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New from narrative nonfiction master David Grann, THE WAGER is a harrowing saga of
Also inside: Héctor Tobar, Emily Henry, Tom Hanks, Abraham Verghese & Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
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interview | héctor tobar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 The visionary writer redefines his Latino community in Our Migrant Souls
fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 nonfiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
q&a | l.r. lam. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 The worlds of humans and dragons collide in the author’s new fantasy romance
behind the book | nana kwame adjei-brenyah. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 The acclaimed writer’s first novel eviscerates America’s for-profit prison system
cover story | david grann . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 This narrative nonfiction masterpiece is a real-life Lord of the Flies
feature | bestseller watch. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 Discover new books from eight popular authors
behind the book | katy simpson smith . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
young adult. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 children’s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
columns lifestyles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 the hold list. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 audio. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
The novelist shares how the Roman Colosseum’s plants form the body of her latest book
whodunit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
feature | mother’s day. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
book clubs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Two books enliven the subgenre of the maternity memoir
behind the book | claire forrest . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 The debut YA author reflects on a rite of passage: high school graduation
romance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 sci-fi & fantasy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10
q&a | carter higgins. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 Some of These Are Snails will make readers see shapes and colors like never before
feature | meet the author. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 Meet Vashti Harrison, the author-illustrator of Big
Cover photo of David Grann © Rebecca Mansell.
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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
A visionary writer redefines his community
© PATRICE NORMAND/AGENCE OPALE
interview | héctor tobar
With Our Migrant Souls, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Héctor Tobar documents the fullness of Latinx experiences. Héctor Tobar has been busy. On a Zoom call because “our literary and cultural production is to his home in California, he tells me that his mediated through New York and American pubnew book, Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation lishing.” But he thinks Latinx people can reclaim on Race and the Meanings and Myths of the meaning of Latino by unwrapping its history “Latino,” is an “attempt to summarize 30 years and asserting a new definition: “Latino is an alliof learning, reading about race in the United ance among peoples.” States and the Latino experience, and trying When he says this, it’s a revelation: a whole Visit BookPage.com to read our continent-and-a-half of people, united under to understand Latino as a category in the lens starred review of Our Migrant Souls. one word. How has such a of U.S. race history.” This is a pretty serious undertaking— large collection of people’s Tobar says. In the book, he reflects on his own but no one is better suited to existences gone this long family’s migrations, not just to the United States without serious examinalead the charge than Tobar, but throughout Guatemala. There have been whose book surveys the tion? Tobar reminds me that “unending permutations of migrants in my life,” Latinx community’s diverse there has been a long history he says. This is true of all Americans, no matrelationships to migration, of struggle leading up to this ter our ethnic backgrounds. But Latinx people empire, identity and kinship. moment. “We fought for the are disproportionately vilified for migrating, Tobar is a veteran Latino idea that the experience of which is why Tobar maintains that “U.S. immiauthor, writing on par with gration policy is a collective humiliation of the our people was worthy of other modern masters such intellectual inquiry,” he Latino people.” Whether through detention as Ada Limón and Valeria says. “The system that has centers, fear mongering or simply forcing peoLuiselli. One of his most produced these [prejuple to walk through the dangerous, vast desert, significant contributions diced] ideas is ill. It is sick a whole population of people is being erased. to not just Latino literature and inflicting harm upon “[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] will use but literature as a whole is any tool at its disposal,” Tobar says. “It’s a really us, and we need to change Deep Down Dark (2014), cowardly situation.” it; we need new ideas.” which tells the true story of This is why Tobar’s novThis is why Tobar’s mission is so important: 33 Chilean miners who were els always feature working- If Latinx people cannot redefine Latino in order to use it to our advantage, it will continue to be trapped underground for class intellectuals, such as used to categorize and hurt us. When I ask him 69 days. Writing that book the housekeeper in The H Our Migrant Souls taught Tobar a vital lesson: Barbarian Nurseries. Rather how we can defy labels, he tells me, “Think about MCD, $27, 9780374609900 “If I really wanted to create a than rooting his narratives Guatemalan. What does that mean? Every ethwork that would capture the in harmful ideas and stereo nicity is a pan ethnicity! If you look at any label, Social Science fullness of their experience, types, he roots them in the you will find a whole sort of quantum mechanics I had to think about their full experience,” he experiences of real people, the kind he says of people crashing into each other. . . . All of us are says, “about working people and the ambitions you can find anywhere and everywhere in this the constant mixing of entanglements.” in their lives, their hopes and dreams for their country. He knows this is true from his years Tobar believes “this fad, this mania of children, their affairs, the complications in their working as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, applying labels on ourselves, is really counter lives, the dysfunction, the glories. It makes for when he would walk the streets and talk to peoproductive, cruel, anti-human and unintellia much more satisfying read.” This lesson has ple, learning about them and hearing their stogent. Almost any facet of human experience is influenced his writing philosophy ever since, ries. The latter part of going to frustrate an especially in Our Migrant Souls, which makes Our Migrant Souls “Almost any facet of human attempt to put a label is based on a similar significant strides toward documenting the fullon it.” It might seem experience is going to paradoxical, then, to ness of Latinx experiences. approach: using a road about Latinx When I ask Tobar about the necessary steps trip across the United frustrate an attempt to put a write to redefine Latino, he lays out his mission. To States to highlight people and Latinidad the mestizo (mixed) start, he says, editors and publishers can “open (i.e., the diaspora of label on it.” nature of this nation, Latinx peoples), but up critical spaces to Latino writers [who are] tryshowing through testimonies and anecdotes ing to create work that will push Latino letters.” Tobar doesn’t think so. “There’s many differBut in order to do that, they have to get past how ingrained Latinx people are in the culture. ent ways of approaching the truth, and there’s many different truths,” he tells me. the stereotypes. Nowadays, readers and literary We can trace this mixture back to the “That’s true,” I say, and we laugh. beginning of humanity’s story, to migration. professionals see Latino as a marketing con—Eric A. Ponce “Migration is a constant in human history,” cept more than anything, Tobar says—largely
by susannah felts
H The Language of Trees Irish artist Katie Holten’s innovative tree alphabet font (for each letter, she drew a corresponding tree) provides the stunning visual component for The Language of Trees (Tin House, $29.95, 9781953534682), in which Holten gathers a diverse range of writing celebrating all things arboreal. There are recipes for acorn flour, words from Plato and Radiohead, poems by Ada Limón and Camille Dungy, musings on cacao and catalpa trees, and so much more—all of it printed first in English and then in Holten’s tree alphabet, creating visual forests that represent the book’s words. I’ve never seen anything remotely like this work of art.
Patchwork If you are a fan of jaw-droppingly beautiful things, you have to check out Patchwork (Thames & Hudson, $50, 9780500025819) by textile designer and collector Catherine Legrand. From American sampler quilts and Indian kantha to French courtepointe and Korean bojagi, this study crisscrosses the continents to illustrate the global art form of patchwork fabrics. Taken as a whole, the fascinating works presented here celebrate human creativity, ingenuity and determination to use and preserve what we’ve got.
Sown in the Stars For centuries, farmers have been consulting the zodiac and the phases of the moon to time their planting. There’s scant scientific research on this type of cultivation, but as Sarah L. Hall muses in Sown in the Stars (University Press of Kentucky, $34.95, 9780813197043), “when a practice continues over a long period of time, there might just be something to it.” Hall interviewed a number of Kentuckians who follow the folk tradition of planting by the signs, and their stories shape the heart of this book. Whether you wish to give it a go yourself or are simply curious about traditional practices, this book is a valuable cultural document.
Work It Out “The fitness industry is filled with life-hacks for depression, but most of it seems to be coming from a place of ignorance about the cold war going on in the average depressed person’s head,” writes Sarah Kurchak in Work It Out (Quirk, $17.99, 9781683693291). She tailors her workout guidance to people who are depressed or anxious, offering approaches that are both grounded in science and refreshingly dismissive of well-trodden myths, rules and routines. Pillow fight! Goblet squat your pet! (If they’re cool with it, of course.) This funny, helpful book does not disappoint.
Susannah Felts is a Nashville-based writer and co-founder of The Porch, a literary arts organization. She enjoys anything paper- or plant-related.
the hold list
5 books to read for AAPI Heritage Month May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! To celebrate, we’re shining a spotlight on some of our favorite stellar reads by Asian American authors.
How to Not Be Afraid of Everything At a reading in 2022, I heard poet Jane Wong describe her obsession with time-lapse videos of rotting fruit. Her poetry collection, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, is full of the physicality of food, informed by Wong’s research into the Great Leap Forward, which was a stage of Mao Zedong’s reforms that led to the starvation of 36 million Chinese people. Wong’s great-grandparents died during the Great Leap Forward, and several poems ring with their voices. In others, the speaker reckons with the contrast between the relative abundance in her life—the apples “rotting on the ground,” an egg thrown onto pavement just to hear the “sumptuous splat”—and the false promises of the American dream for herself and her parents. Wong has a memoir coming out this month, so you can pick up Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City when you finish her breathtaking book of poetry. —Phoebe, Subscriptions
A Burning Megha Majumdar’s debut was one of the most important social novels of 2020—political, propulsive and unsparing—but if you spent that year sticking to lighter fare, now is the time to go back and see what you missed, because A Burning still hits hard. In contemporary India, a young woman named Jivan unthinkingly voices criticism of the government in a Facebook post, and she is immediately labeled a terrorist and sent to prison. Two other characters provide additional perspectives on these events: the luminous wanna be Bollywood star Lovely, a transgender woman who was learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s resentful former gym teacher who gets involved in nationalist politics. Each character is ambitious in their own way, but within this world marked by the tyrannies of rampant corruption, racism, poverty and inequality, their fates are often outside their control. This novel is a short shock that leaves a lasting burn. —Cat, Deputy Editor
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners Author Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho each made their publishing debut in the first week of 2021 with Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, a radiant picture book that became an instant bestseller and launched both creators’ successful careers. To read it is to immediately understand why. Its first- person narrator is a girl who explores, via gorgeous, lyrical prose, how her eyes connect her to her mother, grandmother and little sister and to their shared heritage. Meanwhile, the book’s digital illustrations positively glow as every spread seems suffused with sunshine. Read this aloud to savor similes such as “my lashes curve like the swords of warriors”; then read it again and pay special attention to how the characters in every spread look at one another. You’ll see one of the most moving renderings of love made visible on the page that I’ve ever encountered. —Stephanie, Associate Editor
Speak, Okinawa Elizabeth Miki Brina’s form-bending memoir starts with her personal history—contending with her mother’s alcoholism, feeling ashamed of her Japanese heritage in her predominately white hometown, expanding her horizons in California as a young adult—and spirals out to engulf not only her parents’ story but also the history of Okinawa, the island in Japan where her mother grew up before meeting Brina’s father, a white American stationed there during the Vietnam War. After years of contention, Brina found compassion for the trauma her mother experienced when she left her homeland for a culturally and linguistically isolated life in a hostile new country. As Brina spells out Okinawa’s long history, readers also get a sense of the generational trauma that has shaped her family. It’s a story that encompasses both the broad horrors of colonialism and racism and the deeply personal details of forgiveness and familial love. —Christy, Associate Editor
Each month, BookPage staff share special reading lists—our personal favorites, old and new.
This Burns My Heart Heartfelt and emotional, Samuel Park’s moving debut novel is a must-read for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or the K-drama “Crash Landing on You.” Set in 1960s Korea, This Burns My Heart features a resourceful heroine torn between love and duty in the wake of partition. Soo-Ja meets Yul and immediately feels a connection to him—a confusing development, since she has just decided to marry another man. Unwilling to disgrace her family by going back on her promise, Soo-Ja rejects Yul to marry Min, and it turns out to be a decision she will revisit and regret for the next 20 years. Yul and Soo-Ja see each other only periodically and usually by chance, but their fraught encounters are tense with the passion of unconsummated love. Full of poetic observations and memorable lines, This Burns My Heart will leave you pondering the “what ifs” in your own life. —Trisha, Publisher
H All the Beauty in the World When his beloved older brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Patrick Bringley sought a refuge—and found it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he took a job as a security guard. His memoir, All the Beauty in the World (Simon and Schuster Audio, 6 hours), is a moving reflection on not only art but also all the messy, mundane, tragic, glorious and moving aspects of our lives. Bringley’s reading of his book is sensitive and gentle, with a soft-spoken narration that reflects the profundity that comes from years of humbly observing and interacting with this magnificent museum. The accompanying PDF contains lovely sketches of the works Bringley reflects on, adding extra layers of enjoyment to this extraordinary audiobook. —Deborah Mason
Someone Else’s Shoes Someone Else’s Shoes (Penguin Audio, 12.5 hours) by Jojo Moyes starts with a lighthearted premise—the accidental swap of two nearly identical bags belonging to two very different women, Sam and Nisha—but soon takes on weightier themes. These include explorations of the ebb and flow of both long marriages and female friendships, as well as considerations of mental and physical illness and emotional abuse. With excellent pacing, British actor Daisy Ridley (whose deep alto voice will be familiar from her role as Rey in the Star Wars saga) capably narrates both the humor and serious undertones of Moyes’ novel. —Norah Piehl
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Promises of Gold Promises of Gold (Macmillan Audio, 5.5 hours), written and narrated by José Olivarez, delivers slice-of-life poetry about growing up in Chicago with Mexican parents and finding love of every kind: familial love, easy romantic love and unspoken love from buddies who will never let you down. A portion of the audiobook is performed in front of a live audience, which is such a smart choice for a collection of poetry. The audience’s reactions lend a sense of community you can only get from a live reading, and Olivarez feeds off this energy. The second half of the audiobook contains a Spanish translation by David Ruano. —Anna Zeitlin
H Rough Sleepers In Rough Sleepers (Random House Audio, 8.5 hours), Tracy Kidder offers a moving portrait of Dr. Jim O’Connell, head of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Kidder’s narration (with a Boston accent that he dials up and down as needed) adds further intimacy to the book’s very personal stories, so it feels like we’re riding along in the van with O’Connell as he checks on his patients. Listeners will connect with the humanity of O’Connell’s patients and admire the medical professionals who tirelessly treat them with the care and compassion they deserve. —Norah Piehl
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by bruce tierney
H The Magistrate Police procedural novels set in China often have a decidedly different feel from their European and American counterparts. As public servants are paid so poorly, there is a thriving shadow economy of grift. The rule book is scarcely more than a fairy tale, broadly ignored by law enforcement and the criminal element alike. Case in point: Brian Klingborg’s The Magistrate (Minotaur, $28, 9781250855015). His protagonist, Deputy Chief Inspector Lu Fei, is one of only a handful of honest cops, and thus he is roundly despised by most of the higher-ups. However, on the rare occasion when a fact-driven investigation is required, Lu is the go-to guy. As The Magistrate begins, someone is targeting corrupt officials and subjecting them to excruciating torture and/or death. It soon becomes evident that a series of medieval interrogation methods are being utilized, all on the orders of someone calling themself the Magistrate. When his longtime nemesis, Mr. Xu, a corrupt fellow cop, succeeds in sidelining Lu with a trumped-up murder charge, it will take some clever planning and more than a little assistance from some supposed bad guys for the canny policeman to prevail. With its nonstop action, suspense galore, fascinating locale and compelling characters (even/ especially the nefarious ones), The Magistrate ticks all the boxes.
Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River Since last we checked in on plucky Viviana Valentine, she’s been promoted from girl Friday to full-time sleuthing partner in the private investigation agency of Tommy Fortuna. Oh, Tommy is still the boss, but Viviana proved her mettle in her first outing (Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man), and Tommy is practically a sensitive, New Age guy as 1950s male bosses go. Emily J. Edwards’ follow-up, Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River (Crooked Lane, $26.99, 9781639102686), is clever and witty, and it features some of the snappiest narration and dialogue in modern whodunits. This time out, Viviana and Tommy investigate some mysterious happenings in and around the home laboratory of Buster Beacon, a wealthy socialite/ inventor. Their stay at Buster’s estate in upstate New York is punctuated by an evening gathering of neighbors and investors, all blissfully unaware of an impending snowstorm. The inconvenience of a locked-room murder in their midst brings the jolly gathering to a screeching halt. The mystery has a pleasingly convoluted Knives Out vibe, Agatha Christie-esque but with a modern overlay of dry humor, much of it provided by Viviana’s narration. It’s good fun from beginning to end, with a surprise or two for even the most jaded suspense-o-phile.
The Eden Test
H The Body by the Sea
An upstate New York setting also figures prominently in Adam Sternbergh’s cinematic psychological thriller The Eden Test (Flatiron, $27.99, 9781250855664), even though it’s set seven-odd decades later. Actress Daisy and aspiring writer-turned-viral marketer Craig’s relatively new marriage seems, if not on the rocks, at least headed firmly in that direction. One of them has taken a lover, and there are more secrets bubbling not far beneath the surface. So Daisy takes matters into her own hands and books a week at a getaway hosted by the Edenic Foundation for their second wedding anniversary. The couples therapy retreat is built on the titular test: seven answers to seven relationship questions in seven days. Phones are forbidden, and sometimes it appears that honesty has been proscribed as well. It doesn’t take long for things to go slightly off the rails, and then more than slightly. The counselors are a bit weird, as are the staff and the townspeople, and the whole scenario is filled with the sort of unease that you might find in “Twin Peaks” or at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, minus the supernatural component. And just when you think you have anticipated the big reveal, Edgar Award-finalist Sternbergh delivers “the big nope,” forcing you to reconsider your so-called aha! moment.
When I reviewed Jean-Luc Bannalec’s The Granite Coast Murders a couple of years back, I opined that thanks to the author’s mesmerizing portrayal, Brittany, France, “has been elevated into my top 10 places I need to visit.” I would hope, however, that when I do finally visit Brittany, I can sidestep the murders that bedevil Commissaire Georges Dupin. Bannalec’s latest, The Body by the Sea (Minotaur, $27.99, 9781250840974), opens in the seaside town of Concarneau, where Dr. Chaboseau, a noted cardiologist, has just taken a header from a balcony. Chaboseau had been involved in some contentious business relationships, although nothing that should have risen to the level of homicide. Still, somebody was responsible; moreover, it will not be the last murder in this chain of events. Short-staffed thanks to a holiday, Commissaire Dupin is the only on-duty cop save for a couple of very green recruits, so the case is rife with obstacles from the get-go. There is also a novel twist, so to speak: Some facets of the case echo the plot of a pre-World War II novel, which was in turn based on a real crime. Curiouser and curiouser, and it all leads to just the sort of surprise ending that readers long for. And as before, they are treated to fun facts about the food, landscape and denizens of Brittany along the way.
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 julie hale
Puzzles to ponder Blood Will Tell (William Morrow, $19.99, 9780062936219) by Heather Chavez zeros in on the complicated relationship between Frankie Barrera and her younger sister, Izzy. Frankie always stands by her sister, even when Izzy makes questionable decisions, but things change when Frankie is wrongfully implicated in a child abduction case—a crime that may involve Izzy. When a dark incident from the past resurfaces, Frankie is forced to face difficult truths and the sisters’ bond is tested to its breaking point. Enriched by themes of family, duty and commitment, this captivating thriller will spark lively dialogue among readers. Rita Todacheene, the protagonist of Ramona Emerson’s Shutter (Soho Crime, $16.95, 9781641294812), is a crackerjack forensic photographer with the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police. Brought up on Bring some suspense the Navajo Nation Reservation to your book club by her grandmother, Rita has become disconnected from her with these marvelous past, in part because the ghosts mysteries and thrillers. of crime victims torment her. While Rita is photographing a suicide case, the victim’s ghost reveals that she was murdered and urges Rita to find the culprits. Things take a dangerous turn when Rita is targeted by a violent cartel. A multilayered work of crime fiction, Shutter will electrify readers. In Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule (William Morrow, $18.99, 9780063042216), Hannah, a law student at the University of Virginia, lives with her troubled mother, Laura. Hannah works for the university’s chapter of the Innocence Project, researching cases in which people were convicted of a crime but maintained their innocence. As the novel unfolds, McTiernan incorporates entries from Laura’s diary that describe the death of her lover years ago, with a connection between that incident and a case Hannah researches adding a chilling twist to the narrative. Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this complex novel, such as the difficulties of true justice and the nature of memory. Chris Pavone turns up the tension in the compelling Two Nights in Lisbon (Picador, $19, 9781250872302). During a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, Ariel’s younger husband, John, vanishes without a trace, leaving her alone in a strange country. John can’t be reached by phone, and the authorities are unable to find him. Frantic and frightened, Ariel comes to realize that John himself is a mystery, and his disappearance draws her into a web of danger. A consistently suspenseful tale, Two Nights in Lisbon explores the secrets that can separate husband and wife.
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A BookPage reviewer since 2003, Julie Hale recommends the best paperback books to spark discussion in your reading group.
by christie ridgway
H The Boyfriend Candidate Fans of the fake-dating trope will love The Boyfriend Candidate (Graydon House, $18.99, 9781525804960), Ashley Winstead’s charming romcom. When her cheating boyfriend dumps her, librarian Alexis Stone dons a red dress and heads to a swank bar to find a one-night stand. All goes well, until a fire alarm leads to her being caught on camera with the man she’s about to bed: Logan Arthur, a politician who’s running to be the governor of Texas. Logan and his team persuade Alexis to pretend she’s his longtime, previously secret girlfriend until the election. Luckily, Logan is extremely attractive and his progressive policies match her own. Cue shy Alexis finding her voice and the brash Logan continually getting distracted by the enchanting librarian. Told in Alexis’ fresh first-person voice, this heartwarming romance has both poignant introspection and a hero who sacrifices his dignity when faced with kittens and gerbils.
The Secret Service of Tea and Treason India Holton’s The Secret Service of Tea and Treason (Berkley, $17, 9780593547267) takes place in a delightful fantasy version of Victorian England. Alice Dearlove is a top operative with a dangerous new assignment: Find a secret weapon and stop the assassination of Queen Victoria. But to do this, she must pretend to be the wife of her professional rival, Daniel Bixby. The highly entertaining adventure that follows includes flying houses, pirates, witches, whimsical wordplay and a castle with secret passages and professional ghosts. Daniel and Alice race around England to try and solve the case, all while falling in love and engaging in tender scenes of sensual awakening.
Sugar, Spice, and Can’t Play Nice
sci-fi & fantasy
by chris pickens
H The Sword Defiant Years ago, Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, defeating Lord Bone and conquering his dread city of Necrad. Aelfric was tasked with carrying Spellbreaker, Lord Bone’s enchanted, sentient broadsword. Though the sword bestows incredible magical power to the wielder, it thinks for itself and constantly yearns for bloodshed. When Aelfric and Spellbreaker discover that Lord Bone’s tomb has been opened, Aelfric suspects that one of his companions broke in and stole the body. But who? And why? In The Sword Defiant (Orbit, $18.99, 9780316537155), author Gareth Hanrahan creates a wonderful sense of tension that is also tinged with sadness. Aelfric loves his companions even as he suspects some of them of heinous acts, and he’s painfully aware that the group is getting older and growing distant from one another. Hanrahan creates fully realized environments, rendering the murky city of Necrad, towns and inns along the road and an elvish kingdom with precise detail.
H A House With Good Bones Sam Montgomery has to move back in with her mom, Edie, who lives in Sam’s grandmother’s old house in rural North Carolina. But Edie seems tired and nervous, very unlike her normal self. Vultures circle outside all day, ladybugs spill out of the faucets and Sam swears that bony fingers touch her hair in the middle of the night. Determined to find out the truth, Sam starts unearthing secrets about her family that were better left undisturbed. Author T. Kingfisher is in her element when the tension is at its highest, but don’t write off this book if you’re not a horror enthusiast—A House With Good Bones (Tor Nightfire, $26.99, 9781250829795) is also laugh-out-loud funny, balanced with knife’s-edge precision between fright and humor a la Jordan Peele’s sensational Get Out.
The Foxglove King
Family pressures and personal ambition clash in Sugar, Spice, and Can’t Play Nice (Sourcebooks Casablanca, $16.99, 9781492665434) by Annika Sharma. Fashion designer Payal Mehra has a spectacular no-strings-attached night with Ayaan Malhotra, but the morning after is a total disaster. Then their families put forth a business proposition to the couple—one that will be sealed with an arranged marriage. While both initially loathe the idea, Ayaan and Payal realize how beneficial their union could be. She’ll get funding for her clothing line and save her family’s business, while he’ll get 50% of his family’s company. Readers will root for Payal and Ayaan, both of whom are buffeted by family expectations and disappointment yet persevere. Their slow journey to confidence in themselves and contentment in each other is layered with lush descriptions of South Asian fashion and food.
In Hannah Whitten’s The Foxglove King (Orbit, $29, 9780316434997), poisons are drugs that produce a potent magical high. Lore, a poison dealer in the city of Dellaire, is arrested by the soldier-monks of the Presque Mort and forced to investigate a series of attacks on border towns. To top it off, she’s in the middle of a feud between the king’s son, Bastian, and her Presque Mort guardian, Gabriel. The love triangle among them adds texture but never distracts from the central storyline, with Bastian and Gabriel becoming more compelling characters over the course of the narrative. Lore’s complexity as a protagonist bodes well for future entries in the series, as Whitten skillfully ties her mysterious background into the reveals about the broader universe and its unique magic system.
Christie Ridgway is a lifelong romance reader and a published romance novelist of over 60 books.
Chris Pickens is a Nashville-based fantasy and sci-fi superfan who loves channeling his enthusiasm into reviews of the best new books the genre has to offer.
q&a | l.r. lam
Here there be (sexy) dragons The worlds of humans and dragons collide in L.R. Lam’s new fantasy romance. Centuries ago, the humans of Lumet banished dragons. But in a ritual gone wrong, shape-shifting thief Arcady accidentally lets the last male dragon back into the world. Trapped in human form while on this side of the Veil, Everen is intent on ripping apart the barrier between worlds, but the dragon finds himself forging a surprising bond with Arcady.
society a lot more accessible for deaf people, and it would have so many other useful applications. In a world where there was a more standardized sign language dialect, you could at least communicate basic things across language divides. So I imagined that Trade arose as a result of needing to haggle at markets, though it can also be used for things as innocuous as telling your friend what drink to order from the other side of a crowded tavern or as important as clarifying your gender.
When talking about this book, you’ve mentioned writers like Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey, both of whom have created iconic In your magic system, language can directly dragons. What other fictional dragons were particularly inspiraalter the world. What tional to you? “I’m not good with binaries was meaningful to you When I was younger, I about exploring the in general—shades of gray power of language? was very into Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Humans recite spells, are far more interesting.” Forest Chronicles. which are really manAs you mentioned, Robin Hobb and Anne gled words of the dragons’ language, Celenian. McCaffrey have some of my favorite dragons. (This greatly offends Everen the dragon.) Other big inspirations were Rachel Hartman’s Language can be such a tool of power, as Babel Seraphina and Shadow Scale, which have by R.F. Kuang demonstrates so beautifully. dragons that turn into humans as well. I’m Humans already stole dragons’ magic and their also inspired by film, and one of my comfort world. Stealing their language to wield that movies is the Russian film I Am Dragon, which magic without even remembering what their has gorgeous fairy-tale aesthetics and a dragon ancestors did is salt in the wound. learning how to be human In the country of Loc, it’s considered rude to assume who seemingly never learns to wear a shirt. a stranger’s gender, no matter how they present. A perDo you gravitate toward stocentage of society can shaperies in which the question shift, and healing magic can of who the “good guys” are change the body, so biology depends on where you’re isn’t seen as immutable, and standing, or ones with a gender roles are likewise fluid. You therefore default consistent villain? Why? to “they” until that person I’ve always found unambiguquickly flashes their genously good or evil characters a little boring, I have to say. der in Trade, often not even I’m not good with binaries in breaking the conversation. general—shades of gray are It’s a sign of trust and familfar more interesting. I love iarity, like when you switch from the formal to inforantagonists who believe they are the hero or who are doing mal “you” in languages like things that aren’t necessarFrench and Spanish. ily evil. Antagonists in stoDragonfall If you had a choice of dropries can exist to remind you DAW, $27, 9780756418410 that, under the right circumping into this world, would stances, you could very well you choose to be a human Fantasy Romance turn into a villain yourself. or a dragon? And in the right light, a hero could make a terOh, dead easy. No contest. Why be human when rible decision in the name of “the greater good.” you could be a dragon? And fly? What appealed to you about creating a signed lingua franca like Trade? I always wondered why sign language isn’t taught by default in schools. It would make
How do you balance aspiration and escapism with social critique in your work? I sigh a bit when people complain about “politics in their fantasy” as if it’s something new.
Visit BookPage.com to read our review of Dragonfall.
