BookPage July 2023

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JULY 2023


Private Eye July Explore 19 thrilling new releases in our annual celebration of suspense and true crime

Rachel Lynn Solomon The rising rom-com star on her love of kindhearted heroes and realism in romance

Beach reads for book clubs Four breezy reads that blend summer vibes with thoughtful themes




PASSWORDS. Ruth Ware dives into the murky depths of security in the digital age in Zero Days.


Stay on top of new releases! Sign up for our enewsletter to receive weekly reading recommendations in your favorite genres. @readbookpage





JULY 2023



feature | bestseller watch. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 Keep an eye out for these six big books

q&a | rachel lynn solomon. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 Business or Pleasure stars a hero who—gasp!—must learn how to be better in bed

q&a | jennifer ackerman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 The bestselling author of bird books turns her attention to the majestic owl

behind the book | louisa hall. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 Why is it so hard to write about labor and pregnancy?

feature | picture books . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29 The joyful whirlwind that is the extended-family vacation

feature | meet the author. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31 Meet Sandra Salsbury, the author-illustrator of Spreckle’s Snack Surprise

fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20 nonfiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 children’s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

columns book clubs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 audio. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 romance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 whodunit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 cozies. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13


lifestyles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

feature | female criminals. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 The page-turning exploits of an assassin, a team of thieves and a con-woman duo

cover story | ruth ware. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 The author’s latest thriller finds the human heart within the high-stakes security industry

interview | barbara butcher. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 A new memoir reveals what it’s like to be a New York City death investigator

feature | true crime. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 Journalists and scientists become determined detectives

feature | young adult mysteries. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 Being a teen is hard enough, even before you throw in magic—and murder Cover photo of Ruth Ware © Gemma Day Photography.





SUBSCRIPTIONS Katherine Klockenkemper Phoebe Farrell-Sherman

ASSOCIATE EDITORS Yi Jiang Christy Lynch Savanna Walker



BookPage is a selection guide for new books. Our editors select for review the best books published in a variety of categories. BookPage is editorially independent; only books we highly recommend are featured. Stars (H) indicate titles that are exceptionally executed in their genres or categories.


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feature | bestseller watch

MAJOR RELEASES FOR JULY Keep an eye out for these six big books.

July 11

The St. Ambrose School for Girls By Jessica Ward Gallery, $27.99, 9781982194864 Megabestselling romance author J.R. Ward delivers a suspenseful novel of boarding school intrigue under her new pseudonym.

July 18

Immortal Longings By Chloe Gong Saga, $28.99, 9781668000229 Gong’s bestselling YA series Secret Shanghai was huge on BookTok, and now she makes her adult debut with a fantasy novel inspired by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

July 25

Brothers and Sisters By Alan Paul St. Martin’s, $32, 9781250282699 Paul returns to the topic of his bestselling book One Way Out for an even closer look at the Allman Brothers Band and their most popular album.

The Little Village of Book Lovers By Nina George Ballantine, $28, 9780593157886 After reading The Little Paris Bookshop, many readers wished that the novel at the story’s center—a special book that inspired the character Jean Perdu to create a floating bookstore—were real. George has answered their wish.

Prom Mom By Laura Lippman William Morrow, $30, 9780062998064 In the next mystery from award-winning author Lippman, a woman fears that, in her hometown of Baltimore, she will forever be known as “Prom Mom”—the girl who allegedly killed her baby on prom night.

Somebody’s Fool By Richard Russo Knopf, $29, 9780593317891 Pulitzer Prize winner Russo completes his North Bath trilogy (Nobody’s Fool, Everybody’s Fool) with a novel set 10 years after the death of Donald “Sully” Sullivan. All publication dates are subject to change.


book clubs

by julie hale

From beachside to book club In Linda Holmes’ delightful Flying Solo (Ballantine, $17, 9780525619291), Laurie Sassalyn goes to her hometown of Calcasset, Maine, in the wake of her canceled wedding to sort out the affairs of her late greataunt, Dot. There, she discovers romantic letters and a curious wooden duck among Dot’s possessions. After the duck vanishes, Laurie becomes embroiled in an adventure that reunites her with her first love, Nick. Along the way, she makes surprising discoveries about Dot and herself. The nature of independence and family connections are two of the novel’s many rich discussion topics. Angela Appiah, the spirited Ghanaian American protagonist of Shirlene Obuobi’s On Rotation (Avon, $18.99, 9780063209152), has everything going for her. Enrolled in a These breezy, satisfying prestigious medical school, she’s on the road to success— beach reads will bring until she flunks an important exam and gets jilted by her summer vibes to your boyfriend. Angela’s life takes another unexpected turn when reading group. she meets smart, sensitive Ricky Gutierrez, who really seems to get her. But is he worth pursuing? During a time of transformation, Angela is faced with tough questions. Obuobi’s winning tale of modern romance makes for transportive summer reading. In Abbi Waxman’s Adult Assembly Required (Berkley, $17, 9780593198766), Laura Costello relocates to Los Angeles in an effort to leave her past behind. All manner of adventures ensue as she connects with book-­ loving Nina and vivacious Polly, moves into a boarding house and contends with a still-­h opeful ex-­b oyfr iend. E a s i n g i nt o adulthood has its challenges, but Laura comes to understand that she can handle anything with help from her friends. Readers will lose themselves in this brisk, charming chronicle of millennials in LA. Pestered about her lukewarm love life by relatives and friends, Yinka, a successful Nigerian woman living in London, sets out to find the right man in Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? (Penguin, $18, 9780593299029) by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. In need of an escort for her cousin’s wedding, Yinka cooks up a strategic plan for landing a date. But she learns that there’s more to the quest for Mr. Right than she imagined as she’s forced to come to terms with herself. With poignant themes of identity and independence, Blackburn’s buoyant look at contemporary courtship is a sure conversation-starter for book clubs.

A BookPage reviewer since 2003, Julie Hale recommends the best paperback books to spark discussion in your reading group.


Macmillan Audio

H Yellowface Athena Liu and June Hayward are fellow Yale University graduates and authors, but while Athena’s debut novel soars to the top of bestseller lists, June’s quietly fades into obscurity. By accident, June is present at Athena’s death—and in the chaotic aftermath, she steals Athena’s final manuscript to edit and publish as her own. In Yellowface (HarperAudio, 8.5 hours), R.F. Kuang tells a darkly funny story about culture and media that will resonate with readers and writers alike. Helen Laser’s narration brings June’s cutting inner voice to life, immersing listeners in her bitter emotions about a writer’s role in contemporary publishing. As listeners barrel through this audiobook, they’ll find themselves asking the core question of the novel: Who has the right to tell a story, and why? —Tami Orendain

Audiobooks Making a Splash This Summer









Big Tree In Caldecott Medalist Brian Selznick’s Big Tree (Scholastic Audio, 2.5 hours), sibling sycamore seeds Merwin and Louise learn that even the tiniest among us have the power to save the world. Academy Award winner Meryl Streep brings charm and depth to her performance of the audiobook. The audio edition lacks the print book’s 300 illustrations, but Ernest Troost’s orchestral music re-creates the actions and emotions of the story, enhancing Streep’s narration without overpowering it. —Deborah Mason

H White Cat, Black Dog The seven reimagined fairy tales in Kelly Link’s White Cat, Black Dog (Random House Audio, 8 hours) are so convincing that we don’t merely suspend our sense of disbelief; rather, we drop it like a hot potato. The audiobook’s seven narrators (Rebecca Lowman, Dan Stevens, Dominic Hoffman, Kristen Sieh, Ish Klein, Tanya Cubric and Patton Oswalt) understand how important this plausibility is to making Link’s fairy tales work. In these performances, the fact that a bear might be telling a story matters far less than the story being told, and therein lies the wonder of a fairy tale. —Deborah Mason

The Wager The Wager (Random House Audio, 8.5 hours), the latest work of narrative nonfiction from David Grann, details the gruesome experiences of 18th-century British sailors who were marooned on an island off the coast of Patagonia, living for months on the verge of starvation. Grann reads the author’s note and acknowledgments, but the rest of the audiobook is performed by prolific narrator and actor Dion Graham, whose clear, powerful voice provides a strong backbone for the story. —Anna Zeitlin


Rachel Lynn Solomon wants realism in her rom-coms


q&a | rachel lynn solomon

Business or Pleasure stars a hero who—gasp!—needs to learn how to be better in bed. When ghostwriter Chandler Cohen has a wildly disappointing one-night stand with actor Finn Walsh, she chalks it up to the perils of casual sex and moves on. But then she finds out that Finn is her new client—and he’d really appreciate it if, when they’re not working on his book, she taught him how to satisfy a woman properly.

It’s truly my favorite thing, and it’s why I studied journalism. I am so curious about people, and journalism gave me a noncreepy way to ask them questions about themselves. In all seriousness, though, it’s such a privilege to get to learn about what someone loves and then to try and bring that passion to the page.

Visit to read our starred review of Business or Pleasure.

Did you read a lot of memWhat made you want to cremy hope is that these relationships feel healthy and balanced. ate a handsome, charming, oirs for research? Do you have any particular appealing hero who’s genI loved the specificity of your portrayal of the uinely awful at sex? favorites? I love subverting tropes I’ve read plenty of celebrity Jewish experience, from looking for matzo whenever I can, and while memoirs over the years, so ball soup when you’re sick to seeking out menorahs in holiday movies. Why was it I adore romance novels, the in a way, I was researching sex can sometimes feel a bit before I started writing! I also important that Chandler and Finn shared a airbrushed. Don’t get me spoke to a few ghostwriters Jewish background? wrong, sometimes that’s about their experiences, While all my protagonists are Jewish, I tend to go exactly what I want to read. which helped me add more back and forth with my heroes. For Business or Other times, though, I’m depth as I was drafting. Pleasure, I wanted another point of connection eager to see more varied, The first memoir I read between Chandler and Finn. They’re coming more realistic sexual expepost-Business or Pleasure from two different worlds, but they have more in common than they initially realized, from a riences on the page—and was Prince Harry’s Spare. I those can absolutely still be found myself trying to detershared feeling of impostor syndrome to mental H Business or Pleasure hot. I would argue that somemine which turns of phrase health to religion. Berkley, $17, 9780593548530 times they’re even hotter. might have been massaged There’s a reason I only Contemporary Romance by the ghostwriter and which You don’t shy away from serious topics in ever write beta heroes: I love ones might have been exactly Business or Pleasure, including mental health the awkwardness and fumbling and blushing. as the subject had spoken them. That was the and abortion. What story possibilities did they It’s far sexier to me to read (and write) a spicy first book where I felt I could really see the open up for you? scene between two people working together to ghostwriter. I never want my writing to feel didactic, but learn what each other likes, especially because mental health tends to play a key role in my As for favorites, Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? really struck a chord with me. I also this lends itself to significant character and relabooks because it’s often at the forefront of my tionship growth. Communication is crucial in loved both of Mindy Kaling’s books and Judy own mind, and it’s been a long journey for me to feel comfortthese scenes, and when the sex is bad, there Greer’s I Don’t “There’s a reason I only ever write able and safe in needs to be a lot of communication to make it Know What You brain. better. That journey makes the end result all the Know Me From. beta heroes: I love the awkwardness myI own more satisfying. want to test the limits With Finn, I wanted to challenge myself: Could In Chandler’s and fumbling and blushing.” lessons with I redeem a hero who’s bad in bed? Would readof what we can ers still root for that character? (I hope so! He’s Finn, she talks about how movies and TV tend call a romantic comedy, because I still consider quite sincere about wanting to improve, and he to focus on the male gaze. It could be said that my books rom-coms even when they deal with depression or grief or any number of “heavier” is a very good listener.) That’s also why I made heterosexual romance tends to focus on the female gaze. Do you agree? his most famous role a nerdy scientist type who topics. And I put that in quotes because while I agree to an extent, yes. But I think this can get wasn’t the main character of his show: I didn’t those things might seem heavy for a rom-com, want him to be typical leading man material. tricky because the male gaze so often sexualizes they’re so much a part of our regular, non­ women, and just as I’m not interested in media fictional lives, and humans still manage to fall I was intrigued by the comparison Finn made featuring women as sex objects, I never want to in love all the time. My characters don’t love between ghostwriting and acting—how both write men as sex objects either. That’s not progeach other in spite of whatever else they hapare a chance to escape from your own story ress. While my books center women’s desires pen to be dealing with. They simply love each for a little while and live in someone else’s. Is because I’m mainly writing from a single point other, full stop. that something you enjoy as an author? —Elizabeth Mazer of view, my heroes’ desires are still present, and



by christie ridgway

H A Lady’s Guide to Scandal A young widow gets a second chance at happiness in A Lady’s Guide to Scandal (Penguin, $17, 9780593492000) by Sophie Irwin. After a miserable 10-year marriage, Eliza, Lady Somerset, is finally free— and rich, if she can keep the Somerset name scandal-free. That seems easy enough for the timid and soft-spoken Eliza, but when latent desires arise, she travels to Bath to take up a paintbrush and take in some of what society has to offer . . . including the attentions of the wicked Lord Melville. The plot thickens with the return of Eliza’s first love, who has never forgotten her. With two such attractive yet different men vying for her heart, can Eliza break old habits, be her own person and reach for what she truly wants? This kisses-only tale is a delight, and readers will be guessing just who Eliza finds her happy ever after with until the very end.






Sci-Fi & Fantasy

YA & Children’s


Discover your next great book! BookPage is a discovery tool for readers, highlighting the best new books across all genres. BookPage is editorially independent; only books we highly recommend are

A Rulebook for Restless Rogues


Two old friends become more in Jess Everlee’s Victorian romance A Rulebook for Restless Rogues (Carina Adores, $18.99, 9781335680006). David Forester and Noah Clarke have been friends ever since David appointed himself Noah’s protector in boarding school. David now runs The Curious Fox, a queer club in London, and he still looks after Noah, a talented tailor who spends some nights as his alter ego, Miss Penelope Primrose. David cares for all the patrons of his club and tries to keep them safe in a time when they could be jailed or worse. When The Curious Fox’s owner threatens to shut it down, David’s life is thrown off balance just as he realizes his feelings for Noah might go beyond friendship. Readers will sympathize with the difficulties David and Noah face dealing with the law, their families and the risk of changing their long-standing relationship in this sweet and satisfying romance.

Play to Win Play to Win (Griffin, $17, 9781250821843) by Jodie Slaughter offers up a delicious premise: Stuck-in-a-rut nail tech Miriam Butler wins millions in the lottery—but for legal reasons, she has to alert her estranged husband, construction worker Leo Vaughn. Miriam offers Leo a generous lump sum to sign divorce papers. But this new opportunity gives Leo a chance to rethink his life, and he realizes his love for Miriam never died. Can they make a second chance work? Of course it’s delightful to imagine an end to financial problems, but Slaughter shows that Miriam and Leo still have to overcome the identity issues and expectations that once broke them apart. Told in their no-holds-barred voices, this romance is sexually frank, starkly intimate and often sizzling.

Christie Ridgway is a lifelong romance reader and a published romance novelist of over 60 books.

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by bruce tierney

Dead Man’s Wake

The Guest Room

A Stolen Child

You don’t have to wait long for the action to begin in Paul Doiron’s 14th novel featuring Maine Game Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch, Dead Man’s Wake (Minotaur, $29, 9781250864390). It starts with a literal bang in Act I, Scene 1: Mike and his fiancée, Stacey Stevens, are celebrating their engagement, but the festivities are interrupted by a speedboat crash on the adjacent lake. When they arrive at the scene, there is no wrecked boat in sight. But what is in sight is rather more gruesome: a recently severed human arm. The search team uncovers not one but two dead bodies, those of a local developer and his married girlfriend, and the whole situation begins to seem less like a tragic accident and more like a pair of premeditated murders. Homicide investigations don’t really fall under Mike’s purview, but as one of the local cops ruefully notes, Mike seems to insinuate himself into more such investigations than is usual for a game warden. There is no shortage of suspects: the cuckolded biker husband of the female victim; a pair of frat boys who had been racing around the lake; a female tourist who claimed to have witnessed the whole shebang but whose story seems less credible as the investigation wears on. Doiron packs in lots of twists and turns, and enough suspense to keep you reading well past bedtime.

