Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Mariner Books: Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real about the End by Alua Arthur

From My Shelf

China Turned Upside Down

When I first read Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem (Tor, $17.99), I was surprised to find that the legendarily brainy science fiction novel began with lengthy passages set during and soon after the turmoil of China's Cultural Revolution. But perhaps I shouldn't have been, as the memory of the Cultural Revolution looms large among a generation of Chinese writers whose work is being translated into English. In The Three-Body Problem, Ye Wenjie's brutal experiences during the Cultural Revolution--her father is beaten to death during a struggle session--undermine her faith in humanity, to the extent that she aids an alien civilization in attempting to invade Earth.

The roots of her disillusionment became much clearer to me after reading Yang Jisheng's incredibly comprehensive history of the Cultural Revolution, The World Turned Upside Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40), showing how Chairman Mao wielded the idealistic masses against his political enemies in a movement that degenerated into factionalism, chaos and violence.

The book serves as a useful reminder of the disillusionment and terror of that era as President Xi Jinping works to reframe Chinese history in a more positive light, sweeping the Chinese Communist Party's past misdeeds under the rug. That purposeful erasure is the inspiration for Ma Jian's novel China Dream (Counterpoint, $16.95), whose title satirizes one of Xi's signature slogans. The protagonist is a corrupt Party bureaucrat whose dissolute lifestyle cannot shield him from traumatic memories of the Cultural Revolution. His only hope is to rewrite his mind with the aid of a "China Dream Device" that will align his thoughts with Xi's vision for China.

Liu, Yang and Ma all grew up during the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, and as Chinese literature becomes increasingly accessible to English-speaking audiences, learning the history that shaped a generation of prominent writers would only help deepen readers' appreciation for their critically acclaimed work. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

Sleeping Bear Press: A Kurta to Remember by Gauri Dalvi Pandya, Illustrated by Avani Dwivedi

Book Candy

History of Typewriters

The Typewriter Revolution, a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, celebrates the history of one of our favorite machines.


"A love of mystery is woven into our biology, and Edgar Allan Poe was the first to find the formula for a very specific dopamine hit," CrimeReads noted.


"I remember what Toni Morrison's house smelled like," Sarah Ladipo Manyika wrote in Bon Appétit magazine.


Mental Floss shared "five terrifying stories by Ray Bradbury."


Local artists Jan Is De Man and Deef Feed created the illusion of a giant bookshelf on the side of a building in Utrecht, the Netherlands, the Sized reported.

Seeing Ghosts

by Kat Chow

So much of debut author Kat Chow's magnificent memoir, Seeing Ghosts, is about absence--the yawning loss of something that was once there, that should still be here. In carefully arranged pieces, anecdotes laid together like mosaic tiles, Chow unleashes the power of her own grief after the loss of her mother.

Florence, once known as Bo Moi, was a sharply funny and fascinating woman, and Chow draws her on the page with such tenderness that readers have little choice but to love her, too, despite the ensuing agony of her death. We watch her alongside her children, Steph, Caroline and Kat, as she drops emblematic memories into their lives, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for them to trace back when she eventually must leave them. One such breadcrumb is a visceral moment in which Florence jokes that, once she dies, she'd like her daughters to stuff her, so that her taxidermied body might watch over her little ones for all time. The vision haunts Chow for decades to come, and it provides the initial scaffolding for this book.

But Seeing Ghosts explores absence far beyond the loss of Florence to a horrible cancer. Chow excavates her own history with ruthless honesty and deep respect. Absence appears again and again, in the form of her family's continuous financial debt; the silence between Chow and her father; the answers she still feels she owes her mother; the ancestral connections in Cuba and China that have grown faded and confused with time; the vast legacy of Asian American men and women lost to a corrupt system. Chow writes about her brother, who died as an infant. She writes about Yung Wing, one of the first Chinese Americans to graduate from Yale. She writes about her father's arrest and the subsequent bail payments. She writes about Neva Dorsa, a woman who built a window into her husband's coffin so she could look in and see his corpse. The brilliance of Seeing Ghosts is that these fragments all tie together naturally--readers never pause to ask why Chow is bringing them under one roof, for they've learned to trust she'll reveal the connections in time.