All art is political, even if it chooses to uphold the status quo. In epic fantasy, there’s often a strong pro-monarchy angle, for example, and gender roles can be regressive in the name of “historical accuracy” despite these medieval inspired worlds having things like potatoes and, you know, magical creatures. Fantasy can defamiliarize elements of our world or society, but it does it at more of a distance than contemporary fiction. The mirror is distorted. For Dragonfall, I tried to focus on story and character first. As I mentioned, in Loc there’s no judgment in regard to sexuality or gender, whereas another country, Jask, is patriarchal. I suppose it is still subversive to imagine a world that tolerant, even in fantasy. I wrote Dragonfall as an escape when I was stuck inside most of the time. We’re seeing rising threats to trans gender and reproductive rights, and the rhetoric and vitriol is honestly quite frightening, both in my original home of the U.S. and my current home in the U.K. This book is launching when queer books are increasingly getting banned. Even saying this in this interview makes me a little anxious. Are people going to say I’m banging on about politics instead of just focusing on the book? But I can’t exactly separate them out. I obviously hope readers enjoy meeting these characters and falling into the world of the Lumet, but perhaps the book will make them think, too. —Noah Fram
behind the book | nana kwame adjei-brenyah
ANOTHER WAY TO SAY IT With his 2018 story collection, Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah set the world of literary fiction alight. His first novel, a bold evisceration of America’s for-profit prison system, stokes the flames.
eople often ask, “When did you know you were going to be a writer? In his life he was a lawyer. Again, as a Ghanaian, there were many people When did you decide?” whom I called Uncle or Aunti who knew him as “Lawyer.” It was a title, I have many answers to this question, because being a writer is a position. More than a job. When I imagine him, he is wearing a suit. a way of moving through the world, a way of seeing, hearing and, I’ve I was barely tall enough to look straight at my father’s waist without learned, believing. When I was last asked this question, in relation to my craning my neck when he came home to our apartment at this time. That novel, this is what came to mind: day he’d begun in earnest to prepare a trial he’d been thinking about for a while. He was a defense attorney, something I’d known, though it was There are bodies swaying. Air thick with exalting. An organ punches rare that he’d speak about the specifics chords into the walls and into us. A pastor is conducting an energy that everyone of any one case. That day he was talkin the space can feel, even me. He isn’t ative. I viewed him as a paragon of Truth speaking English, but he is working with and Power, and so I was excited, elated to listen. He said he had a difficult case sound more than logic. There are women and that his client had committed murwho wear handwoven cloth around their heads. They shake, electric with the Holy der. I remember how he looked, looking Spirit. I am with my mom. I am young at me. Searching, close. I sunk further enough that my head reaches her solar into our couch. I remember knowing even then to hide the colossal disapplexus. Soon I’ll be able to look down and see the crown of her head, but then and pointment I felt. Murder equaled “bad forever, I will look up to her. guy,” and so by my child logic, my father She begins to speak in Tongues. was a villain or, at best, an accessory to one. A henchman. Syllables of a language that has no book sing from her. She is Ghanaian, and since I said how I felt in the nicest way I I don’t speak Twi or Fante, this is yet could summon. “Why are you helping another language she has access to that somebody bad? Someone that would seems to have missed me. Something I do that.” can’t grasp, though not for trying. I watch And he said, “It is not that simple.” as the language of God flows through He said more after that, but there was her and the people around her. I feel the a world-reframing kind of truth in just energy all around me. I see it lifting oththose few words. And this new novel is ers from their folding chairs, compelling a direct extension of that reframing. He them to dance, to erupt with praise. said to me as a child that “it is not that Though I can feel the energy around simple,” and our justice system currently me, I am siloed off. Somehow disconis genocidal in its simplicity. This book calls to question that approach. In that nected. I feel like a spectator in an Olympic arena. There is a great chammoment when my father told me who he pionship being won, but I am only was defending and began to tell me why, watching. I want more than anything he gifted me a curiosity toward nuance, to believe in anything the way they all which is another way of saying “being believe in that space. I want the spirit a writer.” to fill me to language. I want to have Chain-Gang All-Stars is my “debut” a faith that can power me through all novel, but it’s a debut in the sense that it things. What I feel is proximity but very is the first novel-length story I am prelittle of the thing itself. I want to be filled senting to the world with the force of Chain-Gang All-Stars to the brim with what fills my mother, the publishing industry behind it. But Pantheon, $27, 9780593317334 everyone in the space. What I am as when I think about how it came to be, Dystopian Fiction I stand, the only still thing in the and when I’m asked, “When did you room, is lonely. know you could write a novel?” I think There in that room of thriving souls is where I learned to want about my actual first novel. A book that will never come out. A book I to believe in something totally, which is a way of saying “being wrote over 10 years ago, working daily through the summer on a Lenovo a writer.” netbook in an apartment we would soon be evicted from. I thought that More recently, when asked how I came to be the writer of book would change my family’s life. I thought by force of will I’d be able to create something special. I thought it would heal the sicknesses that this book, Chain-Gang All-Stars, I thought of another time, ailed my parents in swells over the years, I thought it would remove the a time with my father.
Illustrations from Chain-Gang All-Stars © 2023 by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Reproduced by permission of Pantheon.
behind the book | nana kwame adjei-brenyah pressures that had rendered such difficulty into their lives. I worked on it with the focus of someone fighting for their life. It was not good. And though that book will never come out, it was then that I learned to weave a great energy into a practice. Taking massive desire and placing it into actions with consistency is discipline. Nothing physical came of the book. We still got evicted. Maladies would still reign over us. But also everything came of it. It taught me what it felt like to finish a project. It taught me what it was to nurture discipline over days and months and years. And that, being a careful nurturer of discipline, is another way of saying “being a writer.” It has been many years (seven) in the making, this new “debut” novel, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what people have asked me and what I ask myself. What do I think makes someone a writer? What do I think allowed me to write this new novel and why? I think we all have our own answer because art is born of each of our particular essences. We are all chaotic systems, like the weather, and any particular offering an artist presents is one of many possible storms. But for me, when I think about Chain-Gang All-Stars, I think about what happens “What if compassion were when I write toward faith. the rule that governed us I started the book hoping I was an abolitionist, believabove all things?” ing deeply that we as a society can do better than making those who do harm suffer. Now that the book is done, now that I’ve done the research, now that I’ve considered the question of what it means to be a compassionate society, I know I am an abolitionist. It was a trust fall into faith. It required me to allow my curiosity and desire for nuance to move me through the world. The idea that “it is not that simple” is a simple lighthouse I am still following. Because it’s not that simple, but also it could be. What if compassion were the rule that governed us above all things? When I think about how this book came to be, I think about the other books that have already come and those yet to come. I think about what can be forged from a willingness to excavate those questions that linger in my chest. I think of how finding the discipline to do that work, to accept that questions may be answered by more questions, is my answer. I’ve discovered myself writing this book. Learning more about the world through it has given me something real to believe in. And someone with something real to believe in is another way of saying “being a writer.” —Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
review | chain-gang all-stars Back in the 1980s, it was all “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” These days, not so much, with dystopian stories like The Hunger Games doing a much better job to capture the zeitgeist. Speaking of capturing, that’s one enterprise in which the United States still excels; about one out of every five incarcerated people worldwide occupy a jail cell here in America. In his first novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah mashes up “Orange Is the New Black,” The Running Man, Gladiator and mixed martial arts into a brutal prognostication of what could be next year’s worst “reality” show. It works like this: Prisoners whose sentences exceed 25 years are offered shots at freedom in exchange for three-year tours of duty as televised, weapon-wielding warriors.
Much like in professional wrestling, there are storylines and factions and fan favorites, but “smackdown” in this ring means that only one “athlete” gets to leave alive. Competing for-profit prison corporations provide teams called “chains” whose “links” vie against one another, either singly or in doubles matches. To ramp up the drama, individual links in a chain may occasionally turn on one another—many of them are murderers, after all—so the likelihood of living through the three-year tour is vanishingly small. The story centers on a pair of warriors, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, who are members of the same chain, occasional doubles partners and lovers. While they are both successful at their current day job—being killing machines—Adjei-Brenyah
has imbued them with a notable degree of tenderness. They’re aware that most of the links are going to be “freed” via slaughter in the ring, and their immediate survival requires them to focus their violence on their opponents rather than toward each other. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. The subtext here punches through like Anderson “The Spider” Silva delivering a knockout blow: The incarceration-industrial complex, hyped up on the steroid of private capital, encourages systematic racism and a rejection of any possibility of rehabilitation. So in Adjei-Brenyah’s brave new world, he recalls yet another notion perfectly articulated during the ’80s: “The Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” —Thane Tierney
cover story | david grann
A real-life Lord of the Flies In David Grann’s latest narrative nonfiction masterpiece, he revives an 18th-century tale of shipwreck, mutiny, murder and “fake news.” In 1740, a ship called the Wager departed from England to pursue a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. However, before the crew could accomplish their mission, they wrecked on an island off the coast of Patagonia. What happened next—from the men’s harrowing survival to the unexpected fallout once they returned to England—is expertly told by National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award winner David Grann in The Wager.
logbooks but also moldering correspondence, diaries and muster books. Many of these records had somehow survived tempests, cannon battles and shipwreck. I was also able to draw on court-martial transcripts, Admiralty reports, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, sea ballads and drawings made by members of the expedition. All of these sources of information, as well as the vivid sea narratives published by many of the survivors, hopefully help to bring this gripping history to life.
What first sparked your curiosity about this story of a British naval expedition in You personally took a journey to the site the mid-18th century? of the shipwreck that stranded the crew of I came across an 18th-century eyewitness the Wager off the coast of South America. account of the expedition by John Byron, How did that experience enhance the tellwho had been a 16-year-old midshipman on ing of this story? the Wager when the voyage began. Though After a couple of years of doing the kind of the account was written in archaic English, research most suited to my physical abiliand the lettering was faded and hard to ties—that is, combing through archives—I decipher, it instantly sparked my curiosity. feared that I could never fully grasp what the Here was one of the most extraordinary castaways had experienced unless I visited sagas I had ever heard of: a crew battling the place now known as Wager Island. At typhoons, tidal waves and scurvy; a shipChiloé, an island off the coast of Chile, I hired wreck on a desolate island off the Chilean a captain with a small boat to guide me to coast of Patagonia, where the castaways Wager Island, which is about 350 miles to the slowly descended into a real-life Lord of the south and situated in the Gulf of Sorrows—or, Flies, with warring factions, murders, mutiny as some prefer to call it, the Gulf of Pain. After and cannibalism. several days of winding through the sheltered And that was only part of the saga. Byron channels of Patagonia, we entered the open and several other survivors, after completPacific Ocean, where I had at least a glimpse ing extraordinary castaway voyages, made of the terrifying seas that had wrecked the it back to England. (By then, Byron was Wager. We were caught in a storm, engulfed 22.) They were summoned to face a court- by mountainous waves, and our boat was martial for their alleged misdeeds and tossed about so violently that I had to hunker H The Wager feared they would be hanged. In the hopes of down on the floor; otherwise, I might have Doubleday, $30, 9780385534260 saving their own lives, they all offered their been thrown and broken a limb. Thankfully, own wildly conflicting versions of what the captain was extremely capable and led us History had happened, and this unleashed safely to Wager Island. We anchored for the night and at dawn climbed in an inflatable boat and went ashore. another kind of war: a war over the truth. There were competing narratives, planted disinformation and allegations of “fake The island remains a place of wild desolation—mountainous, rainnews.” So even though the story took place in the 1740s, it drenched, freezing, wind-swept and utterly barren. Unlike the castaways, struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times. who had only scraps of clothing, I was bundled up in a winter coat with gloves and a wool hat. Yet I was still bone cold. Near the area where the Your descriptions of what it was like to be on a British castaways had built their encampment, we found some stalks of celery, man-of-war or like the kind they had eaten. stranded on a “The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed But there was virtually no other desolate island nourishment. At last, I grasped apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended why one British officer had called are so specific and vivid. What kind of the island a place where “the into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving research enabled you soul of man dies in him.” to write with this level more like brutes than gentlemen.” In an author’s note, you write, of detail and intimacy? “I’ve tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate I was amazed that, even after more than two and half centuries verdict—history’s judgment.” In the chapters that follow, you remain had passed, there was still a trove of firsthand documents about the calamitous expedition. They included not only washed-out scrupulous about allowing readers to decide for themselves what
feature | bestseller watch © MICHAEL LIONSTAR
happened on this ill-fated mission. What made you take that approach? I thought it was the most honest and transparent way of documenting the murky truth. Each survivor from the expedition was shading or eliding the facts, hoping to emerge as the hero of the story and avoid being hanged. Whereas one officer might only admit that he had “proceeded to extremities,” another witness would disclose, in his own account, how that officer had actually shot a seaman right in the head. By considering each competing account, readers can hopefully discern how the historical record was being manipulated, and see the past in a fresh light.
BIG RELEASES FOR MAY Discover new books from eight popular authors.
May 2 The Ferryman By Justin Cronin
Ballantine, $30, 9780525619475 From the bestselling author of The Passage comes a dystopian thriller about a group of survivors discovering the secrets of an island paradise.
The Long March Home
By Marcus Brotherton and Tosca Lee
Revell, $26.99, 9780800742751 Two bestselling authors join forces for an epic historical novel about the Bataan Death March.
You describe great heroism and real depravity exhibited by the crew of the Wager. What does this story tell us about how human beings succeed or fail in the face of extreme hardship? The story illuminates the contradictory impulses of people under duress. When the castaways worked together, they improved their chances of survival, building an outpost on the island with shelters and irrigation systems. But many of the men eventually succumbed to their own desperate self-interest and became pitted viciously against one another, which only fueled their destruction. Near the end of the book, you write, “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t— the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” What does the story of the Wager say specifically about empires and colonialism? The history of the Wager underscores the ravaging nature of imperialism and colonialism. British authorities seemed to recognize that the scandalous Wager affair threatened to undercut the central claim used to justify the ruthless expansion of the empire: that its civilization was somehow superior. The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen. Some of those in power thus tried to put forward their own versions of events and rewrite history. I think the Wager affair also shows how some people’s stories are erased from the history books. Unlike many of the survivors, one man named John Duck, who was a free Black seaman on the Wager, could never share his testimony. After enduring the shipwreck and a long castaway voyage, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. There is no record of his fate. His story is one of the many that can never be told. Congratulations on the release of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of your book Killers of the Flower Moon this May. There are reports that Scorsese has also optioned The Wager for a movie. Can you discuss that? Scorsese and his team worked with such care in adapting Killers of the Flower Moon; they worked closely with members of the Osage Nation to faithfully render this important part of history. And so I’m honored that Scorsese has decided to team up again with Leonardo DiCaprio to develop The Wager. What can you tell us about your next project? Well, I am looking now for a new book subject, so please send any ideas! —Harvey Freedenberg Visit BookPage.com to read an extended version of this Q&A and our starred review of The Wager.
The Secret Book of Flora Lea By Patti Callahan Henry
Atria, $28.99, 9781668011836 A rare book reveals a missing sister’s secrets during World War II in the latest novel from the beloved author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis.
Summer on Sag Harbor By Sunny Hostin
William Morrow, $30, 9780062994219 The three-time Emmy Award winner continues her Summer Beach series set in the tightknit Long Island community of Sag Harbor.
May 9 Atalanta
By Jennifer Saint
Flatiron, $28.99, 9781250855572 The author of Elektra and Ariadne reimagines the myth of Atalanta, the only female member of the Argonauts.
May 23 The Senator’s Wife By Liv Constantine
Bantam, $28, 9780593599891 Internationally bestselling author Constantine (The Last Mrs. Parrish) tells the story of a Washington, D.C., philanthropist who grows suspicious of an employee.