Tasha Sylva’s debut novel, The Guest Room (Holt, $28.99, 9781250863959), is a creepy London-set psychodrama in which all the major characters have deeply disturbing weird streaks. Let’s start with Tess. Some time back, her sister, Rosie, was killed, and the murder was never solved. Still in a malaise of grief, Tess has taken to renting out Rosie’s room for Airbnb-style stays. Tess has a bad habit, though. When her guests are out, she gleefully rummages through their stuff. Tess’ latest lodger is Arran, who requests a one-month lease while looking for permanent lodgings. And naturally, the first time Arran leaves, Tess surreptitiously paws through his meager belongings and finds a diary. The diary reveals Arran to be a rather obsessive man— by many people’s definition, a stalker. He is affable, though, and quite handsome, which has not gone unnoticed by Tess. This brings us to Nalika, Tess’ beautiful friend. After Nalika and Arran meet, Tess reads the newest entry in his diary and realizes the latest object of his obsession might be Nalika. And maybe Tess is a bit jealous about that. Or more than a bit. The Guest Room is much more character-driven than plotdriven, but there are a couple of excellent plot surprises along the way. I will eagerly await Sylva’s next novel, and I bet you will too.

A Stolen Child (Minotaur, $28, 9781250826688) is Sarah Stewart Taylor’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring American police detective Maggie D’arcy, who has recently relocated to Ireland along with her teenage daughter, Lilly, and joined the Garda, the national police force of the island nation. Despite years of experience as a police detective in Long Island, Maggie can’t just pick up where she left off: Upon passing the Garda entrance exam, she’s relegated to beat cop status in Dublin’s trendy Portobello neighborhood. But when well-known fashion model Jade Elliot is murdered and her toddler daughter, Laurel, is kidnapped, the force is stretched so thin that Maggie’s commanding officer decides to make use of her detecting talents and reassigns her to the team searching for Laurel. Alongside her friend Detective Inspector Roly Byrne, Maggie takes charge of the two-pronged inquiry into the murder/abduction. She quickly finds out that witnesses are few and far between and often reluctant to the point of intransigence. A Stolen Child is a nicely done, step-by-step police procedural, but it also offers much more than that: well-drawn characters; an insightful look at a rapidly gentrifying urban hub and its denizens; and off-duty relationships that lend notes of warts-andall humanity to the players.

H The Devil’s


I am a huge fan of noir mystery novels set in the early heyday of Hollywood, and that love carries through to the latest Tinseltown tome I have happened upon: The Devil’s Playground (Doubleday, $28, 9780385549011) by Craig Russell. The year is 1927, and our leading lady is studio fixer Mary Rourke, who covers up scandals that could threaten one (or more) of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars. Mary is summoned in the dead of night to the home of actress Norma Carlton, star of the supposedly “cursed” production The Devil’s Playground. Mary is stunned to find Norma dead, apparently by her own hand. A quick fix must be enacted to ensure that the public never suspects suicide. It all becomes more complicated postfix, when the studio’s doctor discovers that Norma was strangled. Fast-forward to 1967, and journalist Paul Conway has been hired to find the one remaining copy of The Devil’s Playground, which is supposedly at a remote location in the California desert—if it even exists. If the search succeeds, Paul will be rewarded handsomely for his efforts. However, he will find more than he bargained for, including one of the most creative twist endings I have experienced in ages. The Devil’s Playground is definitely on my shortlist for best mystery of the year.

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.


feature | female criminals

WORKING WOMEN Three novels dive into the illegal but thrilling exploits of an assassin, a pair of con artists and a team of female thieves.

H BEFORE SHE FINDS ME It’s supposed to be a day of celebration for botany professor Julia Bennett: move-in day for her daughter, Cora, as she starts her first year at tiny Anderson Hughes College. Instead, horror unfolds when a sniper opens fire into a crowd, killing Cora’s stepmother and wounding Cora. If not for Julia’s quick reflexes, Cora would have died. But Julia doesn’t believe that this awful event was a random shooting. Burdened with a terrible secret and a dark past, she trusts her instincts as she digs into the reason behind the attack, desperate to protect the daughter she believes may have been the real target. Ren Petrovic is a professional assassin who works alongside her husband, Nolan. The pair always tell each other about their respective assignments, but Ren had no idea Nolan took a job at Anderson Hughes. She’s a planner, a meticulous woman who prefers poison to guns, and it appears that without her input, Nolan botched the job. Newly pregnant Ren is determined to protect her growing family, which means figuring out who hired Nolan and why. As her investigation unfolds, she finds herself intrigued by Julia, who is a far more capable adversary than Ren expected. The cat-and-mouse game between Ren and Julia is the crux of Heather Chavez’s Before She Finds Me (Mulholland, $28, 9780316531351) and their interactions are intense and often surprising. Both women are determined to protect their children at all costs, even as larger forces conspire to put them in danger. They are dark reflections of each other, prompting readers to ponder how even the smallest change in circumstances can lead to vastly different lives. Chavez slowly reveals the terrible event that shaped Julia, pushing her in a direction that has honed her reflexes and fearlessness to make her nearly as lethal as the assassin she’s evading. With its cinematic pacing and fascinating protagonists, Before She Finds Me is a fresh and surprising thriller. —Elyse Discher

YOU CAN TRUST ME Is there truly honor among thieves? When one half of a con woman duo ghosts her partner, their loyalty to each other is put to the ultimate test. Promising Young Woman meets Heartbreakers in Wendy Heard’s sharp and sexy You Can Trust Me (Bantam, $28, 9780593599310). Summer (not her real name) has been thieving since childhood and learned from the best: her itinerant mother, who abandoned Summer when she was 17 years old. Now almost 30 and based in Los Angeles, Summer has taken in a younger stray named Leo who ran away as a teenager after an unspeakable family tragedy. The women live together in a tricked-out van and relish in their specialties: Summer pickpockets rich, drunk clubgoers, and Leo cozies up to older men before financially sucking them dry. But when Leo unexpectedly falls for tech entrepreneur and environmentalist Michael Forrester and accepts an invitation to his private island, Summer finds herself alone . . . and worried. Where is Leo? Why

hasn’t she reached out since her first night with Michael? And how can Summer get her friend back? Heard, author of The Kill Club, She’s Too Pretty to Burn and other stylish thrillers, deftly alternates between Summer’s and Leo’s perspectives. Leo’s timeline lags a few days behind Summer’s but gradually catches up as the two keep narrowly missing each other and encounter the same deceptive, deadly characters set on eradicating them both. Heard keeps the stakes high—Summer doesn’t want to get the authorities involved, as she doesn’t even have a birth certificate—and the secrets plentiful, as Leo recalls the painful personal history she’s never even told Summer. Both protagonists are equal parts savvy and vulnerable, as well as all too aware of materialistic LA culture (Heard lives in LA herself ) and the ways they can take advantage of it. You Can Trust Me blends realistic character development and nail-biting heists, resulting in a tale of a most unique, potentially murderous alliance. —Lauren Emily Whalen

H THE HOUSEKEEPERS Sometimes you can’t help but root for the bad guys. Such is the case with housekeeper-turned-criminal mastermind Mrs. Dinah King and her eclectic gang of co-conspirators in Alex Hay’s debut novel, The Housekeepers (Graydon House, $30, 9781525805004). The novel is set in London’s wealthy Park Lane in 1905 during the height of the Edwardian era, which Hay describes in his introduction as a time of “opulence, scrappy characters, remarkable flashes of modernity, and layers of corruption that exist just underneath all that glamour.” The sprawling de Vries mansion, where Mrs. King works, is “seven floors high from cellars to attics. Newly built, all diamond money, glinting white” with treasures in every room: “Objets d’art in gold and silver and jade, cherubs with rubies for eyes and emeralds for toenails.” When we first meet Mrs. King, she is already on her way out the door, fired for certain indiscretions and making a mental list of everything of value as she goes. Unlike many disgruntled employees dismayed by the sudden loss of a steady paycheck, she is already plotting to turn her misfortune into opportunity. After recruiting a ragtag team of women, Mrs. King reveals her plot to take her former employers for everything they have. From the outset, Hay makes it clear that Mrs. King is calling the shots. She tells her team in no uncertain terms that “we will have one object, one single plan. There will be no grumbling, no discord. If you’re given an order, you follow it.” And they do it with panache and style, right under the noses of the de Vries and their guests during a lavish costume ball. Hay is equally in control, weaving a quick-fire, almost whimsical story of class and privilege, of low and high society. Half the fun is watching as the team stealthily smuggles in various burglary tools and smuggles out their pilfered treasures. But, as with most criminal endeavors, the slightest miscue or misstatement threatens to upend everything midheist. Already an award-winning book in its native U.K., The Housekeepers is mischievous, suspenseful and just plain fun from start to finish. —G. Robert Frazier


cover story | ruth ware


PASSWORD MANAGER In Zero Days, the mega-popular thriller writer finds the human heart within the high-stakes security industry.


ave you ever seen a pregnant woman, perhaps with her arms process of research is to dredge as widely as I can and absorb as much as I can, and then at the end maybe 5% of that makes it into the book.” This weighed down by shopping bags, digging through her purse in immersive process helps her “paint the picture of the person who would front of a heavy door—and rushed forward to let her in using your own keycard? Or perhaps found a stray USB drive on the floor in your do this job, what’s their day-to-day life like, what are all the interesting office building—and plugged it into your computer to see if you could little nuggets of weirdness that are going to make it into the book.” Jack’s keen ability to strategize and adapt under pressure is essential to figure out who to return it to? If the answer to either or both questions is yes, you might have done someher role—and, tragically, becomes necessary for her very survival. One one a big favor . . . or you might have fallen prey night, while Jack is completing an assignto a penetration tester. Pen testers, as they’re ment, Gabe is brutally murdered in their often called, are daring and creative sorts hired home. Not only does Jack lose her beloved by companies to identify security vulnerabillife partner but the police consider her the ities, help repair weaknesses in their systems prime suspect. Knowing that as long as and recommend practices for avoiding issues they’re focusing on her they won’t search for in the future. That might involve attempting to the real killer, Jack decides to run for it: She’ll access a vitally important database or evading do her utmost to evade capture while figuring security guards after sneaking into a presumout who the real murderer is, and hopefully ably well-secured building. exact some vengeance along the way. It’s a decision that makes complete sense A husband-and-wife pen tester team is at the center of Ruth Ware’s propulsive and for the character, of course, but what about emotionally complex new thriller, Zero Days. the woman who created her? Ware insists Gabe and Jack (short for Jacintha) revel in the with a laugh that “I wouldn’t make that decicomplicated challenges and thrills that come sion in a million years. I would hunker down and hope to god that everything was sorted with performing legally sanctioned digital and physical break-ins for their clients. out. I wouldn’t trust myself to think, well, I Ware revels in it, too; the internationally can investigate this better than the police, whereas I think Jack genuinely does think bestselling author’s deep fascination with the subject is evident in the wealth of intriguing that. And to an extent, she’s going to be right details and scenarios that make Zero Days, because of her unique skill set.” her eighth novel, a supremely suspenseful The author also notes that Jack’s preterreading experience. In a call with BookPage natural confidence in all manner of sticky from her home on the south coast of England, situations is not something she possesses. “I where she lives with her husband and two am superaware of my own limitations,” she children, the author says that she got hooked says. “I am an incredibly bad liar, which is a on the idea of writing about pen testers while strange thing for a writer to say. . . . I’m very performing in-depth research for two of her law-­abiding. If I have the least consciousprevious books. ness of guilt, I go scarlet. That’s how I know “I had been researching apps and startups I could never do that job. I could never walk and tech companies for The Turn of the Key into somewhere where I didn’t belong and act H Zero Days and One by One,” she explains. “I started lislike I did.” Scout, $29.99, 9781982155292 tening to a lot of tech startup podcasts, and Jack, on the other hand, can and does, and then from there I just gravitated toward the when she takes to the streets of London— Thriller home to one of the most extensive CCTV crime-y stabby edge. . . . I ended up on the darknet end of the internet, and that was where I first found out about surveillance systems in the world—that capability is crucial. But while pen testers and the extent of what they do.” she does fall on the more-prepared side of things, even in particularly She also listened to “hundreds of hours of podcasts, read blogs, memdicey circumstances, she is also fallible, subject to misguided impulses, nagging injuries and uncertainty about what to do next. oirs, online articles and interviews and so on,” she says. “Usually my


cover story | ruth ware


“The temptation when you’re writing is always to go a little bit more Even as we celebrate the good in humanity, though, Ware warns that we Mission: Impossible, a little bit more Ethan Hunt, sliding down lift shafts should not be cavalier about protecting ourselves online. After all, as Jack and such, and the dramatic part of me would have loved to write some of muses in Zero Days, there are most definitely bad actors lurking around those things,” Ware says. “But it was also really important to me to root it the internet: “slippery, shadowy, forcing their way through the cracks in in the reality of what these jobs are, which is that, yes, it does take a certain our online security and the doors we left open for them in our digital lives.” type of personality, but actually you don’t have to be at the pinnacle of When I tell Ware that this poetically stated line is quite the chilling sentiment, she replies with a cheery fitness or have a genius IQ. . . . You need “Thank you!” and adds, “I think once to be very confident and very charming and able to push the envelope a little bit it comes out, if anyone takes any moral more than someone else might.” or lesson from this book, it should be to use a password manager.” That’s Jack also struggles under the weight of because, she explains, “reusing passimmense shock and grief. Her deep sadness over the incomprehensible loss of words is the equivalent of chaining all Gabe comes in waves throughout Zero your door keys and car keys in the same Days. It’s something she isn’t able to bunch and then putting your address fully process, what with the police, and on it,” while a password manager genpossibly the people who killed Gabe, erates and stores unique passwords for the myriad accounts we all juggle close on her tail. every day. “Literally every single perThat sorrowful refrain was crucial, Ware says, when it came to imbuing her son I interviewed said this,” the author time-is-running-out tale with a mournsays. And by the way, she laughs, “I was already using a password manager, so I ful yet determined heart. “Probably the felt very smug.” biggest critique I have of Golden Age crime [fiction], and modern crime as While she’s justifiably pleased with well, is that sometimes the death of the herself when it comes to online savvy, person whose murder forms the mystery Ware is far from smug about her career thus far. Since her first book, In a Dark, at the heart of the book can be treated Dark Wood, was published in 2015, her like it’s just there to provide the puzzle or the impetus for the main character,” books (more than 6 million in print, and she says. counting) have been published in more “Thank god I’ve never really lost than 40 languages worldwide. “I never anyone in my life in the way that expected to have this level of success. Jack loses Gabe, but I have been . . . There are moments when it’s brought bereaved,” Ware adds, “and it is a seishome to me very forcibly; when I walk mic life event that you do not get over into a place full of readers who are there quickly; you’re not out there merfor me, it’s wonderful and terrifying.” rily detecting two weeks later. I wanted to be really careful to show But, she says, “when I’m actually at my desk writing, it’s something I try the effects that grief has on a life and the ripples of consequence. . . . not to think about too much. . . . For me, every book is really a process of That’s true to how I think we are as people, we carry on putting one tricking myself into believing that nobody apart from me is going to read it.” foot in front of the other because we have to and the world does go on Of course, that’s extremely unlikely to happen with Zero Days, which Ware says is a bit of a departure . . . but every now and again you get hit by the reality of what “I would like us to be a little bit less suspicious of from her typical fare. “I don’t happened.” want to sit down and think, In terms of achieving practi- each other as individuals . . . but a little bit more what would be the next Agatha cal verisimilitude in her story, Christie-ish Ruth Ware book careful with our online security.” Ware turned to a British reality that I could write?” she says. “It’s TV show. “When I was researching, I spoke to a number of police officers,” much more about finding something I want to say, and then hopefully at the end of that people will like it and my publishers will be able to market she says, “and they all said the same thing: You should watch ‘Hunted.’ ” it. Which is exactly how this book came about, with me becoming mildly The action-packed goings-on in the show, which follows 14 people as they try to remain hidden for 28 days while a team of experts attempts obsessed with the subject and my imagination running away with me, to track them down, vividly illustrate the speed at which paranoia can and then at the end of it thinking, oh gosh, I think I’ve written a thriller!” build and how easily one can be found via elements of modern life such Indeed she has, one that will have readers rooting for Jack as they as online banking. strategize survival and try to ferret out the truth right along with her. Another aspect of the show resonated with Ware on a deeper level. Presumably, they’ll also gather up tips that will come in handy should “The ones who win are usually successful because they’re likable people they one day become embroiled in a similar pickle—or even be inspired and they persuade people to do nice things for them,” she says. “And it to become pen testers themselves. And all the while, Ware hopes, “I just constantly amazes me how willing people are to go the extra mile for would like us to be a little bit less suspicious of each other as individtotal strangers.” uals, because I think the world has mostly good people, but a little bit more careful with our online security overall.” In other words: Get thee That revelation was, happily, in keeping with her own convictions. “I a password manager! wanted to show both sides of that in the book. Jack’s a suspicious person; —Linda M. Castellitto she has to be because of her job, and being on the run is only exacerbating that, “ Ware says. “But at the same time, I think human beings are much Visit to read our starred review of Zero Days. lovelier and kinder than we give them credit for.”


