DISCOVER YOUR NEXT GREAT BOOK
Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s radiant novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, springs from her father’s boundless curiosity.
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features feature | poetry. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
feature | earth day for young readers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Five writers work magic with the power of verse
Three picture books explore our connections with nature
feature | high fantasy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
meet | blanca gómez . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 Meet the author-illustrator of Dress-Up Day
Three epic sagas that aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions
q&a | john scalzi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 The celebrated sci-fi author’s latest is a monster of a good time
feature | thrillers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Loved HBO’s “The White Lotus”? Read these three books
nonfiction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
cover story | jenny tinghui zhang . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 A father’s spirit of exploration, a daughter’s artfully crafted novel
young adult. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
feature | inspirational living. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
children’s. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Four authors share hidden paths to healing
interview | maud newton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
A debut that’s much more than a conventional family memoir
the hold list . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
feature | earth day. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
book clubs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Three nonfiction titles celebrate nature’s precarious beauty
well read. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
feature | asl fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 Two love letters to Deaf culture
romance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
q&a | amanda oliver. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
whodunit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
What it costs librarians to be the saviors of society
cozies. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
feature | ya novels in verse. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
lifestyles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Writing LGBTQ teens back into history
behind the book | ashley woodfolk. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 Why her new YA novel is her most “emotionally honest” yet
PRESIDENT & FOUNDER Michael A. Zibart VICE PRESIDENT & ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Elizabeth Grace Herbert CONTROLLER Sharon Kozy
PUBLISHER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Trisha Ping
BRAND & PRODUCTION MANAGER Meagan Vanderhill
DEPUTY EDITOR Cat Acree
CONTRIBUTOR Roger Bishop
MARKETING MANAGER Mary Claire Zibart
ASSOCIATE EDITORS Stephanie Appell Christy Lynch Savanna Walker
SUBSCRIPTIONS Katherine Klockenkemper
EDITORIAL INTERN Jessie Cobbinah
audio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 Cover and pages 12–13 include art from Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang © 2022, designed by Vi-An Nguyen, used with permission from Flatiron.
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B O O K P A G E • 2 1 4 3 B E L C O U R T AV E N U E • N A S H V I L L E , T N 3 7 2 1 2 • B O O K P A G E . C O M
the hold list
Under-the-radar reads We love it when a great book or hardworking author cultivates a huge following, but we also love cheering for an underdog. Here are five books we believe are deserving of the fireworks and fanfare typically reserved for the biggest blockbusters.
The Tenth Muse
The Promise Girls
I am ready for Catherine Chung to become a household name, and I know that day is coming. Both of Chung’s novels, Forgotten Country (2012) and The Tenth Muse (2019), tell stories of female mathematicians questioning family roles and chasing down secrets. I fell especially hard for her second novel, not just because Chung is a strong storyteller (and indeed she is) but because of her narrative’s clean chronological structure, which embodies the precision and beauty of math itself. Over the course of the novel, protagonist Katherine reflects on her childhood as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and a white American veteran of World War II. She reckons with her place in a male- dominated field, hedges her dreams against her relationship with an charismatic older professor, attempts to solve a famed hypothesis and, in the search for her family’s true history, follows the clues in an equation-filled diary. Chung unfurls these mysteries with all the formal elegance and unequivocal truth of a perfectly balanced equation. —Cat, Deputy Editor
One of Marie Bostwick’s novels had been on my TBR list for so long that I’d forgotten how it had gotten there when I finally started reading it sometime in mid-2021. By chapter five, I had downloaded the rest of Bostwick’s novels. Although I’ve loved them all, my favorite is The Promise Girls. The three Promise sisters were groomed to be artistic prodigies by their overbearing mother, Minerva. During a live televised performance, pianist sister Joanie intentionally blundered her signature piece, and Minerva slapped the girl. In the subsequent uproar, child protective services split up the family, and each sister closeted her creative pursuits and difficult childhood. Decades later, the sisters begin to reexamine their conclusions about their upbringing and artistic abilities. Bostwick creates worlds where we can trust that, with the support of loved ones and a healthy dose of creativity, good people will prevail. Her stories have been a refuge to me, and I know that many readers would find similar comfort in them. —Sharon, Controller
Gabrielle Zevin is best known for her 2015 bestseller, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but her literary talents didn’t start there. In Zevin’s 2005 speculative novel, Elsewhere, 15-yearold Liz has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and she wakes up on a cruise ship called the S.S. Nile that’s bound for the afterlife. When the ship arrives in Elsewhere, a place uncannily similar to Earth, Liz learns that she will age backward until infancy. Then she’ll be released into a river and sent back to Earth, where she will begin a new life. Utterly distraught, Liz spends most of her time at the Observation Decks, where one “eternim” buys her five minutes of Earthviewing time. On the brighter side, she’s taken in by her grandmother Betty, now 34, who died before Liz was born and currently works as a seamstress in Elsewhere. As Liz comes to grips with living her new life in reverse, Zevin executes a premise that’s unique and fully realized. You won’t be able to keep Elsewhere to yourself. —Katherine, Subscriptions
Light From Other Stars I love to look up at the night sky, so Erika Swyler’s second novel, Light From Other Stars, stole my heart. It’s beautifully written, easy to get lost in and powerfully heartfelt. With a light-handed approach, Swyler toes the line between factual science and science fiction to tell the story of Nedda Papas, jumping between her childhood in 1980s Easter, Florida, and her adventures aboard the spaceship Chawla decades later. Nedda’s childhood scenes introduce her father, Theo Papas, a former NASA scientist who’s reeling from the death of his son. When Theo creates an experiment that alters the life of everyone in Easter, Nedda and her mother form an unlikely alliance, and Nedda’s recollections of these earlier events help her solve a dire problem aboard the Chawla. Throughout this tale of time and loss, Swyler explores how people change, how relationships evolve, what happens to us when we die and just how far we’ll go to hold on to the ones we love. —Meagan, Brand & Production Designer
Each month, BookPage staff share special reading lists—our personal favorites, old and new.
We Sang You Home When I worked in an independent bookstore, a trend I noticed and loved was baby showers to which guests were encouraged to bring a book as a gift for the impending arrival. It’s never too early to start building a home library and sharing books with children! Board books are especially perfect for placing in the hands of the newest readers, because the thick cardboard pages are much harder to tear and can hold up to many readings (or nibblings). I loved sending folks out the door with Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett’s We Sang You Home, a spare, poetic meditation whose first-person plural narration encompasses many kinds of families and could be read by any caregiver, not just a birthing parent. I’ve read this book countless times and still choke up at Van Camp’s beautiful benediction: “Thank you for joining us / Thank you for choosing us / Thank you for becoming / the best of all of us.” What an extraordinary way to welcome a tiny new person to the world. —Stephanie, Associate Editor
by julie hale
Books for Broadway lovers With Tom Stoppard: A Life (Vintage, $20, 9781101972663), British biographer and literary critic Hermione Lee delivers a captivating portrait of one of the world’s most beloved playwrights. Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, Shakespeare in Love) was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. He and his mother fled the Nazis during World War II and eventually put down roots in England. He worked as a journalist before going on to write the plays, radio shows and screenplays for which he has won numerous awards and worldwide acclaim. Lee explores Stoppard’s works while tracking his remarkable life, diving deep into subjects like artistic reinvention and the creative process. Actor Leslie Jordan takes stock of his TV career (“Will and Grace,” “American Horror Story”), acclaimed stage work and unexpected Instagram success in How Y’all Doing? Misadventures and Mischief From a Life Well Lived (William Morrow, $16.99, 9780063076204). A Tennessee native, the 66-yearold Jordan writes with Southern These show-stopping nonfiction flair and plenty books explore life in the limelight. of humor, sharing family stories and fabulous anecdotes involving Dolly Parton and other stars. He also writes about serious matters, like the AIDS crisis and his struggles to make sense of his homosexuality. Questions related to the nature of celebrity and social media will inspire spirited reading group dialogue. Actor and singer Rachel Bloom, who created the musical comedy TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” reflects on what it’s like to be an outsider in I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are: Essays and Other Stuff (Grand Central, $17.99, 9781538745366). Recalling awkward middle school years when she was bullied, sharing journal entries and opening up about her mental health, Bloom explores her enduring quest to feel “normal.” She’s modest and forthright in this funny, deeply personal collection. Book clubs can dig into a wide range of discussion topics, including individuality, conformity and the challenges of self-acceptance. In My Broken Language: A Memoir (One World, $18, 9780399590061), Quiara Alegría Hudes, an award-winning playwright and co-writer of the musical In the Heights, shares memories of her upbringing in a West Philadelphia barrio during the 1980s and ’90s. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother whose marriage fell apart, Hudes looks back on life with her family, her Ivy League education and her entry into the world of writing and theater. The art of storytelling and the importance of communication are among the many rich themes in this moving memoir.
A BookPage reviewer since 2003, Julie Hale recommends the best paperback books to spark discussion in your reading group.
BOOK CLUB READS FOR SPR ING THE DIAMOND EYE by Kate Quinn “Kate Quinn has brilliantly hit her mark—this is a stunning novel about a singular historical heroine.” —ALLISON PATAKI, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post
NINE LIVES by Peter Swanson A heart-pounding story of nine strangers who receive a cryptic list with their names on it— and then begin to die in highly unusual circumstances.
ANGELS OF THE PACIFIC
by Elise Hooper “Absolutely riveting. This story of endurance and sisterhood will have you turning pages late into the night.” —LAUREN WILLIG, New York Times bestselling author of Band of Sisters
THE PROPHET’S WIFE by Libbie Grant A sweeping historical novel that tells the remarkable story of the Mormon church through the eyes of the woman who saw it all— Emma, the first wife of the prophet Joseph Smith.
f William Morrow I BookClubGirl
feature | poetry
New collections from celebrated voices Five poets work magic with the power of verse. National Poetry Month is a time for highlighting poetry as a platform for honoring everyday experiences and giving voice to our deepest, most vulnerable selves. For all readers who celebrate, we recommend the wide-ranging collections below, which offer poetic explorations of nature, identity and our need for connection.
H Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes To read Nicky Beer’s third collection, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes (Milkweed, $16, 9781571315397), is to experience poetry as pageantry. In Beer’s hands, the poetic form is a staging place for spectacle, replete with provocative imagery and a brash cast of characters, including celebrities, magicians and eccentrics. “Drag Day at Dollywood” features “two dozen Dollys in matching bowling jackets, / Gutter Queens sprawled across their backs in lilac script.” Beneath their similar facades, the Dollys have distinct identities, which Beer hints at with expert economy. Across the collection, Beer teases out concepts of truth and self-perception. In “Dear Bruce Wayne,” the Joker—“a oneman parade / in a loud costume”—displays his genuine nature, while Batman keeps his virtuous essence under wraps: “don’t you crave, / sometimes, to be a little / tacky?” the narrator asks him. “Doesn’t the all-black / bore after a while?” Beer displays an impressive range, from full-bodied narrative poems to an innovative sequence called “The Stereoscopic Man.” Her formal shape-shifting and penchant for performance make this a magnetic collection.
Content Warning: Everything Content Warning: Everything (Copper Canyon, $16, 9781556596292), the first poetry collection from award-winning, bestselling novelist and memoirist Akwaeke Emezi, doesn’t feel like a debut. Emezi (The Death of Vivek Oji) shifts effortlessly into the mode of poet, exploring spirituality and loss in ways that feel fertile and new. Emezi favors flowing lines unfettered by punctuation, an approach that underscores the urgent, impassioned spirit of a poem like “Disclosure”: “when i first came out i called myself bi a queer tangle of free-form dreads my mother said i was sick and in a dark place.” A desire for release from the constraints of tradition and familial expectations animates many of the poems. As Emezi writes in “Sanctuary,” “the safest place in the world is a book / is a shifting land on top of a tree / so high up that a belt can’t reach.” From searing inquisitions of the nature of guilt and sin to radical reimaginings of biblical figures, Emezi operates with the ease of a seasoned poet throughout this visionary book.
Time Is a Mother “I’m on the cliff of myself & these aren’t wings, they’re futures,” Ocean Vuong writes in his second poetry collection, Time Is a Mother (Penguin Press, $24, 9780593300237). The line is one of the book’s several references to reaching an edge and then jumping or launching, with all the courage required by such an
act and the possibilities that await. Born in Vietnam and brought up in the U.S., Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) writes with keen precision about laying claim to his own authentic life. Identity is a prominent theme in poems like “Not Even”: “I used to be a fag now I’m a checkbox. / The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.” In extended prose pieces and short works of free verse, Vuong remembers his late mother, chronicles the search for connection and reveals a gradual emergence into true selfhood—a sort of rebirth: “Then it came to me, my life. & I remembered my life / the way an ax handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree. / & I was free.”
H Earthborn Earthborn (Penguin, $20, 9780143137016), the 14th book of poetry from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Dennis, is a rich exploration of our relationship to nature in a time of environmental instability. Dennis addresses global warming in “Winter Gift”: “Now it seems right to ask / If winter, though barely begun, is spent, / So hesitant it appears, so frail.” In “One Thing Is Needful,” he enjoins us to act: “it’s time to invest / In the myth of a long-lost Eden.” Religion and mortality are recurring themes, as in “Questions for Lazarus”: “I know you may not be at liberty / To offer specifics,” Dennis writes, “but can you say something / In general about how dying has altered / Your view of life?” Dennis’ poems unfold at a relaxed pace, through long lines, considered and meditative, that accommodate a fullness of thought. As he examines both our lesser drives and finer desires, he holds out hope that we can be better humans and custodians of the planet, a sentiment that makes Earthborn a uniquely comforting volume.
Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head In Somali British author Warsan Shire’s first full-length collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head (Random House, $17, 9780593134351), she brings personal history to bear in poems that focus on the plight of refugees and the realities of being a woman in an oppressive, patriarchal society. “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women,” she writes in “Bless This House.” “Sometimes, the men—they come with keys, / and sometimes, the men—they come with hammers.” Shire writes about female genital mutilation—a common practice in Somalia—in “The Abubakr Girls Are Different,” a poem that balances beauty and brutality: “After the procedure, the girls learn how to walk again, mermaids / with new legs.” The poem “Bless Grace Jones” casts the singer—“Monarch of the last word, / darling of the dark, arched brow”—as a symbol of strength, a figure to be emulated: “from you, we are learning / to put ourselves first.” Indelible imagery and notes of defiance make Shire’s book a triumphant reclamation of female identity. —Julie Hale
by robert weibezahl
H Keats John Keats exists in many minds as an effete, epigraphic nature lover (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) rather than the spirited, earthy man he was. The profile that historian and literary critic Lucasta Miller assembles in her engrossing Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph (Knopf, $32.50, 9780525655831) is a welcome corrective that seeks a truer understanding of the life and work of the iconic British poet. Keats’ life was short (he died in 1821 at 25), and some of its details are scant (the exact day and place of his birth, for example, are sketchy), but as in her previous literary study The Brontë Myth, Miller doesn’t offer a full-fledged biography in Keats. Instead, as the subtitle plainly states, she looks closely at nine of his most representative works in chronological order, threading in literary analysis as she unspools the pertinent life events that may have inspired or unconsciously influenced each piece. Miller is an avowed Keatsian, but one of the strengths of this study is her refreshing willingness to call out the poet for some inferior writing just as often as she extols the brilliance of his more enduring masterworks. The Keats she presents here was a work in progress, cut off in his prime (or perhaps before), and Miller is quick to point out the peculiarities, and sometimes failures, of even his most revered Those seeking a truer understanding poems. This candor adds of the life and work of John Keats to rather than detracts from will welcome this invigorating the affectionate picture reappraisal of his short, tragic life she paints of and extraordinary, enduring poetry. a young man who alternated between ambition and insecurity: a poet who routinely compared his own work to Shakespeare’s yet wrote his own self-effacing epitaph as, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Keats embraced the pleasures of life and art while wrestling with childhood demons. He was born in the waning years of the 18th century, into England’s newly formed middle class, and his father died under suspicious circumstances when the future poet was 8. He was fully orphaned by 14 but was effectively abandoned by his mother years earlier, when she ran off with a much younger man. Keats may have been somewhat emotionally crippled by parental longing, Miller suggests, but he was also a full participant in day-to-day life, devoted to his brothers and sister as well as to a passel of equally devoted friends. The extraordinary language with which Keats fashioned his then-radical poetry percolates with striking neologisms and is laced with coded sexuality. Indeed, Keats himself could be profligate in matters of sex, drugs and money (he abandoned an apprenticeship to a doctor), and Miller sharply centers his life in the context of its time, detailing the moral ambiguities and excesses of the Regency period that would later be whitewashed by the Victorians. While the U.S. publication of this superb volume misses the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death by a year, it is never a bad time to revisit a poetic genius. Miller has given us a thing of beauty, indeed.