It would be easy to characterize Chow's book as yet another grief memoir, another tale of how to wade through the years of loneliness and struggle after the loss of a parent. That would be selling the story short, not to mention failing to grasp its scope. Seeing Ghosts is about Florence, yes, but also about everything Florence's family means--a patchwork quilt of Chinese Americans making sense of the amorphous American Dream. Chow does this most skillfully in scenes with her father, a man who struggles with happiness, whatever that means, yet seems desperately to want. He wants a restaurant, so he opens Lotus Garden, which shutters due to financial troubles. He wants to make money, so he becomes a landlord for a set of buildings in varying degrees of disrepair. He wants a fish on his wall, so he attempts to preserve and taxidermy one himself. He wants to find his father's remains, so he travels to Cuba to sort through seemingly endless boxes of bones. Yet he either cannot or does not want to name the systemic injustices set against him, and though this frustrates Chow as she interviews him, it also fascinates her. So she keeps pulling on the thread. And pulling. And pulling.

This resolve to tackle the frustrating truth of her history--and, by proxy, Asian American history--is what makes Seeing Ghosts sing. Readers don't need to delve through Chow's biography to know she's a journalist, one who formerly worked with NPR's popular podcast Code Switch. She brings a reporter's keen eye to her own lineage, and never tries to protect herself. She reveals her own failures and flaws just as earnestly as her family's, and that steadiness in the face of numerous identity crises gives Seeing Ghosts a surge of power.

Chow's memoir is not an easy book, which doesn't mean it's not an easy read. The prose is tight and lovely, one page and one fragment intertwining with the next. The experience of reading it is enjoyable, despite the subject matter. But that is where Chow's journalistic skill triumphs: she feeds readers an impossibly challenging topic through beautifully seasoned bites. The result is that readers turn the last page having swallowed a delicious meal, only to realize there is so much more for them to digest. Seeing Ghosts is a book that will leave readers thinking, mourning, probing the absences and injustices of American life, equally haunted and soothed by ghosts. --Lauren Puckett

Grand Central Publishing, $28, hardcover, 368p., 9781538716328

Kat Chow: Piecing Together the Past

(photo: Ariel Zambelich)

A founding member of the popular podcast Code Switch at NPR, Kat Chow is a reporter and writer whose illuminating work on family, grief, and race has graced the pages of the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the Cut and more. Raised in Connecticut, she began writing stories and poems in high school, and in college she drafted a novel that was "something like a fictionalized, very rough first draft" of what would become her debut memoir, Seeing Ghosts (Grand Central Publishing).

You've written about your mother (and your family as a whole) before, though mostly in essay and journalistic form. What made you decide it was time to write a memoir?

There were so many threads that I wanted to connect in my family's story, that included these tiny moments in our lives that I saw, paralleling one another's experiences across generations. It was an uncanny thing to notice the similarities in my life to generations before me, and I also wanted to fold in the context around our stories, too--the immigration patterns that dictated our lives, the laws, pivotal figures ahead of us, an interpretation of taxidermy as an act of grief, et cetera.

For Seeing Ghosts, I began by asking what it was that we owed, and how this idea of debt in its many definitions--filial duty, financial debt, debt to our ghosts, our selves, the places we call home, et cetera--was reflected in the different generations of my family. I also wanted to trace my family's loss and show how it wasn't just related to the grief over a person--it was the idea of racial melancholia, too, which I write about in some of the earlier chapters. I needed these observations to converge on the page as they had in my own brain.

Which were the most challenging parts to write?

