of love.

From page one, Everything Here Is Under Control is not afraid of talking straight. Looking at the trauma of birth, it enters into a frank conversation with its readers that is thoughtful and heartfelt, humorous and raw. The novel consistently engages with themes of motherhood, yet never forgets about the many forms of love that its characters have. Adrian depicts Amanda, Carrie and Gabe with compassion and precision, making them unfailingly lovable even with their personal imperfections. And while the novel is most interested in exploring the intricate relationships between its characters, it also pays careful attention to the sometimes suffocating, always complex inner workings of rural, small-town America. Warm, generous and outspoken, Adrian's fiction is a thought-provoking delight. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This charming family drama has big things to say about the love between friends, partners and, most of all, mothers and their children.

Blackstone Publishing, $24.99, hardcover, 9781982639648

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: Stories

by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg (The Third Hotel) leads her characters into bizarre and life-changing situations--all the more powerful for their underlying emotional resonance--in her thrilling and uncanny collection of stories, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.

The surreal permeates these stories in masterful fashion, as if each narrative, grounded in the real, slowly slips into the fantastical. The author admits this much in a sly, almost undetectable self-consciousness. "And this is the problem with translating experience into fiction, the way certain truths read like lies," the narrator says in "Last Night." In "Hill of Hell," the narrator explains "the way we are walled in by our secrets and the implacability of our judgments." When these walls come down, the experience for van den Berg's characters is both terrifying and liberating. When the world's expectations finally lay broken like a husk, each character emerges anew, shocked but utterly alive.

In one of the best stories, "Slumberland," a woman who has been photographing her Florida neighborhood at night discovers her neighbor has been crying for the pleasure of strangers on the phone; "dacryphilia," it's called. Like so many of van den Berg's stories, the plot twist provides an eerie but powerful form of human connection.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is not only a testament to the power of the short story, but to how, cumulatively, a collection can sustain an entire ethos and atmosphere. Van den Berg is a maestro of the form, and these stories shouldn't be missed. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

Discover: In this uncanny collection, women confront a bewildering world to both terrifying and cathartic effect.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, hardcover, 224p., 9780374102098

Bottled Goods

by Sophie Van Llewyn

Bottled Goods, Sophie van Llewyn's first novel, is a curious story of oppression set in 1970s Communist Romania, featuring a young woman pressing against the confines not only of culture and state but of family. Largely realistic, the narrative takes the odd, surprising turn toward magical realism, making the already strange world of heavily monitored government control feel stranger still.

Readers first meet Alina as a girl, then a young single woman, working as a translator and tour guide on the Romanian coast. It is here that she meets her future husband, a history student (later professor) named Liviu. While Alina comes from a background of privilege and property, lost when the Communists took power, Liviu comes from privation, which he does not let her forget. When they marry, "It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions that she had been watching, trapped inside the bride's body." Trapped indeed in several ways, she goes to work as an elementary schoolteacher; life is tolerable until Liviu's brother defects to France. Then the Secret Services enter their lives and everything changes.

Luckily or unluckily, Alina has an aunt with connections to the government, to whom she turns for help. Aunt Theresa's assistance varies from intervention with the authorities to entanglements with fairies and strigoi (Romanian folk spirits). When Alina gets desperate, the fairies' form of help will upturn her life yet again.

Fluid in form, often stark in style and surrealistic in subject matter, Bottled Goods is a strange and compelling story about freedom of choice and those we choose to keep near to us. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: An unusual story of 1970s Communist Romania with a thread of magical realism, told in flash-style snippets.

Harper Perennial, $15.99, paperback, 192p., 9780062979520

Mystery & Thriller


by Josh Malerman

Subtle horror intersects with generational conflict when Josh Malerman revisits the characters from Bird Box in the worthy sequel Malorie.

Forced to leave the community they found in the first book, Malorie has raised the two children, now called Tom and Olympia, in safety and isolation until the age of 17. A chance discovery gives her reason to set out with them again on a longer journey than they have ever taken, in search of the only thing that would make her leave: family. But Tom and Olympia, just as they now have names of their own, have grown into people with their own ideas about life that no longer fit within the discipline Malorie developed to avoid the creatures, the sight of whom drives people to deadly violence. Tom dreams of creating inventions that will allow people to go outside without the defense of a blindfold.

Although the creatures still loom, eerie in their lack of definition or explanation, this is a story about change. A generation is nearing adulthood with no memory of the old world, and as Malorie and her family connect with more people on their journey, they hear stories of communities where people have found ways to live in this new world. Alternating perspectives from Malorie and Tom, with the occasional interjection from Olympia, let readers feel their compelling faith in vigilance and innovation, respectively. The familiar unknown menace and the larger view of the world will please Malerman's fans. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: The subtle horror of Bird Box remains although society has evolved in this engrossing sequel.

Del Rey, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9780593156858

More Better Deals

by Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale's steamy noir thriller More Better Deals ignites when a slick used-car salesman meets a blonde who can't handle her car payments or her abusive husband.

Ed Edwards earns every cent of his commission at Smiling Dave's Car Lot. Dave pays Ed well, but Ed's job description includes the dirty work of repossessing cars when customers like Frank Craig get behind on payments. Frank's out on a drinking binge when Ed shows up to take the car, which is perfectly fine with Ed because Frank's wife, Nancy, is a beautiful leggy blonde. Nancy tearfully confides to Ed that she's had enough of her hardnosed husband, who feels the need to smack her around before and after sex. When Ed takes back the Craigs' car, replacing it with one she can afford, Nancy lets him fill some of her other needs. Between the bedsheets, Nancy and Ed come up with a plan to get rid of Frank. What could possibly go wrong?

Lansdale's novel doesn't come with a smooth saxophone-laden soundtrack tucked into the dust jacket, but readers may imagine hearing it anyway from the moment Nancy answers Ed's knock on her screen door. From the moment the author describes her as "arched eyebrows and lips that could talk a man into anything, maybe some women," it's obvious poor Ed will be doing whatever this femme fatale wants. Chapters are short and packed with a tightly twisted plot reeking of smoke, alcohol, steamy sheets and blood. An enormously satisfying experience that'll tempt readers to dust off their trench coat, fedora and best Bogart impersonation. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: A hot blonde strikes a killer deal with a car salesman seeking a better position in this noir thriller. Warning: Readers may need a cigarette afterward.

Mulholland, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9780316479912


by Zoje Stage

The anxiety of isolation and change takes menacing form in Wonderland by Zoje Stage.

Orla was facing challenges before the first signs something supernatural was happening. At the age of 41, she has retired from the ballet and agreed that it is her husband Shaw's turn to pursue art. But instead of leaving New York City for a smaller, more affordable city, as she had imagined, they and their two young children are moving to a remote house in the woods. "Orla tried not to think of it as an amputation, but that's how it felt."

Shaw has found his calling in painting surreal nature scenes, and their family has gone from a one-bedroom apartment in a crowded city to an old wooden farmhouse. Bizarre things begin to happen with the weather, and what has been calling to Shaw and, to a lesser extent, to their daughter Eleanor Queen, might be something more sinister than his metaphorical muse.

As Stage gave form to the harsher experiences of motherhood in her first thriller, Baby Teeth, here she masterfully depicts an unknown force that embodies the oppressive tension that can come with being trapped with one's family, cut off from the rest of society. Its release in the context of worldwide quarantine and stay-at-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic is eerily timely, but Orla has much worse demons to face than the ones inside the mind. This story of domestic challenges and mounting horror will please fans of Shirley Jackson. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: A family's struggle to adjust to an isolated home in the woods becomes something far darker when mysterious forces inhabit their land in this gripping suspense story.

Mulholland Books, $28, hardcover, 368p., 9780316458498


by Lauren Beukes

"You can't imagine how much the world can change in six months." Oh, but yes we can! With remarkable prescience, Lauren Beukes's Afterland takes on an "unprecedented global pandemic" with chilling results--and surprising comic relief threaded throughout. Six years after the success of Broken Monsters, the South African author sets another disturbing novel in the U.S., creating an epic odyssey of a mother's determination to save her tween son. Their worst threat to safety, alas, is her own sister.

It's 2023, three years since the Human Culgoa Virus, "a highly contagious flu that turns into an aggressive prostate cancer in men and boys," ravaged the world. Twelve-year-old Miles is one of a dwindling set of survivors. Back when life was normal, Miles and his parents, Cole and Devon, flew from their Johannesburg home to spend a Disneyland vacation with relatives. Four months later, cousin Jay is dead. Then Uncle Eric, father Devon. Billions fall. In the government's effort to protect survivors and their immediate families, Miles and Cole end up in California's Ataraxia, "the fanciest prison in the world." Cole just wants to go home to South Africa. When Cole's sister, Billie, arrives, they hatch a plan to break out.

Their success is tempered when Billie reveals the contemptible reason for her ready assistance: harvesting Miles's sperm for black-market riches. Cole's reaction is to swing a tire iron at Billie, and then grab Miles to take to the road. Miles must become Mila for the two years on a cat-and-mice chase across the U.S. that offers titillating thrills, schadenfreude and, most surprisingly (and necessarily), even a few take-me-away snorts and shrieks. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Lauren Beukes's prescient Afterland recounts an odyssey across the U.S. during an "unprecedented global pandemic" by a mother and son who just want to get home to South Africa.

Mulholland, $28, hardcover, 416p., 9780316267830

Survival Instincts

by Jen Waite

"There are some stories that don't need to be told." Anne keeps secret the story of her daughter's father in order to protect Thea. But Thea is now 12 and the Internet is a powerful tool. For reasons unknown to Anne, Thea has recently changed into a volatile preteen, her relationship with Anne strained by deceit. Since Thea is tight with Anne's mother, Rose, Anne schedules a girls' getaway to a remote cabin, hoping to reconnect. There, the past fractures the present, threatening the lives of all three women.

Jen Waite is infinitely qualified to write about psychopaths, having shared the story of her former marriage in a courageous memoir, A Beautiful, Terrible Thing. Waite now folds her experience into a novel, Survival Instincts, focusing on the lengths to which mothers will go to protect their children. Starting "Four Days Before the Cabin," Waite alternates timelines and points of view as Anne, Rose and Thea head to the cabin. Meanwhile, an unidentified man spins a tale of violence as he goes on the hunt.