Robert Weibezahl is a publishing industry veteran, playwright and novelist. Each month, he takes an in-depth look at a recent book of literary significance.
by christie ridgway
H Boss Witch A witch hunter is on the prowl in Ann Aguirre’s delightful Boss Witch (Sourcebooks Casablanca, $15.99, 9781728240190). Clementine Waterhouse, one of the owners of the Fix-It Witches repair shop, vows to save her family and coven by distracting Gavin Rhys, a sexy Brit who’s arrived in town to snatch away the power of any witch in the vicinity. Gavin and Clem quickly discover a powerful spark of sexual attraction between them, and it’s enough to keep them both bewitched, bothered and bewildered until reinforcements are called in from Gavin’s team. Can they craft a solution to an age-old enmity and find a forever love? Boss Witch may be a paranormal romance, but Gavin and Clem have problems every reader can relate to: meddling family, impossible expectations and fears of intimacy. There’s plenty of amusing whimsy piled into Aguirre’s imaginative story, made all the more charming by her energetic and vivid writing style. Boss Witch will make readers believe in the unbelievable, and wish for a little magic for themselves.
To Marry and to Meddle A couple finds their new marriage less than convenient in To Marry and to Meddle (Atria, $16.99, 9781982190484) by Martha Waters. For years, Lord Julian Belfry was satisfied with his scandalous reputation as the owner of an unsavory theater. He’s only a second son, after all, and not set to inherit any grand title. But respectability would certainly sell more tickets, and he thinks that marrying Lady Emily Turner will help him reach that goal. Emily agrees, as she’s more than ready for a married lady’s relative independence—and it doesn’t hurt that Julian is handsome and charming. But as the pair learns to live together, they must confront uncomfortable truths about themselves. Will these new revelations make or break their union? Waters’ prose harkens back to foundational Regency romance author Georgette Heyer, but Emily and Julian’s individual journeys of learning to like their authentic selves are timeless.
Going Public A workplace romance starts slow then burns hot in Going Public (Carina Adores, $14.99, 9781335500168), the second book in Hudson Lin’s Jade Harbour Capital series. Elvin Goh loves his job as assistant to Raymond Chao, a hotshot fixer and partner at private equity firm Jade Harbour, even if Elvin’s all-hours assignments mean he can’t ignore the many lovers who parade in and out of Ray’s bed. Elvin and Ray are already a great team, but sorting out a thorny, potentially dangerous problem in a Jade Harbour holding brings the pair closer together—and into a new kind of intimacy. Watching sweet, innocent Elvin and jaded playboy Ray navigate new waters will melt readers’ hearts. Lin excels at revealing the inner workings of her characters’ minds, and when they wear their feelings on the sleeve of a luxury business suit . . . well, the appeal is multiplied.
Christie Ridgway is a lifelong romance reader and a published romance novelist of over 60 books.
by bruce tierney The Echo Man
The only thing in this line of work that gives me more pleasure than reading a killer debut novel is reading a serial killer debut novel. The serial killer in Sam Holland’s The Echo Man (Crooked Lane, $27.99, 9781643859910) tallies up an impressive body count, handily surpassing the known body count of any real-life serial killer in the U.K. Detective Chief Inspector Cara Elliott and Detective Sergeant Noah Deakin are investigating a series of murders, deaths they eventually realize are all evocative of different serial killers from history. Meanwhile, suspended cop Nate Griffin spends his downtime ferreting out his wife’s murderer, the same unauthorized inquiry that got him suspended in the first place. After joining forces with fugitive murder suspect Jessica Ambrose, who's been framed for the murder of her husband via arson, Nate essentially throws the rulebook out the window. They’re a rather formidable pair, unfettered by the constraints of on-duty police officers. As the tension mounts, Holland poses a creative and frightening question: When and how will the killer stop being a copycat and deliver his coup de mort, the deathblow that will cement his legacy in the annals of murder?
Fierce Poison In Victorian London, one fictional detective stands out from the others: Sherlock Holmes. But author Will Thomas gives a convincing account of why attention should be paid to two others, Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn, whose 13th adventure plays out in Fierce Poison (Minotaur, $27.99, 9781250624796). It starts off dramatically, when a rather unwell-looking man named Roland Fitzhugh enters their office, promptly slumps to the floor, implores, “Help me,” and then dies before their eyes. Senior partner Barker feels honor bound to investigate, especially after it is revealed that his new (-ly deceased) client was a member of Parliament. This is but the beginning of a rash of poisonings that terrorize the citizenry of England’s capital city: first, a young boy selling sweets outdoors, followed by his entire family, save for an infant girl. Then the poisonings get closer to home, targeting the two detectives themselves. On the suspect list are a gardener who maintains a plot of lethal plants, an herbalist well versed in the preparation of illicit potions and any number of people who disliked Fitzhugh, both in his political career and in his former life as a barrister. Narrated in the first person by Llewelyn, who serves as smart-alecky Archie Goodwin to Barker’s Nero Wolfe, Fierce Poison is cleverly told with humorous asides, period particulars and all the requisite red herrings.
Give Unto Others The COVID-19 pandemic hovers in the background of Donna Leon’s latest installment of the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, Give Unto Others (Atlantic Monthly, $27, 9780802159403). Tourism is down, crime is down and a kind of malaise seems to have settled over the city of Venice. So when an old acquaintance approaches Brunetti to look into a worrisome family matter, Brunetti accepts, albeit not without reservations. The concern is centered on Enrico Fenzo, an accountant who has been acting strangely of late. When confronted by his wife, he alludes to a “dangerous” situation and declines to say more. As Brunetti launches his clandestine inquiry into the situation, it appears that perhaps he is ruffling some feathers: A break-in takes place at the veterinary clinic run by the accountant’s wife, and one of the dogs lodging there is badly mauled, perhaps as a warning against further investigation into the accountant’s potentially illegal affairs. As is the case with most of the other 30 Brunetti novels that precede it, Give Unto Others is a largely character- and milieu-driven novel. There is a central mystery, to be sure, but the characters and their evolving relationships are the driving force of the series as it explores Venice, its history, its culture and, of course, its crime.
H The Sacred Bridge I was a big fan of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn/ Chee mysteries, so I approached Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman’s first book in the continuation of the series, with a bit of trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried; Anne Hillerman so adeptly channeled her father’s narrative voice that 20 pages in, I had completely forgotten it was not a Tony Hillerman book. She also brought positive changes to the series, giving Jim Chee’s wife, police officer Bernie Manuelito, and Joe Leaphorn’s inamorata, anthropologist Louisa Bourebonette, larger roles in the story. In Hillerman’s latest installment, The Sacred Bridge (Harper, $26.99, 9780062908360), Leaphorn’s role is tangential but critical: He sends Chee to Arizona’s magnificent Antelope Canyon in search of a lost cave chock-full of awe-inspiring artifacts. But before Chee can locate it, he spots a dead body floating facedown in nearby Lake Powell. The deceased is Curtis Walker, a Navajo man who was an experienced outdoorsman and was particularly passionate about the area's ancient rock art. When the autopsy suggests foul play, Chee is called in to assist. Meanwhile, Bernie pursues a separate line of inquiry into a hemp processing plant on Navajo Nation land after witnessing a deliberate hit-and-run that killed a plant employee. Once again, Hillerman nails her father’s style, fleshes out the female characters and brings the glories of the Southwest to life on the printed page.
Bruce Tierney lives outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he bicycles through the rice paddies daily and reviews the best in mystery and suspense every month.
by jamie orisini
H Under Lock & Skeleton Key Under Lock & Skeleton Key (Minotaur, $26.99, 9781250804983), the enchanting first book in Gigi Pandian’s Secret Staircase series, flawlessly balances magic, misdirection and murder. After a performance gone wrong, stage magician Tempest Raj must move home to Hidden Creek, California, and contemplate working for her father’s company, Secret Staircase Construction, which adds whimsical details like sliding bookcases and secret rooms to homes. But at his latest job site, a body is discovered inside a wall. To make things even worse, the victim is Cassidy, Tempest’s former stage double. Hidden Creek is a truly delightful setting; the Raj family home abounds with hidden rooms and intricate locks, and also includes the dreamy treehouse where Tempest’s grandparents live. The mystery is engaging and full of crafty twists (sometimes literally, in the form of sleight-of-hand tricks), and Pandian's writing bursts with heart and hope.
DOESN’T STOP HERE.
Divided We Stand H.W. Brands In Our First Civil War, historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist during illuminates the intensely personal convictions of the Patriots and Loyalists the American Revolution.
A Deadly Bone to Pick Mystery fans and dog lovers alike will enjoy Peggy Rothschild’s A Deadly Bone to Pick (Berkley, $26, 9780593437087). Former police officer-turneddog trainer Molly Madison makes a cross-country move to Pier Point, California, with her loyal golden retriever, Harlow, at her side. On her first day there, she befriends a slobbery Saint Berdoodle (named Noodle) and volunteers to train him. But when her new charge digs up a severed hand on the beach, Molly quickly goes from new kid on the block to murder suspect. Readers will enjoy Rothschild’s fast-paced and well-plotted mystery, especially its small beach community setting filled with memorable characters. Molly’s lessons blend seamlessly into the central mystery, and animal lovers will appreciate seeing the reality of loving and living with pets depicted on the page.
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Murder on the Menu After serving nearly 20 years with the London Metropolitan Police and undergoing a divorce, Jodie is ready to start fresh. She and her 12-yearold daughter, Daisy, move to Penstowan, the small village where Jodie grew up. There, she opens her own catering company, and her first client is Tony, a longtime friend and onetime ex-boyfriend who hires her to cater his upcoming wedding. But when the bride-to-be disappears and bodies start to pile up, Jodie takes off her caterer’s coat and dives into the investigation in order to clear Tony’s name. Author Fiona Leitch’s witty dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor elevate each scene, and Leitch also ably explores the bittersweet nature of Jodie’s return: While she’s happy to live closer to her mother, Jodie’s also living in the shadow of her late father, who served the village as chief inspector. Murder on the Menu (One More Chapter, $12.99, 9780008436568) will delight cozy fans, especially those who want just a touch of melancholy amid all the crime-solving fun.
Jamie Orisini is an award-winning journalist and writer who enjoys cozy mysteries and iced coffee.
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feature | high fantasy
TARNISHED CROWNS Three high fantasy novels aren’t afraid to ask difficult questions. Readers who are eager for feats of magic and daring adventures but don’t want to retread the same old stories from decades past will be enthralled by these three novels, each of which strays outside of the traditional high fantasy playbook to great effect. Far from being simple tales of birthrights and inheritances restored, these books delve into heady questions about power, privilege and the consequences of political intrigue. And while each does this in a different way, they do have one thing in common: They open with a death.
The Amber Crown Jacey Bedford’s The Amber Crown (DAW, $20, 9780756417703) begins with the death of King Konstantyn of Zavonia, poisoned by an unknown assassin. His personal guards are immediately blamed for the death and executed by the new king. Valdas Zalecki, head of the king’s guard, was out of the palace on the night of the murder, and it is up to him to find out who killed his beloved king—and to find Queen Kristina, who’s gone missing. Mirza, a witch and healer with the power to speak with the dead, promises Konstantyn that she will avenge his death. And the last piece of The Amber Crown’s puzzle is Lind, the assassin who killed Konstantyn. Haunted by the specter of his abusive childhood, Lind finds that the murder of a king is not an easy thing to live with. As their stories collide, these three outsiders must work together to prevent Zavonia from falling further into chaos. Despite its conventional premise, The Amber Crown still represents a divergence from traditional high fantasy. The world building echoes Eastern Europe, with Zavonia serving as a fictionalized version of Poland. This allows Bedford to pull from supernatural practices of that region of the world, such as blood rituals and dream walking. And Bedford’s focus on marginalized and supposedly “unimportant” characters, rather than knights and princes, forces readers to reckon with the consequences of political upheaval outside of a royal court.
H The Bone Orchard Sara A. Mueller’s debut novel also begins with the death of a monarch, this time an emperor. In The Bone Orchard (Tor, $26.99, 9781250776945), Charm is a prisoner but a well-kept one. Taken from her home when her kingdom of Inshil was conquered and colonized by the Boren Empire, the necromantic witch has been confined to Orchard House for decades. Charm is surrounded by her children, of a kind: boneghosts who are grown (and often regrown) from the fruit of the bone-producing orchard. Charm and her boneghosts—Justice, Pain, Pride, Shame and Desire—serve the
powerful men of the capital city of Borenguard as entertainers, masseuses and sex workers. Charm is mistress to the emperor himself, bound by a neural implant that keeps her magic in check and keeps her loyal to him. But when Charm is called to the emperor’s deathbed, she’s given a chance at freedom. If she finds the person who killed him, she will be free of the magic that keeps her bound to the crown. While the mechanics of Charm’s bone orchard and the empathic power that some citizens of Borenguard wield are certainly magical, other aspects of The Bone Orchard evoke classic sci-fi tropes. Charm’s boneghosts harken all the way back to Frankenstein, and the oppressive, fascist Boren Empire is straight out of Fahrenheit 451. But despite these nods to foundational works, The Bone Orchard still feels fresh and ambitious. Charm enjoys access to power while still being marginalized herself, a contradictory position that Mueller analyzes to endlessly fascinating effect. It may be an otherworldly, genre-bending fantasy, but The Bone Orchard is still intensely human at its heart.
In a Garden Burning Gold In a Garden Burning Gold’s (Del Rey, $27, 9780593354971) opening death is not so much a murder as it is a sacrifice. Young adult author Rory Power’s first novel for adults centers on twins Rhea and Lexos, siblings gifted with immense power and responsibility. Rhea is the Thyspira, tasked with taking—and then sacrificing—a new consort each season to keep the world lush and the provinces that owe fealty to their father, Vasilis, in line. Lexos is their father’s second, trained from near birth to assist Vasilis in his political machinations and keep stability in the land. When Rhea’s latest suitor-cum-sacrifice is revealed to be embroiled in an independence movement that threatens the stability of the family’s demesne, the twins must scramble to maintain control and protect all they hold dear. Set in a world patterned after ancient Greek city states, In a Garden Burning Gold dives deep into family love, political intrigue and filial duty. It’s rare to find a main character whose powers engender so much ambivalence as Rhea’s abilities do for her. She offers little in return to the families and communities from whom she has stolen a life, other than the continuance of the status quo. Power makes Rhea a compelling and often likable character, while never losing sight of the fact that, in the end, she always lives and her consort always dies. That imbalance compels readers to ask whether the sacrifice is really worth it, and whether that sort of power should sit in any one person’s—or family’s—hands. A grown-up version of Encanto mixed with a political thriller, all set against a dazzling Mediterranean backdrop, In a Garden Burning Gold is a strikingly original and thoughtful fantasy. —Laura Hubbard
Art from In a Garden Burning Gold © 2022. Reproduced by permission of Del Rey. Jacket design and illustration: Faceout Studio/Tim Green.
Let’s get ready to rumble
© JOHN SCALZI
q&a | john scalzi
An out-of-this-world job comes with some big perks. After wrapping up the Interdependency trilogy, sci-fi author John Scalzi planned to write a weighty and serious novel. Instead, he had a monster of a good time. The Kaiju Preservation Society (Tor, $26.99, 9780765389121) is an adventurous romp that follows onetime delivery driver Jamie, who lucks into the job of a lifetime working for the titular organization, studying and protecting enormous monsters who live in an alternate dimension. We talked to Scalzi about the book he calls “as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel.” There’s nothing like a good monster book to shake things up. What drew you to writing a story about Kaiju? Well, I was actually writing another novel entirely—a dark and brooding political novel set in space—and it turns out that 2020 wasn’t a great year to be writing a dark and moody political novel, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who lived through 2020. That novel crashed and burned, and when it did, my brain went, screw it, I’m gonna write a novel with BIG DAMN MONSTERS in it. It was much better for my brain, as it turns out.
feature | thrillers
Shocking reads for fans of ‘The White Lotus’ Money may not necessarily be the root of all evil, but privilege certainly leads to peril in three exciting new thrillers.
to pretend that the characters have no concept of Big Damn Monsters, and that opens up a lot of narrative opportunities. The dialogue in this book positively crackles with life. How do you approach writing dialogue? Dialogue is one of the things I “got for free”—which is to say, something that was already in my toolbox when I got serious about writing. That’s great, but that also means it can be a crutch, something I fall back on too easily, or get sloppy with because I know I can do it more easily than other things. So, paradoxically, it’s something I have to pay attention to, so that it serves the story.