It took me years to write the scenes of my mother's death and the immediate aftermath. I remember having dinner with a former colleague, who's kind of become like a writing godfather. He read many drafts of this book, and at this point in my process, I'd had a loose arrangement of scenes that I'd sent my editor. He observed that I hadn't written about my mother's death, and I made some noise about how I wasn't sure how to frame it.

He said, you need to write the thing. Write into how difficult it is. I leaned into it, turned the writing of it into a device, and then in revision, went back and sanded down its rough edges to turn it into something that was more polished but remained honest to its emotional currents.

It was also quite tricky to write the sections about Yung Wing, who is generally described as one of the first Chinese immigrants--Chinese Americans, really--to graduate from Yale. I wasn't sure how to describe why I gravitated toward him. I realized I was grappling with a general point-of-view issue. Where was I telling this story from?

Throughout my process of working on Seeing Ghosts, I tended to write a memory, and then layer meanings on top of it. I wanted the reader to have that same experience, and finding the best way to translate that was a challenge.

Grief memoirs are everywhere, and yet yours stands out because it is so committed to asking hard questions, exploring the parts of ourselves and our families we'd rather ignore. What was your ultimate goal in excavating your history this way?

Your question surfaces a discussion that my agent, Jin Auh, and my editor, Maddie Caldwell, and I have been having about Seeing Ghosts--and what it is. We're not sure Seeing Ghosts sits so squarely in the traditional grief memoir category. It's a book that is propelled by exploring loss, but it's also a sprawling, multi-generational story that is so much about family history, legacy and survival.

Another interviewer asked me if I saw this book as a grief memoir or a Chinese American memoir, and I was thrown by that question. I mean, why can't it be both? It can be both, of course, but also, I see Seeing Ghosts as this work of nonfiction that stretches across bounds.

Seeing Ghosts is about your mother, but it is also, ultimately, about your father, and the complicated relationship the two of you formed after her death. What was your father's reaction when he learned you were writing this book? Has he read the final version? How did the two of you discuss it together?

My father was always supportive of this book in his own way. Over the years, he's come to understand that writing has been my craft and something I'll always do.

So overall, this was not terribly surprising to him. I do think he was a bit surprised after reading the final version that so much of it was about him. I was, too. This was not quite the book I had in my head when I sold it to my publisher. But my father's story felt important to trace, and I was drawn to reflecting our complicated relationship with the honesty and depth it deserved--what it means to anticipate the loss of a parent when they're still around, in a way.

That's something that a lot of people are experiencing right now, with what's happening in our country and the immense uptick in hate crimes on Asian Americans and our Asian American elders. There's a tendency to want to take care of our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents--and for me, I wanted to show that in the book in all of its thorny, tender forms. The ways in which you can have a relationship--or not much of one--with somebody but still care so deeply for them, even if neither of you are sure how to express your feelings or overcome your shared history and the ways in which you've hurt one another.

You tweeted that fellow reporters had repeatedly said you were limiting yourself by making your beat about Asian Americans. This book, of course, makes the case that their argument is ridiculous (and racist). But do you still hear that sentiment today? Why do you think that is?

I shared that anecdote on Twitter in the aftermath of the shootings in Georgia. This dynamic that surfaces often when something happens in a non-white space was apparent. I heard some accounts of reporters who were Korean American or Asian American being told they were "too close" to the story to do their jobs. I also had read stories of news outlets struggling to find reporters who spoke Korean or understood how to begin reporting within these communities.

I think when people told me that, they were well-meaning and wanted to give career advice. They seemed worried that I was given that beat because I'm Asian American--that it wasn't my choice. But it was certainly my choice, and my team at NPR was very supportive of that. It was always my choice.

I found these comments, about how I was limiting myself, so confusing. I saw so many stories about Asian Americans that weren't being told; it's an endless beat, and any story can be an Asian American story, just as all American stories are in a way about race. That's the thing I wanted people to understand.

