Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, November 20, 2020

Mariner Books: The Blue Hour by Paula Hawkins

From My Shelf

Live from New York, It's Saturday Night!

Early in the first Saturday Night Live episode to air after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, speaking to an audience and nation still shaken, SNL creator Lorne Michaels asked then-mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" Giuliani's comeback: "Why start now?"

Quip aside, for decades SNL has been a cornerstone of comedy in the United States. As with many institutions, it's had hits and misses--but since 1975, the show has offered the balm of comedy. While an episode might be a salve only for a night, why not prolong the humor with stories by some of its most celebrated writers?

For an unforgettable journey through decades of the show's history--poignant recollections alongside downright juicy drama, and much love for Gilda Radner--see Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (Back Bay, $19.99).

Then go deep with the heavy hitters. The list of books by SNL alums is long and lustrous, but to begin, see the memoirs by some of the show's most celebrated writers. Tina Fey, the first female head writer and subsequent 30 Rock creator and star, offers up a stellar exploration of her life in and out of comedy in Bossypants (Back Bay, $16.99). Fey's "Weekend Update" co-anchor and the later star of Parks and Recreation Amy Poehler likewise delivers candor, laughs and memorable advice in her memoir, Yes Please (Dey Street, $16.99). Current co-head writer Colin Jost recently offered up A Very Punchable Face: A Memoir (Crown, $27). Whatever the attributes of his face, Jost's book is a comedic knockout--and all of these are reminders of the value of comedy: punchlines that help us roll with the punches, finding hope through humor in times light and dark. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Book Candy

Thanksgiving Word Quiz

Merriam-Webster posed a Thanksgiving word quiz.


Atlas Obscura explored "how to recreate your lost family recipes, according to historians and chefs."


The New York Public Library recommended "22 books for fans of The Queen's Gambit."


Mental Floss shared "5 fascinating facts about James Baldwin."


CrimeReads investigated "the most unusual murder weapons in crime fiction."


Novelist Naji Bakhti chose his top 10 books about Lebanon for the Guardian.

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence

by Becky Cooper

In We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, Becky Cooper re-creates her sprawling investigation into a long-unsolved murder, drawing readers into the case's thrilling twists and turns. The book is about Cooper's near-obsessive interest in Jane Britton, a Harvard graduate student of archeology who was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. The murder spawned decades of wild speculation and hearsay revolving around a powerful professor and the supposed ritualistic treatment of Jane's body--according to rumor, "her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect re-creation of a burial ritual." Passed down over the years, the rumors reached Cooper as a student at Harvard as "macabre legend," one whose allegations of a vast cover-up were all-too-believable, given Harvard's vast institutional power. Cooper's simple curiosity soon morphed into a years-long quest for the truth behind the legend.

The narrative moves on parallel tracks, recounting the initial investigation into Jane's death in 1969 as well as Cooper's own present-day sleuthing. The bones of an intriguing true-crime narrative are all here, but Cooper is at least equally interested in introducing readers to the highs and lows of her own investigation: the exciting leads, the dead ends, the many complicated people she comes to know. Cooper skillfully recounts the thrill of a new suspect coming to light or fresh information allowing for a different, potentially revealing, angle on Jane's murder. And, as her investigation slips deep into tangents, she is able to use the murder as a jumping-off point for a wide range of issues.

The red ochre found at the scene leads Cooper to delve into the state of archeology at the time, including its legacy as a colonial tool and the way nations continue to use it to re-shape and control their pasts. At the time of the initial investigation, the red ochre was merely a sensationalist element that helped Jane's murder become a more engaging story for the press. Cooper goes in a different direction, using the archeological connection to explore how we shape stories from the past--such as Jane's murder--to serve modern purposes. Cooper makes a powerful argument that Jane's murder became a lingering myth in Harvard circles as a way to interrogate questions of institutional sexism, misogynistic violence, domineering professors and more. In a more concrete sense, Cooper's impressive research allows her to examine the claustrophobic world of archeology and, in particular, the incredibly tense archeological digs Jane participated in that some thought were key to her fate.