Waite deftly dips into the past to fill out the framework of her characters and ultimately connect the women to "The Man." Satisfying turns and surprises highlight the narrative, which, despite some extraneous exposition, remains tense and quickly paced. Waite keeps readers invested in each woman, despite their human faults and wrong turns, and everyone will wish they had a grandmother like Rose. Waite's fiction debut is an intense story of women doing what it takes to survive. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: Three generations of women fight for survival in a remote location as the secrets of the past come back to haunt them.

Dutton, $26, hardcover, 368p., 9781524745837

Imperfect Women

by Araminta Hall

One premise of Araminta Hall's horrible yet lovely Imperfect Women is that women absorb tragedy so others don't have to. Best friends Nancy, Eleanor and Mary each absorbed plenty as life took them down unexpected paths. Twenty-eight years after their friendship began at Oxford, Eleanor's phone wakes her at 4 a.m. It's Nancy's husband, Robert, concerned she never came home the night before.

Rather than worried, Eleanor is irritated. She alone knows that Nancy is embroiled in a year-long affair she's been trying to end. To keep Robert from involving the police, Eleanor comes clean, sure that Nancy is just off with her lover. Then Nancy is found dead on the path by a river bridge, a large wound on the back of her head.

Hall's unwinding of the mystery behind Nancy's death is so masterful the whodunit becomes a backdrop to the women and their plights. As in her prior novel, Our Kind of Cruelty, Hall's skill is highlighted in the inner workings of her characters. The author takes a different angle on the multi-perspective, multi-timeline theme; her approach serves to focus marvelously on each woman's internal struggles and her view of the others. Eleanor takes readers through Nancy's death and its aftermath, and Nancy jumps back to describe what led to her affair and death. Mary's section provides answers about Nancy's killer, and how Eleanor and Mary might move forward with the understanding that goddesses are false and they are entitled to live life to the messy full as imperfect women. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: This masterful mystery examines the secret pain and sacrifices of three women friends through their perspectives before and following one of their deaths.

MCD, $27, hardcover, 304p., 9780374272586

The Guest List

by Lucy Foley

Lucy Foley (The Invitation; The Book of Lost and Found) has created a delightfully suspenseful thriller in The Guest List. Atmospheric and subtle, it explores the unraveling of a group of acquaintances who have all traveled to a remote Irish island for a wedding.

The bride, Jules, is the editor of a thriving online magazine. The groom, Will, is on reality TV, and their guest list is star-studded. As the novel opens, the lights go out in the tent where everyone is dancing, and suddenly someone screams. Then the book flashes back 24 hours, to the arrival of the wedding party. Told from a number of perspectives--that of the best man, the bridesmaid, the wedding planner, the plus one--the story weaves together many disparate perceptions.

Ratcheting up the tension is the terrible weather on the island, which is already rumored to be haunted. Jules is determined to still have her perfect fairy tale wedding, although she's beginning to have some doubts about her possibly-too-handsome groom. Meanwhile, Jules's half-sister is falling apart, the best man is stoned out of his mind, and the wife of Jules's best friend Charlie is wondering if Jules and Charlie are more than just friends.

Set in such an isolated location, with a fairly small cast of characters, The Guest List feels a bit like a modern Agatha Christie novel. It is a fast-paced, intriguing mystery. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: In this atmospheric thriller, a wedding on a remote Irish island goes terribly awry.

Morrow, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780062868930

Lineage Most Lethal: An Ancestry Detective Mystery

by S.C. Perkins

"Well, I'll be dashed.... It's a pigpen." Uttered by wily old fox George Lancaster, these words refer to something other than a mess. A cipher, to be exact--one that forces George to disclose long-held World War II secrets to his beloved granddaughter, genealogist Lucy Lancaster. To bust a murder scheme relating to an old espionage operation, they'll have to find the key and break the code before lives are lost.

Lineage Most Lethal is the second entry in S.C. Perkins's marvelous Ancestry Detective series, following 2019 Agatha Award nominee Murder Once Removed, and Perkins picks up the murderous magnetism right where it left off. Smarting from feeling ghosted by Harrison Ford-esque Special Agent Ben Turner, Lucy throws herself into her work for hotel heiress Pippa Sutton. Lucy is approached by an ailing, elderly man on the grounds of the Hotel Sutton. As he perishes, he presses a Montblanc pen against her hand and implores her to "keep them safe."

Charismatic Grandpa George comes to the rescue--as a collector of vintage Montblancs, he reveals to Lucy the special nature of the pen and its ties to a secret Allied mission. The messages held within uncover a plot for revenge that will embroil Lucy, George and the Sutton clan in a bitter grudge inherited through generations. Perkins's plots are thick with fascinating atmosphere, curios, history and family lore, but her humor and characters shine most brightly, holding readers in an embrace of warm and lethal Southern charm. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A genealogist must research the lineage of a set of World War II veterans to stop the murder of their descendants.

Minotaur Books, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250750075

The Last Mrs. Summers

by Rhys Bowen

Using sharp intelligence and experienced sleuthing, the intrepid Lady Georgiana Rannoch sets out to save her friend, accused of murder, in The Last Mrs. Summers, an excellent, stand-alone entry in the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen (Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding).

What begins as a road trip with girlfriend Belinda to inspect an inherited, dilapidated cottage on the wild Cornish coast soon takes a darker turn. With no hotel available nearby, Georgiana and Belinda accept an offer of housing with a childhood friend. There has been a series of unfortunate deaths at the estate and, before long, the two young women are swept up in yet another death: their host is found murdered and Belinda is arrested for the violent crime. Now Georgiana must unravel a tangled knot of seemingly unrelated clues and blind ends as she attempts to uncover the real killer. At first there are too few potential suspects and then, too many. How will Georgiana narrow the list of suspects and discover the actual perpetrator? Even more difficult and challenging, how will she convince the police she has found the real killer and it's not Belinda?

There's so much to enjoy about this well-written novel--the easy camaraderie between Georgiana and Belinda, the 1930s setting in England's colorful Cornwall, the complicated mystery and the heroine's shrewd solving of the crime. To all that, add the melding of the protagonists' pitch-perfect British insouciance with the brooding atmosphere of a gothic mansion, and the result is an absolute delight. Readers will find themselves staying up late. --Lois Faye Dyer, writer and reviewer

Discover: Amateur detective Lady Georgiana must untangle a complicated mystery when her friend is framed for murder in 1930s Cornwall.

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9780451492876

He Started It

by Samantha Downing

"We are a family of assholes. You can blame that on Grandpa, he started it."

With this description, how can one not want to read more about the Morgan family in Samantha Downing's acerbic thriller He Started It?

Grandpa recently died, and his last wish is for his grandchildren Eddie, Beth and Portia to re-create a road trip they all took with him when they were children. They must revisit the same landmarks in various states and not end up in jail if they want to inherit his millions. The ostensible purpose is to scatter his ashes at the final destination.

Along the way, the siblings--plus Eddie's wife and Beth's husband--encounter a black truck that seems to be following them. They keep hearing an old song that carries unsettling reminders of the original road trip. And something mysterious happens to Grandpa's ashes. Tempers flare, suspicions simmer and perhaps not everyone will survive the trip.

Unlike the bickering Morgans, readers will enjoy the offbeat tour across the United States, featuring real landmarks like a Bonnie and Clyde museum--complete with bloody dummies in a car--and a burial site for Cadillacs. Beth, the narrator, states at the beginning she isn't sure who the hero of the story is but it's definitely not her. Downing (My Lovely Wife) explores what makes someone a hero or villain, depicting characters who could be neither or both but are always compelling. No one trusts anyone else, so readers are never certain what will happen next. The ending might be polarizing but it's dark and bold, like Downing's prose. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: Three siblings and their spouses take a trip across the U.S. to fulfill their grandfather's dying wish and inherit his money in this engrossing thriller.

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 400p., 9780451491756

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Axiom's End

by Lindsay Ellis

Video essayist and Hugo finalist Lindsay Ellis's debut science fiction novel is an intriguing entry in the lengthy tradition of first-contact stories, where humans meet alien lifeforms for the first time. Axiom's End features hallmarks of the genre--struggling to communicate, fear giving way to understanding, etc.--with at least one major difference: Ellis's close encounter is set in 2007. 

Cora Sabino is a young woman reeling from the unwanted attention her father's celebrity as an anti-secrecy activist in hiding has earned her. Her father is painted as ideologically rigid and obsessed with his own fame--it's difficult not to draw comparisons with Julian Assange. She's not concerned about her father's leaks suggesting the U.S. government engaged in first contact until the truth lands on her doorstep, and Cora is forced into an awkward alliance with an alien being she calls Ampersand. From here, the novel goes in surprising directions. Suffice it to say, Cora's bond with Ampersand grows as she serves as their interpreter, despite learning frightening truths about Ampersand's past and the threats facing Earth. Ellis weaves all of this into an alternate vision of 2007, where even the coming financial crisis is alien-related.

Perhaps because Cora is young and somewhat cheeky, the novel sometimes takes on a lightly comic tone, filled with sarcasm and nerdy Easter eggs. At its core, Axiom's End is warm-hearted, even--very cautiously--optimistic, more Carl Sagan's Contact than War of the Worlds. For all of its drama and philosophical conundrums, Ellis's book is ultimately about the power of empathy and kindness in a universe that never has enough of either. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

Discover: This alternate history set in 2007 provides a peculiar, entertaining take on first contact.

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9781250256737

The Year of the Witching

by Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching is a dark, feminist fantasy debut that imagines a different kind of ending for those persecuted for their differences.

Bethel is, in many ways, reminiscent of 1600s New England: rife with a puritanical religious fervor, dominated by power-hungry men and full of myths of witches and dark magic. Except the witches in Bethel's history are very real, and their blood runs deep in the veins of Immanuelle, the orphaned daughter of a madwoman and her heathen lover, burned in a pyre to purge his soul--and the community of Bethel--of evil. That magic is called up by Immanuelle's accidental foray into the forbidden Darkwood that borders Bethel. The young woman is at first terrified, then repentant and, then, as she comes to understand more and more of Bethel's history, furious. Her anger erupts over what her parents were put through, the corruption simmering just below the surface of all of Bethel's neat and orderly rules, the burden placed on the shoulders of women and girls for centuries in the name of purity and divinity.