Why Fathers Cry at Night By Kwame Alexander
Little, Brown, $28, 9780316417228 The acclaimed poet, educator, publisher and essayist shares his own story in this memoir with love poems. All publication dates are subject to change.
behind the book | katy simpson smith
Giving a body to a In the latest novel from acclaimed, bestselling author Katy Simpson Smith, the plants that grow in the Roman Colosseum. But how can
be convincing down to its beating heart, its lusciously illustrated floras of past centuries. sturdy bones. These folios, composed in Latin or French or Italian, were as large as atlases; exotic flowers Having written several historical novels, I thought I had a bloomed on vellum. I handled a first edition pretty good feel for of Deakin’s Flora of the Colosseum of Rome and paged through Giorgio Bonelli’s masthis research strategy. I knew what sive 18th-century Hortus Romanus, Antonio to read, where to Sebastiani’s 1815 catalog of the Colosseum turn. But then I and Domenico Panaroli’s fragile 1643 flora. decided to write a The illustrations ranged from simple black novel about plants. engravings to full watercolors of a grapevine’s What lessons could brown tuberous roots, the crimson berries of I carry over to a a butcher’s broom, hot-pink caper blossoms. field in which I was One might think an illustration of a plant, a neophyte? How unlike a photograph, can only be an approxcould I build the imation; it’s not true, one might say. But conbones, the muscle sider Rembrandt’s self-portrait at age 53; how much more do those blue-gray lines creasing and the skin not for a young woman but the artist’s eyebrows tell us about his stance for a violet? I structhan a photograph would? Art, I must rememtured The Weeds ber as I turn the heavy pages of the flora, can as a botanical evoke something much rounder than fact. flora, using 19th- From the dusty manuscripts, I gleaned that century botanist even the mildest plants explode in beauty, Richard Deakin’s and they demand a painstaking attention from list of plants growtheir human witnesses. ing in the Roman How do you put the characters of plants Colosseum (420 in motion? I had some gardening knowledge species!) as a inherited from my mother, a basic sense of framework to tell what plants grow best in sun, which weeds taste a story. Each entry good, how to make a snapdragon talk. But many describes a plant of the plants in Deakin’s flora were unfamiliar while pushing the to me, and what Deakin was interested in— human narrators their botanical structure but also their medical along their arcs; each entry shows how flower uses and mythological meanings—were suband human intersect. The point of The Weeds jects I too needed to understand. More imporis that women and unwanted plants have an tantly, I was using the essence of each species uncomfortable as a springboard amount in com- “A book’s body should be lovely, for a narrative moment. The mon, so I set out should move with vigor and unusual umbels with the same a candytuft, approach: to find should be convincing down to its of first the highshaped like a rabbrow, foundabeating heart, its sturdy bones.” bit’s paw prints, tional sources that trigger a memory would give me a holistic sense of this kingdom of a narrator’s childhood bunny. The worldof flora to which I had devoted a narrative. wide antipathy toward chickweed prompts What is the philosophy of a flower? The closa narrator to consider the abuse suffered by est I came to an answer was in the research women in academia. Where could I learn room of the New York Botanical Garden’s these details about flowers? As a historian, I library, where an archivist laid out the told my students to look beyond Wikipedia. © ELISE L. SMITH
I approach a book as if it were a body. An object not only to shape through words but also to bring to life—activate!—using a collection of tools that go beyond hammer and nail. Though this method can apply to any project, it has felt more urgent to me in fiction that tackles the past as a subject; how do I convince readers that a distant time is not a grainy photograph but is fleshy and real? I feel a pressing responsibility to bring characters out of the realm of the theoretical and place them in moving forms—and, through careful research, to turn the framework of their narrative into a body too. First the skeleton: Who were these people, what was their philosophy about faith and love and sin, how did their culture conceive of itself? This demands highbrow research, the investment in archives and thick history texts. Then the muscles: What pushes these people through space? What are the events ordering their lives, the goals driving them, the particular bends of their relationships? Historical studies help here too, but we begin to drift toward areas the internet excels at. (“What happened on this date in 891?”) Finally the skin, the hair, the eyes. What did this world look like? Here the internet with its gift for trivia takes over (“how to tie a toga”; “recipe for 18th-century cornbread”; “minerals used in Renaissance paint”). By the end of this construction process, a book’s body should be lovely, should move with vigor and should
Illustrations from The Weeds © 2023 by Katy Simpson Smith, designed by Kathy Schermer-Gramm. Reproduced by permission of FSG.
behind the book | katy simpson smith
novel about plants two women in different time periods are tasked with cataloging unnoticed little weeds hold up the weight of a story? As a novelist searching for the muscles of a the wild oxalis dotting the lawn was a sour book, Wikipedia was my lodestone. There I snack. Everything in her garden taught me that discovered the Grand Duke of Württemberg’s plants were vibrantly alive—neither remote nor static but endlessly 1671 edict against grass pea flour; the presence “Even the mildest plants growing, always responof a 1,600-year-old olive sive to my young imagexplode in beauty.” tree on a Croatian island; ination. They filled my the particular osmotic pressure at which a world with scent and color and taste, but they squirting cucumber can eject its seeds. (On also needed my tending: My mother paid me a the equally democratic and chaotic YouTube, penny for every spent bloom I cut. So I had no you can find erotic videos of this phenomefear when it came to writing a book dominated non in slow-mo.) by plants; I had long ago seen Wikipedia is in how they could some ways a flora become charunto itself: scientific, cultural, acters in their idiosyncratic. A own right. page on Bellis Still, I believed p erennis, the writing about common daisy, weeds would demand a new includes sections research straton its botanical description, etyegy—that what I had learned as a mology, distributrained historian tion, cultivation, would fall short. uses and the (Would I need a fact that Daisy doctorate in botis “a nickname for girls named any too?) But a novel is still a Margaret.” These are the muscles novel; a book still that begin sendrequires a body. And from 17th- ing the plants into century watermy story-world, into action. colors to 21st- century internet How do you encyclopedias to put a final, senmy own tactile sory skin on vegattachment to an etation? What elm’s raspy leaf, does a plant the material was really look like, already at hand. beyond its pinI merely had to nate leaves and H The Weeds foreground these hollow stems? FSG, $27, 9780374605476 plants not as This research turned out to be decor but as proLiterary Fiction internal, spirtagonists. They itual, and it took me to my own childhood too needed bones, muscles, the beautiful yellow memories in my mother’s wild garden. I saw eyes at the center of forget-me-nots. Like any eleher clambering roses as houses that could hide ment of fiction, they needed to come alive. —Katy Simpson Smith my body; her pansies were the faces of friends;
review | H the weeds The Roman Colosseum is full of wonders and history and secrets—and plants. Observing, cataloging and communicating with these plants is the heart of Katy Simpson Smith’s impressive novel, as the narrative connects two women across time who are both performing these archival acts. Set in 1854 and 2018, The Weeds moves between the voices of these two women, interlocking their lives as they document the presence of (or absence of ) plants. In 1854, a woman was caught stealing, and her misbehavior has led to her being indentured to English botanist Richard Deakin; he sends her into the Colosseum to catalog the flora and their uses. She also tells her own story and meditates on the ways that society impinges upon her selfhood. She speaks to her missing love, a woman who is off on a boat, now married to a man. In 2018, a woman has run from the entrapment of her life, but she finds herself newly hemmed in as she seeks the plants on Deakin’s list, makes notes, begrudges the presence of tourists and wonders what her next step might be. What will science, and her male adviser, allow? The novel moves in quick (and often blurry) shifts between these centuries and women. They mirror parts of each other; they both encounter violence at many turns and scales, and each reacts to the ways their voices and choices are constrained in their societies. The plants around them produce their own forms of tension and elements of violence; they are undoubtedly characters in their own right. Just as the plants in the Colosseum ask of the women, The Weeds requests the reader to observe and look for connections, to question structures and patterns, and to discover new ways of seeing. Each detail is carefully attuned and revealed, and each seed opens at the moment it needs to bloom and stretch. Patience is necessary, but close attention reveals infinite rewards. —Freya Sachs
reviews | fiction
H The Covenant of Water By Abraham Verghese
Family Saga The second novel from Abraham Verghese, author of the unforgettable Cutting for Stone (2009), is a masterpiece. Put it on your bookcase next to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster or anything by the brave and brilliant Salman Rushdie. Indeed, put it next to any great novel of your choice. Sprawling, passionate, tragic and comedic at turns, The Covenant of Water (Grove, $32, 9780802162175) follows a family from 1900 to 1977 in an Indian region that eventually becomes the beautiful state of Kerala. Among the interesting things about this family is that they’re Christians among Hindus and Muslims, and once a generation, a family member dies by drowning. This tragic recurrence isn’t all that weird when you consider that their home is surrounded by water, and every year the region is all but washed away by the monsoon. Yet for this family, the drownings have taken on a near-mystical significance. Big Ammachi, the family matriarch, calls it the “Condition.” Speaking of Big Ammachi, her story begins
By Han Kang Translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won
Literary Fiction Nothing much happens in Han Kang’s novel Greek Lessons (Hogarth, $26, 9780593595275), but the author’s artistry is such that you keep on reading, whether for the beautiful writing or for the beautiful pain of the strange couple at the story’s core. First published in South Korea in 2011 and set mostly in Seoul, Greek Lessons is the story of two damaged people. One is a man, a professor of ancient Greek who is slowly losing his vision. The other is a woman taking his class. She’s a writer and former teacher who has either abandoned her power of speech or whose speech has left her; she recalls Liv Ullmann’s character in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona, an actor who suddenly goes mute in the middle
a few hours before her wedding. Normally a character’s wedding day wouldn’t fill the reader with dread, but in this case the bride is 12 years old. At this age she is known as Mariamma, and she is to marry a 40-year-old widowed landowner whom she’s never met. Though Mariamma’s mother is closer to this gentleman in age, she’s not eligible to marry him because she’s a widow, and a widow in this society is considered less than useless. Such is the dread hand of patriarchy in action. But Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations, not just this time but again and again. The marriage of Mariamma and the thamb’ran—the boss—turns out to be a happy one. He is a gentle, stoic giant who scrupulously avoids bodies of water, even though it may take him days to walk to a place he could have reached in a few hours by boat. Mariamma and the thamb’ran’s young son, JoJo, adore each other, and it is he who gives her the nickname of Big Ammachi, which translates to “Big Little Mama.” The name sticks throughout her life.
Big Ammachi’s first child is born with a thyroid condition, but instead of tragedy, Baby Mol’s life is one of light, joy and innocence. The second child, Philipose, born many years later, becomes the father of Big Ammachi’s namesake. This second Mariamma becomes a doctor determined to get to the bottom of the family’s Condition. Verghese surrounds the family with a world of unforgettable characters. There’s Shamuel, the thamb’ran’s factotum, faithful till his last day. There’s the tragic and brilliant Elsie, Philipose’s artist wife, and the Glasgow-born surgeon Digby Kilgour, who’s come to India to practice medicine and who’s taken in by the saintly Dr. Rune Orqvist after a ghastly accident. There are the residents of the lazaretto (leprosy hospital) tended to by Dr. Orqvist, and an abundance of saints, scoundrels and people who are a little bit of both. There’s even an elephant named Damodaran. All are interconnected, like the braiding waterways of Kerala. The Covenant of Water, as they say, is a lot. You won’t want it to end. —Arlene McKanic
of a performance and decides to stay that way. Near-blindness and muteness seem to be physical manifestations of Kang’s characters’ excruciating loneliness. At the end of the day, each goes home to nearly empty apartments on nearly empty streets. The relationships they do have with other people are fraught. The woman is divorced. Her ex-husband thinks she’s “too highly strung and that this was a bad influence” on their son, so she lost custody of the boy. The Greek professor lived much of his earlier life in Germany, where he and his family stood out and were sometimes discriminated against for being East Asian. “Why ancient Greek?” a reader might ask. The woman tells herself she’s studying it because it’s so different from Korean that it might help her reclaim language itself; ancient Greek lacks the traumatic baggage that caused her to go silent in the first place. Still, her speech does not return. She is so speechless that her teacher starts to believe she is deaf as well as mute. Then, one night the man breaks his glasses. Helpless without them, he needs an emergency optician. The woman can help. Beautifully translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, Greek Lessons conjures a mood that calls to mind the Korean word ho, which is that time just after the sun sets and just
before it rises. To go Bergmanesque again, it’s the hour of the wolf, when people experience the most anguish. Though the woman and her teacher are full of sorrow, their sadness doesn’t stop them from appreciating and even seeking small moments of beauty. This gives Kang’s slender book much of its power. —Arlene McKanic
Paper Names By Susie Luo
Family Drama Tony Zhang has always been willing to do what is necessary in his pursuit of a better life. He left his fishing village in China, seeking education and opportunities in the big city of Dalian, and found love along the way. In the early 1990s, he and his wife, Kim, lived comfortably, supported by his successful engineering career and her medical practice. But they dreamed of more—a TV, a refrigerator, a house, possibilities—so they
reviews | fiction left China and their careers for New York City. As Tony and Kim’s daughter, Tammy, grows up, she struggles to understand her father, whose expectations feel impossibly high. Tony calculates how quickly Tammy can graduate college and then law school. He wants her to have access to the level of wealth displayed in the Rosewood, the upscale co-op on the Upper West Side where Tony works as a door attendant. But Tammy doesn’t know why her father has invested so much in a future she isn’t sure she wants. Oliver is a 26-year-old white attorney who lives in the Rosewood. Eager to be seen as a good guy, the kind of person who knows his door attendant’s name, Oliver strikes up a friendship with Tony. After a dramatic incident in which a man tries to steal a Rosewood tenant’s purse, Tony becomes a hero, and Oliver devotes even more attention to him, quickly intertwining himself with the Zhang family. Tammy becomes Oliver’s protégé, first taking piano lessons from him and eventually following in his professional footsteps. In chapters that shift between Tony, Tammy and Oliver, charting their past and present motivations over the course of several decades, Paper Names (Hanover Square, $30, 9781335426888) explores how we’re shaped at the points where we intersect with others. While Tammy’s sections account for slightly less than a third of the book, her chapters are the only ones told from a first-person perspective, subtly communicating that the young woman’s life is the novel’s center. And although Tammy spends decades learning from both her father and Oliver, she retains blind spots about their lives—spaces where their stories move outside her view. Debut novelist Susie Luo executes the jumps between her characters’ perspectives well, allowing the shifts to feel as natural as revisiting one’s own memories. This is a well-woven tale about the legacies that are passed down through generations, even when family members upend their lives in search of distance from one another. —Carla Jean Whitley
H Yellowface By R.F. Kuang
Satire “I’d hate to live in a world where we tell people what they should and shouldn’t write based on the color of their skin.” R.F. Kuang, the award-winning, bestselling author of Babel and the Poppy War series, fans the discourse on diversity,
racism and the “right” to tell certain stories with her novel Yellowface (William Morrow, $30, 9780063250833), a thought-provoking first- person narrative of a plagiarist. June Hayward is a struggling 27-year-old straight white author, and as the novel begins, she’s getting drinks with Athena Liu, her Asian American friend whom she’s known since college, to celebrate yet another of Athena’s huge literary successes. However, when the picture- perfect Athena ends up dead, envious June makes a decision that leads her to stardom—and damnation. June edits her dead friend’s manuscript, a cultural saga set in China, and presents it as her own work under a pseudonym that uses her middle name, Song, as her surname. Despite a few readers’ protestations of possible cultural appropriation, the book is a huge success, and June Song embraces her soaring status in the publishing world. But the questions around June’s authenticity and ethnicity keep getting louder, as more and more anonymous social media accounts wonder if June has the right to pen a story about Chinese culture. June’s followers revolt, and her star plummets.