In one of the most passionate aspects of the book, Cooper sees understanding the climate of sexism and misogyny as key to understanding Jane's story. The legend of Jane's murder implicates a professor who was supposedly in a relationship with Jane. While Cooper investigates the truth of the legend with journalistic rigor, she also explains why these rumors would seem so believable in a male-dominated culture where professors regularly pursued students and had enormous power over students' careers. Jane's story might have turned into a legend as a way of warning students about a particularly abusive professor. Through her many interviews, Cooper is able to describe a sense of threat that often went unspoken. One interviewee describes the harassment common on expeditions that led students to warn each other about "so-and-so, because he has grabby hands": "People will say it in conversation, but not always out loud. There is an antagonism. There is a pressure in the field. There is a looming danger." Cooper seems to ask the question: Was Jane's death a horrific anomaly or a symptom of a deeper illness?

Throughout, Cooper never loses sight of Jane, an eccentric, intense person who left her mark on many of the interviewees. Cooper avoids "detachment from the people who were killed and the families that were grieving" that is sometimes found in true crime. Instead, we meet many of the people who are living with memories of Jane as a funny, sometimes frustrating person whose unsolved murder left deep emotional wounds. Jane's brother says: "As I think about it now, my two questions are always the same: who did it?... And, would she have been happy?... I don't think she would have been.... People did not satisfy her expectations very well." As the book goes on, present-day developments lead to the seeming identification of Jane's murderer. Even then, questions linger, and Cooper doesn't seem fully satisfied. By the end of the book, Jane's story has become so sprawling and personal that it resists simple answers.

We Keep the Dead Close is part true crime, part memoir, part re-creation of the vast, compelling, disappointing investigative process. The murder at the center of the book is a rabbit hole that contains further rabbit holes, many of which the author capably leads us down. While the book is wide-ranging, there are no purposeless tangents. Instead, we are given a portrait of the kind of world Jane lived and died in, granting us both an understanding of Jane and the myths that her murder created. We Keep the Dead Close draws readers into the ins and outs of a compelling investigation where every fascinating mystery seems to lead to another. --Hank Stephenson

Grand Central Publishing, $29, hardcover, 512p., 9781538746837, November 10, 2020
Grand Central Publishing, $29, hardcover, 512p., 9781538746837

Becky Cooper: Ways of Unearthing the Past

(photo: Lily Erlinger)

Becky Cooper is the author of Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers and a former New Yorker editorial staff member. Her book We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence (available now from Grand Central Publishing) blends true crime and memoir to investigate the long-unsolved murder of Jane Britton and the many rumors surrounding it. In the process, Cooper delves into a range of subjects, from archeology to Harvard's insular culture and history of sexism.

In some ways, the book is as much a memoir of your long investigation as a true-crime retelling. Why did you want to lead readers through the investigation process?

I never imagined a book about Jane as a traditional true-crime story. Yes, of course, at heart it's a whodunit, and the procedural elements of the investigation are important, as is the reveal at the end. But in a lot of ways, the crime is only the motor for the story. It provides propulsion enough to dive into character studies, to contemplate the nature of knowledge creation, and to examine the ways in which the act of writing history, of conducting an investigation and of leading an archeological excavation are all ways of unearthing the material remains of the past and of constructing those remains into a story. It's a process that cannot possibly be extricated from the individuality and subjectivity of the person doing the storytelling. Therefore, even though the Jane in the book is my best effort to restore her to herself, she is still a product of my imagination. In order to be honest about the nature of her reconstruction, I needed to be a character in the book, too, to show how my own obsession with her and my own life history shaped the person I believed her to be.

After the release of the book, do you think you will move on in some ways, or are you still on the case?

There are parts of the case that I want more answers to. For instance, I'm pushing to get access to the original Massachusetts State Police crime lab files so I can get a second opinion on the evidence that led to the resolution of the case. The Massachusetts State Police rejected both my request to interview anyone at the State's DNA lab and my public records request for those lab files. Why the secrecy if they have nothing to hide?