I think often about Hilton Al's profile of Toni Morrison for the New Yorker. Morrison put it this way: "Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination; it expands it. It's richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I've experienced more." I love this idea of expansiveness and richness. I'm not writing into a space that is lacking. --Lauren Puckett

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: James W. Loewen

James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, died on August 19 at age 79. "He charged through history like a warrior, dismantling fictions and exposing towns for excluding minorities; teachers and historians for dumbing lessons down; and defendants in 50 class-action lawsuits who, according to his expert testimony, victimized people in civil rights, voting rights and job discrimination cases," the New York Times said. Among his well-known quotations are "Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat the 11th grade" and "People have a right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts."

Besides Lies My Teacher Told Me, a backlist star that has sold more than two million copies, Loewen also wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, Lies Across America, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism and Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers' Edition, all published by the New Press. He was also the author of Teaching What Really Happened, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White and the memoir Up a Creek, with a Paddle. At the time of his death, Loewen was working with graphic artist Nate Powell on a graphic edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me, which will be published posthumously by the New Press.

Book Review


Something Wonderful

by Jo Lloyd

In Something Wonderful, a debut collection of nine compact stories that all take place in the Welsh countryside, Jo Lloyd captures moments in history through fleeting but rich instances of intimacy. In "Butterflies of the Balkans," two women go to adventurous lengths to pursue the ephemeral beauty of rare butterflies in the lead-up to World War II. "My Bonny" is the story of a widow raising her child following her husband's death at sea, told through the perspectives of various family and community members. In "Deep Shelter," a son grapples with the memories of his estranged and eccentric father in the aftermath of losing a gift from him in a bomb shelter.

Lloyd's crisp, clear-eyed prose manages to avoid too much sentimentality while still conveying the deeply felt reality of circumstances that are often hard to imagine. Although each story is written with an eye toward realism, the atmosphere and Lloyd's impeccable scene-setting often lean toward the gothic and fairytale-esque, in order to bring a sense of wonder to each piece. Nevertheless, grounded characters and emotions remain at each story's core. For example, "The Invisible," which focuses on a tight-knit community's imaginings of some nearby but elusive upper-class residents, uses its more abstract plot elements only as a means through which to convey emotional resonance. A meditative literary debut, Something Wonderful demonstrates how the magnificence of everyday relations continue to transform, even in the face of some of humanity's darkest and most cataclysmic moments. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Adept at illuminating the quietude amid chaos, this literary collection focuses on friendships, familial bonds and timeless emotional impasses.

Tin House Books, $24.95, hardcover, 219p., 9781951142728

A Song Everlasting

by Ha Jin

Powerlessness pervades Ha Jin's perceptive A Song Everlasting, as his protagonist leaves fame and familiarity in one country to flee toward ambiguity and adaptation in another. Freedom, Yao Tian reasons, is his driving motive. National Book Award-winner Jin (A Map of Betrayal), notable for empathically crafting lives from meticulously observed details, creates an antihero caught between China and the U.S.

Tian sings lead tenor in a Chinese company renowned nationally and abroad. His wife, Shuna, is a rising university history professor; their 13-year-old middle-grade daughter, Tingting, is about to apply for entry into a tony Beijing prep school. At 37, Tian's career seemed impressively satisfying, his and his family's lasting comfort all but guaranteed.

Following a scheduled company performance in New York City, Tian encounters an old Beijing friend. Yabin has emigrated to the U.S., and presents Tian with a lucrative singing engagement--this time solo, as part of a concert to celebrate Taiwan's (not China's) National Day. The generous fee, Tian realizes, would help offset Tingting's anticipated tuition increases. Tian's director isn't pleased, but he's not forbidden. And so Tian stays, performs and returns home. The disciplinary consequences are immediate. But when he's asked to surrender his passport, Tian uses all his connections to flee to New York, initially convinced that Shuna and Tingting will eventually join him. Expectations, however, are not reality.