Poignant and provocative, Yellowface is an in-your-face satirical novel with layered social commentary. Kuang hooks readers from the first chapter with June’s preoccupation with Athena and the life-altering choice to steal her frenemy’s manuscript. June’s theft makes her an immediate antagonist, and her delusional entitlement makes her a compelling unreliable narrator. But exactly how unreliable is June? Kuang casts a light on this question with her adroit representation of June’s disloyal social media following, which lurches from commendation to castigation, and of a publishing world committed only to financial success. “I know what you’re thinking. Thief. Plagiarizer. And perhaps, because all bad things must be racially motivated, Racist. Hear me out. It’s not so awful as it sounds,” June assures the reader. Poignant and provocative, Yellowface is an in-your-face satirical novel with layered commentary on discrimination, social media and creative freedom. Kuang allows for numerous sides of our society’s heated conversations about cultural (mis)appropriation and censorship, and examines how judgment is so often clouded by perception rather than shaped by truths. This is a riveting read for fans of Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, Year of the Tiger by Alice Wong and George Orwell’s 1984. —Maya Fleischmann
H Happy Place By Emily Henry
Contemporary Romance In Happy Place (Berkley, $27, 9780593441275), bestselling author Emily Henry returns with a tender contemporary romance full of vulnerability, growth and love. Every year for the last decade, college sweethearts-turned-engaged couple Harriet and Wyn have joined their friends at a cottage in Maine for a weeklong getaway. It’s something they’ve always looked forward to—but not this year. Harriet and Wyn broke up six months ago, and they haven’t told their friends yet. Uncertain of how the group will take the news, they don’t want a cloud hanging over their very last trip to the cottage, which is going up for sale. For a whole week, Harriet and Wyn must play the part of a couple in love to preserve their ruse, including sharing the cozy master bedroom. As the vacation plays out, Harriet and Wyn get over their initial nervousness and fall back into sweet little routines and playful banter as their passion for each other resurfaces. The trip might be just what Harriet and Wyn need to find each other again. Happy Place feels very much like the Henry that fans have come to adore through rom-coms such as People We Meet on Vacation and Book Lovers, but this time with the added complexity of a larger cast. Harriet and Wyn’s coupledom is one of the foundations of their close-knit friend group, and Henry illustrates the benefits and challenges of being in a relationship that’s also a vital part of a community. Happy Place also makes room to explore one of Henry’s perennial concerns: how women internalize misogyny and societal pressures. Harriet is an overworked surgical resident, and her aversion to causing waves and speaking up about her own wants, needs and limits has pushed her to a breaking point. Her placative nature leads her to stew in her own stress, constantly pushing things down and never relieving her simmering anxiety. In addition to regaining her connection with Wyn, the week at the cottage teaches Harriet that her problems—whether romantic, professional or emotional—don’t have to be shouldered alone. Harriet and Wyn’s chemistry is effervescent, bubbling up each time they remember how and why they fell in love in the first place. They’re the perfect combination of sweet, sexy and silly, and it’s obvious why everyone (including, eventually and undoubtedly, the reader) is rooting for their happily ever after. Happy Place proves
reviews | fiction that Henry is a writer with “no skips,” her oeuvre as expertly crafted as a perfect summer playlist. —Amanda Diehl
The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece By Tom Hanks
Historical Fiction Remember when you were a little kid, and adults seemed to be imbued with powers you couldn’t even imagine? Robby Andersen felt that way when, in 1947, his uncle came to visit with glorious, gory stories of using his flamethrower against the enemy in World War II’s Pacific theater. Fast forward about a quarter century, and Robby is illustrating underground “comix” inspired by his uncle’s wartime experiences, starring a sort of super-antihero called Firefall. The comic, published during the thick of the Vietnam War, garners a mixed reaction, as American military personnel were not universally revered. After a flurry of sales and hate letters in response to his creation, Robby and the rest of the world move on to other things. In the present day, movie director Bill Johnson is casting about for his next film, and when he envisions an adaptation of the union of Robby’s superheroes, Firefall and Knightshade, it’s a marriage made in, well, Lone Butte, California. The fictional Lone Butte is the kind of small town that has come to symbolize the “real America,” a trope that Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks used to great effect in his 1996 directorial and screenwriting debut, That Thing You Do! Much like that film follows the arc of a pop band from college talent-show winners to chart-topping sensation, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece (Knopf, $32.50, 9780525655596) pulls its audience behind the velvet rope and into the production offices and soundstages where magic happens. As an army of “talent,” craftspeople and other workers descends on the hamlet of Lone Butte, readers are offered an unparalleled glimpse into the hurry-up-and-wait nature of filmmaking. Hanks lavishes praise on the largely unsung heroes who keep the machine running, from the gaffers to the makeup artists to the myriad of problem-solvers whose names you miss as you exit the theater. In fact, the story is almost as much about the metamorphosis of young Ynez
Gonzalez-Cruz from cabbie to associate producer as it is about the main characters’ journeys. Hanks’ familiarity with the filmmaking process and keen eye for detail make his first novel (with comic book panels illustrated by R. Sikoryak) a joy for anyone who loves the art of cinema. Hanks retains a childlike sense of wonder even as he moves among adults whose powers, like movies themselves, are just illusions that we will ourselves to believe. —Thane Tierney
H The Humble Lover By Edmund White
Literary Fiction Love may be universal, but no one writes about love quite like Edmund White. The veteran author returns with The Humble Lover (Bloomsbury, $27.99, 9781639730889), an outrageous, tender novel that complicates contemporary ideas of what traditional, “appropriate” desires and relationships look like. Aldwych West is an aging elite who spends his money trying to woo the latest object of his affection, a ballerino (that’s the male form of ballerina) named August Dupond. Very quickly, the two men become entangled—emotionally, financially and physically. But Aldwych’s inheritance-hungry niece-in-law, Ernestine, also wants to win August over, even as the young man moves in with Aldwych. In this complicated web of desire and wealth, everyone chases ecstasy, no matter the cost. White has been pushing the boundaries of what love can be since the beginning of his career. With The Joy of Gay Sex in 1977, White (with co-author Charles Silverstein) helped to codify the sexual, psychological and spiritual pleasures of gay life. This holistic concept of pleasure is present as White plumbs the depths of Aldwych’s desires, detailing the man’s insecurity and loneliness—though of course, there are still thrilling moments that brim with sexuality, both inhibited and explicit. When Aldwych first invites August to stay with him, he restrains himself, and even though they are half-naked in the same bed, all they do is lie next to each other and sleep. When sex does appear on the page, it is ecstatic—tinged with, or perhaps enhanced by, the pain and hunger of uneven power dynamics. The Humble Lover could be categorized as a political satire, but that would imply a target. Rather than going on a tirade, White forces readers to become intimate with what they might otherwise denounce. At first blush, Aldwych’s
desperation is repulsive, particularly considering his vast wealth and the age gap between him and August, but the closer we get to Aldwych, the more relatable his misery is. He is searching for something, maybe youth, maybe affection, maybe acceptance, and White keeps his journey engaging, hilarious and moving throughout. As Ernestine clashes with Aldwych, and August defies Aldwych’s wishes, we become more and more invested, wondering which of these characters will finally get what they want. Filled with sublime descriptions of ballet and Aldwych’s out-of-touch, affluent sensibility, this novel is as mischievous as it is thought- provoking. It is Edmund White at his very best. —Eric A. Ponce
The Skin and Its Girl By Sarah Cypher
Family Saga A swirling multigenerational family epic, Sarah Cypher’s debut novel is about the power that stories hold over families and whole nations, and the mysterious ways that certain indelible narratives can supplant real memories. Through an unusual structure that bucks narrative convention, Cypher explores the blurry lines between storytelling and history, memory and identity, exile and home. Born with blue skin into a diasporic Palestinian family, Betty Rummani grows up awash in stories. During the first years of her life, she is passed between family members: her scientist mother, who often buries herself in work; her white father, desperate to remake the three of them into a functioning family unit; and her great aunt Nuha, the true keeper of the family’s stories. Betty recounts this turbulent childhood many years later as an adult faced with a difficult decision: to stay in the city she knows, or to follow the woman she loves to a new country. Searching for clarity, she hungrily turns to the notebooks left behind by Nuha when she died, and begins to piece together the surprising story of her aunt’s life. Though Betty narrates the novel in the first person, she often feels like a peripheral character. She slips into Nuha’s voice and life as if she were Nuha herself. The book is full of vivid scenes from before Betty’s birth and memories of Nuha’s life in Palestine. This unusual structure can feel a bit clunky at times, as Betty recounts not only events she never witnessed but also the associated complex emotional realities. But readers who can relax into this kind of magical storytelling will find it both whimsical and powerful.
reviews | fiction Cypher’s prose has a softness to it and a melodic cadence. It often feels as if Betty is speaking directly to the reader, though when she breaks the fourth wall, she does so slyly, so quietly you’ll miss it if you blink. The story feels like it’s being untangled as it’s told, and this—along with subtle glimpses of almost-magic—provides the sense of mystery that permeates the book. The Skin and Its Girl (Ballantine, $28, 9780593499535) is an intriguing debut, a story within a story within a story, and a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans. —Laura Sackton
The Collected Regrets of Clover By Mikki Brammer
Literary Fiction For most, the term doula is associated with the process of childbirth. A death doula performs a similar function but instead focuses on ushering people through the dying process. Mikki Brammer’s gentle and uplifting debut novel, The Collected Regrets of Clover (St. Martin’s, $28, 9781250284396), takes readers into the fascinating world of one particularly memorable death doula and serves as a potent reminder that the secret to a beautiful death is to live a beautiful life. Clover Brooks has always had an affinity for death, having lost both her parents at the age of 6 and later deciding to pursue a graduate degree in thanatology, the scientific study of death and dying. When her beloved grandfather dies, Clover decides to pay tribute to him by working as a death doula to provide companionship to others during their final days. Part of Clover’s job involves recording her clients’ final words, which she catalogs in one of three private notebooks: Regrets, Advice or Confessions. Most people’s dying revelations tend to fall into the Regrets category, and if Clover were honest with herself, she has more than enough regrets to fill an entire notebook on her own. Perhaps her biggest is that she has spent so much time honoring the lives of others that she has forgotten how to live her own life to the fullest. All this changes when she forms an unexpected connection with her latest client, an indomitable woman named Claudia. Clover finds herself on a cross-country trip with Claudia’s grandson, searching for Claudia’s secret lost love. Along the way, Clover questions whether she has the courage to truly start living on her own terms and begin whittling
down her stack of regrets while she still has the chance. Like all the best fiction that centers on death, The Collected Regrets of Clover inspires its readers to ask, in the spirit of Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Although not subtle in its messaging, Brammer’s novel is a comforting exploration of grief, love and human connection that is sure to appeal to fans of books that feel like a warm hug. —Stephenie Harrison
The Gifts By Liz Hyder
Historical Fiction Acclaimed children’s author Liz Hyder’s first novel for adults has a richness of prose that allows deep immersion within its strange world. Set in England in 1840, The Gifts (Sourcebooks Landmark, $27.99, 9781728271705) is a remarkable tale of ambition, faith and survival, a blend of historical fiction and fantasy from a deft storyteller. Unexpected magical occurrences cause the lives of four women to intertwine: distressed wife and artist Annie, renegade naturalist Etta, drifting seeker Natalya and aspiring writer Mary. As the story opens, a woman’s corpse is pulled from the Thames River, and from its back sprout what appear to be wings. This immediately attracts the eye of Annie’s husband, Edward, an ambitious surgeon frustrated by the brighter spotlight shone on his flashier colleagues. In this “fallen angel,” Edward sees his entire future in the form of a gift from God, and now he wants to get his hands on a living specimen. But at what cost does success come for Edward, and how does his relentless pursuit of notoriety and fortune change the lives of each of the four women? Hyder’s novel unfolds through a series of short chapters that function like a sequence of character studies, each of which displays such a tight grasp on detail and emotional range that it could function as a short story. We learn so much through a single visit to Annie’s ornate house or Etta’s ramshackle country cabin. We glean tremendous depth from Mary’s sense of duty and how it conflicts with her own ambitions. Each of the women is so finely drawn that we’re immediately invested not just in their lives but also in the ways they see the world, and how their perspectives shift as the events of the novel start to fall into place. Once the magical elements kick in and wings begin to unfurl, Hyder’s gift for narrative propulsion blends
with this character depth to create a sumptuous reading experience. —Matthew Jackson
H The Three of Us By Ore Agbaje-Williams
Literary Fiction The adage “two’s company, but three’s a crowd” rings awkwardly and painfully true in Ore AgbajeWilliams’ debut novel, The Three of Us (Putnam, $26, 9780593540718), which examines the inner workings of both a friendship and a marriage. There’s hardly any unselfish love to be found in this triangle formed by a prickly husband, a chameleonic wife and a manipulative best friend. Be aware that the proverbial third wheel may not be who you’d expect. In three distinct parts, each character describes their perspective on both the past and present moment. Over the course of a single day, the wife, husband and best friend drink up and face off, each presenting the truth as they each see it. Agbaje-Williams’ dark wit and wry observations keep it all interesting. She slowly and slyly builds the tension between her three characters until it fairly sparks off the page. The novel’s trajectory is foreshadowed early on by the wife (who is never named) as she notes that a fight between her husband (also unnamed) and best friend Temi isn’t out of the ordinary: “Usually those moments occur when an exorbitant amount of alcohol has been consumed.” The wife and Temi share a complex history and intimacy, and they both roll their eyes and laugh at the husband in equal measure. But that afternoon, Temi’s discovery of a pregnancy test in a bathroom trash can causes her to overreact, first comically and then calculatedly. The novel unfolds almost like a play as Temi and the husband exchange passive-aggressive (or outright aggressive) barbs within the confines of a posh house in a posh neighborhood. Society and culture and their conventions get skewered right alongside the characters. At fewer than 200 pages, The Three of Us makes for a quick and thought-provoking read that can elicit a cringe one minute and rueful laughter the next. The tightly wound plot drops a few revelations along the way, calling into question what the characters—and the reader—think they know. When two people vie for the attention of a third, who will win? How far will each go? Agbaje-Williams keeps readers wondering until the end. —Melissa Brown
reviews | nonfiction
H Biting the Hand By Julia Lee
Memoir When Korean American author Julia Lee was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 2000s, her instructor cracked a joke about a dog who was taken to the back of a Korean restaurant and eaten. As her classmates laughed, she turned “hot with anger and shame.” Instead of confronting her teacher, the next day Lee wore a bright red “Angry Little Asian Girl” T-shirt to class. “In retrospect,” Lee writes, “putting on the T-shirt was a dumb way to protest,” but it was the only way she could think of to broadcast her rage. Lee is now an associate professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, focusing on African American and Caribbean literature— and she is no longer silent. Her memoir, Biting the Hand (Holt, $26.99, 9781250824677), seamlessly blends her own experiences with piercing discussions of identity and racial stratification, serving up conclusions likely to challenge readers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, recognizing the need for constant reexamination in our white-centered society, Lee even challenges her own views. At a 2018 academic conference,
The Leaving Season By Kelly McMasters
Memoir In her first memoir, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town, Kelly McMasters chronicled her happy childhood in a small blue-collar seaside community— and her horrified realization that nearby nuclear reactor leaks were causing cancer in numerous residents. McMasters again explores the notion of something dark and poisonous lurking beneath a bright, beautiful surface in The Leaving Season (Norton, $29.95, 9780393541052). This time, she’s writing as a woman emerging from a long relationship, feeling both sorrowful and sanguine. “Marriage, after all,” she writes, “is just one long exercise in controlled burning.” With poetry and profundity, the author reflects on her path from 20-something optimistic wife and mother-to-be to 30-something reluctant yet relieved divorcee and single mom. Her ex- husband is referred to as R., a painter she began dating just prior to 9/11. On that day, they stared
