August 2021 BookPage

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AUG 2021

We’re celebrating first-time novelists to read right now, including Sara Nisha Adams, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers & more. ALSO INSIDE: New mysteries, back-to-school books and our most anticipated picks for fall




features feature | 2021 preview. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4

feature | back to school . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

Our most anticipated books of the fall

Head to class with confidence and kindness

interview | james tate hill . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

meet | c.g. esperanza . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31

Losing sight of the truth

Meet the author-illustrator of Boogie Boogie, Y’all

feature | science memoirs. . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 Life among the life sciences


interview | megan abbott. . . . . . . . . . . . 12 On pointe—and on your guard

fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

feature | unreliable narrators. . . . . . . . . 13

nonfiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24

Don’t turn your back on these characters

feature | coming-of-age romances . . . 15

young adult. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26

Falling in love while finding yourself

cover story | first fiction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 First-timers that might become all-time faves

q&a | julie murphy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17

children’s. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30


The YA phenom pens her first adult novel

the hold list . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

btb | honorée fanonne jeffers. . . . . . . . 18

well read. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

A poet claims her rural Southern roots

lifestyles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

interview | carolina de robertis. . . . . . . 20

audio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

The politician and the frog

feature | shakespeare novels. . . . . . . . . 23

whodunit . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

Two acclaimed novelists take on the Bard

book clubs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

feature | sports. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27

sci-fi & fantasy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

YA novels explore what it means to play fair

romance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15

q&a | malla nunn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 Capturing the spirit of young South Africa

Cover includes art from The Reading List (William Morrow), designed by Emily Mahon with illustrations by Paige Vickers.

PRESIDENT & FOUNDER Michael A. Zibart VP & ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Elizabeth Grace Herbert CONTROLLER Sharon Kozy MARKETING MANAGER Mary Claire Zibart SUBSCRIPTIONS Katherine Klockenkemper CONTRIBUTOR Roger Bishop EDITORIAL INTERN Eric Ponce

PUBLISHER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Trisha Ping DEPUTY EDITOR Cat Acree ASSOCIATE EDITORS Stephanie Appell Christy Lynch Savanna Walker BRAND & PRODUCTION MANAGER Meagan Vanderhill CHILDREN’S BOOKS Allison Hammond


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 are assigned by BookPage editors to indicate titles that are exceptionally executed in their genre or category.


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the hold list

The first cut is the deepest When you consider all the time, effort and hope that goes into writing a book, it only makes a truly great first effort that much more impressive. Here are the debuts we’ll never forget.

The Poppy War

The Story of Owen

White Teeth

The first installment in R.F. Kuang’s epic military fantasy trilogy is essentially one book that transforms into another. It begins as an iteration of the well-loved “story set in a magical school,” as the orphaned Rin escapes her abusive, impoverished life in southern Nikan by winning a scholarship to the famous military academy of Sinegard. Sure, it’s a bit more blunt and brutal than you’d expect—Rin burns herself with candle wax to stay awake while studying, and schoolyard brawls between students with martial arts training turn bloody fast— but Kuang’s earthy sense of humor lightens the mood. And then Nikan is invaded, and the battles move from the classroom to the chaos of the real world. Under Kuang’s steady hand, The Poppy War morphs into a grimdark meditation on whether it’s possible to retain your humanity if you can wield the powers of a god. Neither half would work without the other, and Kuang’s mastery of both proves that her career will be endlessly fascinating. —Savanna, Associate Editor

E.K. Johnston’s debut asks an irresistible question: What if dragons were real? When Canada’s highest paid dragon slayer retires to Siobhan’s small town of Trondheim, Ontario, to train her teenage nephew, Owen, Siobhan never expects to be part of their story, let alone become the bard who will tell it. Johnston takes world building to new heights, explaining everything from the rise of corporate dragon slayers to why postmodernists incorrectly blame the Beatles for “the decline of the dracono-bardic tradition.” The dragons are attracted to carbon emissions, so driver’s education classes teach “the more banal aspects of safe driving: four-way stops, threepoint turns, small dragon evasion, and the like,” and Michigan’s factories attracted so many of the beasts that humans abandoned the state completely. To read this book is to understand why Johnston has become one of the most consistently surprising YA writers working today. —Stephanie, Associate Editor

This book came out when I was 10 days old, right at the start of the new millennium. Zadie Smith herself was 25 when her debut landed— young enough to be the voice of a new generation but still old enough to know how silly such a title is. She would soon become one of the most important authors around. Though I didn’t read it until 20 years after its release, this book still feels as impactful and fresh as it must have felt in 2000. Family dramas were big in literary fiction at the time (e.g., The Corrections, Infinite Jest), but White Teeth, with its ethnic, ideological and thematic diversity, stands out among the pack. Smith begins with two British World War II vets, Archie and Samad, and follows them and their families as the British empire crumbles around them. From the iconic opening line through each intertwined storyline, Smith tells a story that captures the anxiety and hope of both an older generation entering a new world and young people conquering an old one. —Eric, Editorial Intern

The People in the Trees

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

Sometimes it feels like a debut novelist purges all their best ideas for that first book. After coming out of the gate so hot, they can’t be blamed for not writing another, or for experiencing what we in the book reviewing biz call the “sophomore slump.” I’ll admit that when I read Hanya Yanagihara’s debut back in 2013, I believed that this was the kind of writer she had to be. A novel this complex, profound and imaginative, with writing so visceral and poised—surely this was everything she had, dumped out in the exuberant, chaotic flurry of the new artist. But as proven by her virtuosic follow-up, A Little Life, that was hardly the case. In writing this column, I wondered how well my memory of her first book would hold up, and a return to The People in the Trees has once again left me in awe at her descriptions of the Micronesian jungle, her nuanced portrayal of a predatory genius and the fact that this book still, after all these years, has no equal. —Cat, Deputy Editor

Serial memoirist (and occasional novelist) Alexandra Fuller has lived quite a life— expansive enough to fill five books, and counting. But her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is the one that has haunted me the most. (And if you aren’t typically a memoir reader, take it from me—that’s a good thing.) Growing up with her white family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the Rhodesian Bush War, Fuller experienced things that were thrilling, beautiful and dangerous. In the bush of southern Africa, she and her sister learned to shoot guns, kill snakes and avoid landmines and guerrilla fighters. She survived hazards closer to home, as well, such as her mother’s alcoholism and the loss of their family farm to land redistribution after the war. Danger is barely kept at bay throughout this book, and not everyone survives. But the telling is so moving, and the writing so beautiful, you’ll savor even the bitterest parts of this chronicle of a remarkable childhood. —Christy, Associate Editor

Each month, BookPage staff share special reading lists—our personal favorites, old and new.


feature | 2021 preview


When the weather cools down, autumn’s big releases start to heat up. Here are the titles BookPage’s editors are most anticipating this fall. Battle Royal by Lucy Parker

Avon, August 17 Lucy Parker is known for her absolutely gold-standard romcoms, including the delightful London Celebrities series. Her latest, the first in a new series, combines two extremely popular trends—baking and royalty— in a story of rival British bakers competing for the opportunity to make a cake for a royal wedding.

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Del Rey, August 17 One of the best things about Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the bestselling author of Mexican Gothic, is that she does something new with each book. Her latest is a loose, fun noir set in turbulent 1970s Mexico City.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

Berkley, August 31 There’s a lot of excitement around this one, as Helen Hoang’s latest romance novel was delayed by a year and stars a fan-favorite character, Quan, who is a sweet, adorable teddy bear. We can’t wait to see who he ends up with.

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Doubleday, September 7 Debut memoirist Qian Julie Wang shares her story of growing up in New York City as an undocumented immigrant from China, coping with fear and precarity but also discovering joy in books. The writing is sometimes harrowing and sometimes humorous as she narrates experiences that are incredibly common but rarely captured with this level of artful control. It’s shaping up to be one of the best memoirs of the year.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Riverhead, September 7 It’s been six years since Lauren Groff’s previous novel, Fates and Furies. In Matrix, she’s reimagined the life of 12th-century poet Marie de France, who transforms an impoverished abbey into a


utopia. It’s a common misconception that medieval women were powerless, and Groff has found their power here, as she celebrates nuns as the literary feminist icons that they truly were.

Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Park Row, September 7 We love a sociopath, but we hate cliche sociopaths. Thankfully, debut author Vera Kurian knocks it out of the park in Never Saw Me Coming. Her sociopath narrator, Chloe, is funny and endearing without losing her edge (and Kurian gets major bonus points for portraying a college atmosphere without being cringey).

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Holt, September 14 You know her, you love her: Liane Moriarty, the Australian superstar author of Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret, Truly Madly Guilty and more. We relish a messy family drama, and Apples Never Fall fits the bill. It’s an exploration of marriage and sibling rivalry that follows four grown siblings who grapple with the disappearance of their mother and the likely culpability of their father.

Fuzz by Mary Roach

Norton, September 14 Mary Roach wrote Stiff about cadavers, Gulp about human digestion, Bonk about the science of sex . . . and now Fuzz, about what happens when animals encroach on human civilizations and laws. She’s one of the funniest science writers working today, as well as one of the best at making mundane topics fascinating and digestible enough that anyone can pick up one of her books, regardless of their interests, and become engrossed.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, September 14 A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Colson Whitehead is one of those gems who’s prolific, consistently excellent and always trying something new. The

protagonist of his new novel is a fence, a person who helps criminals launder their stolen goods, and he finds himself involved in several heists during the 1950s and ’60s. After Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, this is a real change of pace for Whitehead, who is a huge fan of heist movies. It’s clear he had a lot of fun writing it.

Unbound by Tarana Burke

Flatiron, September 14 Activist Tarana Burke had been working with Black girls in her community who were recovering from abuse and sexual assault for years when she coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006—long before it became a viral hashtag in 2017. Unbound is the story of Burke’s own survival from sexual abuse, how she pieced herself back together and how her work to cultivate empathy for herself and others has empowered survivors everywhere.

A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks

Katherine Tegen, September 14 Janae Marks’ 2020 middle grade debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, received four starred reviews and became an indie bestseller. Her second novel, A Soft Place to Land, confirms Marks’ status as one of the brightest new stars of contemporary middle grade. Like Zoe Washington, it’s a grounded story of family and friendship, anchored by an appealing heroine, but whereas that earlier novel explored injustice and systemic racism, A Soft Place to Land explores class in a story-driven way that never feels heavy-handed.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Viking, September 21 It’s been eight years since Ruth Ozeki published A Tale for the Time Being, which was a finalist for the 2013 Booker Prize, and her latest explores themes similar to those of her earlier novel. It’s the story of a 14-year-old boy who, after his father dies, starts to hear voices emanating from objects. Eventually, he finds a Book that tells the boy the story of his life. It’s certainly a great premise, one that perfectly captures how it feels to be a child falling into a lifelong love of reading. It’s a book for book people, exploring how books can offer meaning and—in this case, literally—speak to us.

feature | 2021 preview Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, September 28 Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. His latest is a novel of past, present and future that explores books as technology, delivering information and voices across generations. It follows the stories of five people in different eras who are connected by a fictional ancient Greek text. As stewards of this text, the characters are all, in a way, librarians. Fittingly, the novel is dedicated to “librarians then, now, and in the years to come.”

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Pamela Dorman, September 28 This is the sequel to Richard Osman’s hit cozy mystery, The Thursday Murder Club, which was somehow both hilarious and rather touching. In this installment, the sleuths of Cooper’s Chase retirement village get tangled up in a diamond heist gone wrong.

The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

MIRA, September 28 Jean Meltzer’s romance is about a Jewish woman who has a secret life as a Christmas romance novelist, and who must rediscover the magic of Hanukkah when her publisher asks her to write a Hanukkah-themed romance. We’re hoping this will be a trendsetter in holiday romances, a subgenre that sometimes feels like a collection of stale Christmas cookies.

Black Birds in the Sky by Brandy Colbert

Balzer + Bray, October 5 Brandy Colbert is a critically acclaimed and beloved YA and middle grade author whose novel Little & Lion won a Stonewall Book Award in 2018. It’s exciting to see writers challenge themselves by working in new genres and categories, so Colbert’s shift to YA narrative nonfiction is noteworthy. Black Birds in the Sky is expansive, well-researched and, at times, deeply personal as it brings vital history about the Tulsa Race Massacre to a teen readership.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Viking, October 5 Our 2016 interview with Amor Towles about his novel A Gentleman in Moscow is one of our all-time most popular features, and in The Lincoln Highway, he

once again brings his signature blend of freshness and old-fashioned charm to a cast of unforgettable characters. This novel is set in 1954, when two brothers plan to make a new life for themselves, with nudges from some tricksters along the way.

Taste by Stanley Tucci

Gallery, October 5 In addition to being everyone’s favorite character in every movie he’s ever been in, Stanley Tucci is the author of two cookbooks and now, with Taste, one memoir. From growing up in an Italian American family, to starring in food-centric films like Big Night and Julie & Julia, to cooking for his own family, Taste explores the ways that food has been an important presence during the high and low points of Tucci’s life. There’s plenty to savor here for any and all lovers of witty, heartfelt food writing.

Everybody in the Red Brick Building by Anne Wynter, illustrated by Oge Mora

Balzer + Bray, October 12 Oge Mora is one of the most exciting new picture book talents of the past five years. Her debut picture book as an author and illustrator, Thank You, Omu!, received a Caldecott Honor in 2019. Here she partners with debut author Anne Wynter for a cumulative story about one night in a very noisy apartment building. Together, they create the stuff that storytime dreams are made of.

The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

Candlewick, October 12 In previous novels, A.R. Capetta has transported readers backstage at a prestigious New York theater, thousands of years into the future and light-years away from Earth and to a fantastical kingdom inspired by Renaissance Italy. Their latest YA novel, The Heartbreak Bakery, is an irresistible story of love and found family set against the backdrop of a quirky independent bakery in Austin, Texas. We don’t recommend reading it if you are even the slightest bit hungry.

Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

HarperTeen, October 12 This debut fantasy will be catnip for YA readers who love expansive, immersive world building, slow burns, reluctant allies and character-­driven fantasy. June CL Tan grew up in Singapore, and the novel is informed by Chinese mythology as well as martial arts folklore. It’s not a short book, clocking

in at almost 500 pages, but readers who love losing themselves in a fantastical adventure will see that as a positive.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Walden Pond, October 12 Anne Ursu is one of the most thoughtful and acclaimed middle grade fantasists working today. Her 2013 novel, The Real Boy, was long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Readers love Ursu because of her empowering fantasy stories, and The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy employs a perennially well-loved trope among middle grade readers: the boarding school story.