interview | barbara butcher

SHE SAW DEAD PEOPLE Barbara Butcher shares what it was like to be a New York City death investigator, an unusual career that she says both saved and ruined her life. “I’ve gone places and seen things that most people don’t,” Barbara humans.” Both during our call and in her book, she repeatedly bristles Butcher says. That’s a mighty understatement, given that she spent 22 at the long-standing discrepancy in investigative resources. There will years working as a death investigator be few resources dedicated to, say, “a for New York City’s Office of the Chief young Black woman who is a sex worker “If you have an amazingly cool job Medical Examiner. As she gazes at the found murdered in the back alley of the that you really love and enjoy, and panoramic view from the windows of Javits Center,” she says, while a “white her high-rise apartment in Brooklyn, she girl from a wealthy family and murdered you get to do a little good in the muses, “I can look at any given building on Park Avenue will be on every headand say, ‘Oh, that was the guy that had world—well, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?” line and police blotter until it’s solved.” She adds, “I don’t think anyone should the drug overdose’ or, ‘There’s the guy be lost to history, and perhaps that’s why I picked the cases that I did.” who got stabbed.’ ” But despite such horrors, she loved the job. “If you’re going to investigate death, New York City is the place to do it,” she says. Once Butcher began working on her book, she found that writing about Butcher began as a medicolegal death investigator, eventually becomcases was decidedly easier than writing about herself. To deal with the ing director of the Forensic Science Training Program, logging countless many troubling situations that she encountered, she developed a steely hours at death scenes all over the city while “getting some justice for peodetachment, which worked well for her career but caused repeated ple and getting some answers for families,” she problems in her personal life. “I don’t do vulsays. Butcher chronicles all of this heartbreak, nerable,” she says. “That’s not my thing.” At her drama, intrigue—and occasional humor—in her editor’s insistence, however, she added more spellbinding memoir, What the Dead Know: intimate details into her manuscript, revealing, Learning About Life as a New York City Death for instance, that she experienced depression Investigator. and suicidal thoughts as teenager. Butcher also Butcher’s job, she explains, was not to solve describes how her childhood love of science led murders but to investigate all of the circumher to become a physician assistant and then a stances surrounding deaths. While forensic hospital administrator, but she lost that posipathologists determined the cause and mantion after she began to drink heavily. Her life ner of each death, Butcher scoured bodies and was decidedly off the rails when she turned to their surroundings for clues, such as signs of vioAlcoholics Anonymous, whose career counsellence or disease. Having worked on “perhaps ing service suggested that she should become 5,500 cases,” she decided it was finally time to either a poultry veterinarian, of all things, or a write about them during COVID-19 lockdown. “I coroner. She scheduled an informational interremember all of them,” she says, including “natview with Dr. Charles Hirsch, the legendary NYC urals,” murders, accidents and suicides—which Chief Medical Examiner, who hired her on the she says she always found disturbing. A particspot. “Alcoholism had landed me my dream ularly wrenching story involved an older Jewish job!” she writes. “I’ve noticed these things in my life,” Butcher woman who jumped off of her apartment’s roof, says, “where something bad happens, but out of leaving no note or clues about her last act. “This woman had survived a concentration camp, it, ultimately, I’m steered in a better direction.” the loss of home and country,” Butcher writes. In fact, she even came to believe that her expe“What could make her want to kill herself after riences with alcoholism helped hone her invesall these years?” Throughout the book, Butcher’s tigative skills. “We’re always hiding everything,” descriptions are vivid yet respectful, reflecting she says, referring to people with substance abuse the dizzying array of human experience. disorders, “and so we know what’s hidden.” What Butcher most loved about the job was Dr. Hirsch soon became a beloved mentor. H What the Dead Know getting to witness exactly how people lived. “He was like a father, a brother, a friend. Just so Simon & Schuster, $28.99, 9781982179380 “Once someone’s dead, they can no longer much about him was so good,” Butcher says. His hide anything from you,” she says. “So, being guidance was essential, especially since Butcher True Crime a nosy person, I get to go in there, investigate was only the second woman to take on her role in Manhattan, the first having left after only a month. She worked hard, how they died and look at how they lived—go through their possessions as she writes, to fit in as “one of the girls who is one of the boys.” Over the for identification, medications, things like that.” She found herself in every kind of setting, from multimillion-dollar penthouses with priceless years, Butcher was ribbed for showing up at death scenes in Talbots suits, artwork to apartment bedrooms crammed with multiple bunk beds and but she prided herself on looking professional and found that it helped hammocks strung between them. She has climbed into railroad tunnels move investigations along. There were jokes, too, about her name, but she to access caves where people had set up housekeeping. She has vencalls her surname “a great gift from my dad,” who was a policeman. She tured to the Whitehouse Hotel, which was a “flophouse” with hundreds loved arriving at scenes and saying, “Butcher from the Medical Examiner. of cubicles that she recalls as “pieces of plywood with chicken wire on What d’you got?” and still chuckles about the time when an intern named top, and that’s where people lived and died—literally a warehouse for Slaughter tagged along.



Visit to read our starred review of What the Dead Know.

This sense of humor also comes through in Butcher’s writing. What the Dead Know contains numerous one-liners such as, “You learn to think outside the box when the box contains a dead person.” Explaining the need for such dark humor, she says, “You have to deflect the pain and the sadness.” Butcher was suddenly forced out of her job in 2015 when Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York and made his own appointments. “I miss it every single day,” she says. “I crave it. I long for it. It got to the point where I was thinking, ‘Well, if things go really, really bad, they’ll have to take me back—like during a nuclear attack or something.” She laughs at her desperation but adds, “Yeah, I miss that job. It was absolutely fantastic. Having said that, I will also say that it ruined me emotionally.” Over the years, Butcher began to see calamity lurking at every turn. “The PTSD is god-awful,” she admits. “Years of therapy have mitigated it somewhat, but the thoughts are still there. Every day is a disaster waiting to happen. Every little footstep outside my door is a potential serial killer. When you’re surrounded by death and evil and murder and horror and tragedy, you accept it as the norm.” As for her own death, she speculates, “I’m fairly certain that I’ll be hit in the head by a stray bullet while trying to save a child from a river crossing. . . . It will be something dramatic, I’m quite certain.” Butcher sank into a deep depression after leaving the Medical Examiner’s Office, eventually requiring hospitalization and electroshock therapy, which she recounts in her book. “Ultimately, creativity is what saved me,” she says. “I took some piano lessons. I took dance lessons. I did things that were creative and fun and the opposite of death. I think that is part of why I wrote this book now. It’s a way to create something that may take me out of this feeling of being so totally bereft.” Meanwhile, Butcher has two more books in the works. The first is a novel based on a story from her investigative life. “I have a theory of what really happened, so I have to fictionalize it,” she says. The other is a nonfiction exploration of the sorry state of death investigation in the United States. Butcher says she abhors the fact that about 60% of the country is served by elected coroners (as opposed to medical examiners), some of whom have no higher qualification than a high school degree. “That is why it is often easy to get away with murder,” she says, “if you are clever enough to make it look natural.” “I think almost everyone is interested in death on some level,” Butcher says, “because it’s going to happen to everyone. Some might imagine that I have some insight into it, but I don’t, of course.” Regardless, she’s extremely proud of the work she’s done throughout her career. “If you have an amazingly cool job that you really love and enjoy, and you get to do a little good in the world—well, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?” —Alice Cary


by jamie orsini

Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective Katie Siegel’s Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective (Kensington, $16.95, 9781496740984) has a wonderful premise: What happens when a child detective grows up? When she was younger, Charlotte solved mysteries big and small, but at the ripe old age of 25, she considers herself officially retired. But then Charlotte’s older brother convinces her to look into some threatening notes his girlfriend received, and Charlotte ends up in the middle of a union-busting scheme, a missing persons case and a murder investigation, with help from her hilarious friends Gabe and Lucy. Siegel’s dialogue is fresh and funny as the trio takes on the case while also navigating relatable topics such as dating, queerness, job fulfillment, gender identity and the struggle to find reliable roommates.

Death Comes to Marlow The women of the Marlow Murder Club are back in business in Robert Thorogood’s Death Comes to Marlow (Poisoned Pen, $16.99, 9781728250540). Judith became something of a local celebrity after she and her friends Becks and Suzie helped solve a series of murders in their quiet town of Marlow, England. When Sir Peter Bailey, a wealthy Marlow resident, is killed, local police believe his death was an accident, but when Judith, Suzie and Becks launch their own investigation, they find that just about everyone close to the aristocrat may have had a motive to kill him. Judith is a charming protagonist; she’s witty, warm and bulldozes her way into a police investigation with ease. The way she, Becks and Suzie challenge and complement one another are not only highlights of the book but also the things that help them successfully solve the mystery.

Mastering the Art of French Murder In Colleen Cambridge’s delightful Mastering the Art of French Murder (Kensington, $16.95, 9781496739605), Tabitha Knight is settling into life in post-World War II Paris, and learning how to cook from her best friend and neighbor, student chef Julia Child. When a young woman is found murdered in their apartment building—stabbed by a knife from Julia’s kitchen and with a note from Tabitha in her pocket— Tabitha sets out to discover who killed the woman and why. Cambridge captures Julia’s joie de vivre and passion for French cuisine, transporting readers into her kitchen during her early years at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Mastering the Art of French Murder is a love letter to the sights, sounds and delights of Paris, from the small daily markets to the thriving nightlife. Readers will enjoy navigating the city alongside Tabitha as she untangles the mystery, as well as getting to see a whole new side of the beloved Julia Child.

Jamie Orsini is an award-winning journalist and writer who enjoys cozy mysteries and iced coffee.


feature | true crime

PARTNERS IN (TRUE) CRIME Journalists and scientists become determined detectives in these real-life stories of theft, corruption and murder. Readers will feel like they’re on the case alongside the authors and editors of these four nonfiction books as they investigate cold cases, culprits and the concept of crime itself.

EVIDENCE OF THINGS SEEN Sarah Weinman’s 2020 true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts, used the true crime genre as a startling, sometimes terrifying mirror to accurately reflect humanity’s desire to both enact and consume violence. Evidence of Things Seen: True Crime in an Era of Reckoning (Ecco, $19.99, 9780063233928) now extends the themes explored in that anthology, confronting the thorny question of what we should do with this knowledge of society’s darker impulses. The book’s title is a riff on James Baldwin’s 1985 essay on the Atlanta child murders, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which examined how, in a city “too busy to hate,” racism still blinded police, media and politicians to the humanity of the victims, their grieving families and the accused. In this vein, every essay in this book takes it as a given that forces such as social media, misogyny, racism and classism play essential roles in how we perceive crime, from the commission of the crime itself and our perceptions of the victim to the penalties for the wrongdoers. Then the essayists explore the implications of those truths. For example, Samantha Schuyler’s “The Short Life of Toylin Salau and a Legacy Still at Work” links the invisibility of Black victims of rape and murder to the violent and racist policing of communities of color. In “Who Owns Amanda Knox?” exoneree Amanda Knox asks how and whether the wrongly accused can regain their lives and privacy in the era of social media sensationalism. Mallika Rao’s heartbreaking “Three Bodies in Texas” details the destruction of an immigrant family in Frisco, Texas. And Sophie Haigney’s confessional “To the Son of the Victim” questions whether intrusions into private grief are justified by the public’s “right to know.” Weinman’s sensitive selection of these and other articles in the anthology will provoke a wide range of reactions—sorrow, anger, indignation and even optimism. Perhaps they will also provoke a reckoning with how true crime lovers engage with stories of transgression and justice. —Deborah Mason

THE ART THIEF Most art thefts are simply for financial gain. The thieves, often opportunistic crooks and rarely art connoisseurs themselves, view their stolen masterworks as loot to be fenced. Stéphane Breitwieser is different. Growing up in the Alsace region of France, he fell in love with art and artifacts under his grandfather’s tutelage, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had begun to steal compulsively from museums, auction houses and even churches. In eight years, often aided by his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine, he filched more than 300 irreplaceable works—including small oil paintings, silver chalices, ivory sculptures, tapestries and a historic bugle—estimated to be worth


billions. When he was ultimately caught, Breitwieser said his sole motivation for stealing was to surround himself with beauty. He never sold anything he procured but instead displayed it all in a cramped attic room he and Anne-Catherine occupied in his mother’s house. The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession (Knopf, $28, 9780525657323) by journalist Michael Finkel is a fascinating account of Breitwieser’s crime spree that attempts to understand the mind of this criminal aesthete. This proves a herculean task, since Breitwieser’s singular condition has defied clear-cut diagnosis by a passel of mental health experts, but Finkel’s re-creation of the thief’s nefarious activities is nonetheless a riveting ride. As the only American journalist who was granted interviews with Breitwieser, Finkel spent some 40 hours with him, even accompanying the now ex-con on visits to some of the museums and churches from which he once stole. From this personally reported material, as well as other interviews and documentation, Finkel has fashioned an engrossing true crime narrative—mostly told in present-tense prose to heighten the drama—that takes readers along on Breitwieser and AnneCatherine’s daring robberies, quite often carried out in plain sight. The Breitwieser whom Finkel deftly portrays is a social misfit, a virtuoso of stealth, an inveterate moocher and, most of all, a self-deluded hero. (He claims he is protecting and preserving the art by stealing it.) AnneCatherine seems a complicit accomplice—a lovestruck Bonnie to her cultured Clyde—until Breitwieser is caught and the tables turn. Breitwieser’s enabling, much-in-denial mother, meanwhile, alters the course of events in a way that will shock and disturb art and history lovers. Obsessive crime, dangerous beauty, ill-fated love: The Art Thief is the stuff of noir fiction, made all the more compelling and audacious for its authenticity. —Robert Weibezahl