You mention in your author’s note that The Kaiju Do you see yourself as a Jamie? Ready to believe, Preservation Society is “a pop song . . . meant to optimistic, quick with a joke? be light and catchy.” Did it feel like that to you You’ve hit on something, which is that Jamie is meant while writing? to be someone whom the readers can see themselves Not going to lie, writing Kaiju was as much fun as in, or at least could see themselves relating to. There’s I’ve ever had writing a novel. Some of that was in a little of me in Jamie, sure. There’s also some of me contrast to the unfinished in Jamie’s friends. They each “Self-honesty is important, have qualities that help them novel before it ; anything work together. would have been easier than especially when some that one, given the subject and year I attempted it in. creature wants to eat you.” OK, real talk: What weapon But most of it was just giving would you reach for first if myself permission to feel the joy of writing, and of you were face to face with a Kaiju? creating something expressly to be enjoyed. If I’m being real, I’m going to remember what the weaponmaster in the book asks the characters, There are many homages to sci-fi and monster which is, basically, “Are you competent enough for movie tropes in this book. What preexisting audithat weapon?” Self-honesty is important, especially ence expectations served you best? when some creature wants to eat you. In which case, All of the preexisting expectations served me! One I’m going for the shotgun: widespread, low level of of the important things about world building is that difficulty to use. Perfect. And then, of course, I’ll run like hell. the characters are in on the joke—they’ve seen all the —Chris Pickens Godzilla movies, they’ve watched Pacific Rim and Jurassic Park, and so all the tropes are on the table Visit BookPage.com to read an extended for them and the book to lean into, to refute and to version of this Q&A and our review of play with, depending on the circumstances of the The Kaiju Preservation Society. plot. No one, not the characters nor the readers, has
A toxic friendship between a wealthy girl and her less fortunate classmate is at the heart of this hypnotic story from Bethany C. Morrow. Cherish Farrah (Dutton, $26, 9780593185384) tips from slow-building suspense into over-the-top horror as it immerses readers in a singularly unsettling worldview.
The Younger Wife Beyond the twists and turns of Sally Hepworth’s The Younger Wife (St. Martin’s, $28.99, 9781250229618) lies an exploration of trauma and its aftermath, and a subtle examination of how wealth can color relationships and self-worth.
The Club Wealth is practically a main character in The Club (Harper, $26.99, 9780062997425) by Ellery Lloyd. This clever murder mystery provides a pointed and cleareyed cautionary tale about the downsides of money and fame. Is all the jockeying for power and catering to terrible people (while, one assumes, trying not to get murdered) worth it? —Linda M. Castellitto Visit BookPage.com to read our full feature.
cover story | jenny tinghui zhang
SEEING AMERICA THROUGH MY FATHER’S EYES A father’s spirit of exploration leads to a daughter’s artfully crafted first novel.
had the potential to turn into a permanent position. My mother and I waited Jenny Tinghui Zhang makes her debut with Four Treasures of the Sky, a in Oxford, hoping that this would be the one. He called and spoke about the spirited tale of Chinese calligraphy and one girl’s journey of self-acceptance in late 19th-century America. Zhang, a Texas-based Chinese American writer, holds an weather, how the job was going, the mountains that braced the city. I was always MFA in nonfiction from the University of Wyoming, and she is now a prose editor worried he wouldn’t make it back home. at The Adroit Journal. Her first novel reveals storytelling In the end, my father got that job. His company skills both vast and specific, bringing shadowy history “My father overcomes hills, moved us to Austin, where we upgraded to a nice twoto light while also displaying a remarkable talent for bedroom apartment right across from the Barton Creek skips down valleys, sensory detail. Mall. When my mother and I visited him at his office, Zhang was inspired to write this incredible story after my father proudly showed us the break room, where cuts through the trees.” receiving a request from her father, a man of boundless we could grab handfuls of free coffee creamer and play curiosity who has explored nearly every inch of his adopted country. Once Zhang pool. He looks unstoppable, I remember thinking as I watched my father hold court in that break room. completed the book, her father returned to the site where the novel’s finale occurs. A few years later, that same company let my father go in a series of layoffs. I came home from school one day and was confused to see him already there. In 2014, my father was driving through the Pacific Northwest for work. One “Your dad got laid off today,” he told me, smiling wide. It was a maniacal evening, while making his way through Idaho, he passed a small town called kind of smile; there was no joy behind it. Over the next two years, my father Pierce. His headlights caught a historical marker on the side of the road. He would stay rooted at the computer, scrolling through job sites and updating saw, in those lights, the words “Chinese Hanging Tree.” The marker detailed his resume. When the phone rang occasionally, he would leap up to take calls from recruiters. I always felt an oppressive hope an event in 1885 when five Chinese men were hanged by white vigilantes for the alleged murder during these calls—maybe this would be the one. of a local white store owner. But things never worked out for him, whether it My father carried that story with him all the was because he lacked the skill set, or the English, way back to Texas. During one of my visits home, to make the final rounds. With our finances and my college attendance he told me about the marker and asked if I could write it into a story so he could figure out what on the line, my father accepted a job at Time really happened. His research online had yielded Warner Cable as a field technician. He spent his days driving around Austin and climbing poles, few results, he lamented. I took the request as a joke. My father has helping old ladies with their cable boxes, fixing always entertained many curiosities. He’s an wires and signals. It wasn’t the job he dreamed Aquarius, a perpetual fixer, a man who reads of having with his engineering degree, but it was something. books about the universe and math and string theory for fun. When he was a child, my father had My parents moved out of Austin years ago, but I the kind of mischievous and inquisitive energy remain here. When they come visit me, my father that eventually matured into a certain genius. always speaks about the city with a familiarity He refused to sit and ride the bus, preferring to that can only come from having crawled every hang off the back and balance on the bumper. inch of it, for better or worse. Your dad did a job He played clever pranks on his parents. In high there, he tells me about Montopolis, Anderson school, he joined the high jump team—back Lane, Travis Heights. The gated neighborhoods when the conventional jumping form was to do of West Austin. The now-gentrified pockets so headfirst. of East Austin. I wonder if he is telling me, or When my parents immigrated to Oxford, reminding himself. Mississippi, for graduate school in the early 1990s, Today my father has a different job, one that there was no room for that kind of man. They takes him all over the United States—places that lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in most folks only ever pass through to reach their the married graduate student housing section final destinations. His job is to seek out these on the Ole Miss campus, just down the way forgotten, overlooked places in order to determine from the fraternities. They attended where the signal for his company’s radios falters. classes and worked multiple jobs It sounds lonely and excruciating to me, and I that paid as little as $2 an hour. often worry about his safety out in these primarily And they tried to raise me. rural areas, but my father loves it. His job has Four Treasures of the Sky allowed his curiosities to grow, unrestricted Our tenure in America and Flatiron, $27.99, 9781250811783 by the walls of a cubicle. He makes pit stops the fulfillment of their to inspect strange roadside attractions, takes American dream—all of Historical Fiction pictures of the mountains in Oregon, orders that would be hopeless without a job following my parents’ graduation, beers at steakhouses in Virginia. He shares these artifacts and stories with me the responsibility for which rested on my father’s and my mother, leading us down long, meandering thought experiments of shoulders. At one point, he flew out to San Jose, what really happened and wouldn’t it be funny if. When he is out there, driving California, for the trial period of a job that through the endless fields, hills and forests, I know that there is all the room in
the world for the kind of man he is, the one who was put aside in my family’s desperation for a stable foothold in America. It was this exploration that led him to that historical marker in Pierce. Just another pit stop. Another curiosity along the way. My father asked me to write out the story of what happened, and I did. It turned into my debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky. I took the story he told me and worked my way backward to an imagined beginning. What I didn’t realize was that the story was not really about what happened in Pierce. It turned out to be about a girl named Daiyu who is kidnapped from her home in China and shipped across the ocean to America before making her way back home through the American West. This journey is not without struggle, as you can imagine. Faced with the threat of bad men and women, anti-Chinese racism and the question of fate, Daiyu pushes forward, traversing strange landscapes and lonely days. Her journey takes her to places I have never wandered, but places I imagine my father has and will. Perhaps unconsciously, I am thinking of him when I think of her.
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, my parents decided that they would start traveling more for pleasure. They went to Rome—the first trip abroad they’ve ever taken in their 30 years in America, not counting all the trips back to China to care for their parents. We were never able to travel much during the years when my father didn’t have a job, but for the first time, they could imagine Paris, London, Washington, D.C. They wanted to visit New York City, having worked there as a delivery runner and a hostess during their grad school years. This time, they would experience it as tourists, not two people trying to survive. When the pandemic hit, all of those dreams disappeared. Instead, my mother began accompanying my father on his work trips. It’s a good deal: When my father is done with his job assignment, he turns into a tour guide of sorts, taking my mother to the roadside attractions, national forests and waterfalls he finds on Google Maps. My mother is a good adventure partner. They wander together, propelled by my father’s curiosities. Last summer, my father got another job assignment in Bend, Oregon. My mother went with him, and after the job finished, they drove over to Idaho, to Pierce. I had begged them not to—I was afraid that they would be attacked, given what was in the news lately. But my parents went anyway. They walked through the town, all 0.82 square miles of it, and documented their journey, sending me videos and pictures of the historical markers, the inns, the fire department, the old courthouse. They walked to the woods nearby, back to the historical marker that started it all. In the videos, taken by my mother, my father walks ahead, charting the course for the Chinese Hanging Tree. The forest floor is lush and verdant.
review | four treasures of the sky Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s spirited first novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, follows a girl’s epic three-year journey from her provincial home in northern China to San Francisco’s Chinatown and then to the mountains of Idaho. Born in the late 19th century, Daiyu is named for a mythological beauty who dies tragically when her lover is forced to marry another. Throughout her story, Daiyu struggles to overcome her namesake’s fatalism and discover a more purposeful, loving self. She must also cope with the poverty and prejudice that shape her daily existence. After her parents abruptly disappear and her doting grandmother can no longer support her, 13-year-old Daiyu is sent to the city to fend for herself. She assumes the identity of a young boy,
© MARY INHEA KANG
The pines shoot upward. My father overcomes hills, skips down valleys, cuts through the trees. He is wearing a pale blue polo and baseball cap. His hands are at his waist. When they reach the site of the hanging, my parents stop. The camera points upward, to the ceiling of branches and leaves, and what little sky can manage its way through. It catches my father in this shot: He is looking around, breathing hard. “It’s just here,” he murmurs. There is no sentimentality in his voice, no grand gesture of reunion. Just acknowledgment and the respect of observation. The true pleasure of his exploration, I realize as I watch the video, is in sharing it with those he loves. His stories are not simply just thought experiments; they are reminders that no matter where he is, he is always thinking about us. In a way, Four Treasures of the Sky is my attempt to tell him a story, too. The camera points back down, this time stopping at my father. “Now that we’ve seen it,” he says, “we can go.” He turns, plodding his way through the brush, making his way toward whatever curiosity comes next. —Jenny Tinghui Zhang
naming herself Feng, and scavenges for food and odd jobs. Eventually she is taken in by a calligraphy master, who teaches her the discipline of ink brush, ink stick, paper and inkstone—the Four Treasures of the Study, which are mirrored in the novel’s four main sections. The practice of calligraphy continues to inform Daiyu throughout her perilous journey, and a recurring pleasure of the novel is Daiyu’s meditations on the shape and meaning of Chinese ideograms as they apply to circumstances in her life. In a food market one day, Daiyu is kidnapped. When the kidnapper discovers Daiyu’s female identity, he hides her in a barrel and ships her to a brothel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The descriptions of this trip are terrifying. Equally as visceral are Zhang’s depictions of brothel life: the food, the feel of the rooms, the rivalries and friendships of the prostitutes, the subterfuges and
cruel economics that make these places possible. In these moments, the author’s skill for sensory detail shines. The brothel is the first place Daiyu comes face-to-face with American anti-immigrant racism. Recent laws have forbidden Chinese women from being admitted to the country, while male laborers are still allowed in, so a secret trade of trafficking young girls has emerged. Daiyu is eventually able to escape and, disguised as a boy once again, travels to Pierce, Idaho, where a coal-mining boom has attracted Chinese miners. There the novel comes to its startling conclusion. Though Daiyu’s story is shaped by true historical inequities, Four Treasures of the Sky comes to life through her journey to selfdiscovery and self-acceptance. —Alden Mudge
feature | inspirational living
KEEP GOING Four authors share hidden paths to healing. The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this specific grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling.
H Bittersweet Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole (Crown, $28, 9780451499783) eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy. Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”
Grief Is Love Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss (Legacy Lit, $26, 9780306926020). When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly. Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones
she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days of trying to manage and contain her feelings. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.
The Other Side of Yet Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness (Atria, $28, 9781982173524). Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.” In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.
Take What You Need Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything (Broadleaf, $24.99, 9781506468617). Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant. Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or as “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess the things they need to persevere. Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going. —Kelly Blewett
by susannah felts
H Refuse to Be Done I’ve been following writer and professor Matt Bell on social media for years, eagerly tuning in for the wisdom he shares from the many (many) books and author interviews he has read, and frankly awed by his fierce, upbeat dedication to his writing practice. Bell’s new guide for aspiring novelists, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts (Soho, $15.95, 9781641293419), gathers his wealth of knowledge and motivational zeal into a volume that deserves a spot on every writer’s desk. He advocates for a three-draft approach, while recognizing that “draft” can mean many different things. His chief goal is to keep you from giving up—to provide the fuel and structure to get you through the inevitable slog of novel-writing. As I embark upon another revision of a novel I’ve been working on for years, I’m thankful to have this book riding shotgun.
Anna Spiro It’s been a minute since we’ve featured the work of an interior designer. Anna Spiro: A Life in Pattern (Thames & Hudson, $60, 9781760762131) turned my head with its springy, floral-print linen cover, just the thing to spiff up a side table. Inside, the fun continues: The photographs are spirit-lifters one and all, awash in bold colors, textures and, as is Spiro’s trademark, pattern on pattern on pattern, with glorious examples of how to avoid being matchy and yet make everything harmonize. Fans of the ebullient mix-and-matching of Justina Blakeley will also delight in Spiro’s maximalist, vibrant style. If you’ve had a hankering to try a pop of wallpaper, this book will take your face between its hands and say, “Go for it, friend!” Do you love being surrounded by your precious things? Spiro understands, and she encourages shaping your personal style around those beloved objects. “Above all, your goal should be to create an environment that is reflective of you, your life and taste,” she writes. “Collect art, furniture and other items that have meaning to you.”
Love and Justice Model, actor and activist Laetitia Ky has amassed a significant Instagram following over the past several years, posting images of her incredible hair sculptures. She twists, bends and shapes her own hair into faces, animals, bodies, trees, breasts and other body parts, and much more. This hair art is striking at face value, but in Love and Justice: A Journey of Empowerment, Activism, and Embracing Black Beauty (Princeton Architectural, $27.50, 9781648960529), Ky frames her sculptural work within personal narratives that dig into issues of mental health, internalized misogyny, African heritage, sexism, self-care, Black beauty and other themes close to her heart. As a member of a new global guard of young creatives who refuse to separate their work from their beliefs and values, Ky is poised to become a strong role model for young people finding their way in the world.
Susannah Felts is a Nashville-based writer and co-founder of The Porch, a literary arts organization. She enjoys anything paper- or plant-related.
H African Town In African Town (Listening Library, 7 hours), co-authors Charles Waters and Irene Latham use a series of first-person narrative poems to tell the story of the Clotilda—the last American slave ship—and to reveal the fates of the enslaved passengers and their captors. Each character’s perspective unfolds in a particular poetic structure that reflects their personality, and the audiobook cast members incorporate the cadence of these poems into their performances without ever sounding forced or contrived. It’s an emotionally complex, searingly honest and extremely rewarding experience for teen and adult listeners alike. —Deborah Mason
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How to Be Perfect In How to Be Perfect (Simon & Schuster Audio, 9 hours), Michael Schur, creator of “The Good Place,” explores philosophical questions about how humans define goodness and how to achieve it. The audiobook is read mostly by the author, whose well-paced, attentive narration keeps his humorous, personality-driven (albeit sometimes meandering) content clear and engaging. Actors from “The Good Place” comprise the audiobook’s remaining cast, with Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, Ted Danson and others bringing distinctive tones, attitudes and comedic gravitas to their performances. —Autumn Allen
I Came All This Way to Meet You Novelist Jami Attenberg invites readers to join her in reflecting on relationships, creativity and the nature of home in her first essay collection, I Came All This Way to Meet You (HarperAudio, 6.5 hours). Attenberg’s vulnerability in these essays, paired with narrator Xe Sands’ quiet, confident voice, makes this an intensely personal listening experience. It’s like sitting down with a clever friend to hear stories over cups of tea—nostalgic, conspiratorial and comfortable. —Tami Orendain
H All About Me! Mel Brooks—the multiple Tony, Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning comedian, writer, filmmaker and Broadway showman—has found reasons to laugh all his life and, thankfully, has shared that laughter with the public. Now he’s doing it again, this time with his memoir, All About Me! (Random House Audio, 15 hours). It’s easy to hear that Brooks had fun telling these stories, which clearly hold a distinct place in his heart. They’ll find a way into yours, too. —G. Robert Frazier
interview | maud newton
Shaking the family tree Maud Newton’s debut is much more than a conventional family memoir.