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

St. Martin’s, October 19 Caitlin Starling is the author of The Luminous Dead, which was a perfectly crafted sci-fi horror thriller that proved she’s pretty much the perfect writer for this creepy, historical gothic novel, which was inspired by the inarguably fantastic film Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Our First Civil War by H.W. Brands

Doubleday, November 9 H.W. Brands is known for histories that are timely, fascinating and beautifully written. His latest tackles the Revolutionary War, but rather than focusing on the conflict between the United States and Britain, Brands focuses on the conflicts between those in the U.S. who were loyal to England and those who supported independence. This slice of American history will especially resonate at a time when the United States is locked in another ideological struggle over which is the best path forward.

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

Harper, November 23 These Precious Days is named for Ann Patchett’s longform essay that was published in Harper’s at the end of 2020, about her friendship with Tom Hanks’ assistant, Sooki Raphael, who stayed with the author while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. The title essay is included in this collection, along with 21 other essays about Kate DiCamillo, Eudora Welty, knitting, dogs and so much more. This will certainly be a worthwhile read for lovers of poignant and masterfully crafted essays about life, love, death and everything in between.


interview | james tate hill

Losing sight of the truth


Blind Man’s Bluff chronicles how James Tate Hill concealed the loss of his vision— and what he gained when he finally stopped hiding his blindness. James Tate Hill is a man of many talents and multiple jobs: He teaches writing online and at North Carolina A&T State University, pens the audiobooks column for Literary Hub and is the fiction and reviews editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle. In 2015 he became a novelist with the publication of Academy Gothic. And now he’s a memoirist, too, with his new book, Blind Man’s Bluff. That’s an impressive list of accomplishments—especially since, for nearly 15 years, Hill had an additional exhausting, around-the-clock job: concealing from everyone around him, through a series of strategic misdirections, lies of omission and daring feats of method acting, that he is legally blind. Thankfully, that era of his life has come to a close, and in Blind Man’s Bluff, Hill is upbeat and candid as he speaks his truth about the years when he was, as he writes, “always relieved people thought I was an asshole and not blind” when he didn’t respond to inquiring glances or friendly waves. This is an unusual approach to human relationships, the Visit to read our review of author acknowledges in a call to the Greensboro, North CarBlind Man's Bluff. olina, home where he lives with his wife. But Hill’s initial fear of stigma and judgment was so all-consuming that engaging in extraordinary efforts to hide what he saw as a terrible flaw to contemplative as he reveals his darkest thoughts and most seemed entirely reasonable—so much so that it developed difficult days alongside precious moments of triumph and into a full-fledged secret life. joy. He periodically employs the second person—“as a way Blind Man’s Bluff Hill’s dedication to obfuscation began at age 16 when he of acknowledging that my own experience is not exclusive Norton, $25.95, 9780393867176 learned he had Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a conto me,” he says—to excellent effect, especially when homing dition that causes loss of vision over time as the cells in the in on the persistent isolation he felt at home, at school and Memoir optic nerve die. From then on, he would feign eye contact in his own head. Hill also includes well-crafted, hair-raising passages about the risks he took during conversations. At restaurants, he would ask the server for recommendato avoid asking for help as his vision worsened, such as crossing a busy street tions rather than attempting to read a menu. When he began teaching college classes, he’d tell students to speak without raising their hands. solo. “Each zooming vehicle is your natural predator deciding capriciously But what made secret-keeping seem like the right response? “It was definot to eat you,” he writes. There’s also the lower-stakes but still exquisitely nitely the social element, when I realized OK, I’m different, and I don’t like nerve-fraying “Grand Guignol of canapes, a chip that must be sent on a recon the ways I’m different,” Hill says. He longed for a solution to the anger he felt mission into a dip of unknown depth or viscosity.” And there are hilarious at his diagnosis and the uncertainty that lay ahead, and he viewed “stoicism and insightful scenes about online dating, as the author navigates various as a victory, as an answer.” He thought skipping over his grief would be a sort prospective romantic pairings gone wrong. After all, he remarks, “the more of solution, without “knowing for a very long time that there was anything times you present yourself to strangers, the more epiphanies about yourself problematic with that.” you’re going to have.” So far one major transformation has occurred every 14 to 15 years in Hill’s Now in his mid-40s, Hill sees his blindness as a feature rather than a bug and credits his writerly career with helping him take big emotional leaps toward life—losing his vision, telling the truth about his disability and publishing self-acceptance. “Academy Gothic was the first time a book about accepting it—and I ask whether this “Your relationships deepen I was writing in any sort of autobiographical physpattern offers a clue about future endeavors. Hill icality, with the main character having the same ponders this and declares with a laugh, “Look out, exponentially when you’re no late 50s—I’ll be storming the world!” impairment that I do,” he says. “It’s not an emotional book. It’s sort of a Raymond Chandler-esque longer hiding parts of yourself.” Until then, Hill says he’s channeling his new self-awareness, self-acceptance and energy into satirical academic mystery.” But it was the personal essays Hill wrote as part of the publicity campaign for Academy Gothic that writing “a weird speculative novel set in the malls of the 1980s and ’90s featuring began drawing attention. child stars, some real and some fictional,” as well as into promotional events for In 2016, Hill’s Literary Hub essay “On Being a Writer Who Can’t Read” got a Blind Man’s Bluff. He hopes his readers will come away with the realization that “accepting yourself for who you are is a choice. . . . I think your relationresponse “so much more intense than anything else I had written or published,” ships deepen exponentially when you’re no longer hiding parts of yourself.” he says. “It was almost as though I had tapped into an even more honest, more compelling voice than the one I had fabricated for the novel . . . and I slowly As for himself, Hill says, “I acknowledge as blind. I identify as disabled. It realized it was very rewarding to tap into that voice.” may be trite to say this, but: It’s very liberating.” —Linda M. Castellitto In Blind Man’s Bluff, Hill’s voice ranges from moving to funny to self-loathing


feature | science memoirs

Life among the life sciences Two memoirs by female biologists overflow with the wonders of nature. Edith Widder and Meg Lowman tell the stories of their fascinating careers, plunging into the deepest oceans and climbing the highest trees.

Below the Edge of Darkness Marine scientist Edith Widder has spent a lifetime studying bioluminescence, often alone in a small submersible deep in the ocean. On some of these excursions, she felt like a “tea bag on a string,” although during descents and ascents, the experience was more akin to being “inside a martini shaker.” As I began reading Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea (Random House, $28, 9780525509240), my initial thought was, “Boy, I would never do that.” However, Widder’s passion is so contagious that by the end of the book, I was yearning to explore these deep, dark waters with her. (Dr. Widder, I’m available!) After her initial dive, she expressed her sense of awe by blurting out, “It’s like the Fourth of July down there!” Recalling that formative experience, she adds, “It was a mixture of the most brilliant blues ever to grace an artist’s palette—azure, cobalt, cerulean, lapis, neon— supernatural hues, emitting rather than refracting light.” Widder notes that as a scientist, she was trained never to write in the first person, which means that penning a memoir did not come naturally. However, she’s a clear, informative writer with exciting adventures to share, including an intriguing encounter with Fidel Castro while exploring ocean waters near Cuba and developing a special camera that led to the first video documentation of the elusive giant squid, earning her the nickname “the Squid Whisperer.” Her enthusiasm is matched by her sense of humor, which is frequently on full display in footnotes. With Widder as their guide, readers of Below the Edge of Darkness will become staunch champions of the spectacular bioluminescent world that thrives in the ocean’s depths. It’s a display they’ll long to see, and an education they’ll never forget. —Alice Cary

H The Arbornaut Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” has a big public presence, and her latest memoir demonstrates why: She excels at bringing the natural world to life in language. The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us (FSG, $28, 9780374162696) takes readers around the world, from the forests of New England to the hills of Scotland, from the jungles of Australia to the riverbanks of the Amazon. It also tells the story of a passionate young naturalist whose childhood collections of wildflowers and bird eggs were supplanted by mosses during adolescence until, during college, she discovered the enduring love of her life: trees. Specifically, the tops of trees, which have been historically understudied even though they compose a vibrant ecosystem that Lowman refers to as the “eighth continent” of the world. Lowman’s research is full of life, energy, intelligence and determination. It’s impossible to read about it without wanting to examine the natural world more closely, and this is exactly the kind of response Lowman hopes for. She is dedicated to getting everyday folks into the canopies, which she argues can advance scientific discovery (more eyes collecting more data) and benefit the planet (more people dedicated to ecological preservation). In this memoir, Lowman also attends to the impact of gender on her professional experience. After detailing multiple instances of unwanted attention, ranging from innuendos to attempted assault, Lowman describes herself as a “tall poppy,” a flower that others try to cut down because it stands out. And yet, she persists, leading expeditions to the Amazon, collaborating with scientists and citizens alike and sharing her results in both technical journals and delightful memoirs. She deserves her celebrity. The Arbornaut is a book to reach for if you, like Lowman, love the natural world and want to live in it fully. —Kelly Blewett

“Essential reading for ... anyone who wishes to better understand children.” ― Carmen Agra Deedy, author of the New York Times best seller 14 Cows for America

A never-before-seen view into the hearts and minds of children. • Curated collection of 75 years of kids’ letters to Highlights editors • Chosen from 2 million+ kids submissions, every one personally answered • Rare insight into the honest, vulnerable, and complex feelings of childhood

Available August 10, 2021 Hardcover 9781644723258 • $24.99 US/$33.99 CAN eBook 9781644723906 • $15.99 US/$23.99 CAN Audiobook 9780593553930 • $20.00 US /$27.00 CAN


well read

by robert weibezahl

The Man Who Lived Underground The long overdue publication of Richard Wright’s short novel The Man Who Lived Underground (Library of America, $22.95, 9781598536768) could not be timelier. In the opening section, which he originally wrote in 1941, Wright constructs a harrowing episode of a falsely accused Black man named Fred Daniels who is beaten near senseless by police officers intent on getting a confession. The lauded author of groundbreaking books such as Native Son and Black Boy was known during his lifetime for his writings’ brutal realism. Sadly, that realism still resonates 80 years later. When his agent and publisher originally rejected The Man Who Lived Underground, Wright pared down the material into a truncated short story with the same title. This new edition, which languished in manuscript form among his papers, restores Wright’s original vision. Triggered by a true story that Wright read of a man who lived underground in Los Angeles for a year, the novel is set in an unidentified city. Once Fred Daniels escapes police custody, he descends through a manhole and encounters a dank, subterranean network of tunnels that leads him to the cellars of a series of businesses—butcher, jewelry store, insurance company with a safe full of money, greengrocer. His thefts Richard Wright’s forgotten, from these estabforeboding allegory has now lishments come to mean nothing, for he been published 80 years after now lives in a world his original publisher rejected it. where such material possessions are meaningless. He listens to hymns through the walls of a church and begins to view sin and salvation from a new perspective. He becomes alienated from the “normal” world, seemingly forgetting that he has left a wife and infant behind, and his alienation frees him in ways that can be viewed as either liberation or insanity. While issues of race launch the story, these issues weren’t the impetus for the novel. As Wright explains in an accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother,” The Man Who Lived Underground is an attempt at something far more complicated: an allegory for religion, guilt and alienation. It was inspired by Wright’s deeply religious grandmother, who lived apart from the world even as she lived among people—hating anyone who did not share her beliefs but adhering to society’s rules. It’s informed, too, Wright says, by blues rhythms and surrealistic perceptions, and it borrows, consciously or not, from the hard-boiled urban fiction of the era. Wright also reveals in his essay a long fascination with stories about invisible men, and The Man Who Lived Underground at times pulses with a certain pulp fiction sensibility, located somewhere between Wright’s usual gritty realism and a more heightened, fabulist realm. “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration, or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom,” he writes. Enigmatic and haunting, with a new afterword from the author’s grandson, Wright’s restored novel adds layers to his legacy as one of the leading Black writers in American literary history.

Robert Weibezahl is a publishing industry veteran, playwright and novelist. Each month, he takes an in-depth look at a recent book of literary significance.



by susannah felts

H Subpar Parks Everyone’s a critic nowadays, and you can find a one-star online rating for even the most unassailable things— including the United States National Park Service. Finding this curiously funny, national park enthusiast Amber Share set out to apply her handlettering and graphic design chops to a series of art prints that poke fun at the shortsightedness of those dismissive and disappointed reviewers. First shared via Instagram, the project is now in book form, expanded with juicy facts about the parks. Subpar Parks (Plume, $22, 9780593185544) is a clever adaptation, both playful and earnest in its appreciation for these storied landmarks. Did you know that Katmai National Park hosts an online competition called “Fat Bear Week” or that NASA has tested lunar rovers at Great Sand Dunes National Park? Share’s delightful book will make a terrific gift for anyone who loves our country’s natural wonders—and has a sense of humor about them.

Mystical Stitches “Stitching by hand slows down the body and, over time, slows down the mind. It brings us . . . into the calmer, more restful alpha brain wave state,” writes Christi Johnson in Mystical Stitches (Storey, $24.95, 9781635863345), an embroidery guide with an emphasis on the power of symbols. Johnson first provides the fundamentals of the craft: a range of stitches and the sorts of design work they’re handy for. A treasury of symbols follows, including moon phases, Zodiac signs, animals and many other images from the natural world. The whole volume centers embroidery within spiritual practice, and if you’re already drawn to the mystical, you’ll likely reach for the floss soon after exploring these alluring pages. “By working with images and forms that correspond to the feeling and emotion we’d like to bring about in our own life, we are acting upon the idea that all things are interrelated in this tapestry of existence,” Johnson writes. “We can speak to our subconscious through the symbols in our immediate world, and get the subconscious aligned with the conscious mind.”

The Atlas of Disappearing Places The Atlas of Disappearing Places (The New Press, $29.99, 9781620974568) beautifully harnesses the powers of art and metaphor to get urgent ideas across. Through maps and other works made from ink on dried seaweed, Christina Conklin illustrates the damage wrought to coastlines and what we could still lose to climate change and rising sea levels. Along with these visuals, Conklin and her collaborator, Marina Psaros, co-founder of the King Tides Project, present the stories of 20 hot spots around the globe, each ending with a “speculative vignette about the future.” Throughout, they emphasize an understanding of the ocean as a body, “so that we can more closely identify with—and possibly empathize with—the ocean, our original home.” The result is a striking and deeply researched work of art and environmental activism.