H I KNOW WHO YOU ARE Some retirees quilt; others fish. And then there’s Northern California resident Barbara Rae-Venter, who, with “both feet planted firmly in retirement,” sparked a forensic revolution. How in the world did a retiree sitting alone at her computer looking at family trees manage to crack a horrific criminal case that had been eluding investigators for 40 years? Sixty-three days after loading a crime scene DNA profile to a service called GEDmatch, RaeVenter and others in a group who call themselves Team Justice were able to identify a suspect: a police officer-turned-truck mechanic named Joseph James DeAngelo who eventually admitted responsibility for at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and ’80s in California. She tells the story the world has been waiting to hear in her mesmerizing memoir, I Know Who You Are: How an Amateur DNA Sleuth Unmasked the Golden State Killer and Changed Crime Fighting Forever (Ballantine, $28.99, 9780593358894). “All my life, mysteries have called out to me to be solved,” Rae-Venter writes. As a child growing up in New Zealand, she had what her mother called a “grasshopper mind,” meaning that Rae-Venter tended to circle a topic, coming at it from odd angles before zeroing in on an insight. She came to the United States at age 20, eventually earning a Ph.D. in biology and becoming a patent lawyer specializing in biotechnology innovations. In retirement, she started researching her own family history, then

feature | true crime became a volunteer genealogist at a not-for-profit organization called DNAAdoption that teaches adoptees how to identify biological relatives using autosomal DNA. In 2015, Rae-Venter became involved in a cold case pertaining to an adoptee named Lisa Jensen, who at age 5 was abandoned by a man who claimed to be her father but wasn’t. The now-grown Jensen had no idea who her birth parents were until Rae-Venter solved this family mystery, and what turned out to be a mind-blowing criminal case, using investigative genetic genealogy (IGG). In addition to Jensen and the Golden State Killer, Rae-Venter describes a number of additional intriguing cases she’s worked on, along with the chilling details of actually being present at DeAngelo’s sentencing. She also discusses the ethical issues that IGG poses to the privacy of individuals’ DNA profiles, explains the complicated process of IGG in layman’s terms and includes a helpful glossary. After unmasking the Golden State Killer, Rae-Venter planned to be identified only as an anonymous geneticist, but her son finally convinced her to go public. “If my story can inspire a budding young scientist somewhere to pursue her dreams, then my story is a story worth telling,” she writes. Indeed it is, and true crime lovers everywhere will agree. —Alice Cary


LITTLE, CRAZY CHILDREN Shaker Heights, east of Cleveland, Ohio, is an idyllic American town, a “planned utopia . . . plotted out, parcel by parcel.” With its mansions full of doctors and lawyers and paved streets lined with high-end department stores, it’s an unexpected place for a murder. Little, Crazy Children (Citadel, $28, 9780806542553) reveals what happens when teenagers take “justice” into their own hands, spreading misinformation and blurring the line between the accused and the guilty. Sixteen-year-old Lisa Pruett was known and loved by all as a romantic, a poet, a member of her church youth group—and someone who was madly in love with her boyfriend, Dan Dreifort. But in September 1990, Pruett was found dead in a back yard near Dreifort’s house, brutally stabbed. Dreifort admitted to having contaminated the crime scene—putting his fingerprints on Pruett’s bike while straightening it up. Dreifort’s bedroom, less than 100 yards from the crime scene, was full of empty bottles of Robitussin and contained the suspected murder weapon. In journal upon journal, investigators found that Dreifort had written of his blistering hatred for Lisa, of sacrificing a virgin and poking her eyes out with his pocket knife. But Dreifort was not the one the state chose to prosecute. Instead, they fixed their attention on another teenager, 18-year-old Kevin Young. An outcast in the community who vehemently denied any involvement, Young soon became the main suspect without ever being placed at the scene of the crime. Journalist, novelist and renowned true crime reporter James Renner (The Great Forgetting) forages for the truth among mixed-up rumors and lies. Renner writes in short chapters with propulsive pacing and cliffhanger endings, turning this disturbing journey into quite a page turner. With a casual narration style, Renner imbues his story with plenty of personal anecdotes, making it feel like readers are on the case alongside him. The tragedy recounted in Little, Crazy Children includes an under­ current of romantic, religious and racial tumult. There’s a mysterious phone call predicting the murder, a series of troubling love letters and a highly loaded trial—details that are as engrossing for readers as they were for the townspeople of Shaker Heights. Much of the mystery is still unanswered, and Renner fills his final chapter with theoretical questions. You’ll have plenty to deliberate over even after you finish reading, making this the perfect pick for your book club of amateur sleuths. —Emma Rosenberg

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by susannah felts

H A Very Gay Book A heavy dose of humor is something I’ve been in need of these past few weeks, and what do you know: Like a gift from the publishing gods arrives A Very Gay Book: An Inaccurate Resource for Gay Scholars (Andrews McMeel, $30, 9781524876449), a satirical take on history in which everything is really, really gay. Authors Jenson Titus and Nick Scheppard are Los Angeles-based comedians who also run a comedy design brand called Very Gay Paint, and I can only imagine they had the time of their lives dreaming up this beautiful absurdity. In their alternate universe, a feud between Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton caused the Great Recession, the Statue of Liberty was painted green by a queer man who lived within its torch and two lesbians invented Andy Warhol. Also gay: “wanting to be a good singer” and cakes that look like other things, such as a hamburger or a telephone. My Gen Z teen often admiringly points out things that she finds “super gay,” and this hilarious project backs her up in a big, gay way. A big gay ray of sunshine, right here. (Sunshine = definitely gay.)

the Margarita, the Martini and highballs, with a few outliers thrown in for good measure (the Paper Plane, the Hot Toddy, etc.). For example, a Martinez, which likely predated the Manhattan, swaps gin for the Manhattan’s bourbon or rye in a 2:1 ratio of spirit to vermouth. Sub bourbon in for gin in the 1:1:1 ratio of a Negroni, and boom, you’ve got a Boulevardier—or try mezcal, if you dare. I’m not much of a numbers person, but this simplification of the sometimes-arcane world of mixology goes down easy and pairs well with sweet watercolor illustrations by Marcella Kriebel. Ruhlman suggests that the art of the cocktail is rather forgiving, a place to mess around and find out. Just commit a few basic ratios to memory first.

Goblin Mode

Goblin Mode (Quirk, $17.99, 9781683693536) is a type of book that piques my curiosity almost as much as the idea of “goblin mode” itself. Have there always been identity books that set out to define both an aesthetic and a way of life, an ethos? i.e., You might be a –––– if, bolstered by advice on how to better achieve said identity, with places to go, crafts to try and shallow dives into various How to Be a Rule-Breaking Letterer bodies of knowledge? I’m not sure, but there are many When I was a kid, bubble letters were very on-trend, and such books now, typically with cute covers and petite I spent hours perfecting my ABCs in bubble form. How I trim sizes. This one by writer and editor McKayla Coyle wish I’d had Huyen Dinh’s How to Be a Rule-Breaking and illustrated by Marian Churchland revealed to me L etterer : A Guide to that I am, in fact, a goblin: Making Perfectly Imperfect My home epitomizes “cozy These five lifestyles books will Art (Chronicle, $19.95, clutter”; I love plants, old 9781797215532) back then satisfy all types of readers—from things, and collecting and to goad me into becoming displaying random bits of historians and mixologists to a bona fide word-artist, or natural objects; and, above artists, poets and even goblins. all, I’m a weirdo, which is a at least to nudge me toward further experimentation. nonnegotiable goblin qualDinh’s personal story is of the “good girl gets fed up and ity. Might you be a goblin too? Read this book to find out, flees corporate malaise, follows passion” variety (one I’m and if the answer is yes, prepare to both feel seen and up rather partial to). Now, after years of struggling, she is no your goblin game. longer afraid to make what pleases her. While she neatly breaks down lettering fundamentals—developing your Poetry as Spellcasting typographic eye, mastering brushstrokes, talking the talk (ascenders and descenders and swashes, oh my!)—her At the intersection of books on witchcraft, creative bigger agenda is to encourage free thought, to open up writing guides and poetry anthologies alights Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for readers to their own preferences and to the wealth of ideas just waiting to be plucked from thin air. She’s quite Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power (North candid about her own process and clunky first drafts, too, Atlantic, $16.95, 9781623177195), which manages to pull which is always a plus. off something utterly unique. Centering the experiences and perspectives of writers of color and queer writers, the contributors’ essays honor the work of Audre Lorde, The Book of Cocktail Ratios Lucille Clifton, Selah Saterstrom and Rainer Maria Rilke, In a follow-up to his fascinating Ratio: The Simple Codes among others. They examine the connections among Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, multifaceted poetry, prayer and chant, and they explore the liberation writer and chef Michael Ruhlman applies that conthat can come with revision. One writing prompt invites cept to cocktails. Even more so than culinary creations, readers to compose a letter to an “absent presence” or boozy drinks “are fundamentally defined by their ratios, an ancestor; another provides instructions for writing rather than by a unique combination of ingredients,” he a collective poem with friends. “In this book,” editors writes in The Book of Cocktail Ratios: The Surprising Tamiko Beyer, Destiny Hemphill and Lisbeth White conSimplicity of Classic Cocktails (Simon & Schuster, $30, clude, “we remember how the nexus between ritual and 9781668003398). He explores this thesis through six claspoetry can be a sacred container to manifest change and sic tipples—the Manhattan, the Negroni, the Daiquiri, transformation.”

Susannah Felts is a Nashville-based writer and co-founder of The Porch, a literary arts organization. She enjoys anything paper- or plant-related.


q&a | jennifer ackerman

Denizens of the dark Jennifer Ackerman knows birds. In fact, the award-winning science writer has written three books about them (The Genius of Birds, Birds by the Shore and The Bird Way). Now, with What an Owl Knows, she shines a light on “the most distinctive order of birds in the world.” What do you think makes humans most intrigued by owls—their wideeyed cuteness, their perceived wisdom, their air of mystery? I would say all of the above! Owls have enchanted humans for tens of thousands of years. We see ourselves in them, with their huge heads and big forward-facing eyes (and yes, their cute faces). And yet they’re also so very different from us—strange, mysterious denizens of the dark, capable of flying silently and navigating the night, with sensory powers beyond our own that allow them to hunt in the pitch black. So it’s the whole package of mystery, cuteness, extraordinary skills and intelligence that inspires awe.


Bestselling author Jennifer Ackerman turns her attention to a most beguiling bird.

Visit to read our starred review of What an Owl Knows.

I admit that my house, my yard and my wardrobe are full of owly objects: owl photos and sculptures and ceramic pots, owl pins and earrings and necklaces, owl T-shirts and owl socks. But my favorite owly object is a piece of folk art I found in a little cafe in Iguaçú, Brazil. It’s a comical little owl bell crafted from metal with big, bright eyes and wings made of pale yellow citrine stones.

More than one of the researchers and scientists you introduce in What an Owl Knows spoke of a pivotal moment in childhood when they knew they were meant to work with owls. Did you have a similar early-­in-life feeling about working with birds? When I was 7 or 8, I started bird-watching with my dad along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Washington, You asked many owl experts what individuals can do D.C. My dad had been a bird-watcher himself since to preserve owl populations and habitats. What are childhood, when he learned about birds and birdsong a few things readers can do right now to get started? as a Boy Scout. He was a busy guy (with five daughters!) Most importantly, do whatever you can to help preserve H What an Owl Knows when I was young, but he loved to get out on weekends Penguin Press, $30, 9780593298886 owl habitat. If you own any piece of land, think about and look for warblers and thrushes. Bird-watching was the owls that might be living there and what they need. a good way to get some time alone with him. We would Don’t mow your lawn if you can avoid it. (Or better yet, Animals rise before dawn, head down to the canal and the woods do away with your lawn altogether and plant native along the Potomac River, and listen in the dark for birdsong. My dad gave grasses.) This will draw in more prey for owls. Leave dead trees and snags me my first pair of binoculars and my first bird field guide. From then on, standing if they don’t pose a danger. If you own a large piece of land, conI was hooked. sider a conservation easement to protect it after you’re gone. And finally, support organizations and legislation that promote habitat conservation. When owls, say, swat at nighttime joggers, they might just be trying to play—not attacking. What does owls’ penchant for purely fun activities When you think about your time among the owls, what made the biggest impression on you? tell us about them? The playfulness of owls signals several illuminating things about them: first, Exploring owls for this book just blew away all my assumptions about that they feel safe enough—and well fed enough—to engage in activities that these birds. Owls are even stranger, more intriguing, more powerful and take energy and may make them vulnerable. more appealing than I imagined. They’ve It also points to their intelligence. Birds that also changed the way I experience the “Owls are even stranger, more play (mostly parrots, corvids and owls) tend world. Owls see what we don’t see. They to be species with relatively bigger brains. intriguing, more powerful and more hear what we don’t hear. So they invite you Scientists suspect that play depends on cogto notice things that you might otherwise appealing than I imagined.” nition. So owls may play because they’re miss. Also, they’re so quiet and subtle, so smart but also because it’s fun and rewarding. In most animals, play trigwell camouflaged, and they point to the value of not standing out in the gers the release of dopamine, which is active in the reward system of the world but fitting into it. brain, as well as endogenous opioids, which are essential for sensations But I think what impressed me most is how complex these magnificent of pleasure. In other words, owls may play not just to practice life skills but birds are, how highly skilled, distinctive and idiosyncratic, with unique because it floods their brains with feel-good chemicals. voices and personalities all their own, and with a full range of feelings and emotions. I hope readers will come away from the book with the same You learned that the availability of owl-centric merchandise is a good new thrill, wonder and awe, and with a new appreciation for how critical owls are to the well-being of the planet. way of discerning whether owls are viewed favorably in a particular —Linda M. Castellitto location or moment in time. Do you have any favorite owl items?


behind the book | louisa hall

On writing labor

“How can other people know what they are asking of us, what we endure in the course of childbirth, if there are no words to describe it?” After being pregnant and giving birth, novelist and poet Louisa Hall It is a horrifying scene, but not because we are given to feel what Janine found herself reflecting on the dearth of fiction describing the experience— is feeling; it’s horrifying, instead, precisely because Janine’s experience but why? Why is it so hard to write about? With help from Mary Shelley’s is set off to the side. What she endures is not the main event—not while Frankenstein, Hall found the inspiration to craft her own work of fiction she’s giving birth and her individual experience is transformed into a to embody the experience of labor and pregnancy. collective ceremony, and not after, when her baby is handed off to the ••• wife of a commander. In novels that do describe the experience from the perspective of the In her essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf complains that English literature has failed to find words for the person giving birth, the experience is experience of a headache. “English,” she often startlingly short. In Toni Morrison’s writes, “which can express the thoughts Beloved, Sethe gives birth over the course of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no of a page. Her water breaks, she has a contraction, the head comes out, the words for the shiver and the headache.” I thought of her essay often when I was afterbirth follows. In Those Who Leave pregnant for the first time and after labor, and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante dispatches the experience even more when I found myself reflecting that the quickly. Lenu’s first childbirth is sumproblem she described still persists, and no more so, perhaps, than when it comes marized in a sentence: “I had atrocious to childbirth. labor pains but they didn’t last long.” The My own experience of pregnancy was second childbirth gets two: “Everything went smoothly. The pain was excruciatnot easy. The most important fact, for me, about the years I spent pregnant ing, but in a few hours I had another girl.” is that they produced two wished-for In Yūko Tsushima’s Woman Running in and miraculous babies. But I will also the Mountains, a book about what it means to give birth to a child, labor is be reckoning, for a long time, with the aftershocks of their physical realities. I skipped over entirely. On one page the was pregnant four times in four years protagonist is nine months pregnant; and gave birth to two babies. There were on the next, five days later, she’s in the also miscarriages and hemorrhages; hospital and her baby has been born. All migraines and months of crippling three of these novels are breathtakingly nausea; four surgeries and hundreds of granular about other aspects of their blood draws; a neural puncture and a protagonists’ physical and psychologiproliferation of tumors. cal lives. They are novels by writers I’ve turned to time and time again to clarify During those years, I looked to novels to help me understand and to give other modes of existence. And yet, when me company, as I had through so many it comes to labor—or the pregnancy that other phases of life—falling in love precedes it—they seem to turn away. and out, getting married and getting Why would this be the case? Part of divorced. Time and time again, howthe challenge in describing pregnancy ever, as I turned through the pages of and childbirth must be that it involves the novels I loved, I was struck by the so much pain and sickness, and as Woolf shortage of attempts to represent the describes it in “On Being Ill,” those states experience of giving birth. There are, of are notoriously hard to describe. “Let a H Reproduction course, exceptions. In my search for litersufferer try to describe a pain in his head Ecco, $30, 9780063283626 ary company, I found a tradition of novto a doctor,” she writes in a sentence that els describing labor from the perspective must resonate for anyone who has ever Literary Fiction been to a doctor, “and language at once of a male character, from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. In these depictions, runs dry.” Elaine Scarry expands on this point in The Body in Pain, her the experiences range from comic to frightening, but we always see the seminal monograph on the subject, which establishes first the inexpresswoman undergoing it. We laugh at her and fear for her rather than inhabit ibility of pain and second the political complications that arise as a result. her experience. Pain, she says, is defined by the fact that it cannot be expressed. “When physical pain is transformed into an objectified state,” she writes, “it (or There is a labor scene in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that is at least some of its aversiveness) is eliminated.” often described as horrifying, but it, too, is narrated from the perspective of someone other than Janine, the woman giving birth. Janine’s experience But why, in that case, don’t more writers try? If pain is eliminated by the is held at a remove while our narrator and the other handmaids gather act of expressing it, why wouldn’t more people who have given birth write around her, hold hands, whisper among themselves and drink grape juice. about labor? Perhaps another part of the problem is how conditioned we