for instance, she realized, “My brain had calcified. I was resistant to change. Gender pronouns puzzled me. Land acknowledgments confused me. My immediate response was to react like lots of people do—blame it on woke culture run amok or mock how cringingly earnest my colleagues were. It was always other people’s fault that I felt uncomfortable—not mine.” In sections titled “Rage,” “Shame” and “Grace,” Lee traces her intellectual evolution through the events of her own life. She demonstrates a knack for meaningful storytelling as she recounts her father’s harrowing escape from North Korea as a child, and her enrollment at a private allgirls school in a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood while her parents struggled to make ends meet. In L.A., Lee was “a little Asian girl, thrown against what Zora Neale Hurston calls a ‘sharp white background.’ ” In 1992, at age 15, she witnessed firsthand the riots that occurred after a jury acquitted four police officers for physically battering Rodney King during a traffic stop. Lee
out his studio window in New York City, and McMasters “had the strange sense that, like Lot’s wife, I might disintegrate into salt if I turned away from this body left standing next to me as the others collapsed impossibly in front of my eyes.” The experience “grafted us to one another,” McMasters writes, and afterward the couple embarked on a tale as old as time: Artsy city-dwellers purchase land in a rural area, anticipating a slower pace, stronger connection and lots of room to grow. McMasters and R. did experience many of those things; her descriptions of their new surroundings are compelling and beautiful, her efforts to befriend taciturn farmers humorous, her determination impressive. But while sunlight dappled the grass and their young children created joyful chaos, R. grew distant and McMasters “felt like a broken compass needle, spinning and searching for purchase.” The author’s candor and hard-won perspective will offer solidarity and support to those who are longing to feel seen, and perhaps contemplating shaking up their own lives. In reading The Leaving Season, an old saying came to mind: Wherever you go, there you are. But what if you aren’t sure who you are? McMasters’ masterful, moving memoir of her journey from the city to the country to the suburbs makes an excellent case for taking the time to figure that out, no matter how frightening it seems. —Linda M. Castellitto
writes that it was a “primal scene of racial awakening— for myself and for the Korean American community. We were not white. We were not Black. We were caught somewhere in the middle.” Later, as a Princeton undergraduate, Lee felt herself “drowning” amid a whole system “built upon whiteness and in service of whiteness.” Along the way, she contended with depression, culturally clueless therapists, an angry mother and feelings of isolation when she became a parent. At Harvard, she got what she calls “life-saving” advice from novelist Jamaica Kincaid: “You must bite the hand that feeds you,” meaning that she must dare to critique the culture of white supremacy even when that culture expects her to be grateful just for being allowed into elite spaces. Biting the Hand is an exceptional account of an evolving understanding of power and privilege, offering readers insightful new ways to examine their world. —Alice Cary
By Jonathan Kennedy
History In the age of COVID-19, it is impossible not to appreciate how a virus can upend societies, reshape politics and divide populations. But what many of us do not know, and what Pathogenesis (Crown, $30, 9780593240472) makes clear, is that viruses and bacteria have been integral to all of human history—including the emergence of Homo sapiens as the sole surviving human species on the planet. In his debut book, public health scholar Jonathan Kennedy explains the complex interplay of humans, germs and animals, and the consequences of those interactions. Most of us know about the carnage of the Black Death and the devastating impact smallpox had on Indigenous populations. But there have been many other plagues, and the ways their combined effects helped create the modern world make for compelling reading. For example, Kennedy tells how the bubonic plague was a significant factor in creating a
reviews | nonfiction new European economy, which in turn influenced the colonization of the Americas. That colonization resulted in not only the decimation of Native populations but also the introduction of enslaved West Africans to take Native Americans’ place as forced laborers—as well as the introduction of the viruses that cause yellow fever and malaria. These diseases contributed to the liberation of Haiti from colonial rule, as well as the economic conditions that supported chattel slavery and its attendant horrors in the Southern American colonies. These forces in turn gave rise to other deadly epidemics that had their own repercussions, and on and on. Kennedy is not arguing that germs were the sole contributors to these and other historical events; economic, sociological and political factors also played their roles. But Pathogenesis makes a convincing case that germs did help mold history—and that history in turn affected how germs evolved and traveled around the globe with ferocious efficacy. Kennedy’s final chapters are cautionary but not pessimistic. What has happened in the past can happen again—but not necessarily in the same way. With this knowledge, perhaps we can be better armed when, not if, the next plague emerges. —Deborah Mason
By Camille T. Dungy
Memoir Like the garden at its center, poet Camille T. Dungy’s Soil (Simon & Schuster, $28.99, 9781982195304) blossoms in vivid hues, radiating love and illuminating the tangled roots of nature and ecology. Six years after she arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado, Dungy set out to reclaim a portion of her yard and convert it into a “drought-tolerant, pollinator-supporting flower field.” However, once several dump trucks unloaded mounds of dirt on her driveway, only for it to be scattered by wind, she had second thoughts. Eventually, though, she turned what was once a cookie- cutter lawn into a richly diverse space filled with plants that prevent soil erosion and allow bees and birds thrive. At the same time that she was planting her garden, Dungy also dug into the history of the wilderness movement. She discovered that ecology had its own homogeneity problem, especially its exclusion of Black women gardeners and Black women environmental writers from anthologies of environmental literature. “Maintaining the fantasy of the American
Wilderness requires a great deal of work,” she writes. “It requires the enforced silence of women, of Black people, Chinese people, Japanese people, other East and South Asian communities, poorer white people, Indigenous people, Latinx people . . . the list goes on and on.” To help fill that gap, she introduces readers to gardeners such as Anne Spencer, a Black poet who created a spacious sanctuary of a garden in the late 19th century in Lynchburg, Virginia. In Soil, Dungy plants poems next to memoir next to critical analysis next to environmental history next to African American history, cultivating the radical ecological thought she wants to see more of in the world. This vibrant memoir challenges readers to look beyond the racial and scientific uniformness of most environmental literature and discover the rich wildness and hope that lies all around them. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
Orphan Bachelors By Fae Myenne Ng
Memoir Growing up in Sa n F ra n c i s c o’s Chinatown in the 1950s and ’60s, novelist Fae Myenne Ng (Bone) and her youngest sister accompanied their father to Portsmouth Square to visit the elderly “Orphan Bachelors” who gathered in the park “like scolds of pigeons.” Because of the United States’ exclusionary immigration laws, these men couldn’t bring their wives or children when they came to work in America. Ng’s father instructed his daughters to call these men Grandfather. As she relates in her luminous, sometimes sorrowful memoir, Orphan Bachelors (Grove, $28, 9780802162212), Ng’s own maternal great- grandfather was one such bachelor. Born in the 1870s, he fathered two sons before leaving China to work in the abandoned gold mines in America. On a visit back to China in 1907, he fathered a daughter, Ng’s grandmother. Nearly 50 years later, Ng’s mother arrived in America and found and cared for her grandfather, but Ng’s mother’s mother never met her own father. No wonder Ng’s life was filled with secrets and mysteries. She peppered the Orphan Bachelors with questions about their lives and families, but most of these were ignored or answered with wildly inventive fictions meant to scare and instruct. Ng suggests that these stories seeded her desire to write. Ng’s father, who worked as a merchant seaman and a laborer, arrived in San Francisco
in 1940 as a “paper son,” a man who had purchased his identity from another family and studied a “Book of Lies”—a coaching book containing the “correct” answers to give during his immigration interview—before entering the U.S. Although some restrictions had been lifted since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Ng’s mother was one of only 105 Chinese people allowed into the country in 1953. After Ng’s father decided to participate in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Chinese Confession Program and admit (with the promise of forgiveness) that he had entered the U.S. using falsified documents, she and her sister eventually changed their surname to Ng; their younger brothers, however, retained their father’s “paper name,” Toy. A simple confession is never simple, however, and much of the memoir tells the story of an immigrant family in conflict. Ng’s mother, who worked first as a seamstress in a sweatshop and then as a shopkeeper, and her father, who was often at sea, did not see eye to eye. At some point the children chose sides. This family story will resonate with readers partly because of the crackle of its conflict but also because of the keen observations of its writer. Orphan Bachelors feels intimate and evocative, quiet rather than strident. Ng’s grace as a storyteller makes it possible to understand in one’s bones how heartless policy bends and misshapes lives for generations. —Alden Mudge
The First Lady of World War II By Shannon McKenna Schmidt
History “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. In journalist Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s detail-rich and revealing account, The First Lady of World War II (Sourcebooks, $26.99, 9781728256610), it is abundantly clear that the four-term first lady lived her words. Beginning as a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, and later as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife and widow, she was a powerful voice for pacifism and economic and racial equality. She was derided during her lifetime for her forays into men’s worlds of work and war, but that didn’t stop her from embarking on a perilous journey to visit American troops in the South Pacific during World War II. The first lady’s 1943 tour started in secret, as an attempt to evade misogynistic criticisms from press and politicians. When the news
reviews | nonfiction broke that she was amid the fierce, ongoing war with Japan, she was pilloried. Disdain and skepticism awaited her when she met the military men in command. Admiral “Bull” Halsey said he didn’t have time to entertain a “do-gooder.” General Douglas MacArthur refused to allow her to visit his post in Papua New Guinea. Yet, flying in freezing military planes, often under cover of darkness to avoid detection, Roosevelt visited Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and 17 islands, including Bora Bora, Christmas Island and Guadalcanal, over the course of five weeks. She went from bed to bed in hospitals, offering to bring messages home to the families of wounded soldiers and letting the troops know she was there because their president wanted to know how they were doing. What was first viewed as a political stunt soon earned Roosevelt the admiration of Halsey and others, many of whom couldn’t keep up with her. She ate with the enlisted men, slept in huts, took cold showers and wrote it all down in her syndicated news column, “My Day.” In New Zealand and Australia, she visited factories and farms where women did the work that men were no longer available for. She wore a Red Cross uniform she paid for herself, just as she funded her entire trip. While some people back in America groused that Roosevelt should “stay at home, where a wife belongs,” the troops she met with gushed, “She’s just like your mother, isn’t she?” After witnessing firsthand the horrific combat conditions for servicemen in the South Pacific theater, Roosevelt became a force for improving their lives as veterans. The GI Bill of Rights would help prevent the shameful treatment and broken promises that World War I veterans had endured. Roosevelt’s role as a delegate in the nascent United Nations also had its roots in this journey, which continued to haunt her throughout her life. As Schmidt powerfully conveys, it was a trip that changed many lives, especially Roosevelt’s. —Priscilla Kipp
Arrangements in Blue By Amy Key
Memoir “When I love a song, there is almost always a moment that sounds like how I imagine truth to sound, were truth something you could only experience through sound,” writes poet Amy Key in Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone (Liveright, $28, 9781324091738). “It’s the moment in the song that touches the bruise
you didn’t know you had, the aching, denied part of you. You are found out by it.” Every track of Joni Mitchell’s Blue uncovers a bruise for Key. The 1971 album has been dear to her for three decades, since she borrowed the cassette tape from her older sister when she was 14. From the moment Mitchell sang, “I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling, travelling, looking for something, what can it be?” Key experienced a sense of longing. At first it was a longing to consume every note of the album. But as she’s moved through the decades of her life, Key has come to associate Blue with her desire for romantic love. She yearns for a partner, but she also yearns for a sense of self that isn’t defined by her singleness. In Arrangements in Blue, Key uses Mitchell’s seminal work as a magnifying glass for her emotions and experiences as a single woman. These 10 essays parallel the tracks of Blue, but intimacy with the album isn’t required to understand and appreciate Key’s insights. She recounts solo meals and solo travels, and reflects on how people have looked at her during those moments. She confesses all the ways she’s held out her heart and body to men who were happy to receive but unwilling to open themselves in return. By embracing a vulnerability that matches Mitchell’s, Key reveals the full spectrum of human feeling with words honed as carefully as poetry. Key offers analysis of Mitchell’s work throughout, but Arrangements in Blue isn’t exactly about Blue. It’s a window into the way one woman has moved through a world that’s quick to define women by their relationships. It’s also an ode to the ways music can give voice to our emotions, sometimes shape-shifting over years to remain as relevant as the first time we hit play. —Carla Jean Whitley
By Burkhard Bilger
Memoir “I was twenty-eight years old when my mother first told me that her father had been imprisoned as a war criminal,” writes longtime New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger. His mother was born in 1935 and grew up in Germany during World War II. She immigrated to the United States, along with Bilger’s father, in 1962, and Bilger heard little talk about his mother’s father while growing up in Oklahoma. But after his mother received a collection of letters from an aunt in Germany in 2005, Bilger decided to find out as much of the truth
as he could about his grandfather, Karl Gönner. Bilger shares his long journey of historical investigation in his exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable memoir, Fatherland (Random House, $28.99, 9780385353984). Official documents, letters, diaries and personal interviews with those who knew Gönner helped Bilger piece together this puzzle. In 1940, Gönner became a school principal in the village of Bartenheim in occupied Alsace, “the land of three borders: France, Germany, and Switzerland all within a ten-mile radius.” In 1942, he also became the village’s Nazi Party chief, though Gönner would later claim that he refused the position at first. At the heart of Bilger’s book is the question of whether Gönner was a basically good person doing what he had to do to get by during wartime or if he was a committed Nazi monster. Former students and other villagers spoke well of how he had helped them during the war. At the same time, Gönner had been a member of the Nazi Party since 1933 and never seriously challenged the Party’s reign. Bilger did not find any antisemitic remarks in Gönner’s personal writings, but Bilger’s mother said Gönner made such comments at home. As Bilger writes, “There were no little errors in wartime Germany. The choices you made put you on one side of history or the other. Yet the more I learned about my grandfather, the harder he was to categorize.” After the Germans were defeated, “more than three hundred thousand people [were] charged as war criminals and collaborators in France,” Bilger writes, including Gönner. It took a lot of hard work to convince the court that Gönner was not guilty of certain crimes, including murder. But what of Bilger’s ultimate judgment of Gönner? All of us would like to believe that we would have been strong enough to stand up against barbaric behavior and evil regimes. But as Bilger reflects, life is usually more complicated than we want it to be. Gönner’s life and times, as revealed through Bilger’s elegant and discerningly observed memoir, will challenge and enlighten many thoughtful readers. —Roger Bishop
By Claire Dederer
Essays In her engaging Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma (Knopf, $28, 9780525655114), memoirist and critic Claire Dederer wrestles with a complicated, sometimes slipper y subject : What do we do with art—movies, novels, songs, paintings—we