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


H Empire of Pain New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s exhaustive research for Empire of Pain (Random House Audio, 18 hours) makes him the natural choice to narrate his own audiobook. Keefe knows which points to stress for listeners of this story, which he calls “the taproot of the opioid epidemic” in America—not that added emphasis is really needed, as the book’s content is shocking enough. In jaw-dropping detail, Keefe recounts the greed, deception and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status. The 18-plus hours that it takes to listen to this history may seem intimidating at first, but Keefe’s masterful storytelling makes it worth every minute. —G. Robert Frazier

How Y’all Doing?

A Bounty of New Audiobooks “Robert Bathurst is just about perfect delivering the 16th Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novel.... Listen to all the Gamache audiobooks for maximum satisfaction.” —AudioFile on All the Devils Are Here, an Earphones Award winner


Emmy Award winner Leslie Jordan is making the most of his sudden internet superstardom with his new book, How Y’all Doing? (HarperAudio, 4 hours). In the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine, Jordan began posting funny videos to his Instagram account, gossiping into the camera and gaining millions of new fans. His knack for storytelling transfers beautifully to this new audiobook. His twangy Tennessee drawl adds so much personality to the stories; you can hear the laughter and joy in his voice. —Anna Zeitlin

Facing the Mountain Daniel James Brown’s enthralling Facing the Mountain (Penguin Audio, 17.5 hours), narrated by American actor Louis Ozawa, describes the heroism of Japanese Americans who joined the Army to fight for the U.S. after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ozawa’s ability to speak both English and Japanese serves him well as he tells the true stories of four soldiers who proved their dedication to their country despite the bigotry they faced. —G. Robert Frazier



H The Anatomy of Desire L.R. Dorn’s debut novel, The Anatomy of Desire (HarperAudio, 8 hours), updates Theodore Dreiser’s classic 1925 crime drama, An American Tragedy, by using the documentary format to explore whether Instagram influencer Cleo Ray murdered her ex-girlfriend. With interview transcripts, director commentary and courtroom clips, this narrative structure is perfect for the audiobook format, and it’s compellingly performed by an ensemble cast. Tony Award winner Santino Fontana stands out as the documentary director, and Marin Ireland portrays a formidable defense attorney, but Shelby Young absolutely shines as Cleo. —Deborah Mason

We Are Each Other’s Harvest Natalie Baszile’s We Are Each Other’s Harvest (HarperAudio, 13.5 hours) explores farming by Black Americans through essays, interviews and poetry from farmers and historians, wordsmiths and activists. Narrated by actor Tina Lifford, this audiobook empowers and enlightens through the spoken word. —Mari Carlson


READ BY SASKIA MAARLEVELD From the New York Times bestselling author of Whisper Network comes a novel that asks: To what lengths will a woman go for a little more help from her husband? READ BY ALLYSON RYAN


Macmillan Audio 9


by bruce tierney Island of Thieves

When freelance security consultant and former ace thief Van Shaw gets tapped to perform an art heist, ostensibly to test the security of a storage facility, he harbors some initial reservations. But the contract is ironclad, his duties are defined clearly and there is no danger of running afoul of the law. As Van philosophically notes, “Taking isn’t always stealing . . . Not if you’ve got permission.” The rousing success of that venture prompts his billionaire client, Sebastian Rohner, to secure Van’s services again, this time to guard an art installation during a gathering of entrepreneurs at Rohner’s private island. The title of Glen Erik Hamilton’s sixth Van Shaw thriller, Island of Thieves (William Morrow, $27.99, 9780062978547), is not the actual name of the island, but it might as well be, given the rather large proportion of the cast engaged in that heady pursuit. The security gig is merely a cover designed to draw attention away from the raison d’être of the meeting: corporate larceny that is breathtaking both in its scope and its audacity. And if all goes according to malicious plan, Van will be made the fall guy, while the bad guys gleefully divvy up their ill-gotten gains—but then someone goes and gets killed, and suddenly the plans are out the window. With every man for himself, the island of thieves is poised for a reenactment of Lord of the Flies. As ever, Van proves to be a wry, reliable guide through the relentless action of Hamilton’s always thrilling series.

Then She Vanishes Claire Douglas’ Then She Vanishes (Harper, $16.99, 9780063001558) is an English cold-case thriller that tells the story of three women: Flora, who disappeared years ago as a teenager; Heather, her younger sister, who now lies in a coma after allegedly killing an elderly mother and son in cold blood before turning the gun on herself; and Jess, a close family friend from back in the day who is now a reporter for a small local newspaper. At the outset, there appears to be no connection whatsoever between Heather’s crimes and Flora’s disappearance. But as often happens in small towns, old transgressions can come bubbling to the surface at inconvenient times, and Jess has the “nose for news” to uncover them. The question is, who is the culprit? Does Heather have anything in her history to suggest she could be guilty of such a violent act? Um, yes. Has Heather’s Uncle Leo, a middle-aged Lothario with a penchant for teenage girls, been keeping a guilty secret for all these years? Um, yes. And what do we make of the fact that Heather’s husband was seen bellowing at one of the decedents shortly before the double homicide but told the police he had never met either of them? Dodgy, that. And I am just scratching the surface here. If you are a fan of suspense, twists and more twists, Then She Vanishes should be right up your alley.

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The Night Singer Swedish author Johanna Mo’s English-language debut, The Night Singer (Penguin, $17, 9780143136682), begins the saga of police detective Hanna Duncker, newly returned to her native island of Öland after years in Stockholm. It is a troubling milieu for her, in part because she is the daughter of Öland’s most infamous murderer, and her return is definitely rattling old skeletons that some people would prefer to leave in the closet. The story centers on the apparent murder of a 15-year-old boy, the son of Hanna’s best friend from high school. He was by all accounts a troubled youth, although there was nothing to suggest he’d be a candidate for murder. In the course of Hanna’s investigation, Mo explores themes of bullying, infidelity, familial violence, discrimination based on sexuality and gender—in short, many of the bugbears that plague 21st-century Western culture. The Night Singer is just excellent and the perfect setup for a sequel, which I hope is in the offing imminently.

H The Coldest Case While I am an avid fan of one-sitting, pageturner books (like the other three reviewed in this column), I am also quite taken with books that force me to pause every few pages or so to savor and reflect a bit before continuing—to enjoy a deft turn of phrase or imagine the smells and sounds of the locale. Martin Walker’s Bruno mysteries fall squarely into the latter category, and his latest, The Coldest Case (Knopf, $27, 9780525656678), is a prime example. The star of the series is Bruno Courrèges, chief of police of St. Denis, a small town in France’s Périgord region. This time out, he finds himself embroiled in a cold case of a young man bludgeoned to death 30 years ago, a time predating modern forensic procedures such as DNA testing and facial reconstruction identification. Deeper investigation sends Bruno free-falling down a rabbit hole that leads not only to the long-undetermined identity of the deceased but also to possible Cold War espionage connections that may have somehow survived into the present day. It all adds up to a more complicated case than usual for Bruno, especially once the aforementioned Cold War connection results in a host of Parisian bureaucrats muddying the waters in the name of diplomacy. As is always the case in this series, food and wine regularly figure into the narrative, as well as French culture and history, love, equestrianship and basset hounds, but it’s all delivered with much more bonhomie and much less preciousness than you might expect.

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.


book clubs

by julie hale

Thrilling yet thought-provoking In Lucy Foley’s The Guest List (William Morrow, $16.99, 9780062868947), TV celebrity Will Slater marries magazine editor Julia Keegan in a sparkling ceremony on an island off the Irish coast, but a series of ominous incidents undermine their nuptials. Julia receives an alarming anonymous note about Will, and a dead body is discovered not long after the wedding. Reading groups will enjoy unraveling Foley’s stylish, atmospheric mystery and delving into the questions she raises about identity, integrity and truth. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Random House, $18, 9780593129289), Deepa Anappara’s mesmerizing literary mystery, is narrated by 9-year-old Jai, a clever, funny boy who lives in a slum in northern India and is obsessed with detective shows. After a These four mysteries and classmate goes missing, Jai, inspired by what he sees on thrillers are perfect summer TV, undertakes an investigation with the help of two book club picks. friends. As more children disappear, Jai and his fellow amateur sleuths are drawn into a world of danger. Both a suspense-filled adventure and a meditation on Indian society, this is a rewarding selection for any book club. Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers (Flatiron, $17.99, 9781250069832) takes place at Tranquillum House, a mind and body-focused health resort where nine guests’ including struggling romance novelist Frances Welty, hope to cure what ails them. But Masha, Tranquillum’s magnetic director, seems to be hiding something, and the atmosphere at the retreat soon turns sinister. Moriarty turns up the tension in this dark yet often humorous tale, which features a wonderfully wide-­ ranging cast of characters. Themes like self-­ improvement, power and the nature of community make this thriller a great book club pick. Pick it up in time to watch the TV adaptation, which streams on Hulu later this month, as a group! Set in 1940s New York City, Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead (Black Lizard, $16, 9780593310755) introduces readers to private eye Lillian Pentecost and her assistant, former circus knife-thrower Willowjean “Will” Parker. The pair is trying to solve the bizarre murder of wealthy Abigail Collins, who was not only bludgeoned to death with a crystal ball during a wild Halloween party, but was found in the exact same chair that her industrialist husband killed himself while sitting in. The case becomes more complex and possibly more dangerous thanks to Will’s attraction to Abigail’s daughter, Becca. Spotswood’s fresh spin on the hard-boiled whodunit will give your group plenty of topics to discuss, including gender, female friendship and the author’s use of historical detail.

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

BOOK CLUB READS FOR SUMMER SPR ING FOR THE EXILES by Christina Baker Kline “Master storyteller Christina Baker Kline is at her best in this epic yet intimate tale of 19th century Australia. I loved this book.” —PAULA MCLAIN, New York Times bestselling author

SISTERS IN ARMS by Kaia Alderson “Heartwarming but fierce, a novel brimming with camaraderie and fire, starring women you’d love to make your friends. A triumph!” —KATE QUINN, New York Times bestselling author


by Jennifer Chiaverini An enthralling historical novel of the woman’s suffrage movement inspired by three courageous women who bravely risked their lives and liberty in the fight to win the vote.

COUNT THE WAYS by Joyce Maynard “ Joyce Maynard is the queen of the family saga! This is the novel you’ll be longing to return to at the end of every day and one you will re-read for years to come.” —JENNA BLUM New York Times bestselling author

t @Morrow_PB

t @bookclubgirl

f William Morrow I BookClubGirl


interview | megan abbott

ON POINTE—AND ON YOUR GUARD Megan Abbott gives a bravura performance in her new thriller, which explores the pain behind the glory of ballet.


Despite the dance studio-setting of her new she says. “The mind games dancers will thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up. do to get in that space.” “My dancing background is restricted to two The relationship years at a strip mall dance studio in Michigan,” dynamics between women—how they Abbott says with a laugh. But that didn’t stop her both support and from developing a lifelong fixation with ballet. “Like undermine each a lot of young women, because it’s so tied to femother—is a promiininity, I had a fascination with it at a young age. I read all the ballet memoirs. I loved all the stuff nent theme in many of about ballet and about young women dying or conAbbott’s books. “When tracting terrible diseases.” I started, there were a vanishingly few crime Abbott famously writes intense, often noirish books. Her breakout 2012 thriller, Dare Me, was novels that had female an unflinching look at the cutthroat world of high characters,” she says. “I realized, oh, people havfeel like they’re telling you what you want to do in school cheerleading, and some of her 11 other noven’t really talked about [female relationships] so the moment. I follow the breadcrumbs, so to speak.” els are inspired by famous crimes from decades much in this world. . . . We know this [competiConstant change is an unavoidable part of another of Abbott’s passions: the “love story of past. So talking to her on the phone from her tive dynamic] goes on and the way women talk to home in the Queens borough of New York City is each other and are passive aggressive with each her life,” New York City. She’s been a New Yorker surprising; she is effuother. We know the since the early 1990s and has watched the city go sive and lighthearted “It seems the impulse is still there, casual comments through several iterations and waves of gentrifithat women know as she talks about the cation. “It was still a little rough around the edges despite everything, of women are a veiled insult— inspiration for her when I moved here, then there was this Disneyficahaunting new book, this secret language of tion and the slow ’everyone is moving to the outer judging other women.” The Turnout. women. [After] seeing boroughs,’” she says. “Manhattan was becoming It’s a beautifully written look at a musty ballet how rich a mine it was, I just kept going back.” empty condos of wealthy internationalists, and now studio run by sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s One perhaps unexpected inspiration for The it’s coming back to life. I’ve seen many versions of Turnout was the hit true crime podcast “Dirty it. I’ll never leave it.” husband, Charlie, who came to live with Dara and Marie when they were teens. When Marie moves John,” which tells the story of John Michael MeeDespite this, Abbott does not set her books there. In fact, several of her novels are fairly out of the apartment she’s shared with the other han, a charmer who conned a successful Califortwo for years, their delicate equilibrium starts to nia businesswoman into marriage with disastrous vague on their exact locations, and that includes results for her and her family. teeter off balance. To make matters worse, the stuThe Turnout, where the studio is set on the top dio is about to begin their annual production of The “The listener comments would be almost two floors of a squat, rusty brick office building Nutcracker, which always sends both students and entirely women commenting and basically trashdowntown—though downtown where is not readtheir parents into a spiral of ambition and jealousy. ing the [victims], these women who had been ily apparent. “New York is home, so to me, it’s not exotic,” she Dara, Marie and Charlie all grapple with the conned and brutalized,” Abbott says. “It seems the says. “I do tend to want trauma of their deeply troubled childhoods and impulse is still there, “We’re complex and to write places where I despite everything, of the toll ballet has taken on their bodies. Once the don’t specify too many women judging other most promising dancer of the three, Charlie has complicated and ambivalent regional women, particularly endured four surgeries and lives with ongoing signifiers, so for their romantic chronic pain. “His body, still as lean and marble-cut you can picture it and and change over time.” choices. It’s obviously as the day their mother brought him home, was a relate to it. I don’t want a really defensive posture, a fear that this could living reminder of how quickly things could turn,” them to be quite that grounded.” Living through the COVID-19 pandemic in the Abbott writes, “how beautiful things could all be happen to you.” broken inside.” When writing her suspense novels, Abbott city was not easy for Abbott, but having consistent starts out with a story and perspective in mind, The physically and emotionally grueling world of projects in TV and movie writing (including adaptbut she remains open to her characters making ballet was a subject Abbott had considered for years ing The Turnout into a limited series) forced her to before finally sitting down to write The Turnout. choices, too, and she speaks of them as if they are stay productive and focused. “Luckily I needed to co-­authors. “We’re complex and complicated and “I was interested in the smells and the sort of fixabasically write all the time during the pandemic,” tions with the repetitions and discipline required,” ambivalent and change over time,” she says. “It does she says. “With TV and film scripts, you literally


feature | unreliable narrators

Love the way you lie Don’t trust—or turn your back on—these narrators.