© MAXIMUS CLARKE
According to an article in the MIT Technology Among the most memoReview, by early 2019, more than 26 million people rable characters in her famhad added their DNA to the four leading commerily line are her maternal ninth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss cial ancestry and health databases. That level of Parsons, who faced multiple alleinterest cries out for an in-depth examination of genealogy’s broad appeal, and Maud Newton gives gations of witchcraft in 17th-century us just that in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning Massachusetts, and her maternal grandfather, and a Reconciliation, a thoughtful investigation Robert Bruce, who reportedly married 13 times. (So far, Newton has only been able to document 10 of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the marriages, though she’s still searching.) Another is branches of her own family tree. Charley, Robert’s father, who was accused of murSpeaking by FaceTime from her home in Queens, dering a man in downtown Dallas with a hay hook New York, the red-haired and bespectacled Newton Visit BookPage.com to read our starred is relaxed and cordial as she sits in front of a wall of in 1916. He died in a Texas mental hospital, but review of Ancestor Trouble. Newton became so engrossed glass-enclosed bookshelves. She speaks thoughtfully but with eviin his story that she purchased a dent passion about a project that tombstone to mark his previously regularly. I objectively think they’re highly probhad its genesis some 15 years anonymous grave. lematic, and on a personal level, I continue to be seduced by the tools that they offer.” ago, when she started researchFor Newton, the most probing her family on Ancestry.com. lematic aspect of her ancesNewton’s comprehensive approach also led her But it wasn’t until 2010, when try concerns her family’s conto explore different ancestor veneration practices, she received her 23andMe DNA nections with slavery and with such as Tomb-Sweeping Day in China and the Day test results, that her interest in efforts to expel Indigenous peoof the Dead in Mexico. As she studied these rituals ples from their native lands. On the subject took off. Even then, throughout history and the world, she came to realshe admits, she was “puzzled by her father’s side, that history ize that “we in the contemporary West who do not hardly came as a surprise; he my obsession with it. I wasn’t venerate ancestors or minister to them in the afterreally sure exactly what I was was, after all, obsessed with the life are the aberration, not the other way around.” trying to get at.” Confederacy. But Newton was That intriguing and moving investigation, she says, A 2014 cover story for Harper’s dismayed to discover that some provided her with “a spiritual connection now, a Magazine on “America’s Ancestry of her mother’s ancestors also healthy connection to my ancestors, including to enslaved people and particiCraze” led to a book contract some of the ancestors who were problematic when and launched Newton, a writer pated in genocide against Native they died, with whom I had difficult relationships in life.” In the end, she says, “it’s less important or and former book blogger who Americans. “It was an unpleasbriefly practiced law before ant surprise, but ultimately a interesting whether there’s some objective realAncestor Trouble her literary career began, on a healthy and useful one,” Newton ity to this feeling that I have of connection to my Random House, $28.99 long and sometimes circuitous says, “to recognize that it wasn’t ancestors. What’s important to me is the healing 9780812997927 path through subjects like the possible for me to divide my potential that this inquiry can have.” heritability of trauma and the family into the part that enslaved Readers will connect with many aspects of Memoir spiritual importance of ancesNewton’s vivid story, but there’s one—what she people and that I didn’t relate to tors in various cultures. “As a layperson, my abilas much, and the part that I related to more that calls “acknowledgment genealogy”—that she hopes ity to understand the deep science was limited,” didn’t have this history. It was on all the sides.” will especially resonate. This encompasses, as she Though her family history is rife with material, she says, “but I really wanted to do my best.” The puts it, “personal harms that we can acknowledge broad reading list reflected in her book ranges from Newton wanted to write a book that was more than within our own family or larger harms that relate to ancients like Aristotle and Hippocrates to the work a conventional family memoir. “The only way I the systemic problems that we’re facing now as a of contemporary writers such as Dani Shapiro and wanted to write it country. . . . If each “Making it personal is the most Alexander Chee. was if I could . . . of us can feel a little look at it through At the core of Ancestor Trouble is Newton’s comcomfortable powerful force we have for change.” more these different plex, often difficult family story. She describes her coming forward birth as a “kind of homegrown eugenics project,” lenses, both through my own family history and and recognizing these harms and thinking about writing that her parents “married not for love but in the larger historical, sociological, scientific, philthem and feeling about them in a larger context,” because they believed they would have smart chilosophical and religious history context,” she says. she says, “we’ll move a lot further along as a country dren.” The union between her father, a MississippiThat broad perspective magnified Newton’s restoward the kind of conversations and healing that we born lawyer and unabashed racist, and her mother, ervations about online DNA research websites. “I need.” Newton believes this and brilliantly reflects a Texas native who later in life became a fundamenam very skeptical and very concerned about the it in Ancestor Trouble. After all, she says, “maktalist minister who conducted exorcisms in the famdata those sites are collecting and the lack of coning it personal is the most powerful force we trol we have over what is done with that data,” she ily living room, lasted only 12 years but left Newton have for change.” with a colorful, at times painful lineage to explore. —Harvey Freedenberg says. “And I also continue to use both of those sites
Art from Ancestor Trouble © 2022. Reproduced by permission of Random House.
feature | earth day
Forces of nature Three works of nonfiction balance a rousing celebration of nature’s beauty with a somber appraisal of its precarious future. David George Haskell, Eugene Linden and Juli Berwald engage all of the senses as they offer caution and hope about the Earth’s imperiled landscapes.
H Sounds Wild and Broken In Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction (Viking, $29, 9781984881540), David George Haskell admits that, in all his formal training as a biologist, he was rarely asked to use his ears as an evaluative tool. This may come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Haskell’s work, which often focuses on the sonic offerings of the natural world. Visit the website of this Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and scientist, for example, and you’ll find links to symphonic soundscapes recorded from each of the sylvan subjects of his 2017 book, The Songs of Trees. In his latest book, Haskell continues to delve into aural worlds that often go unnoticed, beginning with the breathtaking story of the evolution of sound. Haskell describes the complex apparatus of hearing in all its minute, sensitive brilliance. From vibrations picked up by single-celled organisms, to the childlike babbling of newly hatched birds, to the astounding invention of the first human instruments, played in cave chambers selected for their resonance, this tale brims with enchanting facts you won’t believe you never knew. Haskell’s prose is suffused with enthusiasm and poetic in form. The way in which he loads each sentence with information is so animated, it’s fair to say this is a book that would talk with its hands if it could. Even so, his descriptions of bacteria that “murmur” and “purr,” or the “voices of tree elders” heard in the polished wood of a symphony, are lilting, spellbinding and songlike in themselves. Sounds Wild and Broken also examines the ways Indigenous peoples, often experts in the soundscapes of their ancestral lands, are pushed out of the business of forest management and land stewardship. Haskell does not shy away from indicting a certain colonial and corporate refusal to hear. His examination of sound, after all, is grounded in the seriousness of what it means when things go quiet. Thankfully, scientists are leveraging soundscapes in new ways to more responsibly manage these forested and oceanic philharmonics. Haskell’s warning is cradled in awe as he holds up for us the magic and delight we stand to lose. —Anna Spydell
H Fire and Flood In his urgent new book, Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present (Penguin Press, $28, 9781984882240), journalist Eugene Linden gravely explains why the world has failed to stop the ongoing catastrophe of climate change. He begins with the 1980s, when climate change first became widely known as “global warming.” As temperatures began to rise around the world, scientists sounded the alarm and made dire predictions of what was to come, yet the public was largely uninterested. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry maintained its outsize stranglehold on our economic and political systems—all in the name of profit.
Next Linden tackles the 1990s, when India and China became more industrialized, multiplying their greenhouse gas emissions exponentially. Following western nations’ lead, they had invested in mostly coal power, sending climate change into overdrive. Linden outlines all the ways the fossil fuel industry and the business community as a whole questioned the existence of climate change in bad faith in the 2000s. Despite evidence and numerous warnings, they actively downplayed the severity of climate change, aided by a decadeslong misinformation campaign. By 2010, superstorms and massive wildfires were commonplace occurrences, rather than fluke events that happened once every century. Climate change is here, Linden declares, and we can no longer deny it. Although this is a deeply serious subject, there is still much to be hopeful about, and Linden ends Fire and Flood on a positive note. Experts anticipate trillions of dollars of investments in renewable energy, new green industries and new jobs over the next 30 years. The public is demanding change, and that, Linden emphasizes, is where our power lies. —Sarojini Seupersad
Life on the Rocks In her brilliant study of jellyfish, Spineless, science writer Juli Berwald traveled the world to explore the intimate connections between the health of our oceans and the ways that these luminescent creatures adapt to rapidly changing marine conditions. Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs (Riverhead, $28, 9780593087305) now does for coral reefs what Spineless did for jellyfish: It offers a love letter to their resplendent beauty, issues a warning about their dire future and holds out cautious hope that they can flourish once again. In her quest to find out what is killing the world’s coral reefs and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the damage, Berwald met with scientists in Florida, California and Bali, among other destinations. In Florida, for example, she learned that stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is eating up to 2 inches of coral tissue per day. Other factors contributing to the loss of coral reefs include “overfishing, sedimentation from coastal erosion, ship anchors leaving scars, pollution from pesticide runoff and untreated sewage, unrelenting oil spills, and ever larger hurricanes.” The world’s great coral reefs, she learned, may cease to exist by 2050. Despite such a dire prognosis, Berwald also learned that the public and private sectors are developing strategies for restoring coral reefs. Along the way, she intersperses fiercely tender stories of her daughter’s struggle to receive treatment for her mental illness with these discoveries about coral reefs, offering thoughtful reflections about what can and can’t be known about the problems we face. Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs. As Berwald immerses readers in a glimmering undersea world, she also encourages them to discover ways they can support efforts to preserve the reefs, which play a key role in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of our oceans. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
reviews | fiction
H Young Mungo By Douglas Stuart
Coming of Age The history of world literature is filled with second novels that pale in comparison to their author’s stellar freshman achievement. How many debuts have had the spectacular success of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain? More than 500,000 copies sold and the 2020 Booker Prize is not a bad way to start a literary career. Readers will be happy to learn that Stuart’s follow-u p, Young Mungo (Grove, $27, 9780802159557), is even stronger than his first book. This tale of two gay Glasgow teenagers caught amid various forms of prejudice in the early 1990s is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence that finds humanity in even the most fraught circumstances. You know you’re in for a tough upbringing when your alcoholic mother names you after a patron saint known for having “started a fire from nothing, or . . . something,” as 15-year-old Mungo
H Sea of Tranquility By Emily St. John Mandel
Literary Fiction The sixth novel from Emily St. John Mandel, author of the award-winning, bestselling Station Eleven, is a time-travel puzzle that connects a disparate band of characters. Sea of Tranquil ity (Knopf, $25, 9780593321447) opens in 1912, as Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the aimless youngest son of an English earl, makes his way across Canada. Edwin lands in Caiette, a remote settlement in British Columbia, where he experiences something that cannot be easily explained, and encounters a strange man named Roberts who claims to be a priest. The narrative then leaps to 2020 in New York City, where Mirella Kessler is trying to discern her friend Vincent’s whereabouts. (Readers of Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, will recognize Mirella and Vincent.) Mirella finds herself talking to a stranger, Gaspery Roberts, who seems familiar. Gaspery wants to know about a glitchy moment that Vincent captured on video years ago. The narrative skips ahead again, to the year 2203, when writer Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour, talking to audiences on Earth about her bestselling pandemic novel. Olive lives with her husband and
explains. But Mungo has bigger problems than his name, which Stuart describes in heartbreaking detail. Mungo’s alcoholic mother, 34-year-old Mo-Maw, often disappears on wild drinking sprees. When under the influence, she’s a harsher version of herself, transforming into a “heartless, shambling scarecrow” that Mungo, his brother Hamish and sister Jodie have nicknamed “Tattie-bogle.” Hamish is a gang leader who leads fights against working-class Catholic youths, and he forces Mungo to join the Protestant cause and take to the streets with him. “I need to sort you out,” Hamish tells him. But Mungo doesn’t need sorting out. He needs more time with James Jamieson, a Catholic boy with whom he has fallen
in love and who tends to birds in his beloved dovecote. Scenes between Mungo and James are the most beautiful in the book. They stand in contrast to the moments that are among the most brutal: To toughen up Mungo, Mo-Maw sends him on a fishing trip with two thugs of questionable repute. That trip, like so much else in the book, doesn’t go the way Mungo, or his mother, ever anticipated. Some plot elements in Young Mungo may disturb, but all are sensitively rendered, and the simplicity of Stuart’s writing makes them all the more powerful. One of the myths of St. Mungo is that he once brought a dead robin back to life. No such restoration occurs in young Mungo’s hardscrabble life, but as Stuart shows, hope often lies where you least expect it. —Michael Magras
daughter in Colony Two on the moon. Olive, like Mirella, finds herself talking to a man who calls himself Gaspery Roberts. Gaspery, a magazine reporter, asks about a brief scene in her novel, an odd moment in the Oklahoma City Airship Terminal. And then once more, the narrative jumps forward in time, and now Gaspery Roberts begins to tell his own story. How these four (and a few other) characters are linked, and how one strange moment reverberates through time, are the subjects of this novel. There’s a mournfulness to Sea of Tranquility. Its main characters feel themselves to be exiles, trying to sort out where and how they belong. But the novel is playful, too, taking a metafictional turn: Olive, like her creator, Mandel, has written a bestselling novel about a pandemic, and she’s stuck on an endless book tour, far from her family, as an actual pandemic approaches. And Gaspery is a dryly funny, self-deprecating guide to his era and his unlikely travels through time. Although readers may question the particulars of the novel’s depiction of the future (wouldn’t the concept of a book tour be impossibly quaint, or even unknown, by 2203?), Mandel’s character development will sweep them along. Turn-of-thecentury character Edwin’s sections are particularly well rendered. Mandel’s prose is beautiful but unfussy; some chapters are compressed into a few poetic lines. The story moves quickly, the suspense building not only from the questions about that one strange moment but also from the actions of those investigating it. In the end, the novel’s interlocking plot
resolves beautifully, making for a humane and moving time-travel story, as well as a meditation on loneliness and love. —Sarah McCraw Crow
French Braid By Anne Tyler
Family Saga Serena Drew is returning to Baltimore after a daytrip to meet her boyfriend’s family. As she and her boyfriend wait for their train home, she thinks she spots her cousin Nicholas Garrett. Her boyfriend is incredulous; how can she be unsure whether or not the man is her cousin? But Serena doesn’t come from the sort of family in which first cousins recognize each other in the wild. Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama and intricate depictions of characters’ lives. Her astute observations have earned her a Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons) and two turns as a Pulitzer finalist (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist), among other accolades. In French Braid (Knopf, $27, 9780593321096), her skilled storytelling once again takes center stage as she reveals the minor family dramas that have resulted in Serena’s inability to positively identify
reviews | fiction her cousin. Chapter by chapter, Tyler follows a different member of the Garrett family, beginning with a family vacation in 1959 and ending in spring 2020. As Tyler turns her attention to each Garrett, she reveals finely honed character portraits. Daughters Lily and Alice are opposites, and their little brother, David, often goes his own way. Mother Mercy searches for her identity as the kids grow up and leave the house, but father Robin is left confused; he has always been content with his home and family exactly as they were. Each chapter is as well-crafted as a short story and reveals the heart of its central character. Tyler weaves these individual tales together to build something even greater, and like the braid of the novel’s title, this interpersonal family drama becomes more substantial as its pieces combine. “That’s how families work, too,” says David, reflecting on the lasting effect of a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (His wife laughs and asks, “You are finding this out just now?”) French Braid is a case study of the circumstances and interactions that shape the lives of one family. —Carla Jean Whitley
H The Diamond Eye By Kate Quinn
Historical Fiction As she has consistently proven in historical novels such as The Alice Network and The Rose Code, Kate Quinn is a master at crafting an intoxicating, well-b alanced blend of immersive period details and deft character work. With The Diamond Eye (William Morrow, $27.99, 9780062943514), she returns to the fertile storytelling terrain of World War II for a tale inspired by the extraordinary life of Russian sniper Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko, known as “Lady Death.” Mila becomes a mother at 15; six years later, amid an impending divorce, she promises her son that she’ll teach him to shoot. In between working on her dissertation at Kiev University and raising Alexei, she finds that she’s brilliant with a rifle. When the Nazis invade the Soviet Union, her elite skill becomes a key asset in the Red Army’s fight to defend the motherland. Mila sets off for war and marches into her own legend. In each of her novels, Quinn displays an innate awareness of how history can be warped by time and power. In The Diamond Eye, we don’t just follow Mila’s journey into war; we see her actions in sharp contrast to what the Soviet government will