I don't think I'll ever fully move on from this case because it's shaped the person I am, but I have to say I'm looking forward to living outside of this book. In order to write it with the kind of intensity and emotional honesty I wanted the book to have, I dissolved any boundaries I had between myself and the work. I moved away from almost all of my friends and back into my college dorm. Every time I walked through Harvard Square, I would mentally slide back to 1969 to see if I could re-create the setting as it was when Jane was walking those streets. Every time a Cambridge cop car passed by, I looked in the window to see if it was one of the officers who had investigated her case in the '90s. At some points I couldn't tell where I ended and Jane started. It was an enormous luxury and privilege to be able to devote myself so entirely to a single story, I realize, but the immersive insanity that it demanded means that I don't really know myself outside of her case. I think that suspension of self is only sustainable for so long.

Your investigation goes in so many different directions and into so many areas of study. Did you ever worry about losing the reader in the weeds, or descending too far into tangents?

I had a John McPhee quote on my wall as I was writing this book: "Every part of time touches every other part of time. You just have to find the right structure." The book definitely covers a ton of material--gender discrimination in academia, the moral muddiness of storytelling, the fight for civil rights in the '60s, the merger of Harvard and its sister school, Radcliffe, and, of course, the murder of Jane Britton. It also spans 50 years and takes readers from the crumbling mountains of northern Canada to the volcanoes of Guatemala to the hot summer afternoons in Iran. I think if I were trying to organize the material intellectually, I would have gotten completely lost. But I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the book to be organized viscerally. I'm not quite sure how to explain it. I wanted the reader to feel how I felt investigating Jane's story. And I think with that lodestar in mind, the structure just kind of unfolded organically. I needed to build and maintain an emotional propulsion in the book, and as long as I could still feel the narrative tension, I could trust that the reader would follow me into a tangent. But after a while down that tangent, I'd start to feel the tension slackening, and it'd be time for another bit of Jane's mystery to build it back up.

I also have to give a huge amount of credit to my editor at Grand Central, Maddie Caldwell, who gave me the confidence to trust myself and also reined me in when I got lost down one rabbit hole too many. (The book came in 30% longer....) She has an impeccable sense of narrative and is a puzzler at heart, and whenever I got stuck, I'd just send her a brain dump of the swirling thoughts in my mind, and she'd help me carve a way through.

Were you ever concerned that your investigation could re-traumatize the people you spoke with, or open old wounds?

Constantly. For instance, the son of one of the people in the book wrote to me begging me to reconsider what I was doing. That this awful tragedy had happened to people early in their lives and maybe, finally, after 50 years, they'd achieved some sort of peace. And here I was stirring up old feelings and hurt and guilt for the sake of what? What could I promise them? I couldn't promise them that I'd find a solution to Jane's case. Or that someone would be brought to justice. I couldn't promise them resolution or closure.

Don Mitchell--one of Jane's closest friends--and I exchanged a number of e-mails about this as I struggled with whether my investigation would bring enough good in the world to justify the pain. He assured me that while some people wanted to bury it and move on, there were also people who needed to talk about it. For them, Jane's murder was a festering wound that needed light and air. Even if I couldn't offer a name to her killer, there was healing in the process of talking about her life and her death, and of being able to see one version of Jane's story from new angles.

What do you want readers to come away from your book knowing about Jane Britton?

That Jane was funny as hell. I think her best friend, Elisabeth Handler, put it best when she said that Jane was "a mix of Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx, except without the mustache." That Jane was young. That she was still becoming herself. That she was a great friend, and she was complicated. And that she had a gift for making people who felt out of place feel at home with her--and that's why I think this band of outsiders, even after her death, felt so committed to solving her case. --Hank Stephenson

Shelf vetted, publisher supported.

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Queen's Gambit

Netflix's limited series The Queen's Gambit, based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, follows a female chess prodigy through her early years in an orphanage to her ascension among the ranks of chess world champions in the 1950s and '60s. Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), must also contend with drug and alcohol addiction that began with tranquilizer pills dispensed to the orphanage's charges. The Queen's Gambit has received abundant critical praise and set record streaming numbers on Netflix. The series has also been favorably reviewed by real-life chess champions such as American Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, who told Vanity Fair it "completely nailed the chess accuracy."