behind the book | louisa hall are to focus on the aftermath of pregnancy—the miraculous child born as a result—as opposed to what we risk and endure, as though to give voice to the pain involved in giving birth is to unnaturally or ungenerously deflect from the miracle of the new life that follows. This conditioning both produces a shortage of language for the experience and is reinforced by the same shortage. How can other people know what they are asking of us, what we endure in the course of childbirth, if there are no words to describe it? And if they don’t know, how can they work to change our culture’s refusal to acknowledge the price of pregnancy? For some of us, pregnancy is a happy state. For many of us, however, pregnancy and labor involve not only sickness and pain, but sickness and pain that last for a very long time. They involve season upon season of an experience that longs to be expressed and can’t, and therefore confines the person experiencing it to a long state of transforming loneliness. Trapped in that state, as I felt myself to be when I was pregnant, I wished for examples of the kind of language that would transform pain into something else, but as I moved through the books on my shelves, the only example I could find that approached the length and intensity of what I was experiencing was the example of the creation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which, as Victor Frankenstein describes it, takes season upon season to © WILLIAM CALLAHAN unfold, requires superhuman efforts from the body of the creator, and leaves him so sick that it takes months for his fiancée to nurse him back to health. This “labor,” as he repeatedly calls it, is grueling and long, not only for Victor but also for the reader, who must wade through seven remarkably repetitive pages about bodily unraveling—the process involves “charnel bones,” “eyeballs . . . starting from their sockets,” “the unhallowed damps of the grave,” “a slow fever” and nerves aggravated to a “most painful

degree”—in order to get to the moment when new life arrives. The language, in its brutal repetitions of grotesquerie, seems to be attempting to approximate the feeling of what it represents. At the same time, however, Victor insists that he is incapable of expressing the physical sensations involved in his labor. “No one can conceive of the variety of feeling which bore me onwards,” he says in one paragraph; in the next paragraph he asks, “who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil?” The painful and isolating fear that he will not be able to accurately communicate his agony is there, but so is the desire that the reader should feel it as a “conception,” as their own process of painfully creating life. The hope, then, is that language could so fully embody a pain that it could transmit it to the reader. Reading these pages, I felt I had finally found it: the labor scene I was looking for. And yet, of course, the person laboring is a man, and what he makes isn’t a baby. Did Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein after two labors of her own, one of which produced a child who died after two weeks, feel that the only way she could include a labor scene in literature was to make it a man’s? Did she feel that her readers would be unwilling to conceive of such pain if they imagined it took place in a woman’s body? Did she feel that the only way to allow her character the luxury of dwelling on pain long enough to describe it was to remove the idea of a miraculous baby? These were the questions I asked myself when I began to write Reproduction. I wanted to write a pregnancy book of my own, a labor book of my own, that fully embodied the pain and the sickness involved and held it side by side with the sweetness of a new baby. I wanted to find a language not only for the headaches and the shivers but also for the contractions and the nausea, a language that attempted, at least, to transmit my experience of pregnancy. —Louisa Hall

review | H reproduction Louisa Hall’s fourth book, Reproduction, brings together many threads—the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, friendship, pregnancy, miscarriage and birthing trauma—within a novel about trying to create a novel, about literary and scientific discovery and, most importantly, about a woman trying to write her way back to herself. Hall’s unnamed narrator sets out to write a novel about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein with the intention of engaging with the book’s literary history. During the research process, she discovers how miscarriage and pregnancy haunted Shelley and her novel. As our narrator navigates her own crises

surrounding pregnancy—her experiences with it as well as her feelings about it amid the political, societal, health and climate challenges of our day—she realizes that perhaps this is not the novel she needs to write. Instead, she borrows the frame structure of Frankenstein to launch and linger in a tale of herself and her newly reappeared friend Anna, a scientist who works in a lab, wants to have a child and is willing to explore genetic modification and all the questions, ethics, opportunities and challenges that come with it. Amid these large and lofty questions, Hall’s prose is taut, each word impactful, each

short chapter a meditation on what could be. Throughout this slim novel, she continually returns to the evolving conversation between art and science, and to the enduring truth that no action or reaction exists in a vacuum. Hall doesn’t always provide reasons for what happens in Reproduction. Instead, the novel is a series of what-ifs, possibilities, surprises and moments of wonder. These short chapters build a complex web of interconnectivity, showing the ways that our actions are shaped by the threats of pandemic and climate change as well as the politics, bounds and potential of scientific inquiry. —Freya Sachs


reviews | fiction

H Loot By Tania James

Historical Fiction There is a distinct feeling one gets while reading Tania James’ third novel: Someone needs to make this book into a movie. Steeped in the rich history of three nations and infused with a young man’s unshakable desire to do something grand, Loot (Knopf, $28, 9780593535974) is transportive storytelling at its best. We begin in 1794, when India is still a nation of tiny kingdoms ruled by big egos, right on the cusp of British colonialism and the East India Company. India’s foremost king, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, is in his summer palace, conjuring yet another grand plan to impress his citizenry. His current fixation is to build a larger-than-life automaton of a growling tiger pouncing on a British soldier. To achieve this technological feat, Tipu calls on the expertise of 57-year-old Lucien du Leze, a homesick clockmaker and inventor who escaped the French

H Lucky Red

By Claudia Cravens

Western Claudia Cravens’ debut novel is a funny, sharp, subversive marvel: a queer Western that feels both fresh and timeless. With gunfights, gambling, mysterious strangers riding into town, criminal gangs and highway robbery, it has all the trappings of a classic Western. The plot takes off about twothirds of the way through, and it delivers plenty of heart-pumping action and adventure. There’s more than one scene during which you might find yourself holding your breath. But what makes all of this action so compelling is the quiet buildup. Alone and broke after her father dies from a snakebite, 16-year-old Bridget arrives in Dodge City, Kansas, exhausted and hungry. She finds work at the Buffalo Queen Saloon, a brothel run by two fierce but protective women. The Queen provides a kind of safety that Bridget has never known—steady money and a roof over her head—but it also makes her vulnerable to more than one kind of danger. When she falls in love with Spartan Lee, a legendary female gunfighter, Bridget realizes just how big the world truly is— and how much it will change her, if she lets it.


Revolution only to find himself on the brink of another. Lucien in turn hires 17-year-old Abbas, the youngest son of a local woodworker and the heart of this story. Abbas is kind, gentle and a bit rebellious. His woodcarving skills are unmatched, even though he doesn’t know that yet. Under Lucien’s tutelage, Abbas comes to terms with his gift and unearths his desire to use his craft to leave an unforgettable mark on the world. In that, he is much like his dreamy and determined king, but without the burden of defending the crown. Tipu’s tiger automaton turns out to be a crowd-pleasing sensation, but not long after its unveiling, Tipu loses first his kingdom and then his life to the British. Lucien finds

Though grounded in rich historical detail, Lucky Red (Dial, $27, 9780593498248) reads at times like a modern coming-of-age story. Bridget’s new life as a “sporting woman” provides her with a fast education—in friendship and first love, in loss and betrayal, in what it means to stand up for herself and those she cares about. Cravens relates all of these internal revelations and outward discoveries in Bridget’s brash, no-nonsense, take-things-as-they-come narrative voice. Through Bridget, Cravens captures the daily rhythms of a Kansas brothel in the 1870s with incredible care and nuance. There’s nothing sensational or dramatic about it. There’s only the honest depiction of the textures of ordinary life: the endless string of tricks that blur into each other; the petty squabbles between the women; the acts of loyalty and friendship that keep them alive; the bawdy jokes and moments of private amusement; the drudgery of chores; the ache of a hangover after a night of drinking and the pleasure of a hot cup of coffee. Lucky Red is a complicated and moving portrait of a young queer woman determined to take up space in a world trying to render her invisible. Bridget often finds herself in situations without any good choices, and she sometimes pursues a course of action that causes harm, or makes messes—and isn’t that what it means to grow up? At its heart, this novel is a thrilling but contemplative meditation on the courage it takes to choose—yourself, your freedom, your pleasure, your home—and own the consequences. —Laura Sackton

a way to escape to Rouen, France, leaving Abbas with an invitation to be his apprentice should he ever find a way to leave Mysore. The wooden tiger meets its own dreary fate as well, ending up in a musty, forgotten room in an old lady’s English castle. It’s the end of an era, but for Abbas, it’s just the beginning of an epic quest. James’ plot is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration. Her supporting characters are woven with the same care and detail as her protagonist. All of this combines for a stimulating and informative novel, a must-read for adventurers, dreamers and lovers of history. —Chika Gujarathi

H 8 Lives of a Century-Old


By Mirinae Lee

Historical Fiction “Slave. Escape artist. Murderer. Terrorist. Spy. Lover. Mother.” Seven identities are listed on the cover of the outstanding first novel from Mirinae Lee, which lays out the incredible historical circumstances that would allow such a multifaceted life. The majority of 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster (Harper, $30, 9780063240421) is split into short stories that can be admired independently; and in fact, several have been published elsewhere as standalone pieces. But as a whole, the narrative is all the more powerful. Working at the Golden Sunset senior living center in the South Korean countryside, Lee Sae-ri has the idea to start an obituary writing program for residents. She soon meets Mook Miran, a 98-year-old woman living in the wing that houses many people with Alzheimer’s disease. Despite this, Ms Mook is strong-willed and witty, and her memory is remarkably intact. And thankfully so, for she has a lot of stories to share, and each chapter explores one of her “lives.” Ms Mook has survived brutal

reviews | fiction experiences, such as being sexually enslaved by the Japanese military as a “comfort woman” during World War II. By the end, the reader is left with an intensely vivid picture of both North and South Korea during the mid-20th century, throughout multiple wars and times of national chaos. The brilliant manner in which Lee sequences her narrative doles out Ms Mook’s story in bits and pieces, making the journey uniquely interactive for the reader. Beautiful and at times experimental prose flows in and out of first and third person as Lee shifts among perspectives and time periods. Lee drew inspiration from her own great-aunt, one of the oldest women to escape alone from North Korea, and the result is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in some time. 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is enticing, profound and deeply moving, a testament both to Lee’s skill and the courage of her ancestor. —Sydney Hankin

H The History of a Difficult


By Mihret Sibhat

Coming of Age Selam Asmelash Gebre Egziabher emerges, enraged, from a troubled womb into a troubled place at a troubled time. It seems she is destined to have, as debut author Mihret Sibhat’s title suggests, The History of a Difficult Child (Viking, $28, 9780593298619). Born in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, Selam enters a grim world of insecurities and grievances, from political to economic to fundamental. During the 17-year civil war that follows the overthrow of Haile Selassie, an ever-shifting succession of governmental overlords keep the country fearful and in distress. Selam’s father, Asmelash, and mother, Degitu, have faltered economically; the government has repossessed their flour mill, coffee-­processing plant and much of their land, redistributing it in a misguided fit of socialism. Asmelash and Degitu are also struggling emotionally and physically, he with his alcoholism, she with her persistent—and incorrectly diagnosed— uterine condition. When we first meet Selam, she is preliterate, but Sibhat gives us access to the child’s thought processes, including her belief that she has a leopard inside her. For all of her ferocity, though, Selam is insightful and quite often ruefully amusing, noting at one point that “I have

learned from life and from my father that the fall of one tyranny is the rise of another.” After her mother embraces Protestantism, isolating their family from both the Orthodox Christian villagers and the local Marxist revolutionaries, Selam tentatively follows along, only to discover that the religion fails to answer many of her questions. After her favorite brother, himself a missionary, is killed in a freak accident, she “[wishes] to disappear from life somehow. Or to locate God, arrest him, and liberate everyone from His madness.” And yet, she perseveres. Fortunes change, and change again, and while she remains to the end of the book a difficult child, Selam learns to embrace the world’s inconsistencies. She is a little broken but unbowed. Her outlook on life is that of an old soul in a young body, well adapted for the capriciousness of her circumstances: “I used to want to reduce the number of people I love in order to protect my heart from destruction. I don’t think the devastation of living will ever stop. I might as well increase my enjoyment of love.” Sibhat’s vivid narrative is captivating, particularly for its emotional depth, even as some of the events she depicts are shocking. She has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career. —Thane Tierney

The Librarianist By Patrick deWitt

Literary Fiction A surefire way to get bibliophiles to root for your book is to give them a bookish protagonist like Bob Comet, the 71-year-old main character of The Librarianist (Ecco, $30, 9780063085121), Patrick deWitt’s fifth novel. Bob prefers to communicate with the world “mainly by reading about it. . . . The truth was that people made him tired.” He couldn’t have picked a better career, dedicating 45 years of his life to working as a librarian in Portland, Oregon. And like a good book, every life is full of stories, some joyous, some sad. The conjurer’s trick deWitt performs here is to lull readers into believing they’re about to follow one particular story, then to make it disappear in favor of something deeper and more nuanced. The novel’s beginning is straightforward enough. It’s 2005, and Bob lives in the brightly colored house he inherited from his mother.

Forty years earlier, his wife ran away with his best friend. Bob has lived by himself ever since. One morning, Bob goes to a convenience store to buy coffee and sees an elderly woman staring at the energy drinks. The clerk tells him she’s been standing there for 45 minutes. Bob discovers a laminated card around her neck that identifies her as a resident of a senior center. After Bob returns her to the center, the woman who runs the place gives Bob a tour, and he volunteers to read to the residents once a week. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that what follows will be a linear narrative about Bob’s experiences socializing with the facility’s colorful residents, but after a clever plot twist, deWitt takes the reader back in time, first to Bob’s early years as an aspiring librarian and his courtship and marriage, then even further back to 1945, when 11-year-old Bob ran away from home and met two elderly women who recruited him to join their traveling theater troupe. Reverse chronology is an old technique. Harold Pinter did it in his brilliant play Betrayal, as have many other writers. DeWitt’s transitions aren’t always smooth, but book lovers will adore this large cast of eccentrics anyway. DeWitt’s light touch, memorably demonstrated in his previous novel, French Exit, is on display here as well. The Librarianist is another charmer from an author who knows how to delight. —Michael Magras

The All-American By Susie Finkbeiner

Christian Fiction Susie Finkbeiner (All Manner of Things) invites readers along on the inspiring journey of a young baseball player who dreams of playing for the first women’s professional baseball league in the adeptly crafted coming-ofage novel The All-American (Revell, $16.99, 9780800739362). To the disappointment of her mother, and despite her home economics teacher’s warnings against future spinsterhood, Bertha Harding has no interest in mastering domestic skills like the other girls. Bertha’s true passion is baseball, and the 1952 season of the AllAmerican Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) is about to begin. Bertha can hardly wait to see the Workington Sweet Peas play, but she fears that her hopes of playing for the team are crushed when her father is accused of being a member of the Communist Party. Her family flees Detroit to her uncle’s home in


reviews | fiction a small town in Michigan. Still, Bertha remains hopeful, and in time, her journey with the Sweet Peas begins. Told through the voices of Bertha and her sister, Flossie, The All-American offers an intimate glimpse into their lives and the challenges they face. Fitting in at school is tough for both of them, thanks to Bertha’s lack of interest in marriage and Flossie’s struggle to make friends. But their lives expand through the bonds they forge: Bertha’s love of baseball is supported by the Sweet Peas pitcher, and Flossie learns true friendship and empathy from her friend Lizzie. Captivating historical details contextualize the story and add conflict and tension. The Red Scare casts a shadow over everyone’s lives, straining relationships and fomenting fear of tarnished relationships. Finkbeiner also includes fascinating background information on the AAGPBL, offering a beautiful celebration of the women who broke barriers for other girls and women in baseball. Led by relatable characters, The AllAmerican is a moving novel, fit for inspiring any reader to dream big and believe that anything is possible. —Edith Kanyagia

H The Best Possible


By Nishanth Injam

Short Stories Nishanth Injam’s perceptive and penetrating debut collection, The Best Possible Experience ( Pa nt h e o n , $ 2 5 , 9780593317693), offers a quietly power­ful look at a fundamental human desire—for a sense of home, a place to belong—through an intriguing cast of characters from the Indian diaspora. Of the 11 stories, only two have been previously published: “The Math of Living” in VQR and Best Debut Short Stories 2021, and “Come With Me” in The Georgia Review and Best American Magazine Writing 2022. In the touching title story, the formidable bus driver Mr. Lourenco does his best to instill optimism in his son despite societal prejudices. Mr. Lourenco’s strategies to provide opportunities for his son are creative, albeit sometimes questionable. In “The Immigrant,” Aditya follows a “simple” plan to earn a master’s degree from an American school and find a good job to pay for a lung transplant for his mother. In restrained yet dramatic fashion, Injam reveals how this strategy gets complicated.