This transition, from penance to fury, drives the heart of The Year of the Witching, as Alexis Henderson deftly turns the tropes of historical witch hunts on their heads. Though the worldbuilding here is a bit uneven at first, once established, The Year of the Witching proves a compelling and haunting story of magic and power, and what it looks like when one girl finds both within herself. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: In this dark, feminist novel, a young woman discovers her own power and uses it to bring down the patriarchal society that has treated her--and others like her--poorly for so long.

Ace, $26, hardcover, 368p., 9780593099605

Or What You Will

by Jo Walton

Jo Walton's Or What You Will is a clever and curious book that uses stories to ponder the nature of storytelling. Sylvia, author of 30 books over a 40-year career, is working on a new novel set in the same location as some of her earlier works: Thalia, a Florence-like city in a Renaissance-resembling time. But this novel is getting away from her, slowly filling with stories of her own life, the muse that lives inside her head interjecting himself into her writing more frequently. As Sylvia writes, both she and her muse face down their own mortality, even as the Thalian novel grows and spins and fills into itself, full of semi-historical detail and literary traditions (including a cast of characters drawn straight from the pages of various Shakespeare plays).

It takes no small amount of trust to fall into the world that Walton (My Real Children; The Just City) builds here, especially as Or What You Will alternates between the story of Thalia, as told by Sylvia; and the story of Sylvia, as told by the voice in her head; and the story of how the two intersect, as told by some combination of both of them. Walton, like Sylvia and her nameless muse, seems to value "the readers who press on and find it worthwhile, who may frown and blink now and then but keep reading... slip into the reading trance, the stories we spin you." That trust is not misplaced, as the narratives Walton and her quirky narrators tell in Or What You Will promise to delight any reader who appreciates a good story--with an enchanting side of snark. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer

Discover: A story-within-a-story explores the life of a writer, the nature of imagination and immortality in a clever, fantastical novel.

Tor, $26.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250308993

Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth has a tough act to follow in 2019's deranged, electrifyingly fun Gideon the Ninth, but the middle chapter in Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb Trilogy is every bit as wild and weird as its delightful predecessor. Following the events of the first book, Muir shifts focus to the necromancer Harrowhark as she joins a cohort dedicated to assisting the godlike Emperor in fighting strange cosmic entities.

Muir has not lost her penchant for throwing readers in the deep end, and some incomprehension is to be expected on their part. In fact, Harrow the Ninth seems purposefully disorienting for fans of the first book: the novel bounces back and forth in time, retelling events from the first book with noticeable differences that grow more glaring over time. Whereas Gideon the Ninth welded the structure of a locked-room mystery to its saga of necromancers and their sword-wielding escorts in an ancient, crumbling space-tomb, Harrow the Ninth plunges confidently into a mind-bending puzzle box structure. There is plenty of satisfaction in piecing things together, but it's not just an exercise in cleverness: Muir has much to say about denial and the dangers of suppressing grief, building to an emotional conclusion that will melt the hardest of hearts.

Harrow the Ninth carries over all the strengths of its predecessor, including the verbal sparring and ever-entertaining insults: "you bursting organ, you wretched, self-regarding hypochondriac and half-fermented corpse with the nails still on." And it delves even deeper into the vulnerabilities of Muir's damaged characters. Few books can be this funny, sad and romantic all at the same time. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

Discover: A worthy sequel to Gideon the Ninth, this novel expands the grotesque world of necromancers and skeletons within an unpredictable puzzle box structure.

Tor, $26.99, hardcover, 512p., 9781250313225

Automatic Reload

by Ferrett Steinmetz

The unhinged steampunk epic Automatic Reload showcases a violent world of mayhem, love and redemption.

Soldier Mat Webb suffers from intense PTSD after shooting a child and losing an arm in a bomb blast during his last deployment. Rather than curl up in a ball and hide, he severs his remaining limbs and replaces them with the latest in military weaponry. His arms and legs become grenade and rocket launchers, and his reflexes become lightning quick. Mat hires himself out as a mercenary, accepting only righteous jobs. But fighting bad guys requires expensive and constant upgrades to his technical enhancement, and funds are low.

When a trusted friend coerces Mat into accepting a quick gig paying $3 million to supervise a team of cyborgs transferring a freight container to a transport vehicle, Mat readily agrees. He just can't look inside the container. But he and the team are attacked during the handoff, and Mat hears cries for help from inside the container. Mat looks inside and finds Silvia, a genetically altered human, shackled to an operating table. Mat rescues her and discovers the group behind Silvia's transfer is a sentient computer conglomerate desperate to replace humanity. Suddenly everyone involved points their weapons at Mat and Silvia, who must now destroy them all--or be destroyed themselves.

Ferrett Steinmetz's pacing and visceral action sequences scream for the attention of graphic novel fans. But the most striking element is what's at the heart of the story: two emotionally damaged people find enough commonality and strength in their weaknesses to fall in love. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this cyperpunk thriller, two damaged but dangerous people combine forces to wreak havoc on a sentient computer conglomerate hellbent on making humans obsolete.

Tor, $17.99, paperback, 304p., 9781250168214


Paris Is Always a Good Idea

by Jenn McKinlay

Prolific author Jenn McKinlay (Buried to the Brim) departs from her long-running series and delivers a fun, feel-good, stand-alone novel that will delight readers. Paris Is Always a Good Idea, a bittersweet story, focuses on a disillusioned woman in her 30s who sets off on an exciting worldwide adventure.

After college, Chelsea Martin goes through seven years of struggle. Her beloved mother dies, and grief-stricken Chelsea buries herself in work, becoming a corporate fund-raising star for a prominent cancer coalition in Boston. When her "buttoned-down" mathematician father, a widower, proposes to a woman he's known for only two weeks, Chelsea suddenly takes stock of her own life, wondering why she isn't happy or in a fulfilling romantic relationship of her own.

Chelsea decides, on a lark, to return to a time in her life when she believed she was happy and carefree--full of love and joy, hope and promise. Taking a much-needed sabbatical from her successful career, she winds her way through Europe to try to recapture the spirit of the woman she once was--retracing a route she traveled after college. She seeks out and revisits old flames, starting in a quaint, small town in Ireland; returning to the glittering lights of romantic Paris; then on to a vineyard tucked into the rolling hills of Tuscany. By reuniting with lovable old beaus in the hope of rekindling romance in each picturesque locale, Chelsea learns much about herself and what she truly wants from life.

Readers will savor the feisty, adventurous journey of McKinlay's self-deprecating protagonist as she re-examines her past in order to chart her future. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: A fun, adventurous story about a 30-something workaholic who takes a sabbatical to rekindle a happier, romance-filled time in her life.

Berkley, $16, paperback, 352p., 9780593101353

Graphic Books

Stuck Rubber Baby

by Howard Cruse

Queer comix pioneer Howard Cruse died in November 2019, at the age of 75, but his monumental graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby lives on in this splendid 25th-anniversary edition. With a foreword by his partner, Ed Sedarbaum, as well as a new introduction by Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), this is a volume for the ages.

Toland Polk is a closeted white boy in the Jim Crow South. Milquetoast and directionless, he begins hanging around the local civil rights crowd as a means to impress Ginger Raines--a deeply involved member and the kind of white girl he thinks could be an answer to his prayers. They protest together, haunt the town gay bar together and awaken to the clear and present danger of white supremacists threatening the lives of the Black people around them. Toland and Ginger make quite a pair, even though her passion for the cause and the emerging fact of his homosexuality often throw them out of sync.

Stuck Rubber Baby is fiction, but it draws heavily on Cruse's experience growing up in Alabama. And to read it again in 2020, as protests against police brutality and racial discrimination arise again nationwide, is to be uncomfortably reminded of how much and how little has changed since. It is a profoundly ambitious work, in form as well as content. "Many of the pages are so finely cross-hatched that they appear to have a nap," Bechdel marvels, "as if they'd feel like velvet if you ran your hand over them." With a soft, self-deprecating touch, Stuck Rubber Baby continues to deliver hard, urgent truths. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This 25th-anniversary reissue of a classic, about a milquetoast white boy awakening to the anti-Black violence around him, more than stands the test of time.

First Second, $24.99, hardcover, 240p., 9781250249487

The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud

by Kuniko Tsurita, trans. by Ryan Holmberg

An English-language debut, The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud is a label-defying collection of Kuniko Tsurita's gekiga--literally, "dramatic pictures," referring to more serious graphic work for adult audiences. Organized chronologically from 1966 to 1980, the historical compilation includes Tsurita's early magazine submissions as a teenager, as well as pieces written five years prior to her premature death at 37 in 1985.

Tsurita explores the role of women through numerous shorts in unexpected formats: the near-wordless "Woman" chronicles the tragic life of a rejected prehistoric woman; "The Tragedy of Princess Rokunomiya" explores stifling feminine standards of behavior and beauty; "My Wife Is an Acrobat" is a literal performance of womanhood. In other emerging themes, a careless regard for humanity dominates: in "Nonsense," a murderer kills only evil-doers; in "Anti," a fatal accident morphs into a riveting film; and in "Calamity," execution befalls the innocent. Surreal solitude looms as the world seems to disappear in the titular "The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud"; invisibility just happens in "Sounds"; isolation prevails in "The Sea Snake and the Big Dipper."

In their illuminating ending essay, translator Ryan Holmberg and manga editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa place Tsurita firmly in the graphic canon: "Tsurita may well be the earliest female cartoonist anywhere in the world who succeeded in producing comics... without being hemmed in by the commercial demands or the gender-based genre conventions and stylistic strictures of mainstream publishing." Drawn & Quarterly's meticulously curated presentation ensures Tsurita's legacy will continue to gain deserved recognition internationally, decades after her untimely death. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Recognized as one of the first women pioneers in Japan's gekiga--serious manga--industry, the revered Kuniko Tsurita finally makes her English-language debut, 35 years after her premature death.

Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95, paperback, 384p., 9781770463981

Biography & Memoir

In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida

by Kent Russell

If Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion had produced a literary offspring, a young man whose older brother was Bill Bryson, his writing might sound something like Kent Russell's. That's the spirit that infuses In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida, Russell's entertaining, often deeply reflective portrait of his uneasy relationship with his native state, a place he calls "Hothouse America, a microcosm or synecdoche of the larger nation."

In late August 2016, the Miami-born journalist (I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son), along with his friends Glenn, a Canadian documentary film producer, and Noah, an Iraq War Marine veteran and fellow Floridian, embarked on a daunting journey, attempting to re-create the 1,000-mile walking campaign of former governor and senator Lawton Chiles in 1970. The goal, as Russell enthusiastically envisioned it, was to produce the "grandest, funniest, most far-ranging, depth-plumbing, tear-jerking, je-ne-sais-quoi-capturing work of art ever to emerge from the rank morasses and mirage metropolises of our beloved home!"

If they don't quite pull off that feat, the resulting account of their shambling odyssey on foot through America's "most dangerous pedestrian state" will more than suffice. Love it or loathe it, the third most populous state occupies an outsized presence in the country's life and consciousness. Anyone who wants to understand better why that is, and what it portends for the country, would do well to start with the energetic and insightful In the Land of Good Living. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: Journalist Kent Russell provides an unvarnished look at the attractive mess that is his home state.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780525521389

The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch

by Miles Harvey

Brilliantly summed up by its subtitle, The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch is a fascinating glimpse into the dramatic world of antebellum America. Out of the "Burned-Over District" of 19th-century New York State sprang the Shakers, the Mormons and some less-remembered religious leaders, including James Strang.

In the wake of Joseph Smith's murder, Strang managed to convince a significant number of Mormons that Smith had declared him his successor. While the main body of Mormons headed west to Utah, Strang, who was "by 1853... a bona fide celebrity," used his charisma to draw several hundred followers north to Beaver Island, off the coast of Michigan's upper peninsula.

There he established a kingdom, had himself crowned as King of Earth and Heaven, proceeded to take multiple wives, speak out against slavery and generally raise a ruckus that led to his murder. A strange and enigmatic character, Strang exemplified the fervor of an era in which "a growing number of Americans came to believe the world was on the verge of an apocalypse."

Harvey (The Island of Lost Maps) does an excellent job of not only detailing Strang's peripatetic life, and those of some of his more outlandish followers, but also of placing their lives in the context of the turbulent 1850s. Strang, a relatively small actor who was brought to trial as a political move, nevertheless played an interesting role in the coming conflagration of the Civil War. Readers of Erik Larson or Gary Krist are sure to devour The King of Confidence. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: This fascinating history follows a man who was partly prophet, partly con man, but who remains completely intriguing 170 years later.

Little, Brown, $29, hardcover, 416p., 9780316463591

Filthy Beasts: A Memoir

by Kirkland Hamill

Filthy Beasts by Kirkland Hamill is an astonishing memoir of the author's unconventional upbringing, as the middle child of a charismatic, emotionally abusive mother with working-class Bermuda roots and a hapless, ineffectual father born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Hamill and his two brothers began life in their father's rarefied world of New York privilege, a style of living that was not destined to last. They then spent the majority of their childhood in Bermuda, left to raise themselves with few resources while their mother, Wendy, struggled to rebuild her life after a bitter divorce.

In chapters that read like a captivating family drama, Hamill excavates his relationship with a once exuberant, attentive mother who became hollowed out by endless glasses of scotch. Hamill's tenderness toward her reveals a central conflict of his chaotic childhood: he sees his mother as a victim and doesn't hold her responsible for her abject parental neglect. He remembers who she was before, the comfort and security she once provided and the sad bravery with which she tried to reclaim her glamorous life. While Wendy slowly fades away into an alcoholic haze the brothers try to bring her back, "like kittens nuzzling on the corpse of their unresponsive mother."

The tragedy of Wendy's descent into alcoholism is matched by Hamill's deep confusion over his sexual identity. Readers will appreciate his dry wit and compassionate lens while admiring the survival instincts that led Hamill to proudly assert himself as a gay man deserving of romantic love. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

Discover: A gifted storyteller shares the humor and pathos of growing up in a dysfunctional family where the adults relate better to children once they've reached drinking age.

Avid Reader Press, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9781982122768

Life of a Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy

by Edward Ball

In 1998, Edward Ball won the National Book Award for Slaves in the Family, his unflinching history concerning slavery his father's ancestors perpetuated in South Carolina. He continues unraveling the tightly knotted legacy of white supremacy by studying his mother's ancestors in Louisiana: specifically, Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, "our klansman."

A fighter in the rebel army during the Civil War and in the white militias of Reconstruction, Constant is but a focal point in Ball's broader concern, bringing clarity to the corrosive ideologies of slavery and race science, whose fallout continues to revisit generation after generation of Americans. "I am trying to make this thing visible," he writes, "whiteness. It looks transparent and flimsy, maybe. Some would say it does not even exist. But I am trying to make it conspicuous, as visible and as plain as blackness." Spanning most of the 19th century, Life of a Klansman is a nuanced case study of one cog within a machine of terrorism and oppression.

Ball creates a dynamic space for challenging reconciliation, breaking from the narrative periodically to reflect with empathy for family members acting in ways he abhors, yet never absolving them. In documenting white violence, Ball writes, "Here is a way not to see these events: the marauders like Constant are immoral, abject, and bad people.... It is truer to say this. The marauders are our people, and they fight for us." Never does the author lose sight of his complicit inheritance of privilege at the expense of black lives.

Life of a Klansman removes the histrionic hoods and gazes purposefully into the frantic eyes of a homegrown terrorism. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: This expansive study of a 19th-century klansman adds depth and clarity to the ways white supremacist ideology became cemented into American society once slavery was abolished.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, hardcover, 416p., 9780374186326

Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment

by John Giorno

In Great Demon Kings, John Giorno (1936-2019) writes the following about being at a Ronettes and Shirelles concert with Andy Warhol at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre in 1963: "By chance, I was smack in the middle of something extraordinary." "Well, when weren't you?" readers may find themselves wondering while devouring Giorno's edifyingly dishy book.

Great Demon Kings charts Giorno's life well spent in the New York art scene, where as a poet, performer and impresario he had romantic relationships with a series of household-name artists. For a time, he was the constant companion and sort-of lover of then-ascendant Warhol ("I loved Andy, but I was not sexually attracted to him"). After Warhol lost interest in the poet, Giorno slept with Robert Rauschenberg's boyfriend, and then with Rauschenberg: "He was rich, famous, and beautiful. These were all good reasons to abandon myself to love and attachment." Again Giorno was spurned, after which he and William S. Burroughs turned what had begun as a non-tempestuous affair into something better: they would perform their work together for two decades.

For all his scene making, Giorno had a spiritual side, and his longtime fascination with Tibetan Buddhism culminates with a 1971 visit to India financed by the sale of a Warhol painting. Looking back on his life through a Buddhist lens, Giorno writes in his epilogue, "I have one more really important thing to do, and that is to die. I hope I do it right." That he did. A note at the front of Great Demon Kings says that Giorno completed the book the week before his death. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This memoir by the late poet and activist John Giorno is an invaluable time capsule of the New York art scene in the second half of the 20th century.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, hardcover, 368p., 9780374166304

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir. Trethewey's mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter's memories and what she's forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother's murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, "a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South."

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter's move to Atlanta, when Trethewey's parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother's apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness. While Trethewey does pursue forensic exploration, this memoir is more introspection than true-crime investigation. And it is gracefully and gorgeously rendered, as befits a poet of Trethewey's stature. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: A former U.S. Poet Laureate remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in compelling and feeling style.

Ecco, $27.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780062248572


Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

by Margot Mifflin

The women's movement has always had a problem with the Miss America pageant, but Looking for Miss America makes clear that second-wave feminism owes a debt to the annual competition. During the sensation-causing feminist protest at the 1968 pageant, a bedsheet emblazoned with the words "WOMEN'S LIBERATION" got the press to introduce the phrase into the national lexicon.

Margot Mifflin (Bodies of Subversion) proves herself an intrepid scholar of this institution. The Miss America pageant grew out of the beauty contest held at Atlantic City's Fall Frolic of 1920. It began offering scholarship money to winners in 1945--a signal that the competition was to be viewed as more than a skin show. In the 1950s, the overseers finally nixed the grotesque Rule Seven, which said that contestants had to be "in good health and of the white race." This wasn't high-mindedness at work: Mifflin shows that existential threats are typically the motivating force when the pageant updates its rules, as when, after literally decades of debate, it finally phased out the swimsuit portion of the competition in 2018.

But one regulation remains enshrined: the requirement that contestants not be married, divorced or widowed--in other words, they must be perceived as virgins. Writes Mifflin, "It was as American as apple pie: cranking up interest in female sexuality while punishing women who acted on it."

Looking for Miss America is, in the language of pageantry, lavish in its research, and its prose is sparkling. It is a riveting, multivalent history. About this, if nothing else, most feminists and pageant enthusiasts will agree. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This history of the Miss America pageant is probing, scintillating and tremendously entertaining--a pleaser for feminists and pageant devotees alike.

Counterpoint, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9781640092235

Social Science

Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women's Intimate Lives in the Arab World

by Leila Slimani, trans. by Sophie Lewis

Leila Slimani (The Perfect Nanny) analyzes sexual oppression in her native Morocco in Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women's Intimate Lives in the Arab World, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis. "Moroccans' motto is simple: Do what you wish, but never talk about it," she says. Yet, during a book tour for her novel Adèle, which depicts unapologetic female sexuality, Slimani is besieged by Moroccan women who defy convention and "talk about it." Here, she amplifies "stories that shook me, upset me, that angered me and sometimes disgusted me."

Nour, single, exemplifies Morocco's patriarchal view of women. Even men with whom she's sexually active believe that women should be virgins. Many women themselves describe non-virgins as ruined. Hymen reconstruction surgery is big business because "sexual deprivation... amounts to a capitalist system like any other." Behavior such as homosexuality, prostitution, adultery, sex outside of marriage and abortion are illegal (rape, while a crime, is rarely reported) and yet, obviously, "the reality is different and many people bend the rules."