Walter Tevis (1928-1984) also wrote the novels The Hustler (1959), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), Mockingbird (1980), The Steps of the Sun (1983) and The Color of Money (1984) several of which were adapted into successful films. And he was the author of some two dozen short stories. A tie-in version of The Queen's Gambit will be published by Vintage on December 29 ($16.95). In the meantime, Vintage's 2003 version is available ($16.95). --Tobias Mutter

Book Review


Revolutions of All Colors

by Dewaine Farria

Winner of the 2019 Veterans Writing Award, chosen by Tobias Wolff, Dewaine Farria develops his extraordinary debut novel, Revolutions of All Colors, through exquisite snapshots scattered among decades. In 1996, Ettie Moten is an Oklahoma state prison counselor and single mother raising Simon, the son of a recently deceased Black Panther whom she first met in New Orleans in 1970. But she's not alone. Her longtime colleague Frank Mathis, the deputy warden and a Vietnam veteran, has taken the teenager under his wing alongside his own two sons. As a result, Simon, Michael and Gabriel form a bond of brotherhood that flowers into the 21st century, as they stake their claims on a world that will never cut them slack.

"When you go to war, your soul is at as much hazard as your body. More really," Frank explains to them, but mostly to Simon, dark-skinned, athletic and restless, determined to be a pararescue officer in the Air Force. Michael and Gabriel, on the other hand, are skeptical of the military and rib Simon for his hotheadedness. Nonetheless, he is their protector when their sensitive natures and lighter skin draw scorn from their peers. But Farria carefully teases out the more subtle ways Michael and Gabriel protect Simon in return.

Farria writes with vibrant, breathtaking elegance, unabashed to imbue even bleak corners of the world with shades of humor and simmering sexuality. Revolutions of All Colors radiates adoration and wonder for fighters and their resilience. With singular talent, Farria details the dreams and disappointments of a family he demonstrates deep fondness for, body and soul. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: Dewaine Farria generously traces two generations of chosen family as they cope with manhood, race and sexuality in an unforgiving world.

Syracuse University Press, $22.95, hardcover, 208p., 9780815611264


by Bryan Washington

Young Houstonians Mike and Benson think they might love each other. Actually, they're certain they do, but they've only said it a handful of times. As the bold but mystifying protagonists at the center of Bryan Washington's tender novel, Memorial, they're pretty good together: Mike is Japanese American and a chef, and Ben is Black and teaches at a day care center, and, well, they get by. That is, until a particularly gruesome fight leaves them fumbling, and Mike decides to leave the country.

He's not really disappearing on Ben--Mike's discovered that his estranged father, Eiju, is dying of cancer back in Japan, where his family emigrated from years ago. Just as his mother, Mitsuko, touches down in Houston, Mike hops on an international flight, leaving Ben to handle Mike's enigmatic mother alone. Floundering and frustrated in Mike's absence, Ben begins to explore what a life apart from his boyfriend might look like--and ask himself if that's something he might want. As Mike develops an astounding, heart-wrenching relationship with the dying father he never expected to see again, Ben struggles with his own messed-up family, in particular his alcoholic father. Thousands of miles apart but united in common experience, Mike and Ben work their way together again, slowly and painfully but truthfully.

Washington's characters are not always easy to understand, nor are they the cute and cuddly fodder of some romance novels. They are prickly and deeply flawed, hurting each other and themselves repeatedly before taking tiny steps toward progress. Yet they are so tenderly wrought they feel very real and, for that reason alone, Washington's wrenching tale of love and loss should not be missed. --Lauren Puckett, freelance writer

Discover: Two young men in Houston struggle to reconcile their romance as one flies to Japan to find his dying father and the other deals with what's left at home.

Riverhead Books, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9780593087275

Mystery & Thriller

The Children of Red Peak

by Craig DiLouie

The Children of Red Peak is an unsettling, frighteningly ambiguous horror novel about a deadly cult and its traumatized survivors. As children, David Young, Deacon Price and Beth Harris were members of a religious group called the Family of the Living Spirit. In an event reminiscent of the mass suicide at Jonestown, the group self-destructed in extraordinarily bloody fashion near a mountain called Red Peak. Craig DiLouie, Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of One of Us, takes cues from Stephen King's It in his book's structure: DiLouie alternates between the past and the present, relating the events leading up to the cult's implosion from the perspective of his characters as children and jumping forward to their lives as traumatized adults.