A journey home takes a turn in “The Bus,” in which the story’s unnamed protagonist, a “techie” who works at a Bank of America call center in the bustling Indian city of Bengaluru, procures a ticket on a luxury bus, complete with a toilet and air conditioning. It’s the weekend of Diwali, but the trip to his village is anything but festive, as things soon spiral into a Stephen King-esque nightmare. “Summers of Waiting” is a gentle yet ominous odyssey through memory as Sita races home from the U.S. to see the grandfather who raised her. There are affecting observations on Indian and American cultures in “Lunch at Paddy’s,” in which Paddy is thrilled that his 12-year-old son has invited a school friend home for lunch but is consumed with worry about what to serve and how to act around a white boy. And in “The Protocol,” Gautham has paid a Black woman to marry him, and as he nervously prepares for his green card interview, he discovers his increasing affinity for her. Injam compares and contrasts his many characters, their situations and experiences—specifically, what constitutes home for them and how they cope. Masterful descriptions convey their heart-rending memories and hard-hitting emotions. An enlightening collection full of cultural and societal insights, The Best Possible Experience is a must for readers who loved Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses. —Maya Fleischmann

I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home By Lorrie Moore

Literary Fiction Lorrie Moore’s fiction has always defied easy categorization, but it’s consistently smart, witty and thought-­ provoking. Her fourth novel—and her first in 14 years—touches all those bases. I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home (Knopf, $27, 9780307594143) is an unusual but surprisingly affecting story about life and death and the liminal space that separates them. Moore’s protagonist, Finn, is a young high school teacher who teaches what he calls “Alt-Consensus History,” an attempt to “reclaim the term conspiracy theory” on subjects such as whether the first moon landing ever happened. He’s been placed on a paid leave for either his curricular choices or rebuffing the advances of the headmaster’s wife. His older brother, Max, is dying in a Bronx hospice, and they pass the

time by watching the 2016 World Series, which ended with the Chicago Cubs winning their first title in more than a century. As the teams compete in game after game, in what feels like a potentially infinite duration, Finn feels as if his brother is “rooting for both teams to go on forever so he wouldn’t die.” Amid his deepening sadness over his brother’s imminent passing, Finn receives an urgent call to return home to deal with a crisis involving his “mad and maddening” ex-girlfriend Lily. She’s a bright but unstable woman who provides “laugh therapy” as a clown to brighten the lives of her clients, mostly children. Finn seems as reluctant to abandon his attachment to her as he is to bid farewell to his brother. At the heart of the novel is Finn and Lily’s road trip through an autumnal American heartland, one of the stranger journeys in recent fiction. As they drive along roads that feel like “an unfurling ribbon without a gift,” they dissect the reasons for their relationship’s demise and spar—sometimes seriously, other times with the dry, often black humor that’s a characteristic of Moore’s writing—over subjects such as the inscription on Finn’s headstone. (He wants one that includes his phone number and the words “ATTENTION: UNDERLYING CONDITIONS.”) “Jokes are flotation devices on the great sea of sorrowful life,” Lily observes. “They are the exit signs in a very dark room.” Interspersed with the account of their travels are letters from a woman named Elizabeth, who runs a boardinghouse in the years immediately following the Civil War, to her sister. While their relationship to Finn and Lily’s story isn’t immediately apparent, Moore deftly ties them together before the end. Moore’s ambitions in this brief novel are modest, even as the subjects she tackles are among the most profound facing human beings. If there’s a book that earns the description tragicomic, it’s certainly this one. —Harvey Freedenberg


By Zelda Lockhart

Family Saga There are people who swear they can hear the voices of the departed. The dead want their stories told, demand justice for past doings or even offer encouragement to the listener. Lottie Rebecca Lee, the eventual protagonist of Zelda Lockhart’s powerful and hopeful novel Trinity (Amistad, $27.99, 9780063160958), has heard all three.

reviews | fiction Three generations go by before Lottie incarnates, which partially explains the book’s title. The story begins in 1939 in Sampson, Mississippi, where Black people live only a few steps up from slavery. Old Deddy, a 62-yearold Black sharecropper, enters into a contract to marry the 12-year-old daughter of his white boss in exchange for a parcel of land that the boss really has no intention of letting him own. That Old Deddy is a victim of such injustice doesn’t make him a saint; he beats his wife and sons as hard as he works. His son Bennie is gentler but still uses a switch on his own son just to let him know who’s in charge. Both Old Deddy’s and Bennie’s wives become pregnant with girls who would have housed Lottie Rebecca’s soul, but the pregnancies are lost. And so she is born as the daughter of Bennie’s son, traumatized Vietnam War veteran B.J. To break the cycle of familial violence, B.J. closes himself off from his wife and daughter even as he loves them. Being the vehicle of the ancestors makes Lottie Rebecca a strange and uneasy child. Like Alia Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune, she seems to have been born with the knowledge of many lives that came before hers. Such knowledge is so oppressive that it causes screaming fits that Lottie’s family doesn’t understand. Yet she is buoyed by love, especially the love of her wise, gentle, Afrocentric mother, Sheila. When Lottie is a young woman, Sheila takes her on a pilgrimage to Ghana and the castle from which Africans were shipped off to be slaves in the Americas. It’s a place where the voices may ease up. The author of Fifth Born, Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle and Cold Running Creek, Lockhart explores how pain and injustice are passed down, and how that pain can ease and injustice can be reversed. Sometimes, though, it takes the whispers of the ancestors to make it happen. —Arlene McKanic

H The Rachel Incident By Caroline O’Donoghue

Coming of Age Caroline O’Donoghue, the best­ selling author of the YA fantasy novel All Our Hidden Gifts, has published several books for adults in the U.K. but makes her American adult debut with The Rachel Incident (Knopf, $28, 9780593535707), a dual-timeline narrative that’s mostly set during Rachel Murray’s last year of university in Cork, Ireland.

In 2009, Rachel is living at home with her parents and working part time in a bookshop when she meets James Devlin, who’s just been hired as a bookseller. Rachel and James charm each other, begin a sudden bantering friendship—she’s fairly sure James is gay; he insists he’s not—and soon she’s moved out of her suburban family home and into his ramshackle downtown house. When Rachel falls for her married English professor, Dr. Fred Byrne, both Rachel’s and James’ lives become entangled with Dr. Byrne and his wife, Deenie, who works in publishing. To Rachel, the older couple’s well-kept house and professional lives signify modern adulthood. This is only the beginning of Rachel’s tumultuous year, one of haphazard and sometimes terrible decisions, heartbreaking first love and frequent despair—and all as the Great Recession squeezes everyone she knows. Rachel and James work on his sitcom screenplay based on their life together, and they dream, plan and save in order to leave conservative Ireland for London and a more fabulous life. Counterpointing and narrating this chaotic year is the voice of an older Rachel, now in her early 30s, a journalist in London who’s pregnant with her first child. She’s still friends with James (mostly via texting), who’s now a comedy writer for a late-night TV talk show in New York City. The present-day Rachel has news for James that she’s not sure how to share. In both timelines, but especially the earlier one, Rachel’s first-person voice and wonderfully off-kilter observations make her a character you want to settle in with. By turns comic and bittersweet, this is a tender tale of platonic and first love, as well as a sharp look at such issues as homosexuality and abortion in the more repressive Ireland of pre-repeal days. The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright and funny voice in a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve. —Sarah McCraw Crow

Little Monsters

By Adrienne Brodeur

Family Drama From the outside, the Gardners of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have a life anyone would envy. But as Adrienne Brodeur (Wild Game) reveals in her thoughtful first novel, a shiny exterior often conceals secrets and deceptions no admiring outsider could imagine.

Set during the spring and summer of 2016, Little Monsters (Avid Reader, $28, 9781982198107) focuses on Adam Gardner, the family patriarch, and his two adult children, Ken and Abby. Adam is a prominent marine biologist who’s dangerously stoking a manic phase of his bipolar disorder to discover the secret of whale communication he is certain will earn him scientific immortality. Ken, on the verge of a move into the major leagues of real estate development, is plotting a congressional campaign in the next election cycle, but there are worrisome cracks in the foundation of his marriage to Jenny, the daughter of a prominent Boston family. And Abby, a talented but underappreciated painter, looks forward to the exposure a profile in a major art magazine will bring, while dealing with the early stages of pregnancy. All of this is complicated by the arrival of Steph Murphy, a Boston cop and young mother who’s spending the summer on the Cape and inching closer to the Gardner family for a reason they can’t grasp.

Adrienne Brodeur, author of the bestselling memoir Wild Game, delivers a quietly engaging first novel set on Cape Cod. As the gorgeous seaside summer rolls on, Ken and Abby plan a party to celebrate Adam’s 70th birthday. The siblings see it as a way to honor their father’s life and achievements, while he perceives it as another signpost on his inexorable slide into professional irrelevance. In this process, shards of the Gardners’ past—ones that carry them back more than three decades to the sudden death of Ken and Abby’s mother shortly after Abby’s birth, its impact on the children’s relationship growing up and the echoes of that tragedy into the present—emerge in unpredictable and even dangerous ways to reopen old wounds and inflict new ones. Brodeur effectively juggles these interlocking perspectives in chapters that shift seamlessly among the viewpoints of the Gardners, Jenny and Steph, sustaining the novel’s tension until a climactic scene at Adam’s elegant birthday party. Brodeur, who grew up and still has a home on Cape Cod, makes effective use of her familiarity with the captivating qualities of that setting, its natural beauty and wildlife, to lend texture to the story. William Faulkner’s reminder that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past” is one that applies with considerable emotional force to this quietly engaging novel. —Harvey Freedenberg


reviews | nonfiction

H First to the Front By Lorissa Rinehart

Biography If you haven’t heard of Dickey Chapelle, you’re not alone. But Lorissa Rinehart’s authoritative biography, First to the Front: The Untold Story of Dickey Chapelle, Trailblazing Female War Correspondent (St. Martin’s, $32, 9781250276575), makes it clear that this courageous photojournalist, who was the first female war correspondent to be killed in combat, deserves wider recognition. Born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1918 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chapelle had an early love of aviation and even studied for a time at MIT. After she flunked out of school, Chapelle’s parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida, where she got a job publicizing a Miami airshow. After being sent to Havana to cover another airshow, the ambitious Chapelle pitched a story to the New York Times. When the ace pilot crashed before her eyes, she raced to a phone booth to dictate the story. A chance encounter with a fellow journalist on the scene

H Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I By Tracy Borman

Biography Mothers—for better, worse or somewhere in between—shape the people we become. Whatever lessons we learn from their example, whatever traits we inherit, go on to become shaping forces for our identities and lives. Author and historian Tracy Borman (Henry VIII, The King’s Witch) illustrates this in Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Forever Changed British History (Atlantic Monthly, $29, 9780802162069). Despite living in a strict patriarchal society, the love and influence of her infamous mother guided Queen Elizabeth I through her tumultuous life and much-glorified reign. As one of England’s Chief Curators of Historic Palaces and the author of Elizabeth’s Women, Borman is well placed to explore the intertwined lives of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and reformer of the English faith, and their daughter, the celebrated “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I. This required some detective work, as both time and circumstance make the relationship seem practically nonexistent:


led to a job offer in New York City, where she took photography classes from an older photojournalist named Tony Chapelle. The two eventually married—and then divorced, after his violent behavior escalated in tandem with her growing success as a journalist. Rinehart’s account follows Chapelle’s wide-­ranging international career from Panama to the Pacific, to 1950s postwar Europe, to Laos, Vietnam and a host of other locations. Chapelle covered conflicts as well as humanitarian crises, and Rinehart details her exceptional courage, her understanding of Cold War politics and her unflinching commitment to telling the stories of people oppressed by harsh regimes or fighting for independence. Rinehart also explores the reasons why Chapelle is not well known despite her extraordinary career. Saying she was “ahead of her time” may sound like a platitude, but Rinehart

demonstrates that Chapelle’s storytelling truly was different from many of her fellow journalists, who accused Chapelle of being obsessed with her career and not being objective. While some journalists relied heavily on government sources, Chapelle took an intense, immersive approach to stories, prioritizing “the voices, the lives, and the experiences of those she reported on,” Rinehart writes. Chapelle died in 1965 while embedded with U.S. Marines in Vietnam. With her trademark blackrimmed glasses and pearl earrings, Chapelle was unforgettable, fearless and compassionate. At the time of her death at age 47, she had been reporting in conflict zones across the world for 25 years. First to the Front is a valuable, long-overdue tribute to an American woman whose work and commitment to human rights is more relevant than ever. —Deborah Hopkinson

Anne was executed when Elizabeth was only 3, and for many years after, Anne either went unmentioned in court to avoid provoking Henry VIII’s vicious temper or was slandered as a “strumpet” and seductress who had an affair with her own brother and enchanted the king with witchcraft. Even before Anne’s death, royal custom stipulated that princes and princesses were raised by nursemaids in separate households from their parents. It would be unsurprising if Anne had been an invisible figure to Elizabeth, holding little to no influence over the woman and ruler she became. Yet Borman insists this was not so. Citing evidence from correspondence, material objects and the observations of witnesses during Anne’s brief reign as queen and Elizabeth’s long one, Borman re-creates the relationship between the two women as loving and full of significance, even after Anne’s death. Letters and receipts for purchased items reveal a mother who adored her small daughter and took their separation hard, consoling herself by ensuring Elizabeth was impeccably cared for, primarily by Boleyn relatives. Many of these caretakers would go on to become lifelong advisors and friends to Elizabeth, helping to sustain her through her uncertain adolescence and her imprisonment during her sister Mary’s years on England’s throne. From her coronation to her deathbed, Elizabeth’s time as queen was peppered with mementos of Anne: She incorporated her mother’s badge into her own insignia, packed

her court with her Boleyn relations and honored those who had been allies during Anne’s lifetime and could share stories with Elizabeth about her charismatic, brilliant mother. Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I offers a fresh perspective on Tudor history. Set against the many volumes about Henry VIII’s rule and Elizabeth I’s influence, Borman’s book triumphantly pulls the fiery, educated Anne from the shadows and restores her to her rightful place as a reformer, patron and queenmaker. —Anna Spydell

Random Acts of Medicine By Anupam B. Jena & Christopher Worsham

Medicine Anyone seeking medical care for a serious illness wants certainty in their diagnosis and treatment. The unsettling message of Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health (Doubleday, $30, 9780385548816), however, is that those understandable desires are often undermined by pure chance.