The Turnout Putnam, $27, 9780593084908

Thriller don’t get paid until you finish it, and people are waiting! It gave me a rigor. Script work also kept me connected to people in a strange time. As a novelist, it’s a solitary life, but now I couldn’t even leave my apartment, so it was an umbilical cord to the rest of the world.” One of Abbott’s favorite recent TV projects was writing for the HBO series “The Deuce,” which begins in the seedy Times Square of the late 1970s and meticulously tracks its transformation into the neon-lit tourist mecca it is today. Abbott said it was thrilling, if daunting, to write about this period in the city’s storied history. “I was so terrified that it really made me obsessively research,” she says. She describes most of her stories as being “very small . . . set in hothouses,” whereas the stories in “The Deuce” are “very expansive, with multiple characters and worlds like the police and pimps.” Now that vaccines are available in the U.S. and the country appears to be opening up again, Abbott knows exactly how she’s going to reclaim her beloved city. “What I really missed, maybe the most, is a sweaty, loud, noisy bar with friends and the music throbbing and the sensate experience of that,” she says. “That experience of having to strain your voice to talk to your friends about some book you just read or movie you just saw.” —Amy Scribner Visit to read our starred review of The Turnout.

You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit tired of the unreliable narrator, a character that is practically inescapable in the mystery and suspense genre. But even if you think you’re out, the slippery protagonists of these two thrillers will reel you right back in. It’s natural to be wary of the main character in Rabbit Hole (Atlantic Monthly, $27, 9780802158703). Alice Armitage is currently enduring an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital and is very upfront about her PTSD, memory lapses and tendency toward misbehavior on the ward. But when a fellow patient is found dead, Alice’s training kicks into gear. Previously a police officer—or so she says—Alice launches an independent investigation of the crime, developing a theory of the case that’s both overly complicated and entirely plausible. When the suspect she’s laser-focused on is also killed, the tightening spiral of this story spins off its axis, taking Alice’s grasp of reality with it. It’s an audacious move to open a story by essentially waving a red flag and pointing to the unreliability of the main character, but Alice is consistently intriguing, vacillating between lucid, analytical thinking and temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. Mark Billingham, author of the bestselling Tom Thorne mystery series, gives Alice a cocky confidence that Rabbit Hole peels away at every turn. One minute she’s wisecracking about her fellow patients and their diagnoses, certain they belong inside while she’s the voice of rationality. Then her father comes to visit, and the exchange is so crushingly awkward that her jokes fail to hide how serious her situation is. Descriptions of the hospital and its residents are fairly bleak with lots of dark humor. Patients might be friends, but friendship can quickly turn antagonistic and even violent for any reason or none at all. What begins as the story of a maverick cop lands some distance from that premise, will leave you rethinking everything that was said and done along the way to the novel’s surprising and poignant ending.

After finishing Louise Candlish’s The Other Passenger (Atria, $17, 9781982174101), I patted myself down to be sure my wallet was still accounted for. This gorgeous, meticulous nailbiter is a smooth work of narrative criminality. Here are the basic facts: Jamie has just ridden the ferry to begin an average workday when two police officers stop him. His friend and fellow commuter Kit is missing, and Kit and Jamie were seen fighting the night before Kit’s disappearance. Jamie swears he knows nothing of Kit’s whereabouts, and from there things get very stressful very quickly. Through a series of flashbacks, Jamie explains how he and his partner, Clare, and Kit and his wife, Melia, became close friends, a complex foursome full of hidden resentments and deep financial grievances. There’s extramarital sex and the potential for a payday that’s too big to resist. The heady feeling that comes with doing the wrong thing and getting away with it falls apart spectacularly when consequences come into play; the shame and regret feel like gut punches when they land. Key to all this drama is Melia. Clare was the first to befriend her, only to later observe that a preference for being called “Me” might signal a hint of narcissism worth watching out for. False leads and feints recall The Usual Suspects and will keep readers hyperalert, bordering on paranoid. Music figures into the story as a layer of commentary that also builds atmosphere. For example, in a scene where Melia dances with a girlfriend, the lyrics of the Lana Del Rey song that’s playing add a sinister undertow. Candlish never lets the tension slacken as deep discussions of income disparity, aging, love and loss keep readers’ loyalties shifting between characters. There’s the potential for at least one character, perhaps more, to appear in another novel. It would be thrilling to see them again. The villains in The Other Passenger are never held at arm’s length. We care, even as their ordinary lives turn monstrous. —Heather Seggel


sci-fi & fantasy



doesn’t stop here.

by chris pickens

H She Who Became the Sun The best historical fantasies bring an allnew beauty and mystery to familiar things. Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun (Tor, $27.99, 9781250621801) spins a tale based on the founding of China’s Ming dynasty that reads like Mulan crossed with The Once and Future King. In a poverty-­ stricken village, a girl fights to stay alive. Her brother is supposedly destined for greatness, but she has never been more than an afterthought. After bandits raid her family’s house and she is the only one left alive, she makes a desperate choice. Cloaking herself in her late brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, she conceals her gender and joins a nearby monastery. While there, Zhu learns how to survive, even as the Mongol hordes march on China. Parker-Chan’s gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. Readers who loved the equally excellent Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang will be right at home here. If you’re a fan of epic fantasy, you can’t miss this one.

H Shards of Earth Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shards of Earth (Orbit, $28, 9780316705851) is one of the most stunning space operas I’ve read this year. Fifty years ago, a man named Idris saved humanity from the Architects, enormous planet-size aliens capable of destroying anything in their path. Now, even as he navigates the galaxy’s backwaters on the junky salvage ship Vulture God, Idris can feel something in the depths of space. When he and his crew make a discovery that could upend the fragile peace among scattered human factions, they must choose who to trust before the Architects return to finish what they started. Tchaikovsky’s world building is on glorious display as he throws all manner of spaceships, creepy aliens and strange technology into a delicious sci-fi soup. It’s dense, it’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s touching and it’s perfect for someone looking for a space opera built on a grand scale.

The Godstone

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Violette Malan’s The Godstone (DAW, $27, 9780756416270) is thoroughly delightful and totally original. Fenra Lowens is a Practitioner of magic who serves as healer for the residents of a small rural village. When Fenra’s longtime patient Arlyn Albainil receives a summons to the City to receive the valuable contents of a long-lost relative’s vault, Fenra volunteers to accompany Arlyn on his journey. But Arlyn is more than he seems, and he knows more than he tells. Inside the vault is an object of immense power, and he’s the only one who knows how to stop it from destroying the world. There’s a confident briskness to Malan’s pacing; nothing seems to drag over The Godstone’s 300 or so pages. The momentum is only aided by the superb dialogue throughout. Fenra and Arlyn’s banter is so pleasant, so assured, that it at times reads like classic English literature. Readers would be wise to pick up this exciting start to a new fantasy series.

Chris Pickens is a Nashville-based fantasy and sci-fi superfan who loves channeling his enthusiasm into reviews of the best new books the genre has to offer.


by christie ridgway

H Men Are Frogs Love proves truly magical in Men Are Frogs (Zebra, $15.95, 9781420153156) by Saranna DeWylde. After wedding planner Zuri Davis’ latest event goes awry, she leaves Chicago for Ever After, Missouri. Her new job at Fairy Godmothers, Inc. sounds promising, and her first glimpse of Ever After almost makes her believe that magic is real. And in De­Wylde’s world, it is! There are enchanted castles, talking beasts and a charming prince cursed to be a frog from sundown to sunup. It takes time for Zuri to believe what’s before her eyes, and readers will enjoy watching her learn to accept her new fairy-tale surroundings. She even falls for the prince, only to (of course) discover he’ll stay a frog forever unless saved by true love’s kiss. There’s so much delightful imagination at play here; every page sparkles with fun and clever wordplay. A modern romp with Grimm throwbacks, Men Are Frogs has a decidedly poignant side that touches the heart even as it incites smile after smile.

Devil in Disguise An aristocratic widow and a Scottish whisky distiller make an unexpected match as Lisa Kleypas continues her Ravenels series with Devil in Disguise (Avon, $8.99, 9780062371966). The head of her late husband’s shipping business, Lady Merritt Sterling meets Keir MacCrae when he’s recently arrived in London and in a well-deserved bad mood. But she’s instantly fascinated with the big and beautiful Keir, who is equally smitten with the composed, capable Merritt. She’s far above him socially, and he vows to keep his distance, though such vows never prevail against the will of a woman and sizzling mutual desire. Merritt and Keir succumb to a single night of passion that only serves to nourish their growing love. But besides issues of class, wealth and geography, there is the slight problem of someone trying to kill Keir. The unraveling of that mystery will please Kleypas fans as favorite former characters get involved in the story. But Devil in Disguise truly stands out thanks to Kleypas’ masterful blend of blazing ardor and tender yearning. Readers will bask in this lovely romance that hits every emotion just right.

Say Goodbye Karen Rose pens a thrilling conclusion to her Sacramento series in Say Goodbye (Berkley, $27, 9781984805331). Former pro basketball player-turnedFBI agent Tom Hunter is on the case of the cult known as Eden, which is hiding somewhere in the rural Pacific Northwest. Hayley Gibbs, a young pregnant woman, is being held by the cult against her will, and Tom and his team are determined to find her before she gives birth. To make matters more dangerous, DJ, a ruthless member of Eden intent on taking control of the group, is piling up bodies and threatening the lives of those Tom cares about—including his best friend, Liza Barkley. Can he concentrate on the crimes at hand even as his relationship with Liza begins to shift? Multiple viewpoints, including those of DJ and Hayley, ratchet up the tension. Chock-full of twists and scares, this is spine-chilling and heart-satisfying romantic suspense.

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

feature | coming-of-age romances

These romances are feeling 22 Two novels capture the misery and magic of falling in love while finding yourself in your early 20s. Your early 20s can be strange and exciting, filled with uncertainty, new beginnings and the first opportunities to truly be an adult. These feelings are especially heightened when you throw not only career and life goals but also love into the mix. These two romances are very different in tone and setting, but they both feature young characters who are simultaneously falling in love and figuring out who they really are. In Jennet Alexander’s I Kissed a Girl (Sourcebooks Casablanca, $14.99, 9781728222707), Noa Birnbaum drops out of college a few credits shy of a degree to seize a chance at her big break, much to her mother’s dismay. Noa’s dream is to become a special effects makeup artist, and the opportunity to work on the set of the horror movie Scareodactyl is the first step toward union membership and a career in her chosen industry. Noa’s talents with latex and paint are evident, so almost from the beginning of the shoot, she is assigned to work with the film’s two stars, including the intimidatingly beautiful Lilah Silver. Lilah hasn’t come out as bisexual in her professional life, but the chemistry between her and Noa is palpable and only grows during those many hours in the makeup chair. As their love story develops, Lilah is also trying to figure out the next step in her career. Does she want to remain a scream queen or try for something different? And where might Noa fit into Lilah’s dreams? Alexander includes thoughtful, introspective moments about the couple’s shared Jewish background but also keeps the tone light, even during a twist worthy of a horror movie. (Be forewarned: There’s a stalker and a lot of snakes.)

Sara Jafari’s The Mismatch (Dell, $17, 9780593357170) feels a world away from the Hollywood horror of Alexander’s novel as it follows 21-year-old Soraya Nazari, a recent graduate of prestigious Goldsmiths University in London. Soraya’s arts degree hasn’t really given her a good idea of what she wants to do professionally—or given her a leg up on finding a decent job after graduation. She finds herself spending more time with fellow alum Magnus Evans, whose easy charm, good looks and flirtatious manner bely surprising depths, including family troubles. Soraya’s family has secrets of its own, which readers discover as the coming-of-age story of Soraya’s mother, Neda, unfolds in parallel with her youngest daughter’s first foray into love. Neda grew up in Tehran and married Soraya’s father, Hossein, after knowing him for only a short time. The two of them emigrated to the U.K. for Neda’s education and, following the Iranian Revolution, it became their permanent home. The Mismatch deals with some pretty dark subjects, including infidelity, drug use and physical abuse, but it’s also wryly and surprisingly funny, especially in Soraya’s and Neda’s matter-of-fact narration. While fans of more straightforward romances may want to look elsewhere (the emotional heart of the story really lies in Soraya’s family’s story, rather than the story of her relationship with Magnus), it’s still a thoughtful exploration of how we’re all shaped by our history—and how that history can in turn shape how, and with whom, we fall in love. —Norah Piehl


cover story | first fiction

6 DEBUT NOVELS FOR THE LAST DAYS Our sincere apologies to the rest of the novels in your TBR, but these debuts Based on other novels you’ve loved, we’ve recommended which of these six


Former book editor Sara Nisha Adams attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. This relationship also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries William Morrow, $27.99 and the transformative 9780063025288 power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day. —Stephenie Harrison



Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, follows aging logger Rich Gundersen and his family through 1977, a year of significant change in Northern California’s redwood forest. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Rich’s wife, Colleen, that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corScribner, $28 porate mover on Wall 9781982144401 Street. Davidson grew up in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She’s studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time. —Alden Mudge


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck


In Kaia Alderson’s witty and powerful debut novel, World War II is a conflict not only between nations but also within the hearts of Grace Steele and Eliza Jones, two Black women serving in the U.S. Army’s 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. It’s a chance to prove themselves to their restrictive families and a prejudiced society. Sisters in Arms chronicles their story, which spans the constraints of New York City and William Morrow, $16.99 the perils of war-torn 9780062964588 Europe. During their service, their bond is tested, but Grace and Eliza learn to stick together to survive, and their romantic relationships enhance their personal stories. This is an outstanding historical novel that succeeds at celebrating the accomplishments of the Six Triple Eight Battalion through the lives of two audacious Black women. —Edith Kanyagia


Deep River by Karl Marlantes and Barkskins by Annie Proulx



Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes and J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions




The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal



Tracey Lange’s debut novel tells the story of a large Irish American family grappling with the weight of secrets after Sunday, the only Brennan daughter, returns home after five years away. We Are the Brennans is well plotted, offering plenty of action, but it shines brightest in depicting family relationships, love mixed with resentment and guilt, and in its character development. We root for the Brennans the whole Celadon, $26.99 way through, waiting 9781250796226 for them to face hard truths about one another and, we hope, to move forward together. —Sarah McCraw Crow

q&a | julie murphy

A natural fit


Julie Murphy’s first novel for adults is a fractured fairy-tale rom-com. ©CHRISTY ARCHIBALD

deserve a spot at the top. hot titles you’ll most enjoy.