The survivors are brought together by the sudden death of one of their number, eventually setting in motion a plan to return to Red Peak. Their trauma is compounded by lingering mysteries that they hope to settle: How did the cult members' bodies disappear? Was the pillar of fire that they saw a mass hallucination? DiLouie uses these mysteries to dwell on the cult's ambiguities: some of the survivors don't even agree that the Family of the Living Spirit was a cult.

The Children of Red Peak takes the desire to find meaning and the yearning for something beyond ourselves very seriously. The central question of the book is how to reconcile that yearning with its sometimes destructive results. The characters return to Red Peak hoping to make sense of these contradictions. The answers they find might be even more frightening than the questions. --Hank Stephenson, the Sun magazine, manuscript reader

Discover: The Children of Red Peak is a cult horror story that explores trauma, faith and the search for meaning in the aftermath of tragedy.

Redhook, $16.99, paperback, 384p., 9780316428132

Murder in Old Bombay

by Nev March

Mumbai-born debut novelist Nev March raises the specter of a real unsolved case in this action-filled and richly detailed historical mystery, set in Bombay, India, in 1892, under British colonial rule. 

When two young ladies from a prominent Parsee household fall to their deaths from a university clocktower, an investigation fails to prove whether the tragedy stemmed from a suicide pact or foul play. Anglo-Indian Captain James Agnihotri of the Fourteenth Light Dragoons, convalescing in a Poona military hospital after Afghan soldiers ambushed his regiment in Kirachi, finds the case as captivating as the new Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four.

After Adi Framji, the husband of one victim and brother of the other, publishes an impassioned letter in the Chronicle of India insisting neither woman would have killed herself, Jim offers his services as a novice investigator to the bereaved family to ease "the sharp burn of his grief." He believes that by using the Holmesian strategies of disguise and deduction, he can ferret out the truth behind the deaths.

March has created a likable, honorable sleuth whose humble origins and instinctive kindness make spending time with him a pleasure. A strong case of survivor's guilt and residual wartime trauma play counterpoint to his genial personality. The author sets an immersive scene, creating a detailed representation of the vibrant religious and cultural tapestry of Colonial India and the rigidly structured interlocking hierarchy of British rule and the Indian caste system. The story's resolution paves the way for further adventures, which March's readers will surely consider a welcome possibility. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: Nev March's debut introduces an honorable Anglo-Indian British cavalry officer who tries to solve a possible double murder in 1890s Bombay.

Minotaur Books, $26.99, hardcover, 400p., 9781250269546

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Arrest

by Jonathan Lethem

The arrival of a strange man and an even stranger vehicle upend an isolated community in Jonathan Lethem's post-apocalyptic Maine.

Sandy Duplessis was a successful Hollywood screenwriter whose life, along with everyone else's, was turned upside down by an event called the Arrest. "Without warning except every warning possible it had come." The Internet, television, phones, guns and all other forms of technology stopped working, and wherever people were at the time of the Arrest became their permanent homes. For Duplessis, his post-Arrest life in rural Maine includes a new name, Journeyman, and jobs delivering food from his sister Maddie's farm and helping the town butcher ducks.

Then comes a shocking arrival: a self-powered vehicle called the Blue Streak. The enormous machine, fueled by a nuclear reactor and capable of traveling over land and water, contains an even bigger surprise: Peter Todbaum, Journeyman's former writing partner, who drove the Blue Streak from Los Angeles to Maine. Bearing stories of his travels across the country, Todbaum holds court for the town's wary residents. For Journeyman and Maddie--who was romantically involved with Todbaum pre-Arrest but fled and never looked back--Todbaum's presence is worrying. What does he want?

Lethem (The Feral Detective) is a versatile writer known for presenting unusual perspectives, and The Arrest lives up to that reputation. And while Lethem's post-apocalyptic world is not exactly a dystopia--organic food and marijuana are not in short supply--low-level fear still permeates daily life. Brimming with offbeat characters and a distinct vision for a calamitous future, The Arrest is speculative fiction at its most intriguing. --Frank Brasile, librarian

Discover: Life for the residents of an isolated New England town in a world without technology is altered when a stranger and his supercar arrive.