Slimani largely embraces the view, as a Muslim herself, that in the Arab Muslim world "sexual deprivation as a social fact" is a "vast problem and one whose effects clearly impact the political realm." This book is part oral history and part manifesto, claiming that "sexual rights are a part of human rights; these are not minor rights, small boons that we can do without... these are fundamental needs and rights that ought to be inalienable and guaranteed for all." --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: A French diplomat and award-winning Moroccan writer uses oral histories and analysis to demand change in the Arab Muslim view of female sexuality.

Penguin Books, $17, paperback, 176p., 9780143133766

Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession

by Sarah Weinman, editor

In "The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime," Alice Bolin concedes that fans of the true-crime genre (herself among them) are arguably "consuming real people's pain for fun." Where does this leave readers of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, in which Bolin's essay appears? With a clear conscience. The anthology transcends the genre with not just its high-grade writing but also editor Sarah Weinman's (The Real Lolita) commitment to looking beyond true crime's traditional focus on bad actors and those they act on.

Some of those folks do feature in Unspeakable Acts. Among the most notorious: serial killer Ted Bundy is the subject of Sarah Marshall's "The End of Evil," and a daughter's revenge on a mom with Munchausen syndrome by proxy is outlined in Michelle Dean's "Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom to Be Murdered," which spawned the Emmy Award-winning Hulu series The Act. But neither killers nor victims get the spotlight in "What Bullets Do to Bodies," Jason Fagone's profile of longtime Philadelphia trauma surgeon Amy Goldberg. And Melissa del Bosque's "Checkpoint Nation," which reports on abuses by the U.S. Border Patrol, deconstructs not a psyche but a system that, like a serial killer, preys on the vulnerable.

Because of the varying approaches to true crime in Unspeakable Acts, the essays will elicit a range of emotions: some of the 13 pieces are infuriating, many are flabbergasting and most are heartbreaking. All are devastating. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This spine-tingling true-crime anthology transcends the genre by looking beyond killers and victims and at systemic and institutionalized depravity.

Ecco, $18.99, paperback, 416p., 9780062839886

Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

by Victoria Law, Maya Schenwar

"The book you hold in your hands requires your full attention," writes Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) in the foreword to Prison by Any Other Name by journalists Victoria Law and Maya Schenwar. Truer words have never been spoken. Law and Schenwar make an impassioned case for how popular prison reforms are actually expanding, not shrinking, the state of mass incarceration in the United States--research that is as important as it is timely.

The United States remains "the most incarcerated nation," with roughly 2.3 million people currently held behind bars. Costing a staggering $182 billion per year, it comes as no surprise that Law and Schenwar are able to point to the many instances of bipartisan support for prison reform. But these reforms--including electronic monitoring, house arrest and extended probation--have expanded the concept of incarceration beyond the bounds of the physical prison: "From unremitting 'treatment' requirements to the stifling protocols of the sex offender registry, many of the structures outside of prison [bear] uncanny resemblances to the prison itself: control, punishment, and a constant reminder that your body is not your own--that once the system has you in its clutches, you are the state's to manipulate."

This forms the crux of Law and Schenwar's argument, as they expound on the myriad ways that prison reforms are stretching the boundaries of incarceration in the United States. Drawing on statistics, detailed research and personal anecdotes from people whose lives have been affected by incarceration, Prison by Any Other Name is both eye-opening and challenging. Encouraging readers to center the human lives caught in the broken, racist system in place today, this is crucial reading for anyone with a mind for justice. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer

Discover: Timely and important research reveals the ways that prison reforms are serving to increase incarceration in the U.S., leading the authors to make a plea for abolition instead.

The New Press, $26.99, hardcover, 240p., 9781620973103


White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity

by Robert P. Jones

What happens when religion is coopted and corrupted? How is its hierarchical status quo maintained? Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), explains what's at stake with a prophetic voice backed by complex history, data analysis and personal experience (as a product of the South).

Slavery has been called America's original sin, and Jones (The End of White Christian America) lays out the whys and whens of this legacy. He begins with the current moment "between an old and new order" and ends with a call to reckoning. In between, he explores historical context; for instance, many of the myriad monuments now in contention were the result of a campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 20th century to reframe the "Lost Cause" as a God-ordained political and cultural victory.

With religion too often interpreted to prove and sustain white supremacy, the United States has justified colonialism, slavery and systemic racism. And while Southern Baptists are Jones's primary focus, Catholics and mainline Protestants alike have been complicit in creating and maintaining a racist theology, both overtly and subtly, he says. "Reckoning with white supremacy, for us, is now an unavoidable moral choice." The easy way for whites is confession (without repentance) as a transaction for Black forgiveness, thus continuing "normalcy." But white believers (as well as nonbelievers) must get through defense mechanisms and blindness. "Allowing the waves of the past to crash on the shores of the present until the rhythm is familiar enough to ring in the ears... is a critical step and challenge for white Christians who are preoccupied with personal sin and salvation but unburdened by social justice." --Marilyn Dahl

Discover: A religion researcher makes a prophetic call to white Christians for deep reflection, repentance, reconciliation and justice.

Simon & Schuster, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9781982122867

Psychology & Self-Help

How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do--And What It Says About You

by Katherine D. Kinzler

"Language can divide us, but it can also bring us together," writes Katherine D. Kinzler, a University of Chicago professor who endeavors to deconstruct how language and accent have a much deeper effect on daily life than one might realize. How You Say It, Kinzler's first book, examines why it is not only what people say that matters, but how they say it, and how and why language use is an even more intrinsic part of identity than other more visible signifiers.

Kinzler looks at how babies learn language, and through it, learn to recognize "in" and "out" groups. From there, language can shape discrimination and biases in children that they can then enact or be affected by as adults later on. Kinzler uses research--her own and that of others--and case studies to show how a part of language and communication taken most for granted can actually be filled with prejudices and strongly influence the construction of social identity in various settings. She also deconstructs some popular advice about language learning, and demonstrates how exposure to multiple languages can be valuable, and not just from a young age, when it is more likely that someone will gain mastery of a second language or multiple languages.

"By changing our relationship to language... we can harness the power of speech for the good. The time for this revolution is now," she writes, further connecting the data uncovered in various experiments on language and social interaction to a poignant point about how such research has real implications for improving societies. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer

Discover: A compelling look at linguistic identity and the biases people might not even realize they have about language, who says what and how they say it.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, hardcover, 256p., 9780544986558

Body, Mind & Spirit

The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place

by David Sheff

For 30 years, Jarvis Jay Masters has been a resident of San Quentin State Prison's death row, some two decades of them in solitary confinement. As one of 700 inmates currently in that grim status, his story would not be remarkable, but for the fact that during his long imprisonment he's become an esteemed Buddhist teacher, and a confidant of the well-known writer and teacher Pema Chödrön.

In The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place, journalist David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) renders Masters's story in highly sympathetic fashion, tracing his transformation and describing the efforts of Chödrön and a growing cadre of supporters to overturn what they believe is his unjust death sentence.

Though he seems to share a belief in Masters's innocence, Sheff is less concerned with the machinations of his subject's multiple (and so far unsuccessful) legal appeals than he is with the way Buddhist practices have helped him to cope with his dire circumstances. Through his deep engagement with these teachings, he explains, Masters has come to understand that "when his mind was free, he was free," and that many who live their lives outside the walls of a prison are themselves in chains.

For all its hardship and heartbreak, The Buddhist on Death Row is an inspiring story of one man's ability to surmount suffering by applying the power of his mind. Anyone who's been tempted to explore meditation and mindfulness but who hasn't taken the first step should find encouragement in Jarvis Masters's far more difficult journey. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this moving true story, a death row inmate has transformed his life through insights gained from Buddhist teachings and practices.

Simon & Schuster, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9781982128456


The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers

by Emily Levesque

The popular image of an astronomer is a lone figure peering into a telescope, discovering brand-new stars or trying to make contact with aliens. Emily Levesque, astronomer and "weird star enthusiast," knows the reality is a little different. In her first nonfiction book, The Last Stargazers, Levesque charts a course through the rapidly evolving field of astronomy. With humor and heart, she explains the basics of what astronomers do while relating dozens of entertaining anecdotes about her chosen field. She also makes a strong case for why humans should continue to study the skies.

A dedicated backyard stargazer as a child, Levesque spent her undergraduate years at MIT, before earning her Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii. Like many astronomers, she has spent time observing the night skies at some of the world's most powerful telescopes, tucked away in remote locations such as the mountains of Chile, rural New Mexico and Hawaii's Big Island. These observatories function as small ecosystems (human and scientific), and Levesque gives readers an insider's tour of their protocols and quirks.

Recent advances in telescope technology have allowed astronomers to observe the skies from the comfort of home and collect mind-boggling amounts of data, but the field still relies on human skills that can't be replicated by a machine. Perhaps more importantly, the study of the skies is predicated on wonder--and even the best telescopes can only note and demarcate data.

Warm, engaging and packed with highly accessible science, The Last Stargazers is thoroughly entertaining and an impetus for readers to take up a little stargazing of their own. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Astronomer Emily Levesque takes readers on an engaging tour of her field (and the skies) in a warm, informative work of popular science.

Sourcebooks, $25.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781492681076

Nature & Environment

John Cage: A Mycological Foray: Variations on Mushrooms

by John Cage, Kingston Trinder

Regarded as one of the 20th century's most radical and influential composers, John Cage's (1912-1992) passion for music was matched by his lifelong captivation with the humble mushroom. In the gorgeous two-volume John Cage: A Mycological Foray: Variations on Mushrooms, Cage's fascination with fungi comes into focus.

Cage's introduction to mushrooms was out of necessity, as he foraged for sustenance during the Great Depression. By the 1950s, Cage was the poster child for the postwar avant-garde, teaching music composition at Manhattan's New School and whisking students to upstate New York for mycological forays on weekends. By the end of the decade he was supplying mushrooms to restaurants and won five million lire on an Italian game show after identifying all 24 names of the white-spored Agaricus.