reviews | nonfiction In their revealing book, Harvard Medical School professor and economist Anupam B. Jena and critical care physician and health care policy researcher Christopher Worsham rely on natural experiments—studies based on collecting and analyzing data from random events occurring in the real world instead of controlled environments—to illustrate the role that randomness plays in America’s health care system. It’s a system that, in 2019 alone, spent $3.8 trillion—17.7% of the United States’ gross domestic product—and yet is “inefficient, inequitable, and poorly performing compared with other wealthy nations,” they write. Jena and Worsham report on numerous studies, some of which they helped conduct, that attempt to answer some vexing questions: Why do children born in the fall have markedly higher influenza vaccination rates than their counterparts with summer birthdays? Why, despite similar conditions, are some patients more likely than others to receive an opioid prescription in the emergency room and maintain that prescription long after they’ve returned home? Why is an obstetrician more likely to perform an unplanned cesarean section if their previous patient’s vaginal birth presented complications? The answers, they argue, can provide critical insights into how to improve the quality of health care. The book’s sometimes whimsical chapter titles conceal serious findings. “What Happens When All the Cardiologists Leave Town?” for example, examines the survival outcomes for high-risk cardiac patients who are hospitalized during the annual professional conference for interventional cardiologists, versus those treated when those same cardiologists are back at home. “What Do Cardiac Surgeons and Used-Car Salesmen Have in Common?” considers “left-digit bias,” a cognitive blind spot Jena and Worsham believe explains the differing care patients with heart attack symptoms who are just under 40 sometimes receive compared to those who have recently passed that milestone. If these unexpected insights sound familiar to readers of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, there’s a reason. In addition to his professional duties, Jena hosts the podcast “Freakonomics, M.D.,” where he explores similar behavioral economics issues. Though their tone is occasionally lighthearted, he and Worsham repeatedly drive home a serious point: The American health care system is failing to deliver optimal care, often due to the unquestioned assumptions and inherent biases of its providers. If this provocative book can spark conversations about how to examine these persistent problems with fresh eyes, its authors have accomplished something truly important. —Harvey Freedenberg

H Owner of a Lonely Heart By Beth Nguyen

Memoir The astonishing first line of Beth Nguyen’s revelatory memoir Owner of a Lonely Heart (Scribner, $27, 9781982196349) reads, “Over the course of my life I have spent less than twenty-four hours with my mother.” That time consisted of six brief visits over the course of 26 years, beginning when Nguyen was a 19-year-old college student and reunited with her mother in Boston for the first time since Nguyen was 8 months old. The explanation for this startling fact is fairly straightforward. In April of 1975, as South Vietnam fell to the forces of the North Vietnamese, Nguyen escaped Vietnam by boat with her older sister, paternal grandmother, father and uncles. Her father and uncles had fought for the losing side and now faced “reeducation,” or worse. So they came to America and ended up in a tiny community of Vietnamese refugees in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nguyen’s mother had been living with her own mother and her other children in another part of Saigon during the collapse. She only discovered that her daughters and their father had fled some days later. The feelings and implications of these circumstances, on the other hand, are anything but straightforward. Fittingly, Owner of a Lonely Heart is not a chronological memoir. It circulates among memories, embellishing and deepening the reader’s and Nguyen’s understanding of them. In a chapter called “My Mothers,” she writes not of her biological mother but of her grandmother Noi, who provided a safe place for Nguyen in a chaotic household, and of the woman her father married when Nguyen was 3, the daughter of Mexican migrants whom Nguyen credits with saving her life. In another chapter, Nguyen writes of her “white mother,” a high school boyfriend’s parent who taught Nguyen the “ways of whiteness” and helped her read the hieroglyphics of a coded society. Throughout the memoir, Nguyen also writes movingly about being a mother herself, something that has clearly shifted her perspective on her experiences. During her childhood, Nguyen’s family did not talk about Vietnam or the war. They had no vocabulary for trauma, and her father’s unacknowledged PTSD bodied forth in anger, drinking and home improvement projects that never reached completion. A superb writer,

Nguyen gives readers a tactile sense of her childhood home life and the love and anguish she felt there. “Growing up,” Nguyen writes, “I was afraid all the time. It was a low-lying fear that I couldn’t explain to myself or dare admit out loud.” In her beautiful memoir, Nguyen finally acknowledges this fear—and much, much more—out loud. —Alden Mudge

Black Folk

By Blair LM Kelley

American History Historian Blair LM Kelley writes, “Our national mythos leaves little room for Black workers, or to glean any lessons from their histories. . . . Never mind that from slavery to the present, Black workers have been essential to the nation’s productivity, and indeed . . . to its basic functioning.” The director of the Center for the Study of the American South and co-director of the Southern Futures initiative at the University of North Carolina, Kelley gives a sweeping narrative of 200 years of American history in her engaging and well-documented Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class (Liveright, $30, 9781631496554). Kelley also uses events in the lives of some of her ancestors to tell parts of the larger story. The overwhelming impression throughout is of great tragedy combined with an amazing abundance of courage and resourcefulness in the face of impossible barriers. The author gives primary attention to “a critical era, after southern Emancipation and into the early twentieth century, when the first generations of Black working people carved out a world for themselves.” Readers will especially learn about Black workers who united to gain political influence. For example, “Washerwomen, or laundresses, occupied a central place in Black life, history, and culture,” Kelley writes. Their work was hard and required great skill. After the Civil War, many laundresses had the independence to work alone and were able to spend more time with their children. They were also able to use their earnings to help support their families and communities by buying houses, building churches and opening businesses— and some were able to organize to improve their situations. In 1881, for example, laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, went on strike for better pay and working


reviews | nonfiction conditions. Some washerwomen even joined labor protests for other industries, such as the successful streetcar boycott in Richmond, Virginia, in 1904. Kelley also traces the development and importance of the Pullman porters, Black men who performed a variety of services for railway passengers beginning in 1867. The author writes of their significance, “Easily the most well-traveled Black folks in America, the Pullman porters provided assistance to people seeking opportunity in the North and West, connecting porters’ home folks with jobs, and offering their knowledge about the cities where migrants planned to settle. . . . They bore witness to the violence of lynchings and racial massacres, and also carried copies of Northern Black newspapers to sell to Black residents in the South.” There is so much more here to interest history lovers. This fine book illuminates the intelligence, sense of community, hard work (often done under deplorable conditions) and resilience of Black workers, who have made crucial contributions to American history. —Roger Bishop

Life on Other Planets By Aomawa Shields

Memoir “I started my life with one thing: science. Astronomy, to be specific. And I dove into it,” writes Aomawa Shields in the introduction to her memoir, Life on Other Planets (Viking, $28, 9780593299180). “Then I found something else I liked: the arts. Acting, to be specific. So I dove into that instead. Neither one by itself felt fully right.” Beginning with her initial glimmers of love for the stars and planets as a preteen, Shields tells her story chronologically, with writing that is immediate, sometimes poetic. In a scene rich in detail, she recounts the snowy winter night when, as a high school student at Phillips Exeter Academy, she first glimpsed Jupiter and its moons through a telescope. “That I could measure something in space, just by looking—this was the shattered ceiling of the Earth, ascending up and through the atmosphere into nothing,” she writes. At MIT and then the University of Wisconsin, Shields steeped herself in astronomy. But the pull of acting, which she discovered in high school playing the role of Truvy in Steel Magnolias, never faded, and she eventually put her


work in STEM on hold to pursue an M.F.A. in acting at UCLA. Shields’ nonlinear path through science, acting, the arts and back to astronomy (she returned to graduate school at age 35 and is now a tenured professor of astronomy and physics at UC Irvine) makes up the rest of the memoir’s narrative. Yes, she faced a bevy of struggles: As a Black woman, Shields was buffeted by racism in graduate school, as well as by self-doubt and impostor syndrome. She’s also candid about the sometimes-difficult balance of marriage, family and work, and her worry about whether she’s “Black enough” in certain settings. Throughout, Shields is an illuminating guide to her own idiosyncratic journey, seamlessly unpacking complicated concepts about stars and planets. In Life on Other Planets, Shields has written an inspiring memoir about charting her own path and merging her scientific and artistic pursuits. Along the way, she also gives us glimpses of the wonder she’s found while studying the cosmos. —Sarah McCraw Crow

H Social Justice for the

Sensitive Soul

By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

Self-Help Many of us long to help the world bend toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it. However, our culture’s image of the social justice warrior—fiery, loud, unapologetically con­ frontational—limits who can participate and how it should be done. Dorcas Cheng-Tozun’s essential new book, Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul: How to Change the World in Quiet Ways (Broadleaf, $26.99, 9781506483436), is written specifically for highly sensitive people (HSPs) with a passion for social reform. It encourages and equips those who don’t fit the typical social justice warrior profile to work toward the changes they want to see in the world while still taking care of themselves, particularly in the current climate of public disagreement, trolling and outright hostility. With gentleness and vulnerability, Cheng-Tozun persuades readers that the world needs HSPs’ strengths now more than ever. Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul first explores what it means to be highly sensitive, both in terms of strengths and limitations. Cheng-Tozun writes that HSPs are defined by four traits: “depth of processing, quicker to overstimulation, emotional reactivity, and

sensing the subtle.” Next, she considers key questions that can help HSPs critically analyze sustainable options for participating in social justice causes. The third section offers an abundant and exciting set of pathways for politically active HSPs, organized by the different roles they could play according to their strengths and visions for the future— such as connectors, creatives, record keepers, builders and so on. Throughout these sections, Cheng-Tozun draws on survey data from over 200 HSPs, shares her own struggles with debilitating burnout and offers insights from social movements of the past. Each section builds on what came before, and the loving touches throughout—the heartfelt personal examples, the memorable illustrations from history, the strong and affirming overall vision—make it truly unforgettable. Like a deep breath of fresh air in the morning, this is a book that can draw readers back to center and give them new ideas to move forward. Be sure to inscribe your name in your copy; you will want to share this hopeful, practical, richly evidenced, deeply personal and exceptionally well-organized book with your friends. —Kelly Blewett

The Theory of Everything Else By Dan Schreiber

Pop Culture Humans are fascinated with weird and unusual phenomena—hence the popularity of books, magazines, television shows and podcasts focusing on “unexplained” subjects such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. In The Theory of Everything Else: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird (William Morrow, $29.99, 9780063259195), comedian and co-host of the “No Such Thing as a Fish” podcast Dan Schreiber takes peculiar theories about some of life’s greatest mysteries and spins them into nonstop hilarity. Many of the ideas presented here are so implausible—such as the hypothesis that time travelers sank the Titanic—that Schreiber starts with a disclaimer, a suggestion that readers should “let the ideas alter your universe for a few seconds . . . but for God’s sake, don’t believe in a single one of them.” In fact, he uses the word batshit over and over to describe these unconventional beliefs and bizarre encounters, while also demonstrating that

reviews | nonfiction investigating such baffling notions (whether to solve them, prove them or disprove them) is often what leads people to discover something closer to the truth. Schreiber divides the book into three main sections that cover the importance of unconventional thought, scientific theories that have been “rejected” and eccentric beliefs that are woven throughout our daily lives. His research is extensive, covering all areas of the globe and a variety of cultures as he considers the possibility of a hollow Earth, the extinction of pubic lice, the chance that reptilian aliens walk among us and many more far-fetched and otherwise wacky notions. There are connections to famous people such as Ringo Starr (whose grandmother was known as “the voodoo queen of Liverpool”), tennis player Novak Djokovic (who believes there are ancient lost pyramids in Bosnia) and the British royal family (yes, Prince Philip harbored an interest in UFOs). Several scientists who made groundbreaking discoveries are included as well, since they also embraced unusual theories or beliefs. Humorous illustrations are featured side by side with historic photographs, and each “batshit” story or theory is counterbalanced with a reality check of facts and statistics. As Schreiber sums up, “Whether we like it or not, many of these alternative thinkers have shaped the world we live in today.” The Theory of Everything Else is a wild, witty and entertaining ride into the funhouse of the unexplained and the unexplainable. Hop on and enjoy the trip. —Becky Libourel Diamond

Through the Groves By Anne Hull

Memoir Before Walt Disney World paved Orlando with parking lots and erected glittering idols to commercialism, lush orange groves carpeted central Florida. Children were entertained not by a grinning rodent wearing a bow tie and white gloves but by playing among the glossy green leaves and sweet-smelling blossoms, or by chasing after the mosquito fogging trucks that arrived every evening in the summer. Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Anne Hull’s exquisite memoir, Through the Groves (Holt, $26.99, 9780805093377), carries readers back to a time when citrus, not Disney, was king in Florida,

even as she reveals the fissures in her life beneath those fragrant orange blossoms. As a young child, Hull spent her summers riding shotgun with her father, who was an inspector for a citrus grower. They bounced through the rutted aisles of the orange groves, car antenna whipping through the leaves and knocking fruit into the car. She met the growers and those who worked for them, whose bodies had been ravaged by years of close contact with pesticides. “I had never seen such a reptilian assemblage of humanity,” she writes. “Their faces cracked when they smiled. Cancer ate away at their noses.” During one of those rides, when she noticed her father screwing the cap back onto a bottle that was different from the Pepto-Bismol bottle he often drank from, Hull realized that her father was abusing alcohol.

Through the Groves captures the ugliness and the beauty of growing up in a Florida now long gone. Hull’s mother, who looked like “Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” had dreams of being a journalist. But when the family moved to Sebring, Florida, her mother instead started teaching elementary school. Hull’s father’s drinking eventually drove a wedge between him and his wife, and Hull and her mother moved in with family in St. Petersburg. She recalls the opening of Disney World around this time and its effects on the region, writing, “I hated it before it ever opened. . . . It was front-page news; it was practically a religious holiday in Florida.” As she grew up, Hull learned to navigate the streets of St. Pete and to live life on her own terms. During her first year at Florida State University, she awoke to her attraction to women, and her mother accepted and embraced her. Hull left college to become a rep for Revlon, and instead of oranges, the back seat of her car was crowded with “six-foot-tall beautiful women made of cardboard.” As Hull walks out of the Florida groves and into her adult life, she can clearly see the shadows they cast on her world. In her closing chapter, she shares a valuable gem of wisdom that reveals her vulnerability and ours: “Almost nothing in Florida stays the way it was. It’s bought, sold, paved over, and reimagined in a cycle that never quits. The landscape I saw through my father’s windshield as a child has been so thoroughly erased I sometimes wonder if I made it up.” Through the Groves captures the ugliness and the beauty of growing up in a Florida now long gone. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

H The Light Room By Kate Zambreno

Memoir Kate Zambreno’s work blends memoir, art criticism and literary history/gossip to brilliant effect, and in recent years, her books have become even deeper and richer as they have been suffused with the experience of early motherhood. The Light Room (Riverhead, $28, 9780593421062), like her 2021 book of literary criticism, To Write as if Already Dead, records the impossibility of finding time and space to write as a new mother. But instead of suffering from these restrictions, the book blossoms because of them, written in furious spurts that both describe and embody the stolen moments between feeding, waking and sleeping. The Light Room offers readers who are new to Zambreno a perfect entry point into the patterns of thinking and writing that her work is known for. As it follows a daily record of Zambreno’s life with small children during the COVID-19 lockdown—the groceries, the laundry, the mess, the exhaustion and the outings to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York—the book also considers the developmental experience of pandemic babies who see unmasked faces only at home and who haven’t yet met their extended families. Zambreno tracks experiments in early education during a pandemic as well, from an outdoor “forest school” to using Montessori methods at home. The unending domestic care work, however, is balanced by Zambreno’s reading, writing and thinking. Nursing at 4 a.m. while reading Yūko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light about single motherhood in 1970s Japan conjures a sense of “cozy dread.” A child’s collection of found objects evokes visual artist Joseph Cornell’s box art. Translucent building blocks suggest a literary form for the book itself: a mother writing in tiny increments, stealing bits of time to build, entry by entry, a chronicle of “seasons and exhaustions.” The restrictions, fear and grief of parenting during a pandemic are ultimately measured against moments of joy and glimmers of beauty, what Zambreno calls “translucencies.” Thinking through Natalia Ginzburg’s 1944 essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” Zambreno approaches a vital truth that lies at the heart of this memoir: What if these days of domestic constraint turn out, in the long run, to be the happiest time in a family’s life together? —Catherine Hollis


feature | young adult mysteries

CURSES, CULPRITS AND CRUSHES Being a teen is hard enough, even before you throw in magic—and murder. There’s a whole lot of supernatural sleuthing going on in three enchanting YA mysteries.