feature | mother’s day once loved, and sometimes still love, from men we now consider monsters? “I started keeping a list,” she writes. “Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, Floyd Mayweather, though if we start listing athletes we’ll never stop.” The book grew out of an essay Dederer wrote in 2017 for The Paris Review that went viral in the early days of #MeToo. Here Dederer considers the subject more thoroughly in a series of connected essays from a number of angles, walking readers through her thinking and experiences as a reader, viewer, parent, friend and longtime critic. Dederer’s definition of an art monster is straightforward: “They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing.” As she asks who qualifies as an art monster, and whether female artists can be monsters, Dederer reminds us how our 20th-century concept of “genius” was bound up with masculinity, and often with brutal behavior toward women (with Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso as prime examples). But what Dederer really wants to get at has to do with our responses to these men and their art; she wants to tell the story of the audience. Reconsidering Woody Allen’s movies, particularly Manhattan, in light of his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, for example, she notes how her male critic friends have continued to see his movies as works of genius. Meanwhile she and other women have responded to Allen’s films quite differently. One striking chapter looks at our responses to renowned artists Richard Wagner, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, noting the way we shrug off their antisemitic and racist comments because it was a different time. “One of the great problems faced by audiences is named the Past. The Past is a vast terrible place where they didn’t know better. Where monstrous behaviors were accepted,” Dederer writes. Referencing a range of sources, she argues nimbly that these artists did in fact know better. Despite the heavy subject matter, Monsters is neither rant nor sermon. Dederer is not only an incisive researcher and writer, she’s also conversational, approachable and funny. The book seamlessly incorporates bits of memoir—Dederer’s life in the Pacific Northwest, her experiences as a critic and a woman, her failures—that have informed her critical thinking. Yes, Monsters is a worthy addition to contemporary literary criticism, but more than that, it’s a very enjoyable book about a thorny, elusive subject. —Sarah McCraw Crow
Fresh takes on motherhood Two books enliven the subgenre of the maternity memoir with their unique candor, nuance and dimension. More
Ice climbing and mountain guiding require endurance, organization, ambition and a high tolerance for physical discomfort. Founding an international conservation organization requires similar talents, with an emphasis on logistics and fundraising. Professional climber and conservation activist Majka Burhardt has been successful in both endeavors, developing a skill set that should have helped when she became a mother to twins. As she recounts in her emotionally raw memoir, however, Burhardt found that motherhood is far more psychologically and physically demanding than the hardest climb. In More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood (Pegasus, $27.95, 9781639363490), Burhardt wrestles with the impossible task of balancing the call of adventure and the necessity of work with the whirlwind of pregnancy and childcare. Written in the present tense as a series of letters to her beloved twins, More sets out to tell the visceral truth of early parent h ood, from pumping milk at a belay station on an ice climb to ugly sobbing in the car. Like urgent dispatches from risky terrain, these entries are brutally (painfully!) honest about how motherhood changes everything—especially Burhardt’s feeling about her husband and mother. Burhardt’s frank assessment of resentment and ambivalence in these otherwise loving relationships rings so very, very true. Mountaineering literature is filled with tales of men having adventures, sometimes fatal ones, and the women and children who are left behind. Only recently have female climbers begun to write about the risks and rewards of climbing as a woman or a mother—about a passion for mountains as strong as the primal bond with a child. Burhardt wants it all, mountains and motherhood, but the pressure to hold it all together is intense and unrelenting. Her boldly candid memoir charts a path into a new territory in adventure writing, with motherhood as the ultimate journey. —Catherine Hollis
In a society that elevates white people and heteronormative relationships, the word family has come to suggest a white dad, a white mom and their two white children living in the suburbs. In Choosing Family (Abrams, $26, 9781419756177), however, DePaul University professor Francesca Royster provides a look at what family really means. It’s an expansive word that encapsulates what folks from all backgrounds have always done, especially within systems that can separate biological family members: blending both blood relatives and those chosen through adoption, marriage or simple affection. Royster brings readers along for her journey into motherhood as a queer woman fashioning a family. This includes not only the story of adopting a daughter with her wife, Annie, but also research about and with Black and queer chosen families. By artfully interweaving her own story with the work of scholars of African American and queer studies, Royster adds weight to her lived experience without distracting from the narrative. This approach also provides fuller context about the history of these marginalized identities for readers who do not share them. Having a child inspires many parents to reflect on their own ancestral histories and families of origin, and this is certainly true for Royster. Throughout Choosing Family, she introduces the many mothers who came before her in her family line: her great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mother and stepmother, each of whom formed families from both blood and choice. For example, when her parents divorced, Royster’s mother created a family from deep friendships with strong, nurturing women. These relationships set the foundation for Royster to one day create the family she wanted, one that didn’t necessarily match the traditional image of family. Parenthood is complex, and readers will feel Royster’s anticipation, joy and deep love, along with her fear. Her writing style has a smooth cadence and makes you feel like you’re with her every step of the way as she raises her daughter in a family that is Black, queer and chosen. —Brittany Sky
behind the book | claire forrest
High school isn’t done with Claire Forrest © CELINA KANE
The debut YA author reflects on what she wishes she could have told herself on her high school graduation day—and what she’d say to the class of 2023.
Claire Forrest’s first YA novel, the effervescent and emotional Where You See Yourself (Scholastic, $19.99, 9781338813838), follows its protagonist, Effie Galanos, through her final year of high school. As a wheelchair user, Effie has been treated as an “obstacle” by her school, and she hopes that things will be different at a prestigious, big-city college. To get there, she’ll have to find the courage to speak up about what she wants—and what she needs. In this essay, Forrest recalls her own commencement ceremony and offers some advice for this year’s graduating seniors. ••• The year is 2009, and I sit wearing a bright purple polyester gown at my high school graduation. One of my classmates delivers the commencement speech, something about how grades aren’t the be-all and end-all of life. I try to take it in, because this is the moment, right? Everything I feel, every decision I make from here on out, feels vitally important. When I remember my high school graduation now, I think about how the district chose a venue that wasn’t accessible to everyone. One of my classmates and I had been told that sitting in the cushioned auditorium seats, with our wheelchairs in the aisle next to us, would be a fire hazard. Instead, we were assigned seating across the room, away from our peers, and we weren’t allowed to march in procession with our class. We decided to go against what we had been told and, choosing to miss the ceremony’s opening remarks, rolled through back hallways and down
the aisle like we should have been allowed. There was no pomp and circumstance for us. At the time, though? I pushed that down. This was my graduation day, and just once, I wanted to be “normal.” It took many years of unlearning what society taught me to realize that being disabled is normal. The long process of learning that I can hold “disabled” and “normal” in both hands is what led me to write Where You See Yourself. And so, with all due respect to our class speaker, although I agree that grades don’t define you, I wish that day that I could have told myself some other things instead. Adults all around me said that college would be “the best years of your life.” I would have told myself that there would be no singular best years of my life. Every year has had its own mix of joy, heartbreak, challenges, memories and uncertainty. I would tell myself to make the most of my next four years, but that they won’t define me. Instead of focusing on my fear of moving away from dear friends, I’d tell myself to focus on the fact that I hadn’t yet met everyone who was going to love me. I will never be done making friends. There are so many inside jokes yet to be made, so many hourslong phone calls to be had. I wish I’d known that those friendships would ebb and flow. That I would learn how to bless and release those relationships that have particular seasons that run their course, and that’s OK. I would advise myself to see things not just from my side but from my friends’ viewpoints as well. Like Effie and Harper, the best friends in my book, I would need to learn how to humble myself and apologize to those I love dearly when I was in the wrong. I also would need to learn how to express my needs so that those friendships could continue to grow and to change. When it comes to being disabled—yeah, that thing I was pushing deep down in my pursuit of “normal”—I would have told myself that the people who love me would do the wrong thing sometimes, or wouldn’t speak up when I wished they had. There would be times I’d wish I would’ve spoken up for myself, too. Advocacy of any kind involves making mistakes. I would cringe. I would learn. I would do better next time. I wish I’d known that a college professor
would say the word ableism in class one day, and it would be the first time I’d ever hear of it. Later, when I’d Google it in my dorm room, it would crack my heart open in a way nothing ever had before. Learning about that would be the key to unlearning so many things in my life. I wish someone had told me that being in a wheelchair doesn’t make me undateable. I wish someone told me that being dateable doesn’t define my worth. I would tell myself that I was not, in fact, starting on the singular path to the rest of my life. I would always be pivoting, and for as many times as I’d start over—in my jobs, my relationships, the stories I’ve left unfinished—none of those new starts would wipe my slate clean. I would never be starting from scratch. I would learn as much from every wrong turn as I would from every right one. I would tell myself that as much as I want to leave high school in the rearview mirror, my memories and feelings about that time would have a way of popping up again, much like how the songs from Taylor Swift’s Fearless album that I blasted through my headphones as a teen would get remastered and remixed when I was in my 30s. That I would start to think about how what we were told about fire hazards at graduation, and all the other inaccessibility issues throughout my schooling, really was just plain wrong. I would wish I knew then what I know now, and to address those complicated feelings, I would start to write a book. I might have been done with high school, but high school wouldn’t be done with me. I wish I could have told myself all of this that day as I sat in the aisle in that hideous purple gown. I’m also glad I knew none of it. So to readers embarking on their life after high school, I’ll say this: When it comes down to it, all you can do to figure out the rest of your life is to start. Your future is before you—everything, all of it. Go write your first page. But do so with the comfort of knowing you can always, always revise it. —Claire Forrest Visit BookPage.com to read our review of Where You See Yourself.
reviews | young adult
H Warrior Girl Unearthed By Angeline Boulley
Thriller Angeline Boulley burst onto the YA scene with her bestselling, Michael L. Printz Awardwinning debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter. Now the author returns to Sugar Island, Michigan, with Warrior Girl Unearthed (Holt, $19.99, 9781250766588). In this riveting companion thriller, Boulley places the niece of the protagonist of Firekeeper’s Daughter at center stage. Sixteen-year-old Perry Firekeeper-Birch has really been looking forward to her “Summer of Slack.” But then she accidentally crashes the Jeep she shares with her sister, Pauline (aka “the nice twin”), and Auntie Daunis insists that Perry join Pauline at her summer internship to earn the funds to pay for repairs. When Perry meets her supervisor, Cooper Turtle, at the tribal museum, she’s unsure what to expect and still disappointed about having lost her leisurely summer. Her reluctance transforms into purpose when Cooper brings Perry to
By Gina Femia
Fiction Alonda gets straight A’s and does whatever her guardian, Teresa, asks of her—all while keeping her dreams locked up tight. But one day in June, Alonda spots something that sends those dreams tumbling into the open: four teens practicing professional wrestling on the playground by her Coney Island apartment building. Alonda introduces herself to the ragtag group, and soon she’s cutting promos (the speeches that establish the personal stakes of matches), perfecting hip tosses and hurricaranas and forming deep friendships. But figuring out her own wrestling persona, the titular Alondra, is harder, because Alonda isn’t sure what she wants. Is it to wrestle in front of a crowd of adoring fans? Is it to do what her mother, who died when Alonda was 7, would have wanted? Is it to pursue her attraction to King, the self- proclaimed antihero of their group, or her feelings for Lexi, the artistic in-ring superhero? Gina Femia’s Alondra (FSG, $19.99,
a meeting at Mackinac State College, where she encounters two life- c hanging acronyms: MACPRA, the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance, and NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law that requires museums and educational institutions to return human remains and cultural artifacts back to Indigenous groups. Perry is appalled to learn that, due to legal loopholes, the college has not returned the sacred items in its collection to the tribes, treating them as objects to hoard rather than honor. Even worse, the college’s collection of ancestral remains is treated the same way, including a set of bones stashed in a metal box on an office shelf: the titular Warrior Girl. With her own inner warrior girl awakened, Perry marshals support from a host of winning characters, including her sister, their fellow interns, the irrepressible Granny June and
the handsome new kid in town, to help her uncover the truth about the origins of the items and remains. She wants to return them to their tribe and expose those who have surely committed thievery and desecration. Heightened tension, dynamic action scenes, a complicated heist and plenty of revelations ensue as Perry and her cohort contend with generational trauma, delicate political dynamics and even murder. Through it all, Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, urges readers to consider: Who owns the past? Warrior Girl Unearthed is an edifying and deeply moving read that reminds us, in the words of Cooper Turtle, “Everything is connected, Little Sister. The past. The future. The beginning and ending. Answers are there even before the question. You’re supposed to go back to where you started. And if you step off the path, you better keep your eyes wide open.” —Linda M. Castellitto
9780374388454) is a fast-paced queer homage to summer in Brooklyn. Alonda and her band of wrestlers are well crafted and grounded, and Femia captures their close connections as she places them in dramatic yet familiar situations: making art, fighting with grown-ups, deciding what college to attend and exploring who they could be if they allowed themselves to be anything. Readers will yell, cringe and cheer as Alonda discovers her bisexuality and her voice, and her friends find their footing as a troupe. Like the best professional wrestling performances, Alondra is a heartfelt story that provides a realistic yet blissful experience. —Nicole Brinkley
has left, disappeared, and without the woman under whose care the Movement thrived, Nigeria is filled with doubt. Then Nigeria discovers that her mother secured a spot for her at a wealthy private school, and she begins attending classes there. Nigeria embarks on a journey of self-discovery, meets other teens—some Black, some not—and begins to learn about the world outside the Movement. As Nigeria moves further from everything she’s ever known, she’s forced to ask: Who is Nigeria Jones? The best word to describe acclaimed author Ibi Zoboi’s Nigeria Jones (Balzer + Bray, $19.99, 9780062888846) is heavy. The novel depicts the horrors of generational trauma while also placing the personal traumas of one girl, one family and one community within a national and even global context. All the while, Zoboi strikes a delicate balance with the story’s political topics, never moralizing or seeking to provide answers but also not leaving things so open-ended as to appear ambivalent. Through Nigeria and her peers’ interactions with the complex, nuanced subjects they encounter, Zoboi offers a flawless depiction of Generation Z’s activist relationship to such topics. Nigeria’s upbringing and experiences are unique, and her inner world, thoughts and reactions feel exceptionally true to life. Zoboi tells a singular story of a singular girl, and Nigeria Jones opens wide and welcoming arms to readers. —Mariel Fechik
H Nigeria Jones By Ibi Zoboi
Fiction Within the Movement, the Black separatist utopian community founded by her parents, Nigeria Jones has spent her life being home-schooled and learning about Blackness—its traditions, its histories, its struggles, its triumphs. But Nigeria’s mother
q&a | carter higgins © THE HEADSHOT TRUCK
Carter Higgins shapes up Some of These Are Snails will have readers seeing shapes and colors like never before. Carter Higgins has worked in school libraries, visual effects and motion graphics—and all that experience shows in Some of These Are Snails. This ingenious concept picture book with bold and vibrant artwork expands on the approach Higgins took in her 2021 book, Circle Under Berry, which asked readers to consider shapes, colors and prepositions such as over, between and above. In Some of These Are Snails, Higgins turns our attention to explorations of grouping, sorting and classification. At just over 200 words, the book may seem simple, but as Higgins reveals, it’s anything but. You’ve mentioned that your favorite children’s author is Ruth Krauss, whose books include The Carrot Seed, A Hole Is to Dig and The Happy Day. In fact, you even wrote a picture book about her called A Story Is to Share: How Ruth Krauss Found Another Way to Tell a Tale. Can you talk about her influence on Some of These Are Snails? Krauss’ influence on my life both as a reader and a writer has always felt clear and connected. When I was working on Circle Under Berry, I pitched it as “Hervé Tullet meets Ruth Krauss.” Occasionally, I tend toward overwriting or can get too abstracted to make sense, so I’m always looking to Krauss’ unfussy, authentic language for reminders of writing I respond so deeply to. I hope Some of These Are Snails similarly captures logic and poetry in a playful way.