Ecco, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780062938787

The Factory Witches of Lowell

by C.S. Malerich

The bonds among young women working at the mill in Lowell, Mass., are strengthened by a little witchcraft in this touching, fable-like historical fantasy.

The Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. Malerich (Fire & Locket) has a simple but intriguing premise: increased costs for their board are the last straw for the young women working in the historic mill town. Their leader, Judith, turns for support to Hannah, who has a talent for witchcraft, in order to bind the workers to their promise to strike until their demands are met. As the strike drags on, the owners search for strike breakers and Hannah's health declines from years of working in unsafe conditions. Judith and Hannah must invent new ways to wield magic to shift the balance of power toward the striking workers, while also coming to recognize their feelings for each other.

This is a slight but thoroughly enjoyable book. There are hints at how magic works in the world on a larger scale, and how it is used to bind enslaved people on the auction block, but the attention remains focused on this strike and these two women. With underdogs fighting for their fair share and the beginnings of young love, this is an adult fairy tale that literally presents the mystical way in which women's work and power have often been portrayed throughout history. Malerich could easily tell stories in this world on a broader scale, but the glimpse readers get of it here is a treat. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: There is magic in solidarity and sacrifice in this charming historical novella.

Tor, $14.99, paperback, 128p., 9781250756565


We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace

by Denise Kiernan

Before tucking into the cranberry sauce and turkey, readers may wish to pause and appreciate Sarah Josepha Hale. The New Hampshire author, born in 1788, campaigned for decades to have an official national day of gratitude.

In We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, Denise Kiernan (The Girls of Atomic City) presents both the story of Thanksgiving, chock-full of historic tidbits, and well-documented support for the benefits of gratitude. Sarah Hale, widowed mother of five and dynamic "editress" of the esteemed and trend-setting Godey's Lady's Book magazine, embraced two causes: the education of women and the creation of an official day for the nation to express gratitude. "Festivals, rituals and celebrations" of thanks "permeates cultures," Kiernan writes. But "there was no 'first' " Thanksgiving, she notes, debunking numerous versions of the romanticized "Pilgrim-and-Indian" feast. Traditions evolved. Jefferson Davis set the Confederacy celebration for a week before Lincoln's pick; successive presidents declined to proclaim a holiday, decreeing annual dates. Retailers pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to name a day that would maximize the holiday shopping season, and in 1941 Congress proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.

Through wars, expansionist policies displacing Indigenous people, the 1918 pandemic (Kiernan notes the irony of We Gather Together publishing in the year of "social distancing") and more--Thanksgiving survived. Kiernan hopes Hale's vision--to "exhibit the best of ourselves"--will thrive, through "appreciation. Inclusion. Compassion. Celebration. Charity." --Cheryl McKeon, bookseller, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.

Discover: A journalist's detailed history of the myths and facts surrounding the official day of thanks also highlights the benefits of gratitude.

Dutton, $25, hardcover, 304p., 9780593183250

South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War

by Alice L. Baumgartner

Although most histories of those who escaped slavery in the United States focus on people fleeing north to free states or across the Canadian border, between 3,000 and 5,000 enslaved people from the south-central U.S. claimed their freedom in Mexico. In South to Freedom, history professor and debut author Alice L. Baumgartner combines their personal stories with a study of policies relating to slavery in Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States that provides new insight into how the progress toward the American Civil War was influenced internationally.

Much of the book focuses on what was the Mexican province of Tejas at the time this period begins. Many Anglo-American immigrants from slave states expected to be able to bring enslaved people with them, in spite of longstanding policies granting more protection to fugitive slaves than in the United States or even Canada. Some of this material is familiar in broad strokes to those acquainted with how Texas became part of the United States, but Baumgartner examines the details of the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, in which large amounts of territory where slavery was already banned were ceded to the United States. She convincingly builds a case that deserves to be studied at a level with the Missouri Compromise and Bleeding Kansas in the origins of the American Civil War. All United States history buffs would do well to read this book and consider Baumgartner's commentary on why this part of North American history is so often ignored. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library

Discover: This revelatory look at the enslaved people who did not follow the north star sheds new light on Mexican influence on U.S. history.