The first volume of A Mycological Foray presents dozens of photographs and musings about mushrooms from Cage's diaries; Indeterminacy, a collection of stories, each of which is meant to be performed in 60 seconds; and Mushrooms et Variationes, consisting of 60 mesostics (a poem with horizontal text that also forms text vertically) arranged in a renga (a form of Japanese poetry where stanzas are linked but written by different authors). The second volume, a reprint of 1972's The Mushroom Book, contains 20 loose lithographs of illustrations by Lois Long, overlaid with translucent paper that contains descriptions by mycologist Alexander H. Smith along with the text of Mushrooms et Variationes, so "word and image cluster and disperse across the page, mimicking the reproductive structure of spores." The result is an unorthodox and whimsical monograph that is essential to understanding the foundations of John Cage's oeuvre. --Frank Brasile, librarian

Discover: Enchanting and idiosyncratic, A Mycological Foray is a tribute to the enigmatic composer John Cage and the magical nature of fungi.

Atelier Editions, $55, paperback, 224p., 9781733622004

Reference & Writing

You Talkin' to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English

by E.J. White

E.J. White, in this diverting history of New York City's distinctive form of English, is perhaps the first writer to begin and end an academic press volume with the F-word. This deviation from the scholarly norm, combined with its cheeky title, sets the tone for You Talkin' to Me?, a book that explains the evolution of New York's English and its influence on the rest of the country.

The boisterous, jovial narrative tells how the developing city's newspapers and pulp novels introduced a new vocabulary to Americans, from "con man" to "street-walker," "kick the bucket" and "go on a bender." Tin Pan Alley's lyricists popularized "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," and, later, hip-hop artists brought the language of rap to the suburbs and Hamilton to theaters across the U.S.

White, who teaches the history of the English language at Stony Brook University, includes little-known facts, such as that Star Wars' C-3PO droid was first written to have a New York accent and that West Side Story was initially going to be East Side Story, about Jewish and Irish Catholic New Yorkers.

"New York City is a great factory of language," White says, and makes that clear in a book that is sure to appeal to anyone who loves New York. --Janet Brown, author and former bookseller

Discover: You Talkin' to Me?, combining the history of a city and the language it has developed, is a rare achievement: a scholarly book that's fun to read.

Oxford University Press, $19.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780190657215


Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble

by Judy Gold

Censoring comedians during a time of hyper-political correctness is a serious topic, but two-time Emmy Award-winning standup comedian Judy Gold (25 Questions for a Jewish Mother) tackles the subject with insight, reason and laughs on every page. Gold offers an illuminating history of how censorship of comedians has been around for decades, and has only increased in recent years. Some censorship landmarks discussed include Lenny Bruce's on-stage arrests; Howard Stern's battles with the FCC; CBS's cancellation of the top-rated Smothers Brothers variety TV show; and Kathy Griffin's death threats, FBI investigation and being placed on a no-fly list because she held a Trump mask doused with ketchup. Gold quotes Jon Stewart: "I don't understand why in this country we try to hold comedians to a higher standard we do not hold leaders to."

"The best comedy lives on the edge of what's acceptable," Gold writes. "Jokes are nourished by tension; laughter is a release." Her compelling, well-researched and hilarious book on the freedom of speech from a comedian's perspective offers her an opportunity to spotlight numerous comedians' funniest and most biting material.

Gold's four decades as a standup comedian gives readers an insider's perspective on the industry, the clubs, the audience and other comics. She calls Joan Rivers "the funniest and most fearless of women," while Bill Cosby is "a hypocritical and arrogant rapist prick." Her chapter on beloved-then-reviled comedians like Cosby, Louis C.K. and Roseanne is thoughtful and original. Yes, I Can Say That is a hilarious showcase for edgy comedians and a thoughtful look at standup comedy and the First Amendment. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Judy Gold's decades as a standup comic give her authority and insight to tackle the subject of censorship on stage and spotlights hilarious material by edgy comics at their best.

Dey Street Books, $22.99, hardcover, 224p., 9780062953759

Performing Arts

Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina

by Chris Frantz

Chris Frantz has written an evocative, resonant and provocative coming-of-age memoir about his life as drummer/songwriter and founding member of both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Fans of Patti Smith's Just Friends will find much to admire in Frantz's Remain in Love, especially the sensory way he describes life as a struggling musician in the early 1970s on New York City's Lower East Side. He remembers stepping over corpses on the sidewalks; avoiding five-dollar hookers and their pimp armed with a baseball bat; and never making eye contact with anyone on the streets. But Frantz also recalls neighbors including Debbie Harry, Lauren Hutton, William S. Burroughs and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Frantz shared an apartment (with toilets in the hall) with future wife Tina Weymouth, as well as David Byrne. In 1975, their musical group Talking Heads made its debut opening for the Ramones at CBGB bar. Jerry Harrison joined the group in 1977. Frantz offers fascinating stories of world travels, working with idols and how the group's style repeatedly changed. There are also tales of conflict within the band, which Frantz tells with remarkable clarity, fairness and insight. In 1991, "David sneaked out of Talking Heads," with Byrne announcing the end of the band without consulting the other members. A decade later, there was finally a happy ending when the band reunited to play at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Fans of the new wave music scene will appreciate Frantz's generously detailed and compelling memoir of those volatile and exciting times. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Talking Heads founding member Chris Frantz's memoir is a richly detailed and provocative tale of the pioneering new wave band.

St. Martin's Press, $29.99, hardcover, 400p., 9781250209221

Art & Photography

Edvard Munch: An Inner Life

by Øystein Ustvedt, trans. by Alison McCullough

"All art like music must be created with one's lifeblood," Edvard Munch (1863-1944) declared in a note in the early 1890s. Øystein Ustvedt, curator at the National Museum in Oslo, offers a vital, approachable introduction to the celebrated expressionist--best known for The Scream, that howl of despair beneath a sky of undulating orange--that demonstrates how the painter lived that precept.

Munch strived over his half-century career to create emotional, subjective art based on existential experiences, to capture on his canvases what the novelist Knut Hamsun, a contemporary of Munch, deemed "the unconscious life of the mind." Artists in Munch's hometown Kristiania (now Oslo) recognized his genius early, even as critics and authorities in the late 19th century at first found his work too raw, too frank and often not convincingly finished. Edvard Munch: An Inner Life, Ustvedt's affordable study, presents 130 images of Munch's paintings, illustrations, prints and photographs whose chronological arrangement confirms that, from the start, the artist imbued his work with that lifeblood. The haunting The Sick Child (1885-86) confounded Kristiania with its rough brushstrokes, which draw attention to the impassioned creation of the painting itself--and stir subjective feeling that the works of the realists could not. Munch's depictions of bohemian life would likewise arouse controversy, including denunciations right into the 20th century.

Ustvedt's examination of Munch's career touches on all the biographical turning points--Munch was broke for much of his life--but is keyed above all else to the work. In Alison McCullough's translation, techniques, breakthroughs, symbols, controversies and the artist's lifeblood all get illuminated in prose of rare clarity. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This finely illustrated introduction to Edvard Munch reveals the man who laid bare humanity's existential terror.

Thames & Hudson, $19.95, paperback, 224p., 9780500295762

Children's & Young Adult

The Black Kids

by Christina Hammonds Reed

Affluence is not an impermeable barrier from the destructive forces of racism--a stark truth high school senior Ashley Bennett is forced to face in Christina Hammonds Reed's YA debut, The Black Kids. Filled with multi-dimensional characters who stretch way beyond stereotypes, the book unfolds in the turbulent spring of 1992, when the Los Angeles area was engulfed in a wave of riots after the four police officers on trial for severely beating unarmed Rodney King were acquitted of all charges.

Intelligent, popular and the only Black girl in her clique, Ashley struggles to accept how race impacts her friendships, familial relationships and self-perception. But once L.A. County starts burning, she observes that, like a spark can trigger a raging wildfire, unchecked biases are rolling tides that eventually surge into waves of hatred. Ashley tries to stay afloat as she recognizes and feels this hatred aimed at herself and her loved ones.

In response, Ashley reflects: "Because even though you finally enact a Civil Rights Act not even thirty years ago, it doesn't erase centuries of unequal access, unequal schooling, unequal living conditions, unequal policing." Reed's stark account of the limitations Black communities have historically faced in the United States, regardless of socioeconomic status, is an answer to the calls for equity and racial justice that for too long have been ignored. --Rachel Werner, Hugo House and The Loft Literary Center faculty

Discover: A YA drama about a Black teen coming to terms with her racial identity during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Simon & Schuster, $18.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 14-up, 9781534462724

Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League

by Fred Bowen, illus. by James E. Ransome

Seasoned sportswriter Fred Bowen (Speed Demon) celebrates the National Football League's (NFL) centennial anniversary with a rousing look at the organization from its rag-tag start in Canton, Ohio, to its current status as "the most popular sports league in the United States." Through the ups and downs, wins and losses, Bowen deftly chronicles the evolution of an institution that changed the face of U.S. sports.

Bowen breaks the book down into quarters, to mirror a football game. The first quarter kicks off with the NFL's rocky beginnings: no statistics kept, no championship game and no standout star until Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost, joined the Chicago Bears. "People came to see Red Grange but ended up falling in love with this new game--professional football." The following quarters include the birth of the Super Bowl and sudden-death overtime, the first African American MVP and the arrival of the draft. Bowen couples each topic with wonderful nuggets of trivia, like the fact that "a game official had his whistle freeze to his lips" in 1967 during the Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys NFL championship game in Wisconsin, dubbed "The Ice Bowl."

Accenting Bowen's spirited prose are rich, life-like watercolor illustrations by Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner and three-time honoree James E. Ransome (The Creation; The Bell Rang; Before She Was Harriet). He expertly captures action and emotion in his brushstrokes, adding to Bowen's report the way a sports photographer would a newspaper story. This symbiotic pairing pays an enthusiastic, respectful homage to U.S. football's professional league. Sports enthusiasts of any age are sure to find it a winner. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: A veteran sportswriter scores a touchdown with his history of the National Football League on its 100th anniversary.

Margaret K. McElderry Books, $19.99, hardcover, 112p., ages 8-12, 9781481481120

The Extraordinaries

by TJ Klune

TJ Klune (The House in the Cerulean Sea) shines in his YA debut, The Extraordinaries, a creative exploration of identity among queer kids and superheroes.