Swing Time by Zadie Smith and There There by Tommy Orange


Rwandan-born Namibian writer Rémy Ngamije’s sharp-­witted and incisive debut, The Eternal Audience of One, paints a revealing portrait of its peripatetic protagonist and the many places he’s called home. Séraphin Turihamwe is a displaced Rwandan who feels most himself in Cape Town, South Africa, a place that doesn’t welcome Black immigrants, and Ngamije brilliantly explores the irony in Séraphin’s identities. The story unfolds Scout, $28 through a collection 9781982164423 of scenes all revolving around Séraphin’s social life, his friends and the women he dates, that explore racism and social hierarchies. Ngamije’s writing is beautiful, his observations original and precise, his sense of place unsurpassed. Every bit of insight, succinctly and humorously presented, will cause readers to stop and think. —Carole V. Bell



The Leavers by Lisa Ko and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

In YZ Chin’s Edge Case, Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. After Marlin’s father dies, Marlin disappears. Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status and daily racial insults. Chin is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a Ecco, $26.99 pachinko ball. Every 9780063030688 chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love. —Arlene McKanic

Rom-coms are big, haven’t you heard? The first adult novel from YA superstar author Julie Murphy (Dumplin’, which was adapted into the hit Netflix film) is both right on trend and timelessly appealing. If the Shoe Fits (Hyperion Avenue, $26.99, 9781368050388) takes its cues from the iconic fairy tale Cinderella, but its buoyant humor and good-hearted outlook are all Murphy.

How does it feel to have written your first adult novel? I am so incredibly excited to be dipping my toes into the adult waters. It’s something I’ve hoped to do for quite some time, and this seemed to be the perfect crossover project to start with. Of course If the Shoe Fits is an adult book, but I think it’s a really good first step into adult romance for teenagers as well. The romance is exciting and steamy while still maintaining a lower heat level, so I’ve really found it to be the perfect access point for new romance readers. Why did you want to revise this fairy tale? The story of Cinderella was so iconic to me growing up. I spent so much time in a make-believe space pretending that my mom was forcing me into child labor (she wasn’t, I swear!), that my older sister and cousins were my mean stepsisters and that I could talk to birds and small, adorable rodents. But the spell of my childhood imagination always broke the moment I looked in the mirror and didn’t see a tall, thin blond girl staring back at me. Later on, I discovered my love for Ursula, and that really helped me reshape how I felt about myself, but she was also the villain. I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Cindy’s appearance on the reality dating show “Before Midnight” throws her into the spotlight and makes her a body positivity icon. Do Cindy’s experiences and insecurities mirror your own as a writer who focuses on body positivity and diversity? There are so many incredibly talented and creative voices out there addressing body positivity and fat positivity (because they are truly two different things), but in some ways the success of Dumplin’ did make me and my work some people’s first interactions with the idea. If someone learns about body and/or fat positivity through me, I hope that I’m only the first step and that they continue to learn more and experience more. I’m only one fat white lady from Texas, and I can’t and will never speak for fat people as a whole. All that said, if all my work amounts to is widening a path for more plus-size creatives, then I’m happy. Lord knows someone came before me, and someone came before them. Would you want to adapt another, non-princess fairy tale or Disney property in the future? Are you kidding?! I would love to! I think a modern Peter Pan set in a skate park would be so fun—and I might be going out on a limb here, but I would absolutely die for a chance to see a Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog rom-com. —Amanda Diehl Visit to read an extended version of this Q&A and our review of If the Shoe Fits.


behind the book | honorée fanonne jeffers

A SOUTHERN KINSHIP To write her debut novel, a celebrated poet learned to claim her rural Southern roots. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ epic American novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, follows a young Black woman as she investigates generations of her family’s tragedy and joy in a small Georgia town called Chicasetta. Essayist and poet Jeffers has spent much of her life cultivating a better understanding of her own family and her connection to the rural South. Here she reveals the powerful role that the words of W.E.B. Du Bois have played in that self-discovery. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, during the 1970s, when fried something called “streak-a-lean,” an odd pork variant bought the city was de facto segregated—meaning, segregated by custom, from a farmer she knew. if not by law. I never felt discriminated against as an African AmerIt didn’t matter that Grandma Florence’s own lawn was maniican, however, as the privilege of my Black community was always cured like those in my middle-class neighborhood in Durham. I on display. didn’t care that she cultivated red and pink roses in her front yard. In a city of only about 90,000 (at that time), there were 25 Black To me, those Eatonton flowers weren’t as pretty as Durham flowers. Grandma’s sun didn’t shine as bright as the one up in my city. millionaires, including the CEO of the first Black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual. My Honestly, I was embarrassed by my parents’ huge, fancy church, St. Joseph’s grandmother. Surely, she was a mean, African Methodist Episcopal, was one of tough-talking lady, but her meanness the jewels of the Black religious comdidn’t bother me. In fact, I admired how munity. There was also a Black-owned she didn’t “take no junk.” It was the way bank, Mechanics and Farmer, where my Grandma Florence turned her phrases parents kept their checking and savin English that shamed me. Her speech didn’t adhere to formal grammar rules. ings accounts. My piano teacher, the legendary Mrs. Her rough hands and feet weren’t manBarbara Cook, lived in a big house with icured and soft. And she only had about an actual soda shoppe in the basean eighth-grade education. ment. Her house was directly across Down in Eatonton, there were no Civil the street from North Carolina CenRights advocates either. The Black folks in that town weren’t pushy like those in tral University, the historically African Durham. They were scared all the time, American institution where my mother for in Eatonton it seemed like 1950s Jim worked as an adjunct instructor. My Crow had never ended. It was true that parents would take my sisters and me to listen to lectures in the auditorium Durham had its “Black” and “white” at NCCU, or maybe to watch an opera neighborhoods, but there weren’t any or piano recital. large, fancy houses owned by Black folks There were pushy Black folks in in Eatonton. As soon as you crossed the Durham, ones who waged battles railroad tracks into the African Ameriagainst that de facto segregation. My can neighborhood, the homes became markedly shabbier. mother was one of those activists, sitting on what was called the Durham In Durham, the stores, libraries, pools Committee on the Affairs of Black and movie theaters weren’t segregated; People. My parents’ friends—also the white government of that city wasn’t activists and sometimes artists—were quite that bold when it came to public highly educated African Americans places. But in Eatonton, whenever I went The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois who had earned (at least) college eduto see a movie downtown with my cousHarper, $28.99, 9780062942937 cations. They spoke in perfectly eloins and playmates, we had to sit up in the cuted English, with subjects and verbs balcony. There were two county pools in Historical Fiction that matched. Eatonton, a large one for white patrons When I played with the children of these intellectuals, I neglected and a much smaller one—about the size of my current 10-by-10 to mention anything about my maternal grandmother who lived living room—in the African American neighborhood, right around down in Eatonton, Georgia. From June through late July, I lived the corner from Grandma’s house. Black patrons in Eatonton stores with my cousins and two sisters in Grandma Florence’s house on stood meekly if a white person—or two or three or four—cut in front Concord Avenue, across the railroad tracks. I would have been of them in line. The mortuaries were segregated as well; there was a Black funeral home across the street from my Grandma’s sister’s horrified to say Grandma didn’t buy her vegetables from the grocery store, because she kept a large garden out back. She didn’t house. And even after death, these outrages continued, for the purchase bacon at the grocery store, either. Every morning, she cemeteries in Eatonton were segregated, too.


behind the book | honorée fanonne jeffers I thought back to Durham, to those privileged years of my early childhood. To the manicured lawns of my middle-class Black neighborhood, to the lectures and recitals in the auditorium at NCCU. The Black church I attended, the Black bank where my parents kept their money, the historically Black college where my mother taught. I remembered my piano teacher’s fancy soda shoppe in the basement of her house, but by my 40s, I’d read enough Southern history to understand why Mrs. Cook and her late husband had invested in constructing that wonderland in their home. In the 1950s, when Mrs. Cook’s children had been young, whiteowned dime stores throughout the South would not allow African American customers to sit and be served a milkshake or soda at the counter. Those cozy Durham trappings that I’d loved had been a buffer between Black people and the outside white world. A world that the children of integration would eventually be forced to enter, sooner or later. That urbane privilege in Durham was merely a nonverbal—yet equally eloquent—version of Grandma Florence’s warning: “Y’all be careful, now. You hear?”


I was 26 when I entered a graduate creative writing program. Though I was a poet, I secretly began to write stories about a rural community in Georgia, one I’d eventually name Chicasetta. By that time, my embarrassment over my country relatives had been replaced with defiance, as white classmates ridiculed me because I’d gone to a “Black school.” Frequently, it was suggested I attach a “glossary” to my workshop poems, so my classmates could understand my references to African American culture. My defiance turned into a strange pride. I stopped trying to alter the Southern drawl that had crept into my voice, right around the time I realized I couldn’t achieve myself into racial equality. Before that point, there had been so much loneliness, sadness and isolation in my life, but then I turned to African American authors to find a sense of community on the page. I turned to W.E.B Du Bois once again and started seeing the significance of what he’d presented Visit to read our starred review of The in The Souls of Black Folk. Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. This extraordinary Black man had encountered the most egregious aspects of segregation, much worse than the microaggresWhenever I left the house to go walking across the railroad sions I was enduring in graduate school. Even Du Bois’ doctorate tracks—into the white side of Eatonton—with my cousins and from Harvard hadn’t kept him from terror in 1906, when he survived other playmates, Grandma Florence would urge, “Y’all be careful, a race riot in Atlanta, Georgia; a friend of his was lynched in the now. You hear?” melee. Yet Du Bois remained in Atlanta for several years after that ••• riot before leaving. Two decades later, he would return to teach at Atlanta University. I was about 12 when I first read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Of course, I’d heard his name mentioned frequently. From Du Bois returned to Georgia because he felt a kinship with working-class Black folks in that my parents, I’d absorbed the notion that anyone who was Black and constate, those country folks who lived “Du Bois’ sense of kinship had been close to the red dirt. He revered sidered themselves smart couldn’t ignore the works of Du Bois, the my actual kinship. His love of rural, people like my Grandma Florence. first Black person to earn a doctorHe appreciated the music of clapSouthern Black folks was my love.” board country churches. What ate from Harvard University. I didn’t understand everything in The Souls Du Bois called “the sorrow songs” of Black Folk, but as a budding creative writer, I loved Du Bois’ lanwere hymns composed by enslaved people, like my own Georgia ancestors. guage. Certainly, I was encountering something profound. In 2011, I started reading The Souls of Black Folk again—for the For college, I enrolled in a historically Black institution, Clark umpteenth time—and understood that Du Bois’ sense of kinship College, and then transferred to another Black school, Talladega College. At both places, I read Du Bois in my literature classes. Over had been my actual kinship. His love of rural, Southern Black folks the years, I don’t remember how many times I read The Souls of was my love—finally. I began to write a novel set in Chicasetta, Black Folk. But I do remember that I was in my 40s when I grasped Georgia, the town I’d created in my imagination back in graduate school. And once that novel was finished, I gave a belated apology that Du Bois provided a bridge between those two worlds in which to the spirit of Grandma Florence. I’d been reared: Durham, which I’d proudly considered, and Eaton—Honorée Fanonne Jeffers ton, which I’d tucked away in shame.


interview | carolina de robertis

The personal, the political & the amphibian With candor and levity, Carolina De Robertis explores the socio-political transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country. “I know what it feels like to carry one country off from my family of origin, I wanted to shatter the inside your skin and a very different country outidea that I couldn’t be all of these things.” side,” says Carolina De Robertis, speaking from her In 2012, De Robertis moved with her wife to Urubackyard writing cottage in Oakland, California, as guay, where they stayed for two years. “There was this feeling of progressive renewal there,” she says. sun pours through the glass door onto the expansive bookshelf behind her. De Robertis’ family left “To live through the time in which gay marriage was Uruguay when her mother was pregnant with her, legalized there, before the United States—to have my marriage be seen with dignity by the law of the and the future author lived in the U.K. and Switzerland—was a very profound experience.” land before settling in the U.S. at age 10. But fascination and longing are constantly The President and the Frog, pulling her to understand Uruset shortly after the 2016 U.S. guay better. election, takes the form of an De Robertis acknowledges interview between a Norwethat for many American readgian journalist and the former ers, her novels have put UruUruguayan president (whom De Robertis never outright guay on the map. “For years, it was almost as if it was an names as Mujica in the novel). invisible country,” she says. Throughout their conversa“I’ve had people confuse it with tion, the president reveals himself to be a garrulous old Uganda.” In her epic Stonewall Award-winning 2019 novel, man who is game to talk about Cantoras, she explored the anything—except for how he nature of desire amid the overstayed sane while in prison. whelming oppression of lateIt is in this dark psycho1970s Uruguay’s totalitarian logical space that De Robermilitary government through tis raises profound questions the stories of five queer women. about the human spirit’s She continues her investigation capacity for hope, with help into Uruguayan history in her from a bit of whimsy. In chapsixth book, The President and ters that flash back to those difthe Frog (Knopf, $25, 9780593318416), which cenficult days in prison, we learn that the president ters on a fictionalized version of former Uruguayan survives his long imprisonment by carrying on conpresident José “Pepe” Mujica. versations with a frog that visits his wretched hole in Throughout his remarkable life, Pepe Mujica has the ground. These scenes are surreal, and the frog been an impoverished flower farmer, a guerrilla is a brash and often laughable companion. “You fighter in the 1960s leftcan tap the vein of humor wing Tupamaro movethe same time you tap “The river that is our reading at ment and a political pristhe vein of deeply serious oner. He was sequestered lives can always sustain us.” topics,” De Robertis says. in solitary confinement One might say that doing so is a matter of survival. for over a decade—two years of which were spent in a grate-covered hole in the ground—and he was Along with solidifying Uruguay’s presence in frequently subjected to torture. After his release, he readers’ minds, The President and the Frog also served as a moderate progressive president from decenters the United States in the context of global, 2010 to 2015. He is also a celebrated champion of political and even spiritual questions. Throughout gay rights, and the nation’s equal marriage law was the novel, the journalist and the president discuss passed during his presidency in 2013. and draw comparisons between events in UruThis last fact is significant to De Robertis on a guayan history and contemporary American politics, but the U.S. is only referred to as “the North.” personal level; her parents disowned her for her “When I was writing during the Trump years, I sexuality. “They told me I couldn’t be both Uruguayan and gay,” she says. “Coming from this expehad a different sense of the potential to connect rience of being cut off from my roots by being cut the raw material of this book to the urgency of what


Visit to read our review of The President and the Frog.