Basic Books, $32, hardcover, 384p., 9781541617780


I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are

by Rachel Bloom

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator and star Rachel Bloom delivers quirky wisdom and plentiful laughs via energetic, heartfelt entries about her show-business journey.

Bloom structures her book based on how she differs from "normal people." She was bullied for oversharing and for her "Chuck E. Cheese" fashion sense in school, and her OCD manifested when she tasted her poop at age 9. In relationships--recalled via a fairytale-style entry--she believed she deserved sexual harassment. A musical number, a Harry Potter fan fiction and a satirical casting call relay the high-octane craziness she found in drama club as well as her experiences with "asshole guys" in sketch comedy and the "pompous yet cripplingly insecure" straight men of musical theater. These agonies of love inspired the music video that laid the groundwork for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's creation. But the night before pitches, Bloom's obsessive thoughts resurfaced, triggering insomnia--a cycle that would repeat regularly over five years.

By deviating from a typical narrative--she includes childhood diary pages, erotic poems, an interview between her 13- and 23-year-old selves, a schedule detailing her bathroom breaks, and a fantasized travelogue about defeating Internet trolls--Bloom inserts readers directly into key life moments. As she discusses overcoming anxiety, imposter syndrome and misogyny, she balances serious topics with her signature twisted humor. Her story, infused with compassion and hilarious acidity, will resonate with fans and the unacquainted. I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are is a work of silly genius touting the upsides of eccentricity. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer

Discover: Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star and co-creator, takes a comedic and imaginative foray into her past with this deeply personal and form-breaking memoir.

Grand Central, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9781538745359

Performing Arts

Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame

by Lisa Robinson

Here's an idea: instead of publishing a cool book of archival interviews with several dozen famous women in music, publish an even cooler book of their insights organized around themed chapters (e.g., "Motherhood," "Sex," "Drugs"). This bright idea comes from pioneering rock journalist Lisa Robinson, whose Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame is part music history, part social history and no part minced words.

Robinson (There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll) began editing rock magazines in the 1970s, when "rock music journalism, just like rock music, was a boys' club." She spent more than four decades racking up interviews with heavy hitters, among them Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Beyoncé and Adele. Some of the challenges that Robinson's subjects face are common to male musicians as well--how to be a good parent despite a rigorous tour schedule, say--but Robinson is attuned to the different expectations placed on women. In the 1980s, Joan Jett relayed to Robinson what radio stations were telling her: "We can't play you on the radio.... We're playing a woman already. We're playing Pat Benatar."

Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls touches on some of the positive changes Robinson has seen in the business, especially the fact that women, having all too often been exploited by their male managers, are increasingly taking charge of their own careers. Another improvement: there are many more female rock journalists out there now, although it's hard to imagine one as winningly blunt, unpretentious and on-target as Robinson. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: Pioneering rock journalist Lisa Robinson collects insights--about sex, drugs and more--from four decades' worth of interviews with dozens of music-world goddesses.

Holt, $27.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781627794909

Children's & Young Adult


by Julia Denos

In Starcrossed, a dreamlike tale of wonder illustrated in stunning watercolor and mixed media, Julia Denos (Windows; Just Being Jackie) captures the limitless potential of friendship.

Earthbound Eridani is a human "student... of the stars" made "of blood and bones" while her best friend, Acamar, is "made of space and stars," more "a constellation than a boy." Every night, they speak to one another across land and sky. One evening, the two children realize that they long to experience the other's world: Acamar "wanted to be down in the sand" and Eridani "wanted to be up in the stars." Most importantly, perhaps, both children want to be physically near the other. With great anticipation of finally sharing planes, "Eridani wished on Acamar. And Acamar wished on Eridani." ("Don't peek or it won't work!" cries Acamar "I won't!" responds Eridani). Both children get their wish.