later say she’s done. Mila’s perceptions of events are shown in relief to those of the men around her, and even to the perceptions of the American public, thanks to a 1942 press tour hosted by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That press tour forms the novel’s narrative spine, unfolding in sections that alternate with Mila’s larger wartime odyssey. This structure steadily ratchets up the suspense as it becomes clear that Mila is not as welcome in the U.S. as she was led to believe. The Diamond Eye is a remarkable combination of immersive wartime storytelling, rich detailing and wonderful pacing. What really makes The Diamond Eye land, though, goes beyond Quinn’s mastery of her chosen genre. This is, first and foremost, an exceptional character piece, a study of a woman who is a killer, a mother, a lover and, above all else, a survivor. —Matthew Jackson
By Eloghosa Osunde
Literary Fiction Our connections to people have never been stranger. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the internet, people from all walks of life are increasingly isolated in person but willing to reveal more of themselves online. Nigerian author Eloghosa Osunde understands the tension of these tenuous connections, and in her first novel, Vagabonds! (Riverhead, $28, 9780593330029), she shows how each person’s life bears the effects of unstoppable forces. From the intimacy of sexuality to the vastness of cityscapes, Osunde gives the reader a clear picture of the messy collision courses that are our lives. Vagabonds! begins with several dictionary definitions of its title, prompting the reader to draw some preliminary conclusions about the story before they even read it. Then, over the course of the novel, Osunde allows the reader to become painfully intimate with economically, sexually and culturally marginalized life in Nigeria. She shows people at their best and at their worst, sometimes in conjunction, creating a universal sense of belonging that will resonate with many. The defining characteristic of Vagabonds! is its large cast. There are tons of characters, but each manages to limn a certain aspect of Osunde’s world. Within this Lagos-set milieu, skeevy politicians and street hawkers selling pirated copies of “How to Get Away With Murder” exist alongside complicated people trying to find love and joy. Some chapters are written as letters, others as numbered or bulleted lists, experiments that call to mind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon
Squad and lead to similarly reality-bending results. Characters appear and reappear, such as fashion designer Wura, who tells of her precocious daughter in one chapter, then later in the book turns up in letters from a lost lover. The dramatic effect of these touches is realized at the book’s end, in a time-stamped sequence of events. Osunde’s devotion to exploring individual human lives is balanced by a notably divine focus in sections about Èkó, a mythical figure and synecdoche for the masses. Through Èkó, the reader is led to understand the relationship between the public and the godly: When people come together, even unconsciously, they create a divine power. In humanizing this power, Osunde shows how each of her characters is part of something much larger than themselves—which is, in both the biblical and laical senses, awesome. There are several epigraphs at the novel’s opening, a preview of its ambition, but this line from Toni Morrison is the most salient: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Osunde reveals people loving and fighting in their bid to design the world together. —Eric Ponce
H Take My Hand
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Historical Fiction There’s nothing better than settling down to read a novel and immediately sensing that you’re in the hands of a gifted storyteller. Such is the feeling from the first pages of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s illuminating third novel, Take My Hand (Berkley, $27, 9780593337691), which was inspired by a 1973 lawsuit involving Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, 12- and 14-year-old sisters who were sterilized without consent in Montgomery, Alabama. Their horrific, groundbreaking case eventually shed light on thousands of other impoverished, primarily Black girls and women who had been sterilized across the country under federally funded programs. Perkins-Valdez fictionalizes this injustice through the narration of Civil Townsend, a 23-yearold Black woman who begins her first nursing job at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic in 1973. Alternating between these memories and her present in 2016, Civil describes her privileged, educated upbringing in Montgomery, calling herself “five foot five inches of know-it-all.” Civil’s boss, the clinic’s white director, assigns her to give birth control shots to 11- and 13-yearold India and Erica Williams, who live with their father and grandmother in a dirt-floor, one-room
reviews | fiction cabin. Perkins-Valdez describes Civil’s first visit to the cabin in visceral detail, as Civil fights off nausea at the stench and horror at the filth. Civil wants to help the family, who are grieving the loss of the girls’ mother to cancer and wrestling with India’s inability to speak, but she struggles with her role in overseeing the girls’ reproductive health: India and Erica aren’t sexually active, and the shots haven’t been proven to be safe. In 2016, Civil is a doctor in Memphis on the eve of retirement, and she returns to Alabama to try to make peace with the ghosts of her past. This modern-day perspective deepens the novel, adding layers of context while contrasting young Civil’s youthful exuberance and confusion with her older, wiser, sharply honed ruminations. “I understood how a person could get so caught up in doing good that they forgot that the people they served had lives of their own,” she muses. As reproductive rights continue to be at risk, Take My Hand could hardly be more timely. Perkins-Valdez offers an intriguing, detailed look at the way the government deals with such cases, with appearances by Senator Ted Kennedy, who establishes a committee “to investigate federal oversight of healthcare-related abuses,” and Caspar Weinberger, secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Perkins-Valdez’s fictional characters are well rounded, although hints at romance between Civil and the sisters’ father seem somewhat contrived. With plenty to ponder and discuss, this gripping story is particularly well suited for book clubs. Take My Hand tackles a variety of issues related to race, poverty, class and women’s rights while presenting a memorable, astute examination of boundaries: moral, personal, professional and governmental. It’s a challenging, enlightening novel that will stay with readers. —Alice Cary
H At Least You Have Your Health By Madi Sinha
Popular Fiction The doctor is in the house. With her direct and diverting bedside manner, Dr. Madi Sinha (The White Coat Diaries) gets straight to her thought-provoking points on women and work in her second novel, At Least You Have Your Health (Berkley, $17, 9780593334256), a compassionate portrait of a young doctor trying to make a difference in the lives of those around her. Thirty-six-year-old Maya Rao juggles her roles as a devoted wife, tireless mother of three children
and dedicated junior doctor in Philadelphia General Hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department. She endures the hospital administration’s regulations and bureaucracy, an especially difficult task after the rejection of her proposal for a program to help women better understand their bodies. But when the hospital threatens to suspend Maya following a negative interaction with the chief financial officer’s wife, Maya decides to accept an unusual job as a concierge gynecologist at a boutique women’s medical practice. But more money and a flexible schedule with an exclusive clientele may not be the solution to Maya’s desire to truly help others . . . or herself. A few of the many enjoyable moments of Sinha’s novel include a precocious 4-year-old who doesn't use euphemisms for body parts, car wash chaos, a crystal monument misplaced in a client’s nether regions and various other medical emergencies. Amid scenes capable of eliciting tears of joy, angst or frustration, Sinha incorporates questions of work-life balance, racial prejudice, gender inequality, cultural differences and female empowerment. She tackles each topic with a blend of sensitivity and straightforwardness that will leave readers entertained and more enlightened about female anatomy and the business side of medicine. With a cheer-worthy protagonist, At Least You Have Your Health is a delicious dose of heartwarming characters and good humor. —Maya Fleischmann
H Reputation By Lex Croucher
Historical Fiction If you’re looking for a sweet, nostalgic Regency romance—all stately ballrooms, gallant suitors and sparkling repartee over tea with tiny sandwiches— keep looking. There’s nothing prim or proper about Lex Croucher’s dazzling debut novel, Reputation (Griffin, $16.99, 9781250832832), which is so boldly, audaciously modern in its portrayal of 19th-century mean-girl culture that I kept waiting for someone to inform the heroine that on Wednesdays, they wear pink. Georgiana Ellers is eager to find a society as exciting and glamorous as her favorite books, but her expectations are low. With neither money nor connections, her social opportunities are limited to what her aunt and uncle can provide, and their idea of excitement differs dramatically from hers. She is suffering through a dreadful party with bad lighting, worse punch and dismal company when in steps Frances Campbell. From that moment, nothing is ever dull again.
Frances is so sparkling, so vibrant and lively and witty and daring, that readers will be forgiven for thinking that she’s Georgiana’s love interest. Certainly, Georgiana is instantly smitten. Croucher understands the fierce, passionate crushes girls have on their friends—the yearning to be in another person’s orbit, to have them think of you as clever and charming. Romantic attachment makes the heart beat faster, but friendships burrow deeper under the skin; you feel them all the way to your bones. And that’s ordinary friendship. Frances is anything but ordinary. In addition to the giddy pleasure of her company, she exposes Georgiana to a world of fantastic wealth, endless indulgence and absolute debauchery. It’s fun, it’s dizzying, it’s literally intoxicating—and it’s very, very dangerous. There’s bigotry—heaps of it, ranging from racism to chauvinism to classism to homophobia. There’s relentless mockery of any easy target, even within the “in” group. There’s peer pressure, slut-shaming and marriages so toxic that you wonder how they ever managed to reproduce. There’s an intense attempted rape depicted on the page and the heartbreaking aftermath of another assault. But for all that, Reputation is far from a dark story. While the book doesn’t shy away from the messier aspects of high-society life, it’s also filled with humor and charm, often via Georgiana, who is a refreshingly funny and frank protagonist. Her relationships are deep and complex, beautifully developed and sometimes shockingly sweet. And while a large portion of the story focuses on Georgiana’s feelings for her newfound friends, Croucher also weaves in a romance that provides a lovely contrast. Where Frances and her friends are wild, Thomas Hawksley is calm. Where they are spontaneous, he is deliberate. And where they bring out the worst in Georgiana, he brings out the best. Reputation is not always an easy read, but it’s a vivid and fascinating one. And it’s definitely not quaint. —Elizabeth Mazer
H Lessons in Chemistry By Bonnie Garmus
Literary Fiction When people reminisce about America’s “good old days,” they’re often envisioning the idyllic post-World War II period of the 1950s: between V-E Day and the beginning of the Vietnam War, a booming time of power and prosperity. Like a woman-centric “Mad Men,” Bonnie Garmus’ devastating and funny debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday, $29, 9780385547345), blows the lid off that simplistic myth.
feature | asl fiction Budding research scientist Elizabeth Zott is brilliant, awkward and laser-focused on her studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, but neither her male colleagues nor the other women on campus take her seriously. Between her beauty and her gender, consensus dictates that Elizabeth should be aiming for an “MRS” degree instead of a Ph.D. in chemistry. Nevertheless, Elizabeth insists on bucking tradition, thwarting rules both written and unwritten, never allowing her progress to be curtailed by other people’s agendas. As the child of high-level grifters (a dangerous doomsday preacher and a tax cheat), Elizabeth learned how to fend for herself early on. But at UCLA, one man’s unchecked violence and abuse of power derail her plans, a devastating yet all-too-familiar turn of events. Forced out of the Ph.D. track, Elizabeth takes a position at the Hastings Research Institute, a private lab where she meets like-minded genius Calvin Evans. Calvin has never fit in either, but as a man, he has an easier time of it. Elizabeth and Calvin’s prickly, funny and odd love story leaps off the page. The two are truly soul mates, and their happiness should be ordained, but life and this novel are far more complicated than that. Two awkward nonconformists who keep to themselves can generate a surprising amount of rage from those who demand adherence to the status quo.
What would “Mad Men” look like if it were written from a woman’s perspective? When the life that Elizabeth has painstakingly forged goes heartbreakingly off-kilter, Lessons in Chemistry becomes a witty and sharp dramedy about resilience and found families. Elizabeth takes a job as the host of a cooking show that’s steeped in science, and though she never planned to be a mother, her child, Madeline, is a joy, and Elizabeth is uniquely brilliant at mothering. Elizabeth and Madeline (and their dog) find support in unlikely places: Harriet the neighbor steps in to help, and TV producer Walter Pine becomes Elizabeth’s best friend. The scope of what this iconoclastic woman goes through is breathtaking, from personal losses to unrelenting sexism. Along the winding road, she challenges every hierarchy, rule and system she can. She never tries to fit in, but she couldn’t even if she wanted to, and for a person like this, the social strictures of the 1950s and early ’60s hit especially hard. The Madison Avenue of “Mad Men” looks like easy street compared to Garmus’ Southern California. Not one moment of Elizabeth’s story rings false; every detail is a well-documented component of the time period yet specific to her experience. Readers won’t be able to get enough of Elizabeth and her makeshift family. Lessons in Chemistry is a story to return to again and again. —Carole V. Bell
Love letters to Deaf culture Two authors incorporate American Sign Language into their novels. Deaf rights advocate Sara Nović and American Sign Language interpreter Blair Fell include elements of ASL in their nuanced depictions of what it’s like to be deaf in a hearing world.
True Biz Sara Nović’s second novel is a vibrant celebration of Deaf culture and Deaf communities. Set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf in the struggling industrial town of Colson, Ohio, True Biz (Random House, $28, 9780593241509) follows the lives of several students and teachers over the course of one tumultuous year. It’s a remarkable book that is many things at once: a primer on Deaf history, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, a riotous political awakening, a family saga and a richly layered character study. February, the headmistress of River Valley, is a hearing child of deaf adults. She’s trying desperately to keep the school afloat in the face of ongoing budget cuts, while also taking care of her aging mother and trying to keep her marriage intact. Austin is the golden boy of River Valley. He grew up immersed in Deaf culture, but his blissful life is shaken when his baby sister is born hearing, causing hidden tensions between him and his hearing father to rise to the surface. Charlie is a deaf teen with a cochlear implant, whose hearing parents, at the urging of doctors, didn’t allow her to learn ASL as a child. Arriving at River Valley in the wake of her parents’ divorce, she meets other deaf people for the first time, begins learning ASL and discovers the joys and challenges of being part of a community that speaks a language she can understand. Though written in English, the book is bursting with ASL, offering an exploration into the power of language and the violence of language deprivation, the beauty of free and open communication, and the possibilities (and limitations) of translation. Signed conversations are translated into English, and each chapter heading is an illustration of a character’s name sign, the first signed letter of their name. Interspersed among the chapters are school assignments and other ephemera that detail ASL lessons and exercises. The novel’s sense of emotion builds slowly, from Austin’s intensifying anger and February’s growing desperation to Charlie’s burgeoning confidence. By the end of the book, each character is changed, and their transformations are explored
with a beautifully subtle touch. Nović incorporates so many issues that affect the Deaf community, including education inequality and the rise of cochlear implants. Though it focuses on three central characters, the story feels symphonic as the entire River Valley community comes to life. At times somber, often bitingly funny, awash in playfulness and fiercely proud, True Biz is a masterfully crafted love letter to Deaf culture. —Laura Sackton
The Sign for Home In the tightknit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poughkeepsie, New York, 23-year-old Arlo Dilly’s life is controlled by his ultraconversative uncle, Brother Birch, and an equally religious ASL interpreter named Molly. Arlo is deafblind, and his sheltered upbringing and sensory limitations mean that his life has been shaped by those around him— until a 40-something interpreter named Cyril Brewster changes all of that quite unintentionally. When Arlo decides to take a writing course at a local community college, Cyril accepts the job as his summer interpreter. Cyril isn’t an expert in the form of ASL that Arlo uses, referred to as Tactile or TSL, but he’s hoping to make some extra money and, concerned as he is about “beelining for homosexual obscurity,” escape Poughkeepsie for good. It isn’t long before Cyril begins to appreciate Arlo for who he is: a determined young man who is smart, funny and full of curiosity. Arlo begins to ask questions about things as small as his bowl haircut and daily bologna sandwich, and as big as the truth about his boarding school sweetheart, S. At its heart, The Sign for Home (Emily Bestler, $27, 9781982175955) is about a young man doing everything he can to be with the love of his life. Chapters alternate between Arlo’s and Cyril’s narration. Passages that depict how Arlo experiences touch, smell and ASL are especially well done; his sections unfold in the second-person singular, so his lessons and revelations feel all the more intimate, revealing a layer of emotional intelligence and humor that would be lost if the story were told only from Cyril’s first-person perspective. Debut novelist Blair Fell has worked as an ASL interpreter for more than 25 years, and also has been an actor, producer and director. The Sign for Home draws on all these experiences to tell a story that is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting. —Chika Gujarathi
‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’
© JUSTIN DANKS
q&a | amanda oliver
Amanda Oliver considers what it costs librarians to be the saviors of society. In her first book, Amanda Oliver draws on her experience in the Washington, D.C., public library system to explore how libraries became Band-Aids for American inequality. We asked her a few questions about how libraries become overburdened, why librarians burn out, and what effect this has on the health of our communities. You write that Overdue will “push directly against the romanticization of what libraries are and who they are for.” Why do people romanticize libraries? I think now, maybe more than ever, we need hope. And libraries, at least as we commonly understand them, are symbols of that hope—that we can share; that we can provide free, community-based items and care and space; even that we still love, read and uphold books. But there are more accurate truths, which I dig into extensively throughout the book, that I think will ultimately lead us to a more realistic version of hope around, within and from libraries.