was happening in the United States,” De Robertis says. “Not just the United States, but globally. When Trump was elected in 2016, my Uruguayan friends stayed up all night to see the results. U.S. elections can have a devastating effect on people’s lives in other parts of the world—and positive ones as well.” De Robertis drew thematic and formal inspiration for The President and the Frog from Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, a story told in conversation between cellmates in an Argentine prison. De Robertis believes that Puig’s consideration of Latin American political revolution and queer liberation was groundbreaking. Beyond Puig, De Robertis returns to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison for inspiration. “The river that is our reading lives can always sustain us in the river that is our writing lives,” she says. Along with being a writer, De Robertis is also a spouse, mother, translator and full-time creative writing professor at San Francisco State University. “I am not an adherent to the notion that a real writer writes every day,” she says. “I think that notion makes assumptions about how the writer’s life is set up. I have a fancy room to write in now, but my first novel was written at a kitchen table.” There is a tentative knock at the door of the writing cottage, and a figure appears in the frame’s crack. Sunlight blots out any defining characteristics of the visitor. “Happy anniversary!” the glowing figure yells. “Happy anniversary!” “It’s our 21st anniversary,” De Robertis says, her eyes shining as her wife, Pamela, retreats from the frame. “Nineteen years married.” —Elena Britos

reviews | fiction

H Once There Were Wolves By Charlotte McConaghy

Popular Fiction With her 2020 debut, Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy established herself as a powerful new voice in fiction. With her follow-up, Once There Were Wolves (Flatiron, $27.99, 9781250244147), the Australian author proves that her particular brand of deeply evocative literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Intense, emotional and rich with beautifully rendered prose, McConaghy’s novel is a powerful meditation on humanity, nature and the often frightening animalistic impulses lurking within us all. Inti Flynn and her sister, Aggie, were raised in two different households by two different parents who each had their own very specific reasons to distrust humanity. Inti turned to the wild for inspiration, comfort and fulfillment. Now grown and

The Perfume Thief By Timothy Schaffert

Historical Fiction Timothy Schaffert’s sixth novel has so much going for it that it’s hard to pinpoint only a few reasons why you will love it, but let us try nonetheless. Set in the German-­ occupied Paris of 1941, The Perfume Thief (Doubleday, $27, 9780385545747) is the story of a queer American expat named Clementine who, after a life of notorious thievery all over the globe (think Robin Hood meets Indiana Jones), has retired in Paris and become a perfumer for the ladies of Madame Boulette’s cabaret. At 72 years old, Clementine, or Clem, believes she is too old to pull off any scams, especially one that involves fooling the Nazis. But that is exactly what she gets roped into doing when Clem’s friend Zoé St. Angel recruits her to steal the infamous diary and recipe book of the Parisian perfumer Pascal, who has gone missing. Not only does this diary reveal Zoé’s identity as a Jew, but it also might include concoctions that could be used as biological weapons by the Nazis. And so, Clem sets out to enchant and fool Francophile Nazi bureaucrat Oskar Voss in order to retrieve the sought-after book.

working in conservation, Inti arrives in Scotland to release the first gray wolves, absent from the region for centuries, back into the country’s Highlands. As local farmers respond with resistance and the wolves struggle to adjust to their new home, Inti finds herself caught between a sister who needs her, a man who wants her and a community that perhaps wants her gone for good, and that’s all before the dead body shows up. As McConaghy navigates Inti’s emotional state through past and present, from the wilds of Alaska to the town halls of Scotland, it becomes clear that Once There Were Wolves is as much concerned with charting Inti’s

own wild nature as it is with the wild nature of the wolves she so loves. Whether Mc­ Conaghy is writing about the deep, wordless connection between two sisters or the strange respect that forms between ideological enemies, her prose never feels overwhelmed or even particularly hurried. There’s a density of meaning to her language, filling every paragraph with poignant, poetic life, and it’s clear even in the opening chapters that she’s mastered this world and these characters. Once There Were Wolves is another triumph for a rising fiction star, offering an intensely realized world for readers to get lost in. —Matthew Jackson

It’s a thrill to be in Clem’s mind, to follow along as she sinks deeper and deeper into this mystery, as she worries about how to keep her loved ones safe, as she describes the City of Light crawling with Germans and as she reminisces about a long-ago love that still strikes a chord. With a healthy dose of romance, fashion and espionage and a glimpse of the lives of openly queer artists under Nazi occupation, The Perfume Thief is a reminder that Paris, even in the pages of a book, always makes for a great escape. —Chika Gujarathi

one-year anniversary of Sheldon’s mother’s death. She and her sister died in a horrific movie theater fire in Hartford. And as if that isn’t enough tragedy for the novel’s first 13 pages, a truck purposely forces Sheldon and his father’s car off the road during their return trip, and Sheldon’s father dies. Readers of Derek B. Miller’s award-winning thriller, Norwegian by Night, will recognize Sheldon as that novel’s 82-year-old protagonist. As a Tom Sawyer-like boy in How to Find Your Way in the Dark, Sheldon is determined to make sense of his double tragedies, and his attempts to do so take the reader on one hell of a ride. As he seeks out the leering, mustached truck driver who killed his father, his quest leads him straight into danger— think mobsters, guns and jewel thefts. Miller has crafted a wide-ranging, years-­spanning yet tightly structured plot, and he excels at placing memorable characters in unusual circumstances. Sheldon is joined in his adventures by his two older cousins, Abe and Mirabelle, and his best friend, Lenny, all of whom play pivotal roles. One summer, Lenny and Sheldon end up as bellhops at the famed Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills, where Lenny practices standup comedy amid the glamorous, bustling atmosphere. An underlying seriousness lies at the heart of all of this intrigue, hilarity and fun. Sheldon, Abe, Mirabelle and Lenny, all Jewish, must confront the many faces of antisemitism during the turbulent years of World War II. Miller weaves in a multitude of historical details, including reports of the horrors in Europe and America’s reluctance to intervene. The ending of How to Find Your Way in the Dark is nothing short of brilliant, tying up a variety of loose ends while making a powerful statement

H How to Find Your Way in the


By Derek B. Miller

Coming of Age Prepare for surprises galore in How to Find Your Way in the Dark (HMH, $26, 9780358269601), a rollicking novel that begins with a lonely truck ride in New England in 1938 and follows its characters through a decade of fascinating history. Just when you think the story is heading one way, it veers in another, completely unexpected direction. Twelve-year-old Sheldon Horowitz and his father are driving home from Hartford, Connecticut, to Whately, Massachusetts, after honoring the


reviews | fiction about the need to fully recognize and address antisemitism. Readers are left with much to ponder, including life’s many uncertainties and cruel twists of fate. Despite these unhappy truths, we are also left with the uplifting wisdom of Lenny’s urgent prayer: “Dear God, give me the strength to be joyful.” —Alice Cary

H Skye Falling By Mia McKenzie

Family Drama You can’t escape your past. It’s one of the oldest literary motifs around, yet it feels fresh in Mia McKenzie’s Skye Falling (Random House, $27, 9781984801609). The novel explores how dealing with painful memories and embracing anger can unlock a freer future—but only if you’re brave enough to try. Most people wouldn’t call Skye brave; they would call her the poster child for insecure attachment. Her father was physically and emotionally abusive, and her mother let it happen. Now Skye, a 38-yearold Black travel guide, flits from bed to bed and from country to country, only occasionally stopping home in Philly to see her one remaining friend. Skye has avoided dealing with her traumatic childhood and would probably continue to do so if she could. Then a 12-year-old girl named Vicky shows up. She is the product of the egg that Skye donated when she was broke in her 20s. Skye learns that Vicky’s mother has died from cancer, and now the spunky, headstrong tween wants a relationship with Skye. A more simplistic story would be one in which, all of a sudden, Skye realizes it might be time to grow up. But Skye Falling is a more complex expansion of what it means to be maternal and nurturing, and how we may fulfill those needs ourselves. Throughout the novel, traditional family structures let people down. It is the families of choice, bound together by love and respect, whose support is given most freely. Skye Falling is multilayered in the best way as it explores Skye’s character growth. McKenzie weaves together several themes—gentrification, racism, child abuse, grief and Skye’s relationship with Vicky’s queer aunt, Faye—and each topic carries equal weight. For a novel that addresses many serious subjects, the story never feels heavy. That’s a credit to Skye’s narrative voice, which McKenzie infuses with both a sense of humor and strong opinions. Readers will wish for a happy ending for Skye. But more strongly, they’ll wish for a follow-up to Skye’s (and Vicky’s) story. —Jessica Wakeman


H In the Country of Others By Leïla Slimani Translated by Sam Taylor

Literary Fiction Leïla Slimani’s latest novel, In the Country of Others: War, War, War ( Pe n g u i n , $26, 9780143135975), is the first volume of a multigenerational trilogy recounting—in the truthful way that only fiction can—the history of the author’s grandmother, who emigrated from France to Morocco in the wake of World War II. It was supposed to be a big adventure. Mathilde, in the company of Amine, a man “so handsome that she was afraid someone would steal him away,” escapes the confines of her Alsatian village into what she imagines will be a life ripped from the pages of a Karen Blixen novel. Alas, Morocco in 1947 is far from this romantic fantasy, so Mathilde does what millions of expats have done before and since: She makes up her new life as she goes along, and she curates (read, “lies about”) her experiences for her family back home.

The latest from Leïla Slimani is an unabashedly feminist novel of outsiders. The novel’s subtitle, “War, War, War,” telegraphs the backdrop against which this drama plays out. Amine fights against the arid land he tries to farm, against the elements, against poverty. Mathilde fights against society’s expectations of her, both as a woman and as an immigrant. Morocco fights against its colonial history and uncertain future. Both Morocco and Mathilde struggle to gain some degree of autonomy over the course of the novel. Parallels with Paul Scott’s famed Raj Quartet are evident, as the personal and political journeys are inextricably intertwined. In the Country of Others is an unabashedly feminist novel of outsiders. In an interview, Slimani asserted that “women all live in the land of others, for they live in the land of men,” and that her dual Franco-Moroccan heritage leaves her partially estranged from both cultures. But she has been warmly embraced by the French literati, having won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 for The Perfect Nanny, as well as the Grand Prix de l’Héroïne Madame Figaro, awarded by Le Figaro for the best novel featuring a female protagonist, for In the Country of Others.

The first in a planned trilogy, In the Country of Others doesn’t wrap up its myriad messy conflicts, but it does conclude in an emotionally satisfying way while leaving the door open for its next two chapters. —Thane Tierney

H Clark and Division By Naomi Hirahara

Historical Mystery Set amid the incarceration and subsequent displacement of Japanese Americans during World War II, Clark and Division (Soho C r i m e, $27.95, 9781641292498) is as much about communal trauma as it is about the anguish of the Ito family, who are at the story’s center. The grief of the Japanese community in Chicago infuses the atmosphere of this novel, offering a compelling, nuanced tale of loss. Aki Ito and her family have been in a Japanese incarceration camp in California since shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. When the Itos are forced to resettle in Chicago in 1944, Aki’s outgoing, dynamic sister, Rose, is sent to the city a few months before the rest of the family arrives. The unfailingly resilient Rose has endured incarceration with the least visible distress, so Aki is shocked when they arrive in Chicago and find that Rose took her own life two days prior. Aki refuses to believe her sister would kill herself, and in between a bleak job search and caring for her now frail parents, she seeks out answers about her sister’s death. Amateur sleuth Aki must navigate her insular community, which is insulated for depressingly good reasons, as well as overt racism from the wider world as she learns that some people would prefer she let the matter rest. Edgar Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara explores trauma on multiple scales in this mystery. On a micro level, Aki struggles to accept the loss of her vibrant sister and watches her father, once a successful businessman, decline into alcoholism. Her family’s home and business back in California have been stolen from them, forcing her parents, deeply proud immigrants, to take whatever jobs they can find. On a macro level, everyone in the predominantly Japanese American neighborhood of Clark and Division (named for two nearby streets) is struggling to find their place in a world where they are unfairly seen as the enemy. Some members of the community enlist in the military in order to prove their loyalty to the United States, some turn to crime to earn a living and some are so boxed in by

feature | shakespeare novels deeply racist socioeconomic structures that they give up entirely. Yet for Aki, hope is still present, if tarnished. Her journey to make peace with Rose’s death is also a journey to reconcile herself to her new life, while still refusing to forget Rose or their family’s history. —Elyse Discher isit to read a Behind the V Book essay by Naomi Hirahara.

What Strange Paradise By Omar El Akkad

Literary Fiction According to the UN Refugee Agency, there were more than 26 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2019. Amid food insecurity, oppression and injustice, the global refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing, as migrants dare to cross dangerous seas on overcrowded ferries, fishing trawlers or other vessels in hopes of finding a better life. Many refugees fail to reach the next shore, becoming victims of dangerous waters or border patrols who turn them away. For Amir Utu, a 9-year-old Syrian boy in Omar El Akkad’s riveting second novel, What Strange Paradise (Knopf, $26, 9780525657903), the voyage is at first a grand adventure, like in the comic books he reads. But after washing ashore on an unnamed island’s beach as the only survivor, Amir soon learns that this is no adventure but rather a matter of survival. Almost at once, he is pursued by soldiers combing the beach, and he must flee to escape them, though he barely understands why he is running in the first place. Amir’s flight brings him in contact with 15-yearold Vänna Hermes, who takes pity on him, hides him from the soldiers and tries to help him to safety. Amir is unable to understand Vänna’s language, but as the pair builds an unusual bond, Amir finds a friend amid a hostile world. An international journalist and author of the acclaimed novel American War, El Akkad shapes What Strange Paradise mostly through Amir’s point of view, alternating between the boy’s immediate past and his present situation as he struggles to comprehend his plight. The author’s decision to focus on Amir’s youthful innocence serves to downplay the serious political undertones of the refugee crisis, transforming the boy’s tale into an intimate action-adventure story that’s laced with hope and compassion, emotions with the power to transcend borders and worldly disputes. —G. Robert Frazier

Shakespeare has left the park Novelists Mona Awad and Lyndsay Faye take on the Bard. With great literary reimaginings, there’s always a method in the madness. In two new novels, Shakespeare’s comedy All’s Well That Ends Well and tragedy Hamlet are exuberantly reinterpreted as contemporary dramas, filled with all our darkest anxieties, fears, pains and delights.