Denos's watercolor, India ink, salt, graphite, pastels and digital paint illustrations are rapturous, featuring stunning hues of rich blue, green and purple that swirl across double-page spreads and bleed off the page into the starry night. Intentional bits of humor and delight, including a pet dog that follows from page to page, maintain a hopeful feeling, even as the children deal with old feelings--longing, loneliness--from new perspectives.

In the author's note, Denos reveals that the characters are based on Eridanus, a constellation whose brightest star, Acamar, is a binary star, two stars "gravitationally bound to one another--not touching, yet making a singular, brilliant light." It's an elegant explanation for this heavenly picture book, an astronomical take on "The Gift of the Magi." --Kieran Slattery, freelance reviewer, teacher, and co-creator, Gender Inclusive Classrooms

Discover: Two friends, one human and one made of stars, are determined to visit each other.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 64p., ages 6-9, 9780358153955

The Little Mermaid

by Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney (The Lion and the Mouse) has mastered the art of the picture book rethink, and he comes through again in The Little Mermaid. Somewhere between Hans Christian Andersen's turmoil and Disney's pageantry, Pinkney has found the sweet spot, where one of folklore's most famous deals with the devil is struck in the name of not love but friendship.

Pinkney's Melody, the youngest of the Sea King's four daughters, would rather explore sunken ships than sing in a mermaid choir with her sisters. In one wreck she finds a figurine that "looked a bit like her, but for two cloth sticks where its tail should be"; it fuels her sense of wonder about "the world beyond her home." Melody's sisters remind her that their father forbids them to stray: he fears that the Sea Witch, who has been cast out of the kingdom, will seek revenge on his family.

The king entrusts an old sea turtle to be Melody's minder, and when it surfaces for a gulp of air, Melody tags along. She's beguiled by a girl on the beach with "two sticklike legs" who throws a genial wave her way. After Melody reluctantly returns to her father's kingdom, a sea snake cajoles her: "So sad.... Here you are, stuck undersea... but the Sea Witch can help."

Pinkney's The Little Mermaid is a princeless endeavor; it's the prospect of friendship that inspires Melody to trade her voice for a pair of legs. As he did in Little Red Riding Hood, Pinkney, working in pencil and watercolor, has given a fairy tale's traditionally white cast brown skin, and the rich umber hues round out his jewel-toned underwater color scheme and sun-kissed seaside palette. Readers are lucky: unlike Melody, they needn't choose between the two shimmery, color-drenched worlds. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: Jerry Pinkney gives the iconic Hans Christian Andersen story a glorious makeover in which friendship, not romantic love, spurs the mermaid's sacrifice.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $18.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 4-8, 9780316440318


by Shaun Tan

With Shaun Tan's The Arrival (2007) and Cicada (2019), he has proved himself to be an author/illustrator acutely sympathetic to the immigrant experience. Eric, a breakout story from Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia, takes an inverse but no less compassionate approach to the subject--it looks at a visitor through the eyes of a kid from the host country--and the picture-book format gives Tan's masterful artwork the room it deserves, allowing the story to be accessible to young readers.

"Some years ago we had a foreign exchange student come to live with us," reports Eric's narrator, who goes unnamed and unseen. Much about Eric is perplexing--for one thing, he enjoys inspecting small objects (a button, a bottle cap) more than he enjoys his host's carefully planned sightseeing expeditions. What apparently doesn't perplex the narrator, who says nothing on the subject, is the fact that Eric is diminutive enough to sleep in a teacup (and does) and has a black tripointed head, triangular body and stick limbs. Presumably, the narrator has been tipped off that "foreigners" may look a little different.

When Eric unceremoniously departs, his host family frets ("Did Eric seem upset?") until they discover the thank-you gift he has left behind: an indoor gardenscape in which 30-odd bottle caps and other wee objects hold luminous little plants--the only injections of color in Tan's meticulous graphite art. The narrator's well-meaning mother trundles out her fallback line--"It must be a cultural thing"--but by now the reader has likely come to understand that it's an Eric thing. Eric is a cunning reminder of the uniqueness of every individual, "foreign" or otherwise. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

Discover: In this beguilingly offbeat picture book, a host family is initially nonplussed by the habits of a foreign exchange student.

Scholastic Press, $19.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-8, 9781338622089

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