THE GRIMOIRE OF GRAVE FATES Wannabe detectives and aspiring magicians alike will delight in The Grimoire of Grave Fates (Delacorte, $18.99, 9780593427453), an anthology of 18 interlinked stories penned by such beloved YA authors as Kat Cho, Marieke Nijkamp and Mason Deaver. The compelling Agatha Christie-esque whodunit is set at the Galileo Academy for the Extraordinary, a prestigious school that educates future sorcerers. In recent eras, the academy has adopted a “more global view of magic,” resulting in policies meant to ensure greater diversity and inclusivity. Unfortunately, this has had no effect on the employment of Septimius Dropwort, a professor of magical history—and a proud, vocal, abusive bigot. It’s not surprising, then, that when he’s found murdered on school grounds, nary a tear is shed. But accusations aplenty arise: Since he has mistreated and alienated pretty much everyone, everyone is therefore a viable suspect. The book’s writers have created an appealing cast of characters, all of whom are preoccupied with fulfilling their magical destinies while attempting to excel in a place that can feel inhospitable. As The Grimoire of Grave Fates editors Hanna Alkaf (Hamra and the Jungle of Memories) and Margaret Owen (Little Thieves) write in their note to readers, “Some readers may have felt painfully excluded from stories about witches, wizards, and magic schools that could not imagine people like them; some have been deliberately shut out. Above all, we hope that everyone can see themselves somewhere in these pages.” As the students join forces, they realize they’re not as alone as they first thought. Delightful details abound: Taya, in the art-based magic program, has a lioness familiar named Ketesl; Maxwell blends math and magic; and Jamie sneezes ice crystals after walking through a ghost. Together, the students home in on the culprit and collectively remind the school that its extraordinary attendees deserve more support—a resonant message of hope for a better future, magical or otherwise.

A STARLET’S SECRET TO A SENSATIONAL AFTERLIFE Kendall Kulper’s A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife (Holiday House, $19.99, 9780823453610) opens in 1934 Chicago, in an America damaged and wearied by the Great Depression. Only trips to the movies keep 18-year-old Henny going, because “I wasn’t Henrietta Newhouse who scrubbed the washrooms and clutched at every saved penny . . . I was just a pair of eyes and a pair of ears, taking it all in.” Fans of the author’s Murder for the Modern Girl (2022) will recognize the Newhouse name; that book’s protagonist, Ruby, is Henny’s older sister. Ruby prowled Chicago solving mysteries, but Henny is set on California. “I wanted to be a literal star, something huge and bright and fierce and burning,” Henny says, “that turned everyone who came close to it warm and glowing.” Declan Collins is far less passionate about being a stuntman, but as his


manager, Pep, reasons, it’s a good gig for a man who cannot be injured. It’s getting harder for Declan to hide his invincibility, so Pep arranges a screen test with Henny where, to her delight, she’s signed by Silver Wing Studios as the next big starlet. To his chagrin, Declan is enlisted as her faux boyfriend. Their steamy sidelong glances and hot-tempered spats make for an entertaining will-they-won’t-they energy. Eventually, the two share secrets: Declan is helping a PI search for a missing actor named Irma, and Henny has been seeing ghosts. The first was her friend Midge, who supposedly quit Hollywood and moved home; she’s soon joined by a heartbreakingly large group of young women who also disappeared after being signed by Silver Wing. Can the duo find out what happened without getting harmed themselves? A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife is an engrossing supernatural murder mystery, a fierce ode to feminism and a potent reminder of the dark underside of glamour and fame. Indeed, Kulper writes in her acknowledgments, “So much of this book was inspired by the real activists, whistle­ blowers, truth-tellers, and courageous survivors who spoke up about the injustices of the Hollywood system. . . . Your bravery, hope for change, and dedication to equality, fairness, and justice push us all to work harder and do better.”

GARDEN OF THE CURSED Marlow Briggs is a 17-year-old cursebreaker for hire in Caraza City, a metropolis in the gritty region known as the Marshes. It’s an always interesting, occasionally life-­ threatening existence of evading gangs and sneaking around speak-easies. Her curse-sensing cat, Toad, keeps her company, and she works with her best friend, Swift, at the Bowery Spellshop. A year ago, she was living an entirely different life in fancy Evergarden with her mother. One terrible day, Mom went missing and Marlow fled to the Marshes, an area lacking the beauty and amenities of Evergarden but rife with clients who need her magical know-how and investigative savvy. As Katy Rose Pool’s inventive and engaging Garden of the Cursed (Holt, $19.99, 9781250846662) opens, a potential client turns up in the form of Adrius Falcrest, Marlow’s former friend and scion of one of the wealthy and powerful Five Families. Despite their now-frosty relationship, Adrius implores her to break a curse that threatens his family. As Marlow picks her way through a minefield of class conflict, criminality and frustrating uncertainty, she realizes her mother’s fate may be tied to Adrius’ curse. Marlow agrees to a fake-dating situation to explain her and Adrius’ unlikely reunion, but the couple’s antagonism persists as Marlow’s investigation proceeds, making a difficult job even tougher. Pool adeptly explores the ways miscommunication and mistrust can warp relationships. But with help from Swift and the new friends Marlow makes along the way, Pool also shows how strong friendships can provide sustenance and joy. Pool punctuates the story with suspenseful conflict and emotional reckonings before revving up to a cliff-hanger ending that will leave readers eager for the next installment in this exciting duology. —Linda M. Castellitto

feature | picture books

Gang’s all here For many young readers, summer is all about soaking up fun, playing in the sun and gathering the whole happy family together. Two buoyant new picture books celebrate the joyful whirlwind that is the extended-family vacation.

Summer Is for Cousins Swimming and mini golf and reading and hiking and piling all together at one table to eat or solve jigsaw puzzles . . . phew! When the school year ends for a little boy named Ravi, a boisterous family vacation filled with fun activities, delicious food and lots of bonding time begins. As he explains in Newbery Honor winner Rajani LaRocca’s sweetly nostalgic Summer Is for Cousins (Abrams, $17.99, 9781419757334), Ravi and his parents, sister Anita, aunties, uncles, grandparents and five cousins all stay in “a house that’s not any of ours, / near the ocean / and a lake.” It’s always wonderful to see his family again, but Ravi is feeling a little uncertain this year. His older cousin Dhruv has grown up so much; his voice is deeper, he’s gotten even taller, and what if he doesn’t remember that he and Ravi have the same favorite ice cream flavor? (It’s banana— delicious but hard to find.) Fortunately, as the pages turn and the days pass, Ravi is able to put aside his worries and remember how kind and supportive his cousin is. With Dhruv’s encouragement, he even goes on the rope swing he was too afraid to try last year! “Dhruv is my big cousin,” Ravi thinks, “but now I’m bigger, too.” Abhi Alwar’s colorful and emotive illustrations enhance the warmth of LaRocca’s appealing tale, empathetically conveying Ravi’s initial hesitancy and burgeoning confidence. All 15 family members have charming visual cues, too, so readers can spot their favorites on every page. For example, shutterbug Anita is never without her instant camera, while Puja’s barrette keeps her hair in place whether she’s building sandcastles or barreling along on a bicycle. Animals get in on the fun too: An energetic dog frolics across the pages, and inquisitive ducks avidly supervise the family’s water-based activities. Summer Is for Cousins nicely hits all the emotional beats of a superfun family-filled vacation and reassures readers that people may grow and change, but affection endures.

with stuffed animals (“They were just telling their girlfriend how much you like horses”) to a busy getting-readyfor-bed tableau (“your room is going to smell like lotion now”). Clever rhyming and repetition make for a fun read-aloud (“Fanny packs. / A snack. / Pack that snack back in the fanny pack”), and a bounty of hilarious Easter eggs will ensure increased cackling with every reread. Rex also incorporates fantasy into his story as the aunts’ intensity is used for heroic good, encouraging readers to consider the upsides of a more intense personality type. Oh No, the Aunts Are Here is a spirited gem of a book that courses with energy and enthusiasm as it explores what it’s like to have a quiet life temporarily transformed into a very different sort of existence. And as a bonus, there’s a funny surprise ending. If hyperbole were a person, it would be every one of these memorable aunts—inimitable relatives who are, as the little girl ultimately concedes and one aunt’s T-shirt proclaims, truly “Aunt-tastic.” —Linda M. Castellitto



H Oh No, the Aunts Are Here Imagine: You’re minding your own business, serenely enjoying your Star Popz cereal, when suddenly . . . an onslaught of aunts! That’s what happens to the expressive little girl at the heart of bestselling author Adam Rex’s Oh No, the Aunts Are Here (Chronicle, $16.99, 9781797207940), an openhearted and uproarious ode to the mayhem that ensues when effusive relatives tumble into town. And tumble they do in Lian Cho’s vivid and kinetic illustrations, which perfectly capture what it’s like to experience a ruckus that’s delightful but kind of overwhelming. Readers who need time to warm up to visitors will identify with the beleaguered niece’s array of facial expressions, from a clenched-teeth grimace (“The aunts hug you and fix your hair and tell you how big you’ve gotten and fix your hair”) to open-mouthed horror (“They’re here, they’re here, on every floor; the aunts don’t lock the bathroom door”). Readers will also appreciate detail-packed spreads that depict a range of aunt-filled scenes, from a car’s back seat awash



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reviews | children’s

H Hope in the Valley By Mitali Perkins

Middle Grade On her 13th birthday, Pandita Paul escapes to her own secret garden—the Johnson property, an abandoned orchard and house where she and her now-deceased mother used to spend quiet moments. In this haven just across the street from her home in Silicon Valley, Pandita keeps her most precious reminders of her mom, whom Pandita worries she’s beginning to forget. That same night, Pandita hears that the property she adores is slated for redevelopment. This intensely personal and political conflict propels Hope in the Valley (FSG, $17.99, 9780374388515), an extraordinary middle grade novel from Mitali Perkins, who has previously published picture books (Between Us and Abuela) and young

H The Skull By Jon Klassen

Picture Book Bestselling picture book author Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat, We Found a Hat) takes a traditional Tyrolean story and makes it his own in The Skull (Candlewick, $19.99, 9781536223361), a five-part folk-tale retelling that is both spine-chilling and touching. A girl named Otilla leaves home and runs through the forest at night. She takes refuge in a house whose only occupant is a skull, who agrees to let Otilla rest there. She explores the home, which includes a dungeon with a bottom­less pit, and gets to know the skull, whom she carries around. The two even don traditional Tyrolean carved masks and dance in the ballroom. When the skull reveals that a threatening headless skeleton visits the home nightly, Otilla takes matters into her own hands in order to help her new friend. In an author’s note, Klassen describes how he first read the folk tale that The Skull is based on at a library in Alaska and how, after a year had passed, his brain had rewritten the tale. He adds, “[Folk tales] are supposed to be changed by who is telling them, and you never find them the same way twice.” Thank goodness for the story that came from Klassen’s singular


adult novels (You Bring the Distant Near). Before Pandita knows it, her hidden treasures have been removed and the building demolished. Devastated, Pandita joins a historical preservation group trying to block the development. Meanwhile, one of her older sisters is working with a nonprofit group hoping to provide affordable rental units on the prized parcel of land. As Pandita learns more about the property’s history, she becomes fascinated with its long-deceased, widowed owner, Lydia Johnson, who stood up for the rights of Japanese American and Mexican American families during World War II incarceration and disruption. Learning about the history of “Keep California White” campaigns makes Pandita reexamine her stance.

If all of this sounds complicated or heavy, never fear: Perkins is an expert at weaving together a multitude of plotlines in a seamlessly thought-provoking, entertaining way. She addresses grief, fear of change, xenophobia, segregation and the power of friendships while reckoning with history and the legacies of injustice. Despite this boatload of serious subjects, the prose feels organic, and only a writer as talented as Perkins could turn a zoning board meeting into a pivotal, dramatic moment. Many books advocate for listening carefully to people with opposing views while following one’s own beliefs, but few do it better than the exceptional Hope in the Valley. —Alice Cary

imagination. It is funny (pretty much any time the skull eats), mysterious (why did Otilla run away from home?), eerie (“GIVE ME THAT SKULL,” the skeleton shouts), tender (Otilla’s brave determination to help her new friend) and macabre (Otilla’s impressive skills with rolling pins and fire) all at once. Klassen brings much beauty—the rays of sunlight on the ballroom floor, the shadows thrown by warm candlelight in dark rooms, and the pair’s breakfast in the garden room—to this genuinely and delightfully weird tale. —Julie Danielson

dandelion-fluff glow of their lights. The collages incorporate scraps of paper with handwritten notes, buttons, newsprint and bits of sheet music, blurring the line between reality and dreams. This is the kind of art that you want to look at again and again because it is, quite simply, gorgeous. Berger’s second-person narration is straightforward and simple. It’s less of a story and more of a journey, with a black cat appearing on every page to act as a guide. Her language is simultaneously reassuring and imaginative, conveying a sense of security alongside descriptions of the beauty that can be found after sundown. This well-balanced story will calm the littlest readers before sending them off to dreamland. —Jill Lorenzini

H In the Night Garden By Carin Berger

Picture Book One look at the cover of In the Night Garden (Neal Porter, $18.99, 9780823449866), awash in dreamy night-sky blues, is enough to charm you. However, Carin Berger’s sweet, gentle bedtime story is more than just a pretty face; it fully captures the imagination. Using her own garden as a muse, Berger (Finding Spring) takes the unease out of nighttime, turning it into a dynamic, wondrous place that comes alive in the moonlight. Berger’s collage art is vivid and detailed, with crisp lines that make the delicate flora and fauna pop. Only the fireflies appear hazy, swathed in the

The Dog Knight

By Jeremy Whitley Illustrated by Melissa Capriglione and Bre Indigo

Middle Grade Frankie Bryant just wants to figure out what to wear for their band concert. Neither a suit nor a dress feels quite right to the non­ b inary middle schooler. They’ve been through a lot since coming out, including being abandoned by their best

feature | meet the author

Can Frankie prove they have what it takes to join the Pawtheon? In The Dog Knight (Feiwel & Friends, $22.99, 9781250756718), Frankie must prove that they possess the dog virtues—loyalty, kindness, honesty, justice, stubbornness and smell—over the course of six trials. Then they will be named the titular Dog Knight and assume a legendary role alongside the Pawtheon to protect the world from agents of chaos. The golden retriever, Platinum, believes Frankie can do it—but can they believe in themself? Author Jeremy Whitley (creator of the Glyph Award-winning Princeless series) crafts a heartwarming and funny tale about being true to yourself and fighting for what’s right. His world building is adorable, thoughtful and highly entertaining, including the lore of how humans and dogs came to have a pact. The artistic contributors to this graphic novel are equally accomplished: Illustrations by Bre Indigo (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women) absolutely shine, giving both humans and dogs diverse character designs and dynamic expressions that will be sure to satiate hungry Raina Telgemeier fans. Melissa Capriglione (Basil and Oregano) uses vibrant colors, with backgrounds that shift with characters’ moods and gutters that add to the tone—black during eerie night scenes and bright blue during an ethereal dog lore flashback. While The Dog Knight isn’t necessarily a story about being nonbinary, Frankie’s gender identity is essential to the narrative; for example, being truthful about how much Dallas hurt them helps them pass the honesty trial, and finding the perfect outfit for the band concert is part of clearing the smell trial. Too few children’s books feature genderqueer protagonists, and fewer still feature nonbinary protagonists in the type of heroic roles that their cis­gender peers have played for decades. The Dog Knight is an excellent addition to a necessary and growing canon and will fit in nicely among Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy series or ND Stevenson’s Lumberjanes series. —Emily Koch



n her delightful new picture book, Spreckle’s Snack Surprise (Peachtree, $18.99, 9781682634820), author-­illustrator Sandra Salsbury introduces a dragon who leaves home in search of better snack options—and ends up discovering something more important. Salsbury has a B.F.A. and M.F.A. in illustration from the Academy of Art University and lives in Berkeley, California. Like her dragon hero, she is also a fan of delicious snacks.


friend, Dallas, who makes a show of using the right pronouns in front of adults but snickers about Frankie behind their back. Otherwise, Frankie’s life is fairly normal . . . until they save a golden retriever from bullies and are transported to a giant magical doghouse, where they are given a funny-looking helmet that allows them to talk to a group of superhero dogs called the Pawtheon.

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