All’s Well Miranda Fitch, the protagonist of Mona Awad’s third novel, All’s Well (Simon & Schuster, $27, 9781982169664), might best be described—to borrow the title of the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar film—as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A professor of theater studies at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she’s laboring mightily to stage a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which she thinks of as a “problem play,” one that’s “neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Both, always both.” Apart from a rebellious cast, Miranda’s primary obstacle is unremitting pain from an injury she sustained when she tumbled from a stage during her promising but brief acting career. The resulting hip injury led to serious back problems unrelieved by the ministrations of a string of doctors and physical therapists, transforming Miranda, divorced and not yet 40 years old, into a pill-gobbling automaton who has abandoned all hope of her own happy ending. All’s Well quickly leaves behind this depressingly naturalistic scenario to veer into the realm of fabulism when Miranda encounters three mysterious men in a local pub. The trio, who inexplicably have intimate knowledge of her life and struggles, grace her with what seems like a miracle cure. But as she discovers, even healing can come at a price. Awad efficiently portrays both Miranda’s confrontation with chronic pain and the slowly evaporating patience of the people in her orbit (her ex-husband, Paul; her colleague and friend Grace; and Mark, the last in a chain of physical therapists) with her lack of improvement. Anyone who’s been similarly afflicted or knows someone who has will recognize this scenario. Awad leaves it to the reader to assess how much of Miranda’s mental turmoil is the product of an inexplicable but desperately welcome truce in her battle with pain, and how much flows from her encounter with supernatural forces. It’s a wild, at times over-the-top ride, but like Shakespeare’s eponymous work, there’s both

pathos and humor in this story of how we suffer and the ways in which we’re healed. —Harvey Freedenberg

H The King of Infinite Space The author of several historical mysteries and a wild reworking of Jane Eyre (the Edgar Award-­ nominated Jane Steele), Lyndsay Faye brings considerable skills and irreverent humor to The King of Infinite Space (Putnam, $27, 9780525535898), a contemporary reimagining of Hamlet set in and around a New York City theater. Benjamin Dane is both fabulously wealthy and kept on just this side of sanity by a slew of medications. He is the son of Jackson and Trudy, owners of the prestigious New World’s Stage. After Jackson dies under mysterious circumstances, Trudy immediately marries her brotherin-law, Claude. In mourning and struggling with his suicidal impulses, Benjamin uncovers a videotape from a paranoid-­seeming Jackson, who names Claude as his murderer. Distraught, Benjamin reaches out to Horatio Patel, a friend from graduate school who left New York after the two men had a one-night stand. Horatio returns from England to console his friend and aid in Benjamin’s plan to denounce his mother and uncle at the theater’s annual fundraising gala. Benjamin’s ex-girlfriend, Lia Brahms, wants to help, but her job as a florist’s assistant keeps her too busy. Faye’s knowledge of Shakespeare extends well past Hamlet, as The King of Infinite Space name-checks characters from several of the Bard’s plays, from Ariel, the all-knowing doorman at the New World; to the meddling event coordinator Robin Goodfellow; to the three weird sisters who manage the flower shop where Lia is employed and who specialize in bouquets that heal, cure and maybe even alter the future. Lush and magical, thoughtful and provocative, The King of Infinite Space is a remarkable achievement, staying true to Shakespeare’s tragic play in ways that will surprise and delight while reveling in queer attraction and quantum physics. Though the buildup is slow and Benjamin’s philosophical meanderings occasionally digressive, this is a novel to stick with for its rewards of a surprising plot and Faye’s delightful storytelling. —Lauren Bufferd


reviews | nonfiction

H The Gallery of Miracles and Madness By Charlie English

History In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art (Random House, $28, 9780525512059), Charlie English, former head of international news at the Guardian, tells the tale of two art critics. The first, Hans Prinzhorn, was an art historian and psychiatrist. Employed by the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Hospital in 1919, he was given the task of cataloging and evaluating the patients’ artwork for diagnostic purposes. Prinzhorn quickly realized that these works were more than expressions of mental illness. They were art, filled with life’s horror, humanity and energy. He set about collecting more artworks from different clinics and asylums and, in 1922, published the influential

H Everything I Have Is Yours By Eleanor Henderson

Memoir How many of us married people really thought about what we promised in our wedding vows? We probably said we would be united with our beloved “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” but we recited the words as a matter of tradition. Eleanor Henderson made those promises, too, but she’s made good on them. In her incredible memoir, Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage (Flatiron, $27.99, 9781250787941), she describes life with her husband, Aaron, and his perplexing array of physical and mental illnesses. Everything I Have Is Yours goes back and forth in time from when the young couple met as artsy kids in Florida to their present-day marriage with two kids. Along the way, Henderson rises in her career as an author and professor while taking on caregiving duties for aging parents, young children and, increasingly, her chronically ill spouse. Aaron struggles to find his footing career-wise and faces a number of mental health challenges, including addiction and suicidality. It’s clear, however, that Henderson and their children are enamored with Aaron. This family has as much love as it does pain.


book Artistry of the Mentally Ill. The second critic was a selftaught Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler. English explains that Hitler primarily considered himself an artist and thought his greatest work would be the German people. Creating “pure” German art would be key to the success of that project. Yet Hitler could not say what German art was; he could only say what it was not. And it definitely was not produced by people who were mentally ill. To prove that point, Hitler ordered an exhibition of “degenerate art,” including works from Prinzhorn’s collection, to show how “corrupt” and “insane” modern art had become. For Hitler, an unworthy life was as disposable and valueless as unworthy art. Consequently, he went on to orchestrate the murder of tens of thousands of those whose lives he deemed “unworthy,” including

people who were disabled and chronically ill—and at least two dozen of the Prinzhorn artists. This is not an abstract book of ideas. The battle between these two views of art was, literally, a matter of life and death, so English uses the life and death of Franz Karl Bühler, the most accomplished of Prinzhorn’s artists, to frame his story. From master ironsmith to psychiatric patient to discovered artist, all the way to the terrifying details that led to his murder by carbon monoxide gassing, Bühler’s life and death illuminate the void at the heart of Nazism. The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is profoundly heartbreaking, unexpectedly redeeming and immensely important. —Deborah Mason

The descriptions of Aaron’s strange illnesses are vivid and unambiguous (including lesions, rashes and bleeding), and parasites, real or imagined, make many appearances. In many ways, this memoir is a compelling medical mystery, and anyone who is interested in the disputed existence of Morgellons disease will have lots to chew on here. Ultimately, this memoir is about the depth of the marital bond. Readers may wonder, why is Henderson still enduring all this? But of course, we know: She deeply loves her husband. Everything I Have Is Yours is not a traditional love story, but it is a love story—one as heart-wrenching as it is heart-filling. Reading it will prompt you to give the meaning of “in sickness and in health” a good, long thought. —Jessica Wakeman

orphaned in St. Louis and eventually made their way to New York City, where they made a fortune. “I was told they were completely crazy, obscenely wealthy, never married, had no children, and all lived together in a house in New York City,” Klam writes in The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction (Riverhead, $28, 9780735216426), her sixth book. In her conversational, often funny style, Klam takes us along on her intrepid search for the truth, near-truth and outright lies embedded in her family’s colorful lore about the Morris sisters. Klam visits older family members to record their conflicting stories and learns a surprising secret about the girls’ mother. She also visits sites important to the sisters’ lives, most affectingly the Jewish orphanage in St. Louis where three of the sisters were sent as children, as well as two small towns in Romania. There, Klam takes in the towns’ abandoned Jewish cemeteries and near-abandoned synagogues. Along the way, as Klam weaves anecdotes with uncovered records, the sisters emerge as distinct individuals and, yes, almost legendary women. But in the end, The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters isn’t about the sisters so much as it’s about Klam’s search, her wrong turns and dead ends, and the sadder truths that family members papered over. “It turns out that finding the truth in a family can be tricky,” Klam notes, an understatement. The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters is an entertaining read that offers a substantial meditation on the meaning of family and what our ancestors mean to us, even when we can’t get as close as we’d like to their stories. —Sarah McCraw Crow

The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters By Julie Klam

Memoir Growing up in the 1970s, Julie Klam heard stories about her grandmother’s first cousins, the Morris sisters. Selma, Malvina, Marcella and Ruth Morris emigrated from Eastern Europe with their parents around 1900, were soon

reviews | nonfiction

H A Farewell to Gabo and


By Rodrigo García

H The Quiet Zone By Stephen Kurczy

Social Science Memoir

Rodrigo García is a film and television director, writer, cinematographer and son of the late Nobel winner Gabriel García Márquez, affectionately known as Gabo, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When García’s world-­ famous father began his long slide toward dementia, García began taking notes. “Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots,” he writes. “I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes.” All who have loved García Márquez’s works will rejoice that his son overcame that angst, dutifully waiting until after his father’s death in 2014 and his mother’s death in 2020 to publish his intimate, endearing tribute, A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes (HarperVia, $23.99, 9780063158337). García’s notes, acutely observational, are simultaneously infused with love, respect and the pain of loss. He admits that his relationships with his parents were complicated. Their lives had public, private and even secret components, and García frets about crossing lines that might leave his parents helplessly exposed. Still, from his dying father’s bedside in Mexico City to his last moment with his mother (shared digitally, as COVID-19 prevented him from traveling), García is a guardian of their dignity. Yet this memoir’s details are indeed intimate. We’re ushered into García Márquez’s study as he works, until the renowned author slowly realizes he no longer can. García’s mother rises above her grief, insisting that she is a woman, not a widow, as she entertains the flow of mourning guests from around the globe—even the complete stranger who manages to con her out of quite a bit of cash. We follow García into the crematorium as he gazes upon his father for the last time, tempering that blow with the thought that García Márquez might have enjoyed flirting with the funeral worker who gave his body a little makeup, a final flourish on his way out. Fittingly, García begins each chapter with an excerpt from one of his father’s works, and it’s this connection between life and art that holds his intense memoir together. As one epigraph from Love in the Time of Cholera puts it, “he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.” —Priscilla Kipp

Green Bank, West Virginia, is known as the quietest town in America. It’s a lushly forested place where a government-owned observatory requires unimaginable levels of quiet—so locals are asked to eschew cell phones, microwaves and Wi-Fi. Since the Green Bank Observatory was built in 1957, scientists there have quite literally listened to the universe through equipment that only works when it’s not competing with the electronic noise of modern society. Employees at the observatory have spent decades mitigating radio frequency noise, outfitting the Dollar General’s automated front door with conductive lead paint to block electromagnetic radiation and once even replacing a malfunctioning electric blanket in a local home. While some locals sneak in forbidden electric gadgets, Green Bank is a haven for those who seek unusual peace and quiet. When journalist Stephen Kurczy started visiting regularly in 2017, he quickly realized it’s an eclectic group. The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence (Dey Street, $27.99, 9780062945495) is his fascinating, deeply reported and slightly eerie look at an unusual corner of America. “Had I walked into a dream?” Kurczy wonders. “An elderly man was cohabitating with bears down the road from the world-famous clown doctor Patch Adams and just a few miles from a hippie enclave, all of them sharing a patch of Appalachia with world-renowned astronomers and secretive government operatives. The area seemed tinged with magical realism, with an impossible menagerie of eccentrics congregating in the forest.” How had so many disparate groups found their way to the same town in West Virginia? The truth is, many of them came there to be left alone. In repeated trips to Green Bank, Kurczy gets to know these various groups, from the white nationalists who attempted to build their headquarters there to a group of electrosensitives who become ill from even the slightest electromagnetic radiation and who moved to Green Bank to quell their sickness. Ultimately, Kurczy realizes Green Bank is not as silent as the media portrays it, but he brings to life other facets of this town that are even more intriguing. Kurczy becomes embedded in the community, and with compassion and a journalist’s eye he delivers a compelling portrait of a town where people struggle with the same issues as the rest of America, just a little more quietly. —Amy Scribner

The Ambassador By Susan Ronald

History Franklin Delano Roosevelt described Joseph Patrick Kennedy as “a very dangerous man.” Kennedy had political ambitions to be secretary of the treasury and then the first Roman Catholic president (a title that eventually went to his son John F. Kennedy). He became a prominent financial backer of FDR’s first two presidential campaigns and successfully served in two key governmental positions during FDR’s administration. Then he campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain. Despite serious reservations, FDR agreed to the appointment for his own political reasons. The result was a major diplomatic disaster. Using many newly available sources, Susan Ronald brings this pivotal point in history vividly to life in her meticulously researched The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s, 1938–1940 (St. Martin’s, $29.99, 9781250238726). As ambassador, Kennedy was primarily concerned with avoiding war. He grew close to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and became a fervent supporter of Chamberlain’s appeasement approach to dealing with Hitler. In a conversation with King George VI, Kennedy expressed his opinion that, if it came to war, “Britain will be thrashed and there will be nothing left of civilization to save after the war.” Kennedy was strongly anti-communist but failed to appreciate that fascism was not a better alternative. The ambassador often differed with FDR on policy, but despite this fact, Kennedy liked to give the impression that he was a policymaker and not just carrying out instructions, Ronald explains. By tracing the opinions Kennedy expressed, Ronald outlines the likelihood that he was antisemitic and a fascist sympathizer. “He was bedazzled by the Vatican, which sympathized with Franco and Mussolini for religious and venal reasons,” she writes, “and sought to placate Hitler before he turned on Catholics once the Jews had been exterminated.” She adds that Kennedy was antisemitic “through his own ignorance and prejudices” and “placed prosperity above human life and liberty, above democracies being crushed.” Although Kennedy failed as an ambassador and never again served in any public office, his wife and their large, attractive family made a positive impression on the American public. Three of his sons, with quite different political views from their father, were elected to high political offices. As John F. Kennedy said years later, “He made it all possible.” —Roger Bishop


reviews | young adult

In the Wild Light By Jeff Zentner

Fiction “My life is small and simple, but it’s a better one than I ever thought I’d have,” says Cash, the protagonist of Jeff Zentner’s fourth novel, In the Wild Light (Crown, $17.99, 9781524720247). After his best friend, Delaney, discovers a new bacteria in a local cave, she becomes a scientific sensation and nabs a scholarship to a fancy New England boarding school. There’s a catch though: She won’t go without Cash. Delaney is desperate to leave their small, opioid­ravaged town of Sawyer, Tennessee. But Cash’s guilt at leaving his ailing Papaw behind and his insecurity about cutting it at a private school initially cloud any visions he might have of a grander life. Zentner’s signature poetic prose is in full effect as he crafts sentences that read like sweet tea tastes and cotton feels. The gorgeous writing reflects the inherent romance of Cash’s new life on campus, where he forges new relationships with a girl who