Jin's narrative here isn't his strongest; Tian's meandering, passive acceptance grows cumbersome. For Jin's most devoted readers, however, his signature ability to engage and expand his characters through acute, forthright observations will not disappoint. Once again, Jin provides a meaningful everyman tale beyond borders and cultures. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: In this meticulously observed novel, National Book Award-winner Ha Jin's protagonist abandons his life in China as a famous singer for the illusory promise of freedom on U.S. shores.

Pantheon, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9781524748791

Mystery & Thriller

How to Kill Your Best Friend

by Lexie Elliott

A mysterious death is only the beginning in How to Kill Your Best Friend by Lexie Elliott (The French Girl), a gripping work of suspense.

Georgie and Lissa were always the closest of their tight-knit group of friends from the college swim team, but Georgie wasn't on the last trip when they all got together, and then Lissa drowned. Her drowning was incongruous, considering that Lissa was the strongest swimmer among them, but there are local legends about the dangers of Kanu Cove on the island where Lissa and her husband owned a resort. Now her friends have gathered at the resort for her memorial. Georgie and Bron, another member of the group, who secretly had an affair with Lissa's late first husband, begin receiving strange notes and other threats. The vacationers who are not part of their group begin to leave the island, the weather turns threatening and the friends come to understand that the secrets they are uncovering might mean that Lissa's drowning was not an accident.

Elliott's book is an intricate, twisting story. Georgie kept Bron's secret about the affair, but she had suspicions about Lissa dating back to her first husband's death. The intensity of Georgie and Lissa's bond has a dark streak; no matter what Georgie thought Lissa may have been hiding, the only thing she would not consider is betraying Lissa. The heightened emotion of their relationship ramps up the suspense in this gothic-tinged, breathtaking thriller. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: In this suspenseful novel, a suspicious death is only one of the secrets among a group of old friends on an isolated island.

Berkley, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9780593098691


The Paris Connection

by Lorraine Brown

Hannah never expected that a train separating her from her boyfriend would lead to her finding (or re-finding) herself. But that's exactly what happens in Lorraine Brown's charming debut novel, The Paris Connection. Hannah and Si are traveling by train to his sister's wedding in Amsterdam after a few days in Venice. Unable to sleep, Hannah switches cars midway through the journey and wakes to find that the train has uncoupled and she's on the half speeding toward Paris. Frustrated--not least by Léo, an annoyingly handsome French musician who blames Hannah for his own detour--Hannah must navigate an unfamiliar city without her luggage or phone. As she and Léo spend the day hopscotching around Paris, their conversation helps Hannah confront some painful past memories and make a decision or two about her future.

Brown's breezy narrative, told in Hannah's first-person voice, takes readers through the irritations of travel snafus and the joys of spending a day in a world-class city. Léo takes Hannah up the Champs-Élysées and insists she see Sacré-Coeur, but he also ducks into a café to buy her a pastry and shows her a few hidden parks. Readers will enjoy seeing Hannah slowly start to savor her unexpected day out, and root for her as she begins to rethink her dedication to both Si and her dead-end office job.

Light and sweet, with plenty of evocative Paris details, Brown's debut is as enjoyable as the confections beckoning to Hannah from the windows of Léo's favorite pâtisserie. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: This sweet, lighthearted debut novel showcases the charms of Paris as a young Englishwoman takes an unplanned detour there.

Putnam, $16, paperback, 336p., 9780593190562


Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution

by Mike Duncan

Fans of United States and French history alike will be captivated by Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, the engrossing biography by Mike Duncan (The Storm Before the Storm).

The career of the Marquis de Lafayette started with the sort of education typical for a young nobleman with more land than cash in mid-18th-century rural France. After he made a name for himself in the American Revolution, he was involved in the French Revolution and then  the overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty in the Revolution of 1830. His adventures in America began with a representative in France who overreached in offering commissions. Lafayette's departure was opposed by his family and the king, but he returned a celebrated hero.