What qualities were important to you to give the text of the book? The text needed to be sticky: the kind whose rhythms stay in your head for a while, sounds really great out loud but is also doing some unusual things. I’m always writing for sound design, like the echo-y assonance of snails and squares or the consonance at the end of circle and purple. With the book’s relatively limited vocabulary, I was cautious about too many true rhymes that might lead a reader to assume they are reading a rhyming book, only for it to . . . not. It can’t feel like a mistake. One of the greatest things about our language is how fantastic kid-facing words sound. Try these out loud: Octagon! Elephant! Oval! Wiggly! It’s good clay to smash around from the start.
The book’s text only uses three types of punctuation marks: question marks, a set of hyphens and some apostrophes. How did you arrive at that choice? Poetry gets to play with grammatical conventions, and ultimately that’s what we have here. It’s a H Some of These Are Snails song, a rhythm, a cadence—not Chronicle, $15.99, 9781797220185 bound by the same punctuation rules as prose. It’s interesting to Picture Book note that there are question marks Can you talk about the beginnings of Some of These Are Snails and how but no other sentence-ending punctuation. Maybe that’s a metaphor it began to take shape from there? for this book asking questions of you but not offering precise solutions. The apostrophes solved a rhythm problem, deploying a contraction to I see what you did there! The editorial process on Circle Under Berry turn two syllables into one. And it’s just so delightful to think of the conexploded with concepts that could have fit in that world, just not in a versations that happen around a book-making table: “Should it be ‘tweet singular book. Lots of juicy visual ideas were left on the cutting room floor, so I was able to pick up the scraps (so to speak) and create what tweet tweet’ or ‘tweet-tweet-tweet’?” I don’t remember why we landed might come next. on the hyphens, but I love them.
Illustrations from Some of These Are Snails © 2023 by Carter Higgins for Chronicle Books. Reproduced with permission.
q&a | carter higgins Did you begin these illustrations with sketches or doodles, or by working directly with cut paper? I did very simple sketches in Procreate, a drawing app for the iPad. At that stage, it was primarily the basic shapes: an orange circle for a tiger, a blue square for an owl. Knowing how each picture would change from spread to spread helped ensure the text was equally surprising and playful. Did you experiment with different papers or painting tools (brushes, sponge brushes, fingers)? Are the colors we see single shades of paint or multiple shades mixed together? I painted large sheets of newsprint with acrylics using a very popular process for preschoolers: scrape painting. You squirt the paint directly on the paper and use a scraper of some sort to pull the paint around. I usually chose no more than two colors to make any one piece of paper, but the only color mixing was what happened right on the paper as a result of the scraping. Most of the papers for this book were painted with plastic pizza ads a local restaurant mails out, the kind that snap out like your library card or grocery store rewards cards. This is a question I think many children will be interested in: Did you use stencils or outlines to cut the shapes, or did you wing it? Yes, I am a big fan of stencils! The bottom of my pencil cup made the snails’ bodies. A Post-it pad for the elephants. If I needed to make something from scratch, like an octagon or oval, I used postcards.
How did you assemble the finished illustrations digitally? Once their design was figured out, I created the individual pieces of art: all the ladybugs at once, all the yellow squares, all the worms. After that, I scanned them and made the final compositions in Photoshop. Everything was handmade and physically exists, but the final pictures were assembled digitally.
The book has so many great color moments—pages or spreads where it’s clear that you’re interested in the contrasting or complementing interplay of colors as well as in shapes. Can you tell us about one of your favorites? Thank you for noticing this! Being intentional with color feels similar to being intentional with the sound of the language. The first four spreads primarily feature green, orange, yellow and blue, so when purple and red are both introduced on the fifth spread, it feels like such a treat. You’ve got a sense of how the book is working, so we suddenly start to experience it differently. What is one of your favorite shapes and why? There’s something so mesmerizing about a circle. They are also very elusive and tricky to draw, so it’s satisfying to get that right every once in a while. (But I’ll still happily use my pencil-cup stencil!) You worked as a school librarian for 10 years. What insights did you gain from that work that you were able to bring to this book? One of the best things about being a librarian is constantly growing up with your students. You don’t pass them along to the next grade level in the same way classroom teachers need to. A kindergartner and that same reader in fourth grade? Wildly different, very much the same. For this book, I wanted to create a few different experiences depending on the reader’s age, whether you are a toddler or a big kid.
huge enormous snails
If you could become a fly on the wall during a library storytime in which someone was sharing this book with children, what would you hope to see the storytime provider doing? What would you hope to see the 9/13/22 5:00 PM children doing? You know, I hope it’s a little noisy. I hope kids are shouting out answers and discovering new ways to see something, and that the storytime provider is just happily in the thick of it. —Stephanie Appell
review | H some of these are snails Carter Higgins delivers another superb concept book in Some of These Are Snails, a natural companion to her elegant 2021 creation, Circle Under Berry. Higgins invites readers to linger over these pages as they classify, sort and organize simple shapes in bright colors. The book opens with a double-page spread dominated by two circles: one green, one yellow, with simple embellishments that transform the green into a turtle, the yellow into a snail. “Turtle is a circle,” we read, then, “circle is a snail.” The next spread features six green and orange circles on the verso, while the recto repeats the images of the turtle and the snail, then introduces a yellow square. “Circle circle square” rests below these three shapes. In the spread that follows, the yellow square
becomes an elephant; next to it, a square, now blue, is an owl. As we continue to turn the pages, Higgins’ text encourages readers to sort by color and shape, and to ascertain how these classifications overlap. We see nine variously colored circles arranged in a three-by-three square; a square whale; triangle birds and mice; a series of circles grouped by both size and color; and more. Occasionally, Higgins addresses readers directly: “can you sort by color? can you sort by size?” then, striking a playful note, “can you sort by shape or find the animal with eyes?” Perhaps the most sophisticated puzzle of them all features six different animal shapes, each a different color, and asks, “what is one? what is some? where is all and where is none?”
Though the text includes sparse punctuation and no capitalization, it’s satisfyingly rhythmic and filled with pleasing rhymes, both true and slant. It absolutely begs to be shared aloud. Meanwhile, Higgins renders the shapes and the creatures built from those shapes with vibrant collage illustrations. The figures rest on copious white space and evoke the palette and textures of the work of Eric Carle. It all makes for an utterly delightful, visually rich package that will have readers engaging in the types of classification work that form the basis of math skills and enhance memory and problemsolving abilities, too. Best of all, they’ll learn to see the world and its patterns in eye-opening ways. Some of These Are Snails is a must-have for every young reader’s bookshelf. —Julie Danielson
reviews | children’s
H Tadpoles By Matt James
Picture Book Matt James demonstrated his skill for writing about hard subjects in a reassuring way in The Funeral (2018). He does so again in Tadpoles (Neal Porter, $18.99, 9780823450053), which follows a boy who ponders his own changing habitat as he explores a pond formed by rainfall with his father. There’s no dearth of children’s books about the topics James explores here—divorce, changing seasons, the life cycles of frogs—but he nimbly imparts a fresh take on all three in an enticingly rich and thoughtful creation. Tadpoles is not quite a science book and not quite a divorce book, in the best possible ways. James accomplishes this through the strong voice of his narrator. He establishes the boy’s conversation tone from the very first line: “A kid in my class says she saw a two-headed frog.” The boy reveals that his father disagrees: “My dad says . . . that Sita probably just saw two frogs.”
The Book of Stolen Dreams By David Farr
Middle Grade When Rachel Klein was born, Brava was a lively, lovely place, but shortly after her birth, a tyrannical man named Charles Malstain and his army invaded the city. Now, 12 years later, posters declaring that “a seen child is a bad child” are plastered everywhere, and children are only permitted to leave their houses to go to school. But Rachel’s parents have created a home for Rachel and her older brother, Robert, where laughter is allowed and creativity is encouraged. On Rachel’s birthday, her father treats the kids to a visit to the library where he works. The illicit jaunt soon becomes an urgent, terrifying mission to protect The Book of Stolen Dreams, an ancient magical tome coveted by Malstain, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book and use it for evil. Suspenseful action scenes and gasp-worthy surprises abound as Rachel and Robert search for the Book’s vital but missing last page, which unlocks life-altering magic, before Malstain can. This beautifully crafted, thought-provoking story isn’t an easy-breezy read, but author David
The boy is experiencing all manner of changes, including the arrival of spring rains that create a huge puddle in a field near his school. The boy notes that the field contains “neat old junk” such as glass bottles, a rusty bicycle and an upright piano. There’s even an old farm silo, which prompts the boy to confess, “Once, when my dad first moved to his new place, I stood in the silo and yelled every single swear word that I know. I guess I was worried that he wouldn’t love me anymore, but my dad says that some things never change.” James’ moody art is filled with dark clouds and a variety of raindrops, which readers will almost feel splattering against the pages. Flashes of pink, green and the bright yellow of the boy’s raincoat guide the eye as the boy and his father study the pond’s tadpoles and discuss their evolution in detail. Movement on
every page—swimming tadpoles, swirling clouds, curlicues on the back of a metal chair and more— adds interest. The backdrop of ongoing transformation in the natural and human-made worlds dovetails neatly with the boy’s reflections about his father and their relationship. James’ illustrations show that the neighborhood is changing too, with high-rise buildings and a construction crane near smaller homes and green spaces. As the book ends, the skies are clear and blue as the boy and his father head home. One of the book’s many strengths is James’ comfort with leaving things unsaid and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. Tadpoles is a reassuring reminder that change can bring positive new developments, and that parental love remains constant, even amid great upheaval. —Alice Cary
Farr is intimately acquainted with its stakes: The Book of Stolen Dreams (Simon & Schuster, $18.99, 9781665922579) was inspired by his own German Jewish family’s escape from Nazi Germany, and it grapples with tough, weighty questions. Is happiness possible under government oppression? When is a risk worthwhile? What do we owe our fellow citizens? Farr’s characters experience fear and grief alongside delight and wonder. As his omniscient narrator observes with the mix of acceptance, hope and love that echoes throughout the novel, “Such is life, my friend. There is no joy without accompanying sorrow. There is no despair so dark that a sliver of light cannot abate it.” —Linda M. Castellitto
teach everything from nutrition to empathy. While her dad is working, Addie happily retreats into the VR headset she borrows from the lab. Entire days go by as she explores a virtual world without ever leaving their small campus apartment. Virtual reality is easy and fun, but real life and real relationships can be scary, and Addie hesitates to form a friendship with her new neighbor Mateo. His life seems so uncomplicated compared with Addie’s. But as Addie begins to open up to Mateo, she’s inspired to hatch a plan for a new way to use VR to make other kids’ real-life anxieties more manageable. Bestselling children’s author Wendy Mass has more than two dozen books under her belt, so it seems funny to refer to her as a debut author, but with Lo and Behold (Random House Graphic, $13.99, 9780593179628), she’s making her graphic novel debut. The book is a collaboration with comics artist Gabi Mendez, who’s also a first-time graphic novel illustrator, and the two work well together. Mass has always been skilled at portraying the hidden thoughts and emotions of young people, and Mendez is adept at capturing Addie’s changeable moods, from loneliness and worry to excitement and elation, in her expressive face and body language. Readers who, like Addie, are excited about the potential of virtual reality technology won’t want to miss the incredibly cool augmented reality feature included in the book, further enriching an already full and complex story. —Norah Piehl
Lo and Behold
By Wendy Mass Illustrated by Gabi Mendez
Middle Grade Addie is still working through the aftermath of a family crisis when her dad, a futurist, decides they need a change of scenery for the summer. He’ll oversee a university research lab where talented students are using virtual reality as a tool to
feature | meet the author
meet Vashti Harrison
By Vashti Harrison
ashti Harrison has introduced young readers to inspiring people in the United States and around the world with her bestselling nonfiction books, Little Leaders, Little Dreamers and Little Legends. She’s also the illustrator of picture books by former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry (Hair Love), Academy Award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o (Sulwe) and bestselling authors Andrea Beaty (I Love You Like Yellow) and Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal (Festival of Colors). Born in Virginia and now living in Brooklyn, New York, Harrison makes her fiction picture book debut with Big (Little, Brown, $19.99, 9780316353229).
How would you describe your book?
Who has been the biggest influence on your work?
Who was your childhood hero?
What books did you enjoy as a child?
What one thing would you like to learn to do?
What message would you like to send to young readers?
With Big, author-illustrator Vashti Harrison marshals her considerable talents for a story that celebrates a Black girl’s aspirations and highlights how words have the ability to hurt and to heal. The book opens as a baby reaches up to touch a mobile of stars above her crib. As the baby grows up, Harrison considers the shifting connotations of the word big in her life. When she’s very young, the girl receives praise from adults who call her “a big girl,” and the word is a reward. But the word soon takes on painful dimensions that culminate in a playground scene inspired by Harrison’s childhood. When the girl is unable to get out of a swing, her classmates rain down taunts and an adult scolds, “Don’t you think you’re too big for that? You’re in big trouble!” Harrison uses powerful visuals to explore the effect of others’ opinions on the girl. Though the girl appears in vibrant shades of brown and pink, everyone else in the book is drawn in shadowy monochromes. Their words hurtle forcefully across the page, and Harrison conveys their impact as the girl grows disproportionately large in relation to the people around her. In one scene, she stands twice as tall as her dance instructor, who uses a paint roller to cover the girl’s pink tutu with a shade called “husky blue.” Eventually, the girl becomes so large that she pushes against the edges of the pages before curling up in a ball and turning her back to the reader. In the pool of tears that forms around her, the girl finds words of affirmation (“creative,” “graceful,” “kind”), as well as the words that caused her so much pain. What follows is a beautiful journey of healing, transformation and self-love. In Big, Harrison invites readers to reflect on how we treat others based on their body size and to consider the implicit biases we hold about which kinds of bodies are “acceptable.” Her sophisticated use of color, design and space make for an outstanding reading experience. In a moving and personal author’s note, Harrison writes of her hopes that the book will especially resonate with “those of us who are Black girls in big bodies.” Straightforward enough for even very young children to understand and appreciate, but with a vital message for adults too, Big is one of the year’s most exceptional picture books. —Deborah Hopkinson
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