Visit BookPage.com to read an extended version of this Q&A and our review of Overdue.
hard enough—this sort of deep-rooted self-flagellation, in lieu of looking more closely and critically at the system(s) I was functioning within, didn’t help me, and it didn’t help the people I was serving. My hope is that people will recognize that you can’t pour from an empty cup (no matter how much you want to) and you also shouldn’t be asked to—by an employer, a co-worker or, as it ultimately comes down to, the perverse, inhumane, unimaginative and oftentimes cruel systems of capitalism in this country.
Did you romanticize libraries yourself at any point? My relationship to libraries has fundamentally, since childhood, been based in warm feelings toward them as safe Overdue havens and quiet spaces of comfort. I still love libraries. I Chicago Review, $28.99 still find them comforting and recognize that they can be 9781641605311 Early in Overdue, you explore how libraries in colonial safe havens. But I am always touched by the whys: Why do libraries provide so much in America? Why do so few America were for wealthy white men and how racial Social Science segregation in libraries continued until the late 20th institutions like them exist en masse? Why not look a little more closely and critically at them? I can’t, and don’t ever want to, look at century. Why was it essential for you to include this history? libraries without the whys. This is a key factor in all of American history, and yet it often seems to go missing from the narrative around libraries. That it was almost entirely wealthy white Overdue uses your experiences as a librarian in Washington, D.C., to address men who funded and founded public libraries means this was who determined societal issues that affect libraries nationwide. Did you consider incorpolibraries’ earliest roots, policies, procedures and so forth. It’s impossible to look rating other librarians’ experiences into the book as well? at where libraries are today without looking at where—and how, and by and I’m not sure people realize that many public library systems have clauses in for whom—they were created. It was especially important to me to establish their contracts about what you can and cannot say publicly while working that our segregated past wasn’t that long ago, and that racism and systemic for them. I’ve had many private, off-the-record inequalities still actively impact library patrons “Why do libraries provide so conversations with librarians that I didn’t and employees in a negative way. include in the book out of respect for their much in America? Why do so few privacy and need for job security. In many What are some of the reactions you would of those conversations, librarians said things like to see from library administrators and institutions like them exist?” along the lines of “I can’t say this stuff while local governments in response to Overdue? I’d like to see a bit more honest reckoning—which is to say, a bit more of those I still work for my library system.” Meanwhile, I knew I could say “this stuff” in power acknowledging mistakes and missteps as well as facing up to more because I had left library work and didn’t intend to go back. realities and failures on an institutional level. I’d like to see local governments You write movingly about how you operated with empathy while working looking to libraries for guidance on how they can establish community supports with patrons facing poverty, racism, substance abuse and other issues. It and services—not necessarily as resources for information on this topic (which, led you to feel empathy fatigue and burnout. What do you hope readers of course, they are) but as living, breathing, working examples. learn about that process of burning out? I also hope my book gives people in leadership or decision-making roles It has always been very interesting to me how bewildered people are when I some genuine insight into what is being asked of librarians, the immense weight explain to them the toll that working as a librarian took on me. I think it is deeply that carries and the potential tolls it can take. My hope is that we will see better, ingrained in American work culture that we should work and not complain, more conscious, caring and community-minded decisions being made in the especially in professions where you are serving vulnerable and underserved future. I think public libraries have a real opportunity to implement and model people. I know that this was part of why I burned out. The idea that I was overbetter work environments and better ways of caring. reacting, that I was too sensitive and not tough enough, that I wasn’t working —Jessica Wakeman
reviews | nonfiction
H Gathering Blossoms Under Fire By Alice Walker, edited by Valerie Boyd
Literature Getting to know a living, legendary author can be challenging, as their own reticence often prevents readers from venturing too far behind the curtain. Not so with Alice Walker. Her journals have been compiled and edited by the late writer and critic Valerie Boyd, and they fully reveal a complex and at times controversial life. Walker was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for The Color Purple, and she remains a force at 78. Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000 (Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 9781476773155) offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist, philanthropist and womanist—a term Walker herself coined to describe Black feminists. The youngest of eight in a poor family from Georgia, Walker was 8 when a brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Her injury
H Vagina Obscura By Rachel E. Gross
Science For an entire month in 2018, science journalist Rachel E. Gross’ “vulva had felt on the verge of bursting into flames.” There were few options for contending with, let alone eradicating, the bacterial infection plaguing her nether regions. Her best hope? Boric acid—or, as her doctor put it, “basically rat poison,” which has been used since the 19th century in vaginal suppositories, as well as for killing roaches. Gross’ understandable alarm, as well as her frustration with her own anatomical ignorance, spurred her onto the wide-ranging investigatory journey she chronicles in her engaging and enormously fascinating debut, Vagina Obscura (Norton, $30, 9781324006312). Thanks to entrenched sexism, any book about female anatomy and medical history is bound to have physically and psychologically harrowing passages. Gross’ is no exception. After all, it wasn’t until 1993 that a federal mandate forced doctors to include women and minorities in medical research. “Women—and especially women of
eventually led to a college scholarship, and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she returned to the South as a civil rights activist. In 1967, she proposed to fellow activist Melvyn Leventhal, who is Jewish. They became the first interracial married couple in Mississippi, where miscegenation was still illegal, though they divorced nine years later. Motherhood was a fraught choice for a feminist in the 1970s, and after becoming a parent, Walker struggled with feeling distracted from her work as an artist. She applauded childless writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and wrote that her daughter, Rebecca, was “no more trouble to me the writer than Virginia Woolf’s madness was to her.” Such ambivalence shaded their relationship. Meanwhile, her friendships with feminist Gloria Steinem and movie and music producer Quincy Jones fared better. Her romantic relationships didn’t always end
color, trans women, and women who are sexual minorities—have historically been excluded from this supposedly universal endeavor,” she writes. In addition to offering valuable historical context about the medical field’s reluctance to properly study cervices, ovaries, uteruses, et al., Vagina Obscura also serves up optimistic evidence for a more equitable future. Gross writes with enthusiasm about pioneering doctors and researchers and shares stories of the people who’ve benefited from their work. To wit: Australian urologist Helen O’Connell’s research on clitoral anatomy laid the foundation for reconstructive surgeries for genital- cutting survivors. Biologist Patty Brennan’s realization that female ducks’ vaginas rotate opposite to males’ corkscrew penises challenged scientific assumptions about copulation. The activism of Cori Smith, a 28-year-old trans man, has drawn attention to trans and nonbinary people with endometriosis. Gender-affirmation surgeon and transgender woman Marci Bowers is “pushing the boundaries of what surgeons can do to give patients the appearance and sensation they desire.” Gross makes it clear that, if we want to advance our understanding and medical treatment of the human body, it’s going to take a village—one filled with people who are curious, compassionate and persistent. She’s certainly identified lots of them in Vagina Obscura, a book that is impressive in its scope and thrilling in the hope it offers to those whose bodies have previously been overlooked. —Linda M. Castellitto
well, but through their ups and downs, Walker embraced “The Goddess” and prayed to the “Spirit of the Universe,” who enabled her to celebrate her bisexuality. It was the success of The Color Purple that allowed Walker to help her troubled family, acquire properties she loved and support causes that were important to her. In the 1993 book and documentary Warrior Marks, Walker drew attention to the practice of female genital mutilation. She has also passionately protested South African apartheid, the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Walker says she keeps a journal “partly because my memory is notorious, among my friends, for not remembering much of what we’ve shared.” That concern vanishes with Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, which contains copious, intimate details about her life. And as with all of Walker’s writings, the stories found in these pages are beautifully told. —Priscilla Kipp
By Stephen Galloway
Biography The 1939 movie Wuthering Heights epitomizes golden-age Hollywood romance. However, the process of making the film was another matter entirely. It was a miserable set, in large part because Laurence Olivier, the brilliant British actor playing Heathcliff, hated his co-star, Merle Oberon, and regularly undermined her. But he would have hated any co-star who wasn’t his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, whom he had failed to get hired for the part and with whom he was wildly in love. As any movie buff knows, Leigh was about to become a star in her own right in another 1939 film, Gone With the Wind (also a miserable set). Olivier and Leigh had left their respective spouses and children for each other and would marry in 1940. They were the supernova show-biz couple of their day, paving the way for Liz-and-Dick and Brangelina. With Truly, Madly (Grand Central, $30, 9781538731970), Stephen Galloway, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has written an astute biography of that marriage, with wonderfully
reviews | nonfiction dishy details of productions such as Rebecca and A Streetcar Named Desire. The Oliviers’ fabled partnership reached its peak on stage in the 1940s and ’50s before ending in chaos in 1960. The biggest factor in the marriage’s collapse was Leigh’s bipolar disorder, which was little understood at the time and ineffectively treated. Medical understanding has evolved immeasurably since Leigh’s death in 1967, and Galloway reexamines her mood swings, public mania, infidelity and alcohol abuse in light of psychiatric advances. In the early days of their relationship, Leigh was the more likable of the two. Olivier had enormous talent, but he was shallow and deceitful. However, he did “truly, madly” love Leigh, and he tried his best to help her before her unfathomable behavior finally confounded him. Leigh died at only 53 of tuberculosis. Olivier, afflicted by multiple painful illnesses, lived until 82, and Galloway’s account of his last years is moving. Olivier dominated the English-language stage and reinvented Shakespearean cinema. Leigh’s film acting remains incandescent, although her indifference to Gone With the Wind’s racism receives due criticism in this book. Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Galloway’s perceptive history of this iconic duo. —Anne Bartlett
H Of Blood and Sweat By Clyde W. Ford
American History In Of Blood and Sweat (Amistad, $27.99, 9780063038516), Clyde W. Ford confronts readers with a difficult truth about the current state of American affairs: Our politics, economy and social structure are inextricably linked to the enslavement of Black people. The freight trains and trucks that carry goods across the country follow the rail lines and roads built by enslaved people. Our insurance companies, banks and stock exchanges—in both the North and the South—are direct descendants of the institutions that financed and protected the slave trade and commodities produced with slave labor. Our Constitution is the result of compromises with slave-holding states, ensuring through the three-fifths clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Electoral College that power remained in the hands of powerful white men and that slavery continued to flourish. Ford wants readers to realize the lasting and severe harm that slavery has done to our country on both an intellectual level and a visceral, emotional one. There is no lack of evidence to support his argument, and his book is very well researched and
documented. But unlike histories that are so loaded with documents, statistics and official accounts of proceedings that they numb the reader, transforming the tragedy of the past into mere abstraction, Of Blood and Sweat adroitly avoids these pitfalls. Instead, Ford weaves the stories of real people who lived through these times into his narrative, making the information feel immediate and alive. The author of 13 fiction and nonfiction books, including the memoir Think Black, Ford brings to life Antoney and Isabell, an Angolan couple who were among the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia in 1619; Briton Hammon, an enslaved man whose New England owner permitted him to become a sailor; S.G.W. Dill, a white former Confederate soldier who became a passionate advocate for equality—and was murdered for it by white supremacists; and countless others. Ford makes a clear case that the past is never over. The wounds inflicted by slavery have never healed, and he argues that they will continue to harm our country until we deal with them honestly. For many Americans, reading Of Blood and Sweat will be an excellent first step in that process. —Deborah Mason
They were married soon after. “Looking back, it’s unbelievable to me that neither of us were struck by the irony of our situation, that John and I, which is to say Dr. Love and Dr. Loneliness, were not practicing what we preached,” Cacioppo writes. “Our research, from opposite ends of the spectrum, emphasized the human need for social connection. And yet both of us had the hubris to think we could go it alone.” Once connected, each spouse’s work informed the other’s. They shared desks at home and at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, where they both worked. A few years into their marriage, John was diagnosed with a rare, late-stage cancer. Cacioppo details the closeness they felt during his treatment, as well as her complicated grief after his death and her slow return to life. She is an engaging guide through the scientific portions of the book, and her own experiences of connection and loss enrich the narrative. Together, these intertwined strands of science and personal narrative make for a sprightly, illuminating book. —Sarah McCraw Crow
Sisters of Mokama By Jyoti Thottam
Wired for Love
By Stephanie Cacioppo
Science Interspersing memoir with science writing, Stephanie Cacioppo leads readers through the brain science of love and connection in Wired for Love (Flatiron, $28.99, 9781250790606). At 37, Cacioppo was already a lauded neuroscientist. She’d chosen to study the neuroscience of love, even though her faculty adviser in Geneva had warned her against it, calling it career suicide. Still, she persevered, earning research spots at Dartmouth and the Swiss National Foundation. She and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to create a “map of love,” showing that the brain reacts to love in complex ways and that romantic feelings of love affect the brain differently than friendship or parental love. Even so, Cacioppo had never fallen in love, or even had a serious boyfriend. Instead, she decided that her passion would be for work. Then, at a conference in Shanghai, she met John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago social neuroscientist who’d done groundbreaking work on loneliness, establishing it as a dangerous health condition that is as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. She felt an instant connection with him. After a period of emailing, they began dating long-distance and meeting up at conferences.
History “My mother was part of a generation of women who inherited all the burdens of the past and yet found the will and the means to reject them,” writes Jyoti Thottam, a senior Opinion editor at the New York Times. When her mother was 15, she left her home at the southern tip of India and traveled more than 1,000 miles to Mokama, a small town in an area considered to be the poorest and most violent in the country. There, she spent seven years studying nursing at a hospital run by a handful of Catholic nuns from Kentucky. As an adult, Thottam found herself wondering: How did these unlikely events transpire? After 20 years of meticulous research, Thottam has chronicled Nazareth Hospital’s history in Sisters of Mokama (Viking, $28, 9780525522355). This immersive, transportive read starts with the hospital’s founding in 1947, in the midst of the Partition of India into India and Pakistan. The fact that six nuns from Kentucky even managed to travel to Mokama at this time—much less stay and transform a vacant building into a successful hospital and nursing school—is nothing short of miraculous. Once the sisters reached Mokama, they faced endless deprivations, including bone-chilling cold; suffocating heat; monsoons; a scarcity of food, medicine and supplies; and a lack of electricity and running water in the early years. Undaunted,
reviews | nonfiction the resourceful nuns nevertheless insisted on the highest of standards. They put a container of water upstairs, drilled a hole through the floor and ran a rubber hose down to the operating room so that surgeons could scrub under a continuous stream of water before surgery. One sister even built a still to provide distilled water. Thottam has done an excellent job of transforming numerous interviews, letters and records into a compelling narrative that conveys the hardships and triumphs of these dedicated nuns and the nurses they trained. Everyone was overworked, and things weren’t always smooth. The young, homesick Indian girls were only allowed to speak English, and the nuns could be extremely strict. In telling their stories, Thottam makes a multitude of personalities come alive and shares a variety of perspectives without passing judgment. On the surface, Sisters of Mokama seems like such an unlikely story. It’s a good thing Thottam has documented this little-known saga so that generations to come will know it really happened. —Alice Cary
H The Nazis Knew My Name By Magda Hellinger & Maya Lee
Memoir Magda Hellinger was a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher when she was deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in March of 1942. She was one of the few who survived more than three years in a concentration camp, eventually relocating to Australia, where she lived to be almost 90. During her lifetime, Hellinger shared her experiences in interviews with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, all while secretly writing a memoir of her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis Knew My Name (Atria, $27, 9781982181222) is grounded in that memoir, self-published in 2003, but enhanced by Hellinger’s daughter, Maya Lee, who has added further research and details from her mother’s oral testimonies. The result is a compelling and seamless portrait of a young woman who managed to survive and save others through cunning bravery and compassionate leadership. At the core of Hellinger’s approach was this: “I constantly encouraged women to work together—a very simple form of resistance. A lonely, isolated woman was always more vulnerable than one who had others looking out for her.” Her determination and use of resistance tactics emerge time and again in this chronological account of her imprisonment, which lasted until the end of World War II. When Hellinger was given the role of block
leader at Auschwitz, she realized it was crucial that the prisoners under her charge avoid any behavior that would attract attention from Nazi officials. She therefore focused on trying to keep the women under her care as healthy as possible, making sure newcomers understood the rules of the camp and warning them of the most volatile guards. And while it was dangerous to challenge SS officers directly, at key moments Hellinger did exactly that, often risking her own life to win some small concession, such as replacing worn clothing for the prisoners. At one point, Hellinger had 30,000 women under her care, yet she didn’t falter and always returned to the touchstone of cooperation. The Nazis Knew My Name offers dreadful insights into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but at its heart, it remains an extraordinary portrait of one woman who fought for others in the midst of unimaginable horror. —Deborah Hopkinson
H Last Call at the Hotel
By Deborah Cohen
History In her luminous, extensively researched and beautifully written Last Call at the Hotel Imperial (Random House, $30, 9780525511199), historian Deborah Cohen brilliantly captures the complicated personal and professional lives of the four most influential journalists during in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. All close friends, they witnessed the rise of fascism and communism, the powder keg of the Middle East after the Balfour Declaration and much more. Dorothy Thompson saw journalism as her era’s “most representative form of letters,” as the theater or the novel had been for other periods. John Gunther described their profession by saying, “We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.” These two journalists, plus Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean and H.R. Knickerbocker, felt the need to go beyond objective reporting and convey what they thought and felt about the rise of dictators and the strong chance of war, which set their reporting apart. Drawing from abundant primary sources, Cohen brings these four reporters, as well as Gunther’s wife, Frances, vividly to life in Last Call at the Hotel Imperial. Their disagreements, approaches to getting stories, excessive drinking, infidelities, ambitions, achievements and disappointments are covered in detail—as well as their interactions with figures such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mahatma Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Jawaharlal Nehru and Josef Stalin’s mother.