Although he is occasionally overly fond of repeating the title of the book, Duncan paints a thorough and nuanced portrait of his subject. He highlights Lafayette's long dedication to abolition and his continued pressuring of George Washington to free those he enslaved, but does not overlook Lafayette's rather more indifferent attitude toward slavery in his early years. This includes a never-executed plan to raid British colonies in the Caribbean with an American warship and cover the cost by selling the enslaved people they anticipated capturing there. Lafayette's principles developed in a rapidly changing era, but once he found them, he clung to them no matter the personal cost. Duncan's absorbing account of Lafayette's life will enthrall devotees of United States and French history. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: This is a captivating account of the Marquis de Lafayette's involvement in more than 50 years of upheaval on two continents.

PublicAffairs, $30, hardcover, 512p., 9781541730335

Political Science

Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights

by Erwin Chemerinsky

Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, millions of Americans took to the streets to demand both accountability and reform to prevent similar acts of police brutality. But as Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional scholar and dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, persuasively argues in Presumed Guilty, those efforts may be stymied by a body of constitutional law that has erected a formidable bulwark against such efforts.

Chemerinsky (We the People) sets out with the goal of telling the "story of the Supreme Court's failure to enforce salient parts of the Constitution and to limit police misconduct." He undertakes a comprehensive but readable survey of more than half a century of Supreme Court jurisprudence and explains how the court has "consistently empowered police and legitimated the racialized policing that especially harms people of color." Even the Warren court, which broadened protections against unreasonable searches and recognized the right to counsel in non-capital cases, among other expansions of constitutional protections in the 1960s (the last time the court had a liberal majority) decided a case in 1968 that still serves as the justification for stop-and-frisk policies that Chemerinsky says "contributed significantly to race-based policing."

Though he's clear-eyed about the obstacles such efforts face, Chemerinsky offers a package of legislative reforms, and he suggests that litigating under state constitutions, thereby circumventing Supreme Court review, may turn out to be a more fruitful legal strategy. In either case, it appears the road to meaningful reform will be a long and difficult one. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Discover: A clear-eyed survey of Supreme Court decisions that create formidable obstacles to deterring police misconduct and racially biased law enforcement in the United States.

Liveright, $27.95, hardcover, 384p., 9781631496516

Psychology & Self-Help

Mystery: A Seduction, a Strategy, a Solution

by Jonah Lehrer

Millions of people love attending a magic show or watching reruns of Law & Order: SVU, and there's a reason: humans are hard-wired to love mysteries, and Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide; Proust Was a Neuroscientist) illuminates why in Mystery: A Seduction, a Strategy, a Solution. Filled with examples both big and small--including a Bletchley Park codebreaker and a man who cracked the Canadian lottery ticket system--Mystery explains how mysteries catch our fancies. As Lehrer says, "It doesn't matter if it's Hamlet, God, or a Marvel superhero--it's their mysteries that make them interesting."

The book's chapters showcase different aspects of mysteries--such as unpredictable characters, discordant fonts, the "mystery box" that explains the popularity of unboxing videos on YouTube. By breaking down the various elements of mysteries, Lehrer showcases why the human brain is unable to resist a mysterious hook. The element of surprise is compellingly seductive.

Mystery is a fascinating blend of pop culture, neuroscience and history, creating a seamlessly entertaining story. Applicable to everyone from writers of whodunits to baseball coaches, the lesson of Mystery is indelible: predictability is boring. And because the world is full of ever-increasing uncertainties, people will continue to turn to art to solve mysteries for them, to show them both what is possible and what isn't. Sure to appeal to both mystery readers and lovers of science, Mystery: A Seduction, a Strategy, a Solution is a delightful blend of real-life intrigue and fictional mystery tropes. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Discover: This fascinating book explores the science behind why humans love mysteries.