Gay 16-year-old Nick Bell is a proud author of online queer fiction based on the Extraordinaries, two actual superheroes in his city. While he feels a strong pull toward the superhero world, he spends a significant amount of his time grappling with living with ADHD: "Some people were born to be an Extraordinary. Nick was born to have a million thoughts in the space of a minute that often led to splitting headaches." Still, though, Nick has a quest: he is going to become (and date) a superhero. As the story unfolds, hints about the Extraordinaries' mysterious identities are cleverly revealed but, even as the superhero characters develop and become more nuanced, Nick obliviously sticks to his plan, missing all the clues around him.

Klune beautifully balances weightier topics (whether to medicate teens, intimate relationships, the death of a loved one), nail-biting superhero battle scenes and hilarious dialogue that emphasizes Nick's endearing--sometimes awkward--rapidly moving thoughts. As Nick explains to best friend Seth, "One moment, I was reading about diamond mines in Latin America, and the next, I'm following step-by-step instructions on making an idea board on Cosmo." Klune's deliberate use of traditional comic book themes, such as masking one's identity, mirror common struggles faced by neurodiverse and LGBTQIAP+ youth; this thoughtful approach urges readers to embrace their true selves. --Kieran Slattery, freelance reviewer, teacher, co-creator of Gender Inclusive Classrooms

Discover: A gay teen with ADHD seeks to find his place among real-life superheroes.

Tor Teen, $18.99, hardcover, 400p., ages 13-up, 9781250203656


by Romina Garber

Manuela "Manu" Azul is a 16-year-old caught between two realms in Romina Garber's stunning start to the Wolves of No World series.

Manu knows that there is something different about her: for one, she has "star-shaped silver pupils" with "yellow sun" irises. She also experiences period pain that is so intense her mother, formerly a nurse in their native Argentina, gives her pills that knock her out for three days. Because of these abnormalities, Manu feels dependent upon her mother and lives sheltered under Ma's rules. Manu is further confined by the fact that she and Ma are illegal immigrants hiding in Miami from both ICE and Manu's father's crime family. In the same day, the woman who has hidden Manu and her mother for years is attacked and Manu's mother is taken away by ICE. Within hours, Manu is left with nothing but hints of the secrets her mother kept from her. Determined to figure out the truth behind her lineage, Manu discovers a tangle of Argentine folktales and magic, unexpected new werewolf and bruja friends and that she is not only illegal in the U.S.--she also doesn't quite belong to this world.

Garber, who also writes under Romina Russell (Zodiac), uses exquisite prose to build an elaborate, gorgeous world that is likely to appeal to fans of Anna-Marie McLemore and Elana K. Arnold. Manu's exploration of her identity--both in Miami and elsewhere--reflects how Latinx communities have historically been and continue to be affected by U.S. politics. From the book's harrowing opening, Manu is set on a fantastical journey of self-discovery that subverts and reinterprets familiar fairytale tropes. --Clarissa Hadge, freelance reviewer

Discover: Sixteen-year-old Manu Azul, determined to discover the secrets of her paternal lineage, finds unexpected answers in Argentine folklore and magical politics.

Wednesday Books, $18.99, hardcover, 400p., ages 12-up, 9781250239129

A Map to the Sun

by Sloane Leong

Vibrant art and rich storytelling combine in A Map to the Sun, Sloane Leong's deeply emotional graphic novel about five girls on a basketball team shouldering different burdens and learning to carry them together.

The summer before ninth grade, Ren and Luna meet. They spend the season together and then Luna moves away. She never calls. Then, in 10th grade, Luna transfers back, optimistic about reuniting with Ren. Except Ren's world didn't pause: her parents are separated, her dad struggles financially and her friends face repeating sophomore year. Their best chance at extra credit is joining the new girls' basketball team.

Invested in a future playing basketball, Ren wants her ragtag team to succeed. Yet they don't always check their emotions at the sidelines. Jetta self-harms as a release from her mom's alcoholic husband; So-Young escapes her sister's shadow by chatting with strangers online; Nell skips class to work at her family's convenience store to the tune of her brothers' fat shaming. Increasing the pressure to perform is the boys' coach, who vilifies the girls as "a drain on the school and especially on the boys."

Leong's (Prism Stalker) slice-of-life approach allows for a more truthful representation of adolescence; not every conflict receives a clear resolution, alluding to the girls' continued evolution. Evocative art accentuates the story's multiple tones, with every backdrop colored like sunsets and sunrises, thereby elevating the atmosphere of magical summers come and gone. Leong's clever use of panels makes scenes dynamic: suspended action in one panel carries the eye through the offstage transition to the next. A sweeping portrait of camaraderie, A Map to the Sun reminds readers that simple kindness and understanding can go a long way in helping someone heal. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: This coming-of-age graphic novel portrays the varying friendships among five girls on an underdog basketball team.

First Second/Macmillan, $17.99, paperback, 368p., ages 12-up, 9781250146687

This Is My America

by Kim Johnson

This debut YA novel is an incisive condemnation of the racist criminal justice system, mass incarceration and capital punishment.

Seven years ago, Black teen Tracy Beaumont's father was unjustly convicted of murder and is now on death row. Recently, Innocence X (an organization modeled after Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative) finally agreed to take on her father's case. But when her scholar athlete brother, Jamal, is accused of murdering the white girl he was secretly dating, he goes on the run and the Beaumont family once again becomes the focus of their Texas town's ire. As Tracy and Innocence X get closer to proving her father's innocence, Tracy also begins to work on clearing her brother's name. The more she learns, the more she finds Jamal and their father's fates are very much intertwined.

Kim Johnson has been a social justice advocate since her teen years, and her experience informs every line of This Is My America. By turns hopeful and heartbreaking, the novel will likely impassion those new to the fight for social justice and empower those already immersed in it. Readers will be outraged by the inhumane and heinous treatment that the Beaumont family endures, especially as things come to a head in a shocking climax in which a burning cross is erected in front of their home. The author frankly captures the Beaumonts' pain and resilience, echoed in the many families who continue to endure similar brutal injustices. As each chapter unfolds, every reveal impels readers forward, until the community's long-held secrets come to glaring light. --Shelley Diaz, supervising librarian, BookOps: New York Public Library & Brooklyn Public Library

Discover: Kim Johnson's YA debut is a necessary add to all shelves, especially those focused on anti-racism and #BlackLivesMatter.

Random House Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 416p., ages 12-up, 9780593118764

Condor Comeback

by Sy Montgomery, Tianne Strombeck, photographer

Sibert Medalist and National Book Award finalist Sy Montgomery is a regular contributor to the Scientists in the Field series, writing about reptiles, mammals, fish and--like this majestic delve into the California condor--birds. Condor Comeback takes young readers into the world of an oft-misunderstood vulture and offers them plenty of reasons to care about its well-being and critically endangered status.  

Working alongside specialists from the Santa Barbara Zoo, Montgomery observes condors both in the wild and in captivity, learning the meticulous details of the efforts to repopulate and conserve the largest bird species in North America. While the California condor was officially extinct in the wild in the late 1980s, it has since grown to a world population exceeding 450 birds, despite continuing threats. Montgomery shares her experiences through alluring prose that makes a creature that "stories and films often portray... as icky" morph into a fascinating bird worthy of protection that people can easily envision as "nature's original conscientious objector--a huge and powerful bird who 'could be a killer, but chooses instead to live in peace with his fellow creatures.' "

Montgomery's personal stories combined with interludes offering supplemental information leave readers with a wealth of knowledge and trivia. These extras are not only entertaining but will also likely impress the whole science class: for example, "Condors can shoot out their stinky, acidic throw-up like mace or pepper spray." The full-color photographs from Tianne Strombeck are striking--expressive and full of action--bringing the condor even closer to readers. From beginning to end, Condor Comeback encourages the audience to empathize with its subject and join in the fight to save this marvelous species. --Jen Forbus, freelancer

Discover: Sibert Medalist Sy Montgomery embeds herself in the remarkable world of California condor conservation as part of the Scientists in the Field series.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99, hardcover, 96p., ages 10-12, 9780544816534

War Stories

by Gordon Korman

In this riveting middle-grade novel, the story of 17-year-old Private Firestone's fight in World War II is told alongside his present-day gradual acceptance of a decision made on the battlefield, as he retraces his steps with his war-obsessed great-grandson.

Twelve-year-old Trevor Firestone is fanatical about all things war and idolizes his great-grandfather, Jacob Firestone (whom he calls G.G.), a World War II veteran. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of American soldiers liberating a French village from the Nazis, the village is honoring G.G., the sole living survivor. Not all people agree, though, that G.G. was a hero that day. In fact, one group called La Vérité floods the celebration's Facebook group with threats that G.G. isn't welcome, and Trevor swears someone is following them on their journey through France. As the day of the event nears, Trevor learns more about the truth of what happened that day and starts questioning whether this great war was as "glamorous" as he's been led to believe.

In War Stories, Gordon Korman (Restart; The Hypnotists #1; Ungifted) flawlessly switches between dual timelines to present two sides of war. The glorified event that was "vivid, exciting, even funny sometimes" is laid out in the present-day timeline that follows Trevor, his dad and G.G. as they retrace G.G.'s steps in 1944; the narrative of the past shows 17-year-old Private Firestone's real-time experience of those events. Korman's detailed account helps explain that, rather than being a "gigantic chess match," as it's often portrayed in video games and movies, war was more like a "wheel of fortune, where the difference between life and death was pure luck." The two stories parallel each other in tone, character growth and suspense, while blending together to form a cohesive narrative. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

Discover: A rewarding middle-grade novel that reflects on the fortunes of war with honesty.

Scholastic, $17.99, hardcover, 240p., ages 8-12, 9781338290202

Sun and Moon Have a Tea Party

by Yumi Heo, illus. by Naoko Stoop

In the charming Sun and Moon Have a Tea Party by Yumi Heo, illustrated by Naoko Stoop, the two celestial orbs share afternoon tea and argue about the activities they see in the world below.