Sheean’s memoir of his experiences in China and Soviet Russia was a bestseller during his lifetime, as was his biography of Thompson’s marriage to novelist Sinclair Lewis. Thompson became a prominent commentator and activist, and at one point she and Eleanor Roosevelt were called the most influential women in the country. Between the 1930s and ’50s, Gunther had more American bestsellers than all but one other author. Knickerbocker was an outstanding reporter but also an alcoholic, and Cohen explores the professional consequences of his condition with sensitivity. Cohen’s book is a remarkable and exceptionally reader-friendly account of the lives of an extraordinary group of writers and people. —Roger Bishop
How to Take Over the World By Ryan North
Humor Most people couldn’t claim that they’ve concocted “nine of the biggest, boldest, and most world-changing supervillainous schemes” that are “both scientifically accurate and achievable” without inspiring great skepticism. But if anyone’s going to be a reliable source for dastardly plots bolstered by plausible project plans, it’s Ryan North, the bestselling author of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler. As a longtime writer for Marvel and DC comics, the Eisner Award-winner gets paid to come up with heinous and destructive crimes for fictional heroes to foil. In How to Take Over the World (Riverhead, $28, 9780593192016), North harnesses his expertise as a “trained scientist and professional-villainous-scheme-creator” to craft highly detailed plans for achieving world domination. In “Every Supervillain Needs a Secret Base,” for example, he patiently yet firmly explains why the best place for a base is not inside a volcano. Perhaps the aspiring villain should build a floating lair in the ocean, or venture into the sky? North has analyzed every option, and he’s got recommendations—not to mention budgets, timelines and risk analyses for scenarios ranging from starting your own country to cloning dinosaurs to destroying the internet. The results are archly funny and always thought-provoking. How to Take Over the World is a wild journey that’s sure to leave readers pondering North’s assertion that “once [the world is] understood, it can be directed, it can be controlled, and it can be improved.” Whether they use his advice to achieve supervillainy or save the world is up to them. —Linda M. Castellitto
reviews | young adult
H Scout’s Honor By Lily Anderson
Speculative Fiction Armed with knitting needles, retractable swords and a mean cup of tea, the pink-clad Ladybird Scouts are the covert defenders of the world. High school junior Prudence Perry left her Ladybird circle after her best friend was killed three years ago. She wants nothing to do with the competitive toxicity of the group, but she’s part of a legacy scout family, so her grief, anxiety and PTSD share space in her heart with a daily dose of guilt. Still, she strives for normalcy with her rebellious nonscout friends—but a life of fighting enormous interdimensional mulligrubs that feed on human emotions isn’t so easy to shake. Now that Prue’s cousin Avi is of training age, Prue is expected to begin training her own circle of Ladybirds. Intending to fulfill that duty but nothing more, Prue throws herself back into battle while grappling with her mental health and her family’s expectations. As she becomes unexpectedly close with her trainees, Prue must choose: forget the Ladybirds and leave that life behind for good, or help lay the groundwork for a kinder, more
Right Where I Left You By Julian Winters
Romance Isaac has one summer left with his best friend, Diego. In the fall, he’ll face college alone as Diego takes a gap year. All Isaac needs are two tickets to Legends Con, a comics and gaming convention, to make it the greatest summer ever. He plans to ask the team behind his favorite comics if superheroes Charm and Reverb will ever reveal their true feelings for each other and provide the racially diverse, canonically queer representation he deserves. But when Isaac lets Davi, an old crush, distract him from buying tickets on time, all those plans are over before they’ve begun. Suddenly Isaac is juggling his strained relationship with Diego, a potential romance with Davi, complex family dynamics and friendships he never expected. His first Teen Pride awaits at summer’s end, but to get there, he’ll have to survive the social minefield he’s created. Right Where I Left You (Viking, $18.99, 9780593206478) is full of geeky references, but Julian Winters’ attention to detail goes far beyond the surface. He conveys big feelings through the
supportive sisterhood? With a sly sense of humor and nostalgia, Scout’s Honor (Holt, $18.99, 9781250246738) riffs on postmodern horror classics like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and recent hits like “Stranger Things.” Author Lily Anderson offers a clever subversion of “chosen one” narratives as the novel explores tantalizing “what ifs” like “What if Buffy had just gone to a psychiatrist?” and “What if Girl Scouts were masters of cookies—and karate?” It’s an absurd premise, but Anderson makes it work through unself- conscious world building and a skillful blend of fantastical and real-world threats. While Prue and her “babybirds” fight literal monsters, they’re also railing against toxic female institutions, intergenerational conflict and the notion that women should shoulder the
burden of emotional labor. Scout’s Honor works as both allegory and satisfying speculative fiction, portraying battles with mulligrubs and the challenges of mental illness with equal grace. It’s hilarious and heart-wrenching in equal measure. Anderson understands the necessity of characters who feel grounded in reality, despite the absurdities of their situations, and Scout’s Honor poses powerful questions: How do you let grief move with you rather than letting it swallow you whole? How do you balance the weight of obligation with your own needs? How do you remain soft in a hardened world? With the support of her friends, Prue works to figure out her own answers. As her favorite mantra goes, “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it.” The only way out is through. —Mariel Fechik
minute ways characters coexist in a space, and simple things such as a pair of socks, a comic book panel or a go-to hamburger order carry the weight of a character’s deepest emotions. It’s a perfect reflection of that period in adolescence when everything feels too big and too small all at once. Although its central romance is delightful and swoony, Right Where I Left You is not just one love story but many. It’s also about loving stories and the communities that form around them. And it’s about what it means for those stories to love you back and how the right representation can help you create your own happy ending. —RJ Witherow
Csilla Tisza’s Jewish family survived the Holocaust only for her parents to be declared enemies of the state and executed. Now Csilla lives with her aunt, Ilona, her last living relative. The secret police watch their every move, and they are constantly surrounded by antisemitism, so Csilla and Ilona are plotting to escape Soviet-controlled Hungary. Yet when Csilla meets two young men— one who rescues her from the police, the other who asks her for a dangerous favor—her plan to abandon Hungary transforms into a resolution to save it. “Whoever can protest and does not is responsible for what happens without protest.” Csilla recalls her mother sharing this line from the Talmud, a sacred Jewish text. The energy behind this idea fuels This Rebel Heart. In an author’s note included with advance editions of the book, Locke frames their novel as a story about why “showing up matters” in any fight for the future. This Rebel Heart is a story with grim, heavy stakes, filled with characters who grapple with the answers to impossible questions. How do you love a country that has killed your family? How do you love a family member with blood on their hands? Locke’s prose often has a circular quality to it, frequently repeating phrases and images. Though this technique may, at times, grate on some readers, it draws attention to what these characters have experienced and how these experiences still echo in their lives. A 2020 survey of Americans ages 18 to 39 revealed that almost 1 in 4 believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated, and every
This Rebel Heart By Katherine Locke
Historical Fantasy Set against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart (Knopf, $18.99, 9780593381243) is a queer, fabulist novel about a girl navigating her feelings toward the place she calls home—a place where magic and horror live side by side.
feature | ya novels in verse day, fewer survivors remain to tell their stories. A friend drives it home to Csilla: “You survived. You survived. You survived.” Any reader who has ever felt unsure of their place in history will find solace in This Rebel Heart. —Luis G. Rendon
H Alone Out Here By Riley Redgate
Science Fiction Leigh Chen, first daughter of the United States, is fortunate to have a spot on the Lazarus, one of several huge spacecrafts that will evacuate some of Earth’s population before a volcanic eruption renders the planet uninhabitable. Leigh and many of the Lazarus’ other young passengers are touring the ship when it is forced to launch much earlier than planned. It is soon clear that the ship wasn’t prepared for the journey, and there are no adults on board. Attempts to reach anyone else in orbit or on Earth fail, and the truth sinks in: The Lazarus is alone with no planet to return to, no viable destination in sight and only enough supplies to last a few months. Author Riley Redgate excellently establishes the enormity of the crisis. Leigh cobbles together a plan, as does Eli, whose mother would have been the ship’s pilot. Everyone must begin training as pilots, mechanics, scientists or doctors to gain even a slim hope of success, let alone live long enough to create and educate future generations. But some aboard the Lazarus find it easier to leave the past behind than others, and Leigh must keep the peace between conflicting sides of a growing divide. As Eli’s decisions raise ethical concerns, Leigh questions whether her skill for seeing both sides is preventing her from developing opinions of her own. Can Leigh discover what she stands for in time to save the crew—and her soul? On the surface, Alone Out Here (DisneyHyperion, $18.99, 9781368064729) is an enjoyable sci-fi tale with many familiar elements, including a ticking-clock survival plot, plausibly futuristic technology, a lovely slow-burn romance and a cast of interesting, complex and diverse characters. But what makes it compelling, even haunting, is Redgate’s blistering exploration of the deeper moral questions prompted by her plot’s high stakes: What is survival without memory? What if the cost of saving humanity was everything that makes us human? The result is a far more intense and emotional experience than readers may expect from the book’s premise, but it’s also a rewarding one for readers with the courage to ride along. —Annie Metcalf
Revolutionaries in their time These books set the record straight by writing LGBTQ teens back into history. Two novels in verse offer stories about queer people in different eras, illuminating truths about the past and offering touchstones for teens today.
H A Million Quiet Revolutions “You look stunning,” one narrator thinks about the other at the beginning of Robin Gow’s A Million Quiet Revolutions (FSG, $18.99, 9780374388416). The narrators are in love and beginning the process of transitioning their gender identities. After one narrator, a history buff, reads about two Revolutionary War soldiers named Aaron and Oliver who may have been transgender, the narrators adopt these names, because “We’ve been erased from / so much history. / Someone needs / to write us back in.” When a terrible event at Aaron’s church causes his family to quickly move away from their Pennsylvania town, the narrators are separated for the first time since they were in first grade. During this time, Oliver tries on a chest binder and wonders whether he’ll have to redo his bat mitzvah, while Aaron’s new queer friends give him strength to come out fully to his Catholic Puerto Rican family. The pair reunite in New Jersey for a reenactment of the Battle of Monmouth, where their understandings of the past meld with their hopes for the present and future. In Gow’s free verse poems, line breaks occur in unusual places and allow for contemplative pauses: “I stay on the low branches as / you climb higher.” Through Aaron’s and Oliver’s interactions with each other, their siblings and their parents, readers will find models for supporting trans family members. Gow also thoughtfully depicts Aaron and Oliver asking for and giving sexual consent. Aaron and Oliver are frustrated that much of history ignores “what it was like to live as someone / other than a / white / Protestant / land-owning / man,” and as they discover that life needn’t follow gender binaries, their revelations ring with authenticity. Fans of classic YA literature will enjoy a subtle allusion to Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 novel, Speak, a book that was revolutionary in its time, too.
The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin The more we understand history, the more opportunities we have to form connections with one another. Such connections play a key role in
Kip Wilson’s The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin (Versify, $18.99, 9780358448907), which is set in the eponymous city just before Hitler’s rise to power. Eighteen-year-old Hilde has just left her orphanage with a handful of Reichsmark coins and the painful memory of Gretchen, the girl who stole her heart. Looking for a job, she stumbles into Café Lila, a club where “all / kinds / of / love / are / possible,” and learns that they’re in need of a musical waitress. Hilde tries to summon up the courage to sing—which is difficult in front of the beautiful Rosa, whose aunt warmly welcomes Hilde to their Jewish home. Meanwhile, an election is approaching and tensions are rising. Hitler’s National Socialists might win over desperate crowds through promises to end hunger and unemployment, but they’re also eager to find someone to blame for Germany’s problems, and they disapprove of what they consider “degenerate” establishments— places like Café Lila. Alliteration (“languidly, leisurely, lovingly”), onomatopoeia (a clock counts “ticktack”) and words that travel across the page as Hilde moves around Café Lila (“tables / bar / floor / round and round”) add aural and visual interest. Hilde’s realization that she can decide what kind of person she wants to be strikes a quiet note of rightness. Although there’s no on-the-page sex, there’s plenty of acceptance, found family and sweet romance between two girls who know they’re “different from the others” in a time and place where being different means being in danger. Both A Million Quiet Revolutions and The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin use poetry to sidestep pronouns. The former makes dexterous use of “you” and “we,” while Ute, the “perfectly androgynous pianist” of the latter, is never referred to with pronouns at all. Both novels also use changes in layout to denote shifts in voice. Words are aligned with the left margin when Oliver and Hilde narrate, and with the right margin when Aaron, Rosa and Rosa’s aunt speak. Readers in search of insight into the lives of queer teens throughout history—and inspiration for their own lives today—will find plenty of it in these books. As Oliver writes to Aaron about his history project on the gay rights movement during the late 1960s, “It makes me feel like / revolutions are still possible.” —Jill Ratzan
How Ashley Woodfolk learned to write without fear
© ASHLEY WOODFOLK
behind the book | ashley woodfolk
The bestselling YA author reveals why Nothing Burns as Bright as You is her most “emotionally honest” book yet. Many readers became familiar with Ashley Woodfolk via her contributions to Blackout, last summer’s collaborative YA smash success co-authored by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon. In her new novel, Nothing Burns as Bright as You (Versify, $18.99, 9780358655350), Woodfolk’s prose blazes like an inferno as she tells the story of two girls whose connection flickers between best friendship and deep, complicated love. Riveting and powerful, it’s Woodfolk’s best work yet. Here, she explores how embracing vulnerability allowed her to craft a novel fueled by pure emotion.
Every writer I know has a preoccupation with a single subject, a thing they can’t help but write about. If you look at any author’s body of work, you can almost always find a thread of thematic sameness permeating their writing, an echo of something that haunts their stories like a ghost. Maybe it’s the impossible pursuit of perfection, and their characters are always striving to be the cleverest or prettiest or best version of whoever they are, but failing again and again. Maybe it’s an obsession with acceptance, and their novels examine all the ways humans can feel excluded and all the desperate things we do to feel worthy of love. As for me, I use my novels to dig into the painful inevitability of loss. I have always been someone who feels deeply and intensely. Sadness for me is a black hole sucking at the universe; happiness, an endless fireworks display. For years I’d felt like my emotions were too much: too big, too wild or too overwhelming for other people. This was rooted in loss, in a fear of it, because I’d lost numerous friends and partners after I showed them all of me. So I learned to shrink. I cried in secret. I laughed at things that hurt my feelings. I swallowed my fear and dimmed my joy and ignored my own anger. These decisions to hide my true feelings felt like safety. It seemed like this limited, more palatable version of me was the version that made people stick around.