Avid Reader Press, $28, hardcover, 256p., 9781501195877

Now in Paperback

His Only Wife

by Peace Adzo Medie

Afi lives in a humble home in the Ghanaian city of Ho with her mother. Since Afi's father died, they are beholden to local businesswoman "Aunty" Ganyo for their jobs, their home and basic necessities like flour. So when Afi's marriage is arranged to Aunty's son Eli, she knows it is an honor, although she feels some trepidation at marrying a man she does not really know. "Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding." And so her new life begins inauspiciously in Peace Adzo Medie's arresting first novel, His Only Wife, a Reese Witherspoon X Hello Sunshine Book Club Pick, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Time Magazine Must-Read Book of 2020.

Afi's task, according to the powerful Ganyo family, is to win her new husband away from "the woman" with whom he's already had a child, who is perceived to have stolen him away from his family. Afi resents being a pawn, but for her own reasons wishes to build a life of true love and commitment with Eli, whom she finds handsome and kind. She is out of her comfort zone, however, when she is installed in a luxury apartment in Accra, surrounded by food, clothing and modern conveniences she's never known--with Eli still absent.

Medie gives Afi a voice that winningly combines insecurity, wisdom and dignity. Fashion and food contribute to a cultural backdrop. Accra is a cosmopolitan city, while Afi's life in Ho was marked by privation and the importance of social and filial hierarchies. This story of a strong woman in a challenging and changing world will capture readers' hearts. His Only Wife is a memorable novel of personal growth and choosing one's own destiny. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: In this winning debut, an arranged marriage exposes a young woman to unimagined riches and a tantalizing taste of freedom, with unexpected consequences.

Algonquin, $16.95, paperback, 304p., 9781643751467

The Eighth Detective

by Alex Pavesi

Named a New York Times Top 10 Thriller of 2020, Alex Pavesi's exceptional debut, The Eighth Detective, is at once a novel, a collection of stories and a how-to guide on writing mysteries.

Pavesi introduces professor of mathematics Grant McAllister, who published a research paper in 1937 called "The Permutations of Detective Fiction," which lays out mathematical formulas for mystery stories. There must be a victim, a detective, a killer, at least two suspects, etc. McAllister then wrote seven stories applying variations on those rules and published them in a collection titled The White Murders.

Nearly 30 years later, young editor Julia Hart tracks him down on a remote Mediterranean island with an offer to republish the collection. Since McAllister's eyesight is failing and he wrote the stories so long ago, Julia spends days reading them aloud to him, followed by discussions of each, to refresh his memory. Right away she notices discrepancies in some descriptions, and details too similar to a real-life murder to be coincidences. Why is McAllister evasive every time she asks about them?

The short stories within the novel pay homage to classics penned by the likes of Agatha Christie--one mystery closely resembles And Then There Were None--and some are more surprising than others. Some readers might find Julia and McAllister's postmortem of each story a bit too technical, but wordsmiths will glean nerdy delight from the conversations between author and editor about structure and plotting. It's ironic that McAllister insists every mystery story follows a basic formula, when Pavesi keeps readers guessing with a novel that defies the rules. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: In this crafty debut, an editor examines a collection of mystery stories written three decades earlier and finds similarities to a real-life murder.

Picador, $17, paperback, 304p., 9781250798473

Children's & Young Adult

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess

by Tom Gauld

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, London cartoonist Tom Gauld's first picture book for kids, is a charming story about sibling loyalty featuring classic fairy-tale mainstays, including a king, a queen, a witch and a goblin. Despite his old-school cast, Gauld (Department of Mind-Blowing Theories) is committed to revising the fairy-tale script.

The story begins with an interracial royal couple lamenting their childlessness, after which the king asks the (female) royal inventor to create a child; meanwhile, the queen visits a witch in the woods for the same purpose. The inventor builds a wooden robot boy, the witch fashions a princess from a log, and the newfangled royal family is happy. There's a wrinkle, though: when the princess sleeps, she turns back into a log and can become a princess again only when someone says "Awake, little log, awake." Sure enough, the distracted robot neglects to wake his sister the morning a circus visits the castle, and when a maid spies a log in the princess's bed, she tosses it out the window. Upon learning what has happened, the robot boy goes to Augean lengths to find his sister. Readers who presume that the story will proceed as a one-sided rescue effort will be gleefully mistaken.