Sun and Moon each have a very different picture of the terrestrial world. Sun sees children waking up, going to school and walking through the town. Moon views children going to sleep and streets "dark and... lonely as a moonless sky." They continue to disagree, providing evidence of their observations: Sun sees the birds flying through the air; Moon views them settling down to sleep in the trees. They cannot resolve their differences until Cloud comes along. Cloud, familiar with the conditions of both day and night, urges Moon to stay up and enjoy the daytime and then persuades Sun to experience the nighttime. 

This gentle tale can serve as a bedtime story or a picture book introductory STEM lesson for young students. Yumi Heo, a prolific author and illustrator who won a Christopher Award and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor, died in 2016 with her story unpublished. Stoop, a New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books winner for Red Knit Cap Girl, was asked to create the illustrations for this posthumous publication. Her illustrations, created in mixed media on plywood and finished digitally, are naively charming and delightfully detailed, depicting diverse households, busy streets and childlike personifications of Sun, Moon and Cloud. Stoop's art in collaboration with Heo's text, which alternates between describing the day world and the night world, allow young readers to realize quickly that both Sun and Moon are correct, which also supports their own daily experiences. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer

Discover: Sun and Moon dispute the nature of the world, but Cloud helps them reconcile in this wonderfully illustrated story about day and night.

Schwartz & Wade, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-7, 9780385390330


by John Sobol, illus. by Cindy Derby

Brimming with love, Born is a tender, impressionistic peek at a baby's final days "floating cozily in her mother's womb" that ends with her much anticipated arrival into the world.

Before birth, the "thump-thump of her mother's heartbeat keeps her company, always." Pushing with her foot, she can feel "the edge of her world." And, curled up in this space, she hears "the sweetest sound she knows. A sound filled with love." Sometimes this baby sleeps, sometimes she's restless, but mostly she's calm and safe inside her "beautiful world." Until something different happens. "Strong currents lift her up and away" and "she isn't floating anymore." Suddenly, she can breathe, cry and see "fuzzy shapes and shifting shadows." That sweet sound, the one "she loves most of all?" She hears it in her mother's welcoming voice: "Hello, sweetheart." There is eye contact and the new baby "knows she is where she needs to be."

Suffused with warmth and joy, John Sobol's poetic homage to the late stages of pregnancy and childbirth focuses on the feelings and sensations that accompany this profound event. His eloquent words are paired with Cindy Derby's watercolor and digital collage paintings, which feature a beautifully rendered infant accompanied by traces of whimsy, such as in utero flamingos and tiny boats. These fantastical elements extend the scope of the book and turn it into a celebration of possibility. Born, which highlights that all-important first connection between mother and child, will likely be shared with fascinated young readers time and time again. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI

Discover: This impressionistic homage to childbirth takes readers through a baby's final days in the womb and follows her emergence into the world as a much-loved newborn.

Groundwood Books, $18.95, hardcover, 24p., ages 3-7, 9781773061696

Ellie's Voice: or Trööömmmpffff

by Piret Raud, trans. by Adam Cullen

Ellie's Voice: or Trööömmmpffff abounds with music, and not just in terms of its subject matter. If illustrations could make noise, then Piret Raud's art would sing.

Ellie, a bird who lives by the sea, laments that she alone doesn't have a voice--"Even the rain sings when it falls." When the waves wash a horn ashore (it resembles an outsize shofar--at least at first), Ellie is elated. The noise that she makes with the horn, while non-euphonious (Trööömmmpffff!), summons appreciative animals from near and far.

Their cheers are interrupted by Albert the fish, who reports that the horn is missed by its rightful owner: "Duke Junior just isn't himself anymore without it!" Ellie is mortified: "Imagine that--Trööömmmpffff! wasn't her voice at all, but belonged to someone else!" After a long search, Ellie finds Duke Junior and gives him back his horn, which he proceeds to play marvelously: "The noise that Duke Junior made with the horn wasn't Trööömmmpffff, but was music" that "contained all the things Ellie thought and felt."

Ellie's Voice will likely give readers, too, the feels and something to think about. Estonian author/illustrator Raud's parable of self-acceptance, which features intricate black-and-white images of egg-shaped and otherwise oblong animals built with careful lines and pointillistic dots, harbors some applause-worthy sight gags. For one: the corpulent, big-eared and noseless Duke Junior isn't initially an identifiable creature; that he's an elephant becomes apparent only when he lifts the trunk-like horn to his face. No wonder he wasn't "himself" without it! --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: The black-and-white line-and-dot art in this animal-centric parable about a lost horn is music to the eyes.

Yonder, $18, hardcover, 40p., ages 3-6, 9781632061911

City of Secrets

by Victoria Ying

Secrets will out in thrilling ways as a wary orphan and an adventure-prone heiress face deadly peril in this action-packed first authored graphic novel from Victoria Ying (Diana: Princess of the Amazons). 

Built in layers like a wedding cake, the Grand Capital City of Oskars needs a way to keep communication flowing through its levels. Madame Alexander oversees a staff of young women who connect calls at the Switchboard Operating Facility, a building with six stories of lever-and-gear-operated moving platforms and staircases. When Hannah, the spitfire daughter of the Switchboard's wealthy owner, stumbles across Ever Barnes, an orphan boy hiding in the facility, her efforts to befriend him fail miserably. After the brutal murder of his father and his own narrow escape, Ever is alone in the world but committed to protecting his family's secret: a hidden vault in the Switchboard that supposedly contains a way to protect Oskars. He trusts no one, but when Hannah saves his life from another murder attempt, Ever thaws. Soon they become allies in an uncertain world where loved ones and Switchboard operators alike hide deadly secrets, and only their friendship and ingenuity can stop the city's enemies.

Action comes first in this dazzling maze of spies, secret societies, deadly assassins and steampunk set pieces, culminating in an unpredictable climax with an anime-inspired twist. Ying winds the suspense tightly then leaves readers to wonder who is fair or foul. Crimson and gold accents over sepia-washed backgrounds evoke a feel of Victorian luxury, and the youth and energy of her lead characters resonate in her fluid portrayal of motion. Although Ying resolves the immediate crisis, nefarious villains still lurk in and outside Oskars, and hints of further secrets leave her room to pull the lever on a sequel. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library

Discover: An orphan boy protects the secrets of a clockwork building in this action-packed, steampunk-infused graphic novel.

Viking Books for Young Readers, $14.99, paperback, 256p., ages 8-12, 9780593114490

Monster and Boy

by Hannah Barnaby, illus. by Anoosha Syed

Silliness abounds when a boy meets the monster under his bed in Monster and Boy, a fun-filled debut early-reader chapter book by Hannah Barnaby (There's Something about Sam; Wonder Show).

"Once there was a monster who loved a boy." Having never met the boy, though, the monster decided to introduce himself. Understandably surprised, the boy started to yell, and "the monster panicked. He did the only thing he could think of. He swallowed the boy." When finally freed from the monster's stomach, the boy has mysteriously shrunk, and the two new acquaintances must find a way to make him big again. Having never been anywhere but under the bed, the monster is timid, but with the encouragement of the boy, he bravely traverses the rest of the house. Hilarious antics ensue--introducing the monster to everyday objects, bargaining with an interfering little sister and an accidental swim in a toilet. This sweet and silly romp is made even more fun by the inclusion of a playfully eccentric narrator, whose entertaining asides provide additional monster-related context. And never fear, both monster and boy have a happy ending for, as the helpful narrator says, "if the ending isn't right, it's probably not the end."

Author Hannah Barnaby's whimsical story of an unusual friendship is enhanced by Anoosha Syed's dynamic line drawings in three colors. Syed (Bilaal Cooks Daal; I Am Perfectly Designed) uses loose, broken lines to create a monster (cuddly and yeti-like with antlers) and boy full of personality and life. Adorable and expressive illustrations, goofball humor and a story full of friendship and hijinks make this a fun, gentle adventure. --Jennifer Oleinik, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A series of silly events follows the first meeting of a boy and the monster who lives under his bed in this sweet early-reader chapter book.

Holt, $13.99, hardcover, 144p., ages 6-9, 9781250217837

Brother's Keeper

by Julie Lee

For debut author Julie Lee, the Korean War is deeply personal: her mother was 15 and living in North Korea when the war commenced on June 25, 1950. Drawing on her mother's memories of her north-to-south escape and relocation, Lee's Brother's Keeper is a compelling #OwnVoices middle-grade novel that is both edifying and inspiring.

Even before the war, under North Korea's Kim Il-sung, freedoms have all but disappeared. Whole families are vanishing--either taken by the regime or escaping to the south. By late November, 12-year-old Sora's father decides they must leave their village and join her uncle in Busan, at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. A few days into their journey, an aerial bombing separates Sora and her eight-year-old brother, Youngsoo, from their parents and baby brother. For the rest of the odyssey--crossing frozen rivers, avoiding bullets, escaping kidnappings, fighting hunger and illness--Sora becomes her brother's keeper, determined to deliver them both to safety.

"The stories of refugee survivors remain largely untold--narratives full of courage, love, and hope," Lee writes in her ending author's note. Beyond the harrowing passage, the resonating power of Lee's narrative lies in the familial relationships she presents raw and unfiltered. Forced to leave school at 12 to care for her two younger brothers, Sora is understandably resentful. Aware of culturally stringent gender limitations, Sora's mother is excessively demanding of her only daughter, preparing her to survive in a society that values sons, not daughters. Overlapping historical accuracy with personal testimony, Lee presents a nuanced story of strength, tenacity and everlasting family bonds. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Inspired by her mother's memories of the Korean War, #OwnVoices author Julie Lee introduces 12-year-old Sora, who acts as her brother's keeper during their epic journey from North to South Korea.

Holiday House, $17.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 8-12, 9780823444946


Kids Buzz

May Saves the Day

by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Serena Lombardo

Dear Reader,

I love playing with words, just like May. A successful businesswoman who works alone, May saves the day again and again with her trusty bag of letters (Changing a swarm of BEES into harmless BEETS? No problem! Turning a SNAKE into a SNEAKER? Child’s play!). But when a tornado threatens her town, May realizes that teamwork may actually be the word of the day.

"A clever presentation of literacy in action." --Kirkus

"This book is a terrific way to engage early readers in exploring letter knowledge and phonics." --School Library Journal

Please email me at for the chance to win a free copy!

Thank you,
Laura Gehl

Capstone Editions

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