Enter: the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced so many of us to confront loss, literally and figuratively. We’ve lost millions of human lives, job security, money and both physical and emotional closeness with friends and family. We’ve had to cancel plans, to say goodbye to the normalcy that used to govern our lives, and we’ve lost so much time. Facing loss head-on in this way forced my hand when it came to how much of myself I showed the world. I no longer had the energy to hide the real me, and as people who couldn’t take Ashley-atfull-volume fell away, I saw so many things more clearly. While I know now that my emotions were always valid—that my deep capacity for empathy and full-bodied feelings is in fact a superpower— the world being on fire stoked the flame that had always been burning inside me. And feeling my feelings in all their untamed glory made me braver when it came to my writing. While I’m proud of all my novels, Nothing Burns as Bright as You has a rawness and vulnerability that, before the pandemic, I had been too afraid to show. My first book, The Beauty That Remains, deals with the aftermath of untimely death. Each character in that book has lost someone close to them unexpectedly, and the novel is threaded through with how music and friendship help them all grieve. When You Were Everything is a novel about a friendship breakup, and what it’s like to slowly lose the person who knows you best, in a way you can’t seem to stop. And in my series, Flyy Girls, each character loses something too: their reputation, a brother, their innocence, a dream. In all of these novels, I couch the feelings of my characters in very concrete, understandable devices. There is always a reason for their sadness, an explanation for their obsessions, an answer to all their questions. I think this was just another way I was hiding. In my latest novel, I hide nothing. The experience of writing Nothing Burns as Bright as You was unlike writing any of my other books. Once I let go of rationality and leaned fully into what comes naturally to me—feeling—this
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book poured out of me. It is a story that shows what it feels like to be a troublemaker, to be a Black girl, to be in love with your best and only friend. It is about the push and pull of codependency, recognizing toxicity in others and in yourself, learning your worth no matter the cost. It’s about loss—of innocence, of expectations, of relationships you want to last forever. And it examines my own latent queerness, something I had ignored and suppressed for years. With this novel, I was finally able to grieve the queer girlhood I never got to fully experience without the filter that characterized my earlier work. The result is the most emotionally honest novel I’ve ever written. What I learned over the course of the pandemic, in therapy and through writing this book is that while my feelings are real, they are my responsibility and no one else’s. It is my right to feel whatever I feel fully, but it is also my job to choose how I allow my feelings to affect others. Learning to separate feelings and behavior has been key to identifying and healing some of my own toxic behaviors. I now know it was often my reactions, not my feelings, that played a role in some of my most painful relationship losses, and I hope this book can be equally illuminating for readers. Emotions don’t always make sense, but before Nothing Burns as Bright as You, I was afraid to write a character who felt as wildly as I did, afraid she would be brushed off or misunderstood. Sometimes you love a person just because they love you, you make decisions because they feel right in your gut, you change the course of your whole life because of a single sentence someone says. I wanted to write fearlessly—to write a novel that was full of pure, maybe volatile, but always true feeling. I hope I succeeded. —Ashley Woodfolk
feature | earth day for young readers
If planet Earth could whisper in your ear These books quietly reflect on the power of connecting with nature. In exploring their young protagonists’ relationships with the natural world, these beautiful picture books reveal how such relationships offer sustenance throughout life’s journeys.
H The Garden We Share Zoë Tucker and Julianna Swaney’s The Garden We Share (NorthSouth, $18.95, 9780735844841) is superb and subtle, full of beautiful writing and illustrations that perfectly convey its deep themes. Initially, it appears to be a simple story about community gardening, but soon reveals itself to be much more. One early spring day, a girl and an older woman—perhaps her grandmother—join two other women and a watchful cat to plant seeds in a garden nestled between apartment buildings. “We scatter them on the ground like stars in the sky,” the young narrator says, “and quickly cover them with a blanket of sweet soil.” As expected, the weather warms, and the seeds sprout. Swaney, who also illustrated HGTV star Joanna Gaines’ We Are the Gardeners, deploys her signature palette of muted pastels to depict the garden’s gradual blossoming. In one spread, warmtoned flowers cover the entire right-hand page and spill over onto the left-hand page, where the narrator and her older friend sunbathe side by side on a blanket, and the other two women read and snooze on nearby lounge chairs. It’s a marvelous vision of summertime bliss. Soon, as vegetables ripen and everyone gathers at a picnic table to share the bountiful harvest, The Garden We Share becomes a meditation on the changing seasons. But wait—there’s more. On the page opposite the harvest feast, we see the narrator’s older friend is bed bound, though still vibrant as the pair collect and preserve seeds from their garden. In the next spread, deep winter has set in and the narrator visits the garden without her friend. “Petals fall, and colors fade—and you are gone,” she says. Observant readers may have noticed previous clues to the woman’s declining health, though early indications are easy to miss on a first read: In summer, she starts using a cane, and she appears in a headscarf at the feast. Words and pictures work together seamlessly to connect the ending of the older woman’s life to the natural progressions of the world, such as the passing of the seasons. It’s handled with such sensitivity that younger readers will be able to take in exactly as much of this message as they are ready for. While many children’s books address the loss of a grandparent, the fact that the narrator’s relationship to her older friend is never specified allows for more points of identification, enabling The Garden We Share to guide young readers through a wider range of losses. The next spring, the narrator returns to the garden to plant the seeds she and her friend collected the previous year. “And as the morning air warms my heart, little shoots emerge like magic,” the narrator says, “And you are with me again.” The Garden We Share is a gentle book overflowing with big lessons about life and death, the importance of experiences shared and the multitude of ways that the earth sustains us, even through great loss.
All From a Walnut Ammi-Joan Paquette and Felicita Sala’s All From a Walnut (Abrams, $18.99, 9781419750021) explores themes similar to those in The Garden We Share, but sounds different notes along the way. Emilia wakes up one morning to find a walnut on her bedside table. “It
must be walnut season,” her mother observes. Then Grandpa, who lives with them, relates the story of how he immigrated to America from Italy when he was a boy (“a little nut like you”). One of the only belongings he brought was a walnut he had plucked from a tree outside his window. He planted it and tended to its growth, and now a mighty walnut tree grows in Emilia’s yard. When Emilia’s mother was a girl, she planted her own tree next to her father’s, and now it’s Emila’s turn. As Grandpa tells his story, Sala’s art brings it to life, using sepia tones to differentiate these remembered scenes from the present day and enlivening the old country through the textures of rock walls, stone buildings and leafy vegetation. She expresses the enormity of Grandpa’s journey and his family’s challenges, depicting a huge ship docked in America as a long line of passengers emerge. Sala’s paintings of Grandpa’s walnut trees are majestic and convey the wonder of this gift from nature—and straight from Grandpa’s heart. All From a Walnut is a story of heritage, generations past and future, and the gifts we each pass on. As Grandpa shows Emilia how to plant her walnut and care for it, he moves “slowly, like he was running out of batteries.” Text and pictures quietly relay both the plant’s growth and Grandpa’s slow but steady decline. “All the best things grow with time. Even when you can’t see them, still they grow,” he tells Emilia in their final scene together. In the seasons and years that follow, Emilia’s tree comforts her and reminds her of her grandfather, and she looks forward to continuing his tradition with her own child. All From a Walnut beautifully depicts life’s cycles and highlights not only the sadness of saying goodbye but also the wonder of new beginnings.
Emile and the Field In his first book for children, Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker and the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, explores what it means to quietly enjoy and commune with nature. Young begins Emile and the Field (Make Me a World, $17.99, 9781984850423) with gentle simplicity. “There was a boy named Emile who fell in love with a field,” he writes, and we see Emile and his little black dog frolicking in a vast meadow full of wildflowers. Chioma Ebinama’s evocative illustrations transport readers right to the meadow. Soft-toned, impressionistic flowers completely envelop Emile, offering soothing beauty and opportunities for contemplation and exploration. Not a lot happens, and that’s the point: “The bumblebees would sing to him—never sting—their worlds were honey, and led him to wander.” Spot illustrations and full-page spreads give readers close-up views as well as wide-angled, telescopic glimpses at Emile’s musings and meanderings. When autumn comes, Emile plays in the leaves, observing that “his favorite maple is as tall as his mother.” Emile is a solitary soul and a big thinker who considers the field his best friend and sounding board. Once winter arrives, however, he feels as though his friend has disappeared, and he doesn’t like having to share his space with “other, loud kids” who sled there. Emile’s father provides a helpful perspective that changes Emile’s outlook and restores his well-being. Emile and the Field is a love letter to nature that highlights the importance of having a special place to relax, roam and just be yourself as you wonder about your place in this wide world. —Alice Cary
reviews | children’s
H A Duet for Home By Karina Yan Glaser
Middle Grade Eleven-year-old June Yang feels like bad luck follows her family everywhere. First her dad, a bicycle delivery driver, was killed in a street accident. Then her mom, consumed by grief, withdrew from the world and lost her job, and June became the de facto caregiver for her 6-year-old sister, Maybelle. And now June’s family has been evicted from their apartment and relocated to Huey House, a shelter for families experiencing homelessness. At first, everything at Huey House seems strange and disorienting, including the longer bus ride to school and the practical jokes played by longtime shelter residents Tyrell and Jeremiah. The final straw is the news that June can’t play her beloved viola at the shelter. But June quickly starts to see how the shelter’s residents help one another and how kindness can manifest in surprising ways. And she discovers that Tyrell, whose brash exterior belies a sensitive heart, a fear of abandonment
By Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow Illustrated by Tiffany Rose
Picture Book Abdul likes straight lines and a good story, but he struggles to keep his “scratchy, scrawly letters” within the lines of his paper. And spelling? It’s downright impossible. When a writer named Mr. Muhammad visits Abdul’s class, he encourages Abdul to embrace his “mess,” and Abdul realizes that a good story might come from his messy writing after all. Abdul’s Story (Salaam Reads, $17.99, 9781534462984) is an encouraging depiction of a child with a learning disability and the power of finding your story. Author Jamilah ThompkinsBigelow candidly portrays Abdul’s emotions, capturing how his inability to write “neat sentences” leads to both feelings of failure and a sense of determination. Her text invites readers inside Abdul’s experience, describing his difficulties without specifically labeling them, so that readers with a wide range of learning disabilities will be able to identify with him. Tiffany Rose’s illustrations are lively and optimistic, filled with friendly lines and details that round out the story without overwhelming the eye. Bright background colors and scenes of Abdul’s
and a love for classical music, might share some of the same dreams that she does. Author Karina Yan Glaser’s series about the Vanderbeekers, a large and loving family in Harlem, is beloved. As she does in those books, Glaser infuses this standalone novel with sweetness and optimism while acknowledging the complexities of her characters’ lives. In an author’s note, Glaser describes how the seeds of A Duet for Home (Clarion, $16.99, 9780544876408) were planted when she worked at a shelter similar to Huey House 20 years ago. She incorporates a real-life policy initiative—a drive to rehouse families experiencing homelessness in inadequate, unsafe facilities without sufficient support systems—into the novel as well. Within the story, Glaser brilliantly illustrates the drawbacks of this policy from a child’s point
of view and shows the power of political action through her characters’ responses. June and Tyrell are memorable and inspiring protagonists. Glaser surrounds them with a cast of well-developed secondary characters, including supportive grown-ups such as Ms. Gonzalez, the bighearted social worker who knows every resident’s favorite food, and Domenika, the lovably prickly viola teacher next door. As its title suggests, A Duet for Home is also suffused with music. Glaser provides a list of all the compositions referenced throughout at the end of the novel. A Duet for Home portrays how an appreciation for music and a desire to make the world more beautiful can give all young people—and perhaps especially the most vulnerable—a way to believe in themselves. —Norah Piehl
bustling, cheerful surroundings contribute to an overall sense of approachability and welcome. Rose brings one sequence in particular to life with notable poignancy: At one point, Abdul writes and erases so many times that he tears a hole in his paper. Ashamed, he hides under his desk and imagines “an eraser big enough to erase himself.” As Abdul crouches under the table, his eyes downcast the eraser of a giant yellow pencil has already smudged out his hands and feet. In a world that can often be inaccessible, Abdul’s Story shows the power of casting a child with a learning disability in a starring role. As we witness Abdul working hard to improve his story, we’re reminded that few things are perfect on the first try, but it’s in the trying that we eventually find success. —Jill Lorenzini
Wyatt Flynn was covered in glowing space dust, doused with nuclear waste and electrocuted—all during a rapid sequence of accidents on “Bring Your Kids to Work Day.” Now he has a ton of amazing abilities, including flight, superspeed, superstrength, super tough skin and invisibility. He also has an overprotective father who will under no circumstances allow Wyatt to be a superhero until he’s at least 36 years old. After Wyatt; his little sister, Adeline; and their father move in with Wyatt’s grandmother, Wyatt must navigate the ordinary challenges of a new school year while concealing the fact that he’s now, well, a pretty extraordinary kid. It all goes (mostly) smoothly at first, but when animals in town begin mysteriously disappearing, Wyatt enlists the help of un-superpowered but extremely smart Adeline to discover who has been stealing them and why. Filled with over-the-top action and slapstick humor, Sort of Super is a fantastic graphic novel for younger middle grade readers. Perfect for kids who have moved on from Captain Underpants and Dog Man but are not yet ready for Marvel, DC and other adult superhero comics, Sort of Super introduces many tropes of the genre (hidden identities, secret villains, sidekicks who are better prepared than the superhero, expansive universes) without being trite or condescending toward the reader. Wyatt and Adeline succeed because of their strength of character and their trust and belief in each other, and Gapstur surrounds them with wonderfully supportive adults. His art is bold and colorful, and it perfectly complements his storytelling and on-point dialogue. Sort of Super is a funny, engaging book that will leave readers
Sort of Super By Eric Gapstur
Middle Grade For many kids, it would be the ultimate dream come true: to unexpectedly gain superpowers and be able to save the world! Unless, of course, your dad won’t let you. In Sort of Super (Aladdin, $12.99, 9781534480285), the debut graphic novel by Eric Gapstur, 11-year-old
reviews | children’s eager for more adventures with Wyatt, Adeline and their extraordinary family. —Kevin Delecki
H Chester van Chime Who
Forgot How to Rhyme By Avery Monsen Illustrated by Abby Hanlon
Picture Book The giggles will begin from the opening endpapers of Chester van Chime Who Forgot How to Rhyme (Little, Brown, $17.99, 9780759554825). which feature small drawings. Each little illustration is accompanied by a pair of rhyming words. For example, a depiction of a green slug smiling on a fluffy green rug says “Slug Rug.”
The book itself is about poor Chester van Chime, who awakens one morning to discover that he has lost the ability to rhyme. Scattered across his bedroom are objects that evoke rhymes: The same slug from the endpapers smiles happily from a green rug next to Chester’s bed, and we see two toy ducks inside a blue toy truck. Despite all these visual clues, Chester simply can’t “match up two sounds.”
Chester van Chime Who Forgot How to Rhyme has all the makings of a surefire storytime hit. Author Avery Monsen presents a text filled with rhyming couplets that fall hilariously flat on their poetic faces. For example: “He tried not to panic. He played it real cool / and picked up his backpack and walked to his . . . / . . . learning place with teachers and stuff.” Adults, welcome to your next Best Storytime Book.
Abby Hanlon, illustrator of the side-splittingly funny Dory Fantasmagory chapter book series, brings her playful sensibilities to these vivid tableaux. Her spreads teem with rhyming pairs. Owls decorate Chester’s bathroom towel; a pup smiles from the cup on his sink; a fox steals a sock while Chester is getting dressed; and can you guess what winged mammal appears on his doormat? As Chester’s frustrations over his failures escalate, so do the visuals. Chester’s classroom devolves into chaos as his classmates try to resuscitate his rhyming acumen. Chester walks home from school in despair, but he soon realizes that everyone has off days and no one can be perfect all the time. Besides, by day’s end, Chester can rhyme again—for the most part. And remember those winning opening endpapers? The book’s closing endpapers feature an entirely new but equally delightful set of drawings. It’s a must-read, a hit, a guaranteed good time. If only more books were like Chester van . . . what was his name again? —Julie Danielson
meet BLANCA GÓMEZ How would you describe your book?
What books did you enjoy as a child?
Who has been the biggest influence on your work?
What one thing would you like to learn to do?
Who was your childhood hero?
What message would you like to send to young readers?
When a little girl must stay home sick on Dress-Up Day (Abrams, $17.99, 9781419744105), she decides to wear her bunny costume the next day. Her choice sets off a chain of events that leads to unexpected friendships and more. Author-illustrator Blanca Gómez lives in Madrid, Spain. Her previous picture books include Bird House, Rachael Cole’s City Moon and George Shannon’s One Family.