Drawn with pen and colored digitally, the art in The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess has the imprimatur of a practiced cartoonist: exacting characterizations, sure-handed hatching and tidy layouts. The book also has a happy ending--the lone fairy-tale convention to which Gauld surrenders completely. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: Fairy-tale tropes are tweaked in this delightsome picture book about a couple of royal (and loyal) siblings--one a wooden boy, the other a log princess.

Neal Porter Books, $18.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780823446988

Both Sides Now

by Peyton Thomas

Peyton Thomas's auspicious YA debut, Both Sides Now, invites readers into the complicated transition year between parental reliance and university independence. Seniors Finch and Jonah are their Olympia, Wash., debate team headliners. Although they lose the state competition to their private school archnemeses, the pair still qualify for the National Championships. Finch, who narrates in the first person, hopes winning will get him into Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.

Finch knows plenty about uphill battles. His dad's an unemployed alcoholic in recovery and his mom's journalist job is insecure. The two are constantly fighting because money is always tight--not only for college but also for Finch's planned top surgery. Finch is trans, and although his parents are "mostly fine with their daughter becoming their son," they're nothing like Jonah's affectionate, supportive family who love their gay son "so, so much." Jonah is further blessed as the school's drama star's boyfriend of two years. Finch is grateful for his former-girlfriend-turned-bff, but lately she's been making comments about Finch's growing attachment to the unavailable Jonah. Finch thinks she's overreacting but it's possible he doth protest too much....

Thomas writes with effortless ease; his convincing characters have notably diverse traits and he's clear that what they are doesn't necessarily define who they are. Finch is white and while his trans experience is undeniable, he's also a teen who is worried about school and money and who longs for love. Jonah, who is gay and Filipinx American, is trying to balance debate, coupledom and college plans. Without eliding realistic challenges--LGBTQ-phobias, racism, classism--Thomas's cast proves relatably refreshing. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Peyton Thomas's compassionate debut keenly explores all the vulnerable transitions ahead for a high school senior debate champ.

Dial, $17.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 14-up, 9780593322819


Author Buzz

The Wild Card
(A Rivers Wilde Novella)

by Dylan Allen

Dear Reader,

"What if…?" is my favorite question to ask myself when I start writing a book. The answers that Cassie and Leo's story delivered were unexpected and heartwarming. Adding a heist and serendipitous reunion into the mix took my tried and true favorite trope, second chance, to a whole new level. Theirs is a classic case of right person/wrong time. Whether you're a Rivers Wilde newbie or expert, watching them overcome some pretty steep hurdles is a wild, thrilling, feel good ride.

I hope you love every word. xo,

Available on Kobo

AuthorBuzz: 1001 Dark Nights Press: The Wild Card (A Rivers Wilde Novella) by Dylan Allen

1001 Dark Nights Press

Pub Date: 
January 16, 2024


List Price: 
$2.99 e-book


Kids Buzz

Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night

by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons
illus. by Ruth E. Harper

Dear Reader,

My newest and latest in a three-book series, Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night?, came from seeing the fascination so many kids have with the ocean and ocean creatures. How do a whale, octopus, dolphin, clownfish, great white shark and so many other undersea animals get their rest?

After all, they need to get their rest and sleep, just like all of us. So dive into this rhyming STEM picture book to encourage a love of nature and the environment--and under the covers for a great bedtime story.

"What do animals do when children are sleeping? Featuring creatures young children are likely to know, this book has the answers....[and] unusual nighttime facts are a plus." --Kirkus

Steve Simmons

KidsBuzz: Charlesbridge: Where Do Ocean Creatures Sleep at Night? by Steven J. Simmons and Clifford R. Simmons, illus. by Ruth E. Harper


Pub Date: 
April 16, 2024


Type of Book:
Picture Book

Age Range: 

List Price: 
$17.99 Hardcover

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