Small Favors By Erin A. Craig

Speculative Fiction In the small community of Amity Falls, Ellerie Downing tends to her family’s beehives and secretly dreams of life beyond the woods that surround the village. But when townsfolk begin to go missing, tales of beasts that once stalked the settlement resurface. Could there be a terrifying reality behind the stories? Erin A. Craig’s second novel is another absorbing, uncanny tale that walks the fine line between fantasy and horror. A winding mystery loosely based on the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” Small Favors (Delacorte, $18.99, 9780593306741) takes a haunting look at the limits of human civility. Tensions rise among the people Ellerie once called her friends as strange phenomena start to occur. Animals give birth to grotesque creatures and ghosts are seen in places that later go up in flames. Claustrophobia and dread seep into the fabric of the community, and a stifling sense of hostility causes the town to turn on itself. Ellerie must uncover what’s really troubling Amity Falls before she loses the home and people she loves. Craig crafts the considerable cast of characters who surround Ellerie into a complex web of


teaches him about love, a boy who shows him the value of prayer and a teacher who helps him discover poetry, which he comes to rely on as a salve for life’s problems. Frankly, Zentner’s writing is romantic because his story demands it. Poetry, faith, science and, yes, even quiet porches in podunk Appalachian towns—this is the stuff of passion and worship. Every rose has its thorns, and In the Wild Light’s are particularly sharp. Its romance is balanced by tragedy and grief, which keep the story grounded and build enough tension to keep things from veering into the saccharine. The darkness that surrounds Cash and Delaney is enormous. Candid discussions of addiction and overdose abound,

and a scene of attempted sexual assault is a shock to the system. In the Wild Light is a love letter to possibility. Like the hero of the Pixar film Ratatouille who learns that “anyone can cook,” Cash (though not a rat, but certainly someone who feels like an outsider) learns that our creative impulses are an essential part of what we need to survive. Zentner, who, like Cash, calls Tennessee home, asserts that anyone, even kids from the rural South with unremarkable pedigrees and pasts scabbed over after trauma, can live beautiful lives full of love. In an author’s note included with advance editions, Zentner says every book he writes is a love story. You can tell. —Luis G. Rendon

personalities and relationships. Through her eyes, readers experience Amity Falls as a cozy and cordial place, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when the town begins to crumble. From gossip that permeates conversations at church to shocking accusations directed at old friends, Ellerie witnesses the transformation of Amity Falls into a place she hardly recognizes as home. As she confronts sinister and possibly otherworldly forces, readers must decide what’s real and who can be trusted. Small Favors is as much about humanity as it is about horror and poses provocative questions. What can we keep for ourselves, and what must we give up for others? How far are we willing to go for what we want? How will we know when we’ve sacrificed our souls in order to gain our heart’s desires? —Tami Orendain

a spell left her mother cursed to be transformed into a monstrous river siren each night, and now a string of girls has disappeared in the park. Among them is Rochelle Greymont, whose sister, Natasha, will stop at nothing to find her. While Natasha suspects Rochelle’s abusive boyfriend, Jake, of foul play, Della worries her bloodthirsty mother might be the real culprit. Natasha begs Della for magical assistance in tracking down Rochelle, but neither girl is prepared for the terrible secrets their search will unearth. The River Has Teeth (HarperTeen, $17.99, 9780062894250) is a richly atmospheric mystery that isn’t afraid to delve deep into the darkness of its premise, and the Bend provides a perfect backdrop for its story. It’s a foreboding place, steeped in a long history of violence and filled with creatures that are not what they seem to be. Even Della, who loves the Bend and feels connected to the rich plant life it harbors, can’t ignore the threat its increasingly twisted magic poses. While both Della and Natasha are driven by the need to protect the people they love, author Erica Waters never shies away from the harsher sides of her heroines. “I’d kill a hundred park visitors myself before I’d let my momma die,” Della admits, while Natasha wants Jake to suffer for how he treated her sister as much as she wants him to confess. Waters gives Della’s and Natasha’s feelings of rage, grief and fear space to seethe without judgment. The result is a cathartic portrait of two girls’ anger toward a world whose cruelty and injustice forced them to fight back. Full of dangers both magical and mundane, The River Has Teeth delivers ferociously good thrills. —RJ Witherow

The River Has Teeth By Erica Waters

Mystery Della Lloyd’s family has drawn magic from the Bend, a stretch of river and forest known to locals as Wood Thrush Nature Park, for generations. Recently, however, something has gone terribly wrong with the woods and their magic that Della can’t explain. Almost a year ago,

Visit to read a Behind the Book essay by Jeff Zentner.

feature | sports

Two powerful YA novels celebrate sports, friendship and the pursuit of justice. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and the scourge of sexism are front and center in these stories of talented, fierce girls who find collective power on and off the field. Read them and cheer! At 16 years old and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Mara Deeble has a few chips on her well-muscled shoulders, thanks to the suppressed anger she wrangles every day in the affecting, funny and timely Like Other Girls (Disney-Hyperion, $17.99, 9781368039925) by Britta Lundin, a writer on the CW show “Riverdale” and author of 2018’s Ship It. Mara’s got a three-pronged strategy to escape her conservative rural Oregon hometown. Step 1: Win a basketball scholarship. Step 2: Go to college in Portland. Step 3: Come out. For now, however, the pressure of her all-important plans and the time it’s taking to implement them is wearing her down. So, too, are her mother’s insistence that she attend church clad in a dress and heels and her frustration at having crushes she knows she can never act on. To top it all off, Mara gets booted from her beloved basketball team for fighting, and Coach Joyce says she can’t return unless she succeeds on another team—sans violence. Mara scornfully deems volleyball too girly, what with all the hair ribbons and giggling, so she joins the football team instead. Her brother, Noah, and her BFF, Quinn, are on it, and the three of them have been playing together since childhood. What could go wrong? Well. She’s spent years acting like just another one of the guys, so as Mara begins to actually excel on the gridiron, she’s surprised when her teammates’ sexism turns on her with full, resentful force. Even worse, four volleyball girls—including Mara’s frenemy, Carly, and crush, Valentina—join the team. Suddenly Mara’s a role model whether she likes it or not. (Reader, she does not.) A newcomer to town named Jupiter, who is an older, out lesbian, helps Maya reframe some of her own biases. She offers empathy even as she notes that the way Maya’s mother gatekeeps femininity is not all that different from how Mara stereotypes the volleyball girls. Jupiter also serves as a lovely, hope-inspiring example of what life could be like for Mara and her queer classmates someday. Along with suspenseful and exciting gameplay, Like Other Girls features a winning mix of coming-­of-age revelations, fun romantic subplots

and thought-provoking musings on what it really means to be comfortable with yourself as part of a family, a community and a team. Like Mara, high school junior and field hockey star Zoe Alamandar has a plan in Dangerous Play (Roaring Brook, $18.99, 9781250750488). She’ll lead her team to New York state field hockey championships victory, impress a scout from and get a full ride to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and bid her central New York hometown a hearty farewell. After a summer of training the team with co-captain Ava at her side, Zoe’s feeling pretty great about her chances for success. Her teammates are united in their shared goal. She’s had fun working at her uncle’s ice cream shack with her best friend, Liv. Her dad has been dealing with lingering pain from a work accident but has been more upbeat lately. Zoe might even get up the nerve to talk to her crush, a boy named Grove. In Dangerous Play, debut author Emma Kress demonstrates with devastating realism just how quickly things can change. When Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, her optimism and confidence are crushed under the weight of PTSD, and her bright “fockey”­-filled future now seems impossibly far away. Kress, who has worked as a sexual violence peer counselor, writes in her author’s note that she “wanted to examine what happens to a group of girls and their community when rape culture goes unchecked.” She has created a memorable portrait of a girl who struggles with her new reality as emotions roll over her like so much rough surf. But what if the team could prevent the same thing from happening to other girls? Vengeance takes center stage as a new mission generates excitement and controversy among the girls. They’re an adventurous bunch (parkour is a beloved team hobby), but how far is too far? And who gets to decide what equals justice? Dangerous Play celebrates female friendship with wit, heart and plenty of pulse-pounding field hockey action as the championship game draws ever closer. Readers will root for Zoe, her teammates and their families as they strive to find common ground: “We’re all strands of yarn and gradually . . . we knit together and become something. Something bigger.” —Linda M. Castellitto


q&a | malla nunn

Root memory An acclaimed writer captures the spirit of young South Africans in Sugar Town Queens. Malla Nunn is the author of four highly praised crime novels for adults, as well as the young adult novel When the Ground Is Hard, which won the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. Her new YA novel, Sugar Town Queens (Putnam, $17.99, 9780525515609), tells the story of a biracial teen girl named Amandla who lives with her unstable white mother, Annalisa, in the impoverished neighborhood of Sugar Town on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa. Amandla discovers a secret that Annalisa has long hidden from her, and the revelation upends both of their lives. You were born in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and have lived in the U.S. and Australia, but South Africa takes precedence in your fiction. What is it about South Africa that commands your imagination? I ask myself that question all the time! My childhood was embedded in the smell, dirt and heat of rural Eswatini, and those memories have a powerful hold on me. My attachment to southern Africa is confounding. Being there ties me in knots. I swing between anger, anxiety and a hopeless, blinding love for the place. Call it “unfinished business” or “unrealized trauma,” but southern Africa owns a piece of my heart that no other place can lay claim to. You wrote your first mystery series for the adult market, but your recent books are for young adults. What drew you to writing for teens? Crime writers spend a lot of time delving into the dark side of human emotions. I love that so many YA stories cover hard topics and still work their way to hope. There’s also a special magic in firsts. First love. First “best friend forever.” First time realizing that your parents are flawed. First broken heart. The path to the future is still being built, and that gives teenagers a special power. Crafting a story with struggle and hope at its heart is deeply satisfying. I love that teenagers are on the cusp of making discoveries about life and love and what the future might hold. Amandla is on the bridge from girlhood to adulthood, and that’s what makes her life and her experiences in the township so special. She’s old enough to be aware of the dangers of Sugar Town but young enough to dream of a better life. Long-buried family secrets are at the heart of Sugar Town Queens. What inspired the novel? The inspiration for Sugar Town Queens comes from real-life moments when I’ve wondered what my life might have looked like had my parents stayed in southern Africa instead of migrating to Australia. In that “what-if” dream space, my visions


of poverty and helplessness are tempered by memories of growing up in a close-knit community with countless aunties and friends. You do a beautiful job of making Annalisa and Amandla’s home come alive on the page. How did you accomplish this? Years ago, I sent my father a link to a photo essay of “poor whites” living in a township and basically said, “Why should I feel sorry for people who were given every advantage by the government and did nothing with it?” My father’s answer, “I’m sad for everyone who has to live such a hard life,” cooled my anger. Life in the townships is hard. For everyone. When it came time to write Sugar Town Queens, the township location was there waiting for me, but it was tempered by my father’s humanity. Evoking Amandla and Annalisa’s home came easily, and I wasn’t surprised to find (through my father and older sister) that the first house we lived in as a family was a one-room shack with dirt floors and no running water. Call it root memory. I knew every detail of Amandla’s home even though I was too young to recall sleeping on the floor with my siblings. The racial dynamics of contemporary South Africa play a prominent role in the story, as the novel takes us into intimate spaces within vastly different segments of a stratified and still somewhat segregated society. How much of what we see on the page comes from research and how much from your own personal experience? Pretty much everything that made it into the pages of Sugar Town Queens has a personal component. The location, Sugar Town, is partly based on a “government area” that my mixed-race cousins were forced to move to after their homes inside Durban city were reclassified as “whites only.” On my rare visits back to southern Africa, I have moved (in the space of a few hours) from a rarified beach suburb with ocean views to a one-room tin shack in the country. The gap between rich and poor is shocking. Amandla’s journey takes her from the bottom rung of society, where a majority of Black South Africans still live, to the very top of the economic system, where white South Africans still dominate. I have seen and lived this disparity in real life and real time, so no research was needed. Throughout the book, I got the sense that the late South African president and freedom fighter

Nelson Mandela left an indelible feeling of idealism among South Africans—a multiracial, egalitarian national dream that had not yet been reached but was still held sacred. Do you think the idealism of Amandla and her friends is unique to young South Africans, or is it more universal? Their idealism is deeply rooted in South African soil, but it’s also universal. Social inequality and poverty are part of Amandla’s life, but millions of girls around the world share the same struggles. In a strange way, the more location-specific the struggle, the more universal it becomes. What is unique about South Africa is that the young are living in the shadow of a dream that felt so close to being realized after Mandela’s release. They were promised freedom and opportunity and watched those promises disappear before their eyes. The disappointment and anger is fresh. Reality has fallen short of Mandela’s promises, and a hunger for justice and change has ignited a fire in a new generation of South Africans. Connection is such an important part of Amandla’s culture, yet she and her mother are living very disconnected, isolated lives at the start of the novel. Could you talk about the concept of Ubuntu, how it informs the book and what that means to Amandla? Ubuntu is the concept that “a person is a person through other people.” We are all connected together, and this sense of togetherness is necessary for us to live a full and meaningful life. Both Amandla and her white mother are so focused on getting out of Sugar Town that they miss the opportunity to connect with others. When Amandla is forced to ask her neighbor for help, she finds kindness and connection. One brief visit opens Amandla’s world up to other people and other ways of doing things. She begins to live more fully inside Sugar Town, and when danger comes to her door it is Ubuntu, not isolation, that saves her. —Carole V. Bell Visit to read our starred review of Sugar Town Queens.

feature | back to school

First-day feelings

These picture books will help children approach the first day of school with confidence and kindness. Backpack? Check. Crayons? Check. Positive attitude? Check. Having the right mentality when you set out for the first day of school is just as important as remembering to bring all your supplies. These books will ensure that students enter their new classrooms fully prepared for success. First days don’t always go smoothly, as one girl discovers in Becoming Vanessa (Knopf, $17.99, 9780525582120, ages 3 to 6), a vibrant story about feeling confident in new situations. Vanessa carefully curates her own first-day outfit—a tutu, yellow feather boa, polka-dot leggings, shiny red shoes and a jaunty green beret—in the hopes that her new classmates will “tell right away that she [is] someone they should know.” But Vanessa’s delight in her ensemble turns to dismay when her boa keeps shedding feathers, her shoes hurt and the student seated behind her can’t see past her hat. The next morning, Vanessa picks out a more ordinary outfit, until her mom tells her that Vanessa means metamorphosis. “I gave you a name that would help you become whoever you want to be,” she explains. Vanessa heads to school with newfound assurance in her outfit and her identity. Author-illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s collage artwork is a visual feast that sizzles with color, pattern and movement. Vanessa’s school is full of lively and diverse characters with big, engaging facial expressions. Careful observers will enjoy noticing clever details in the illustrations, such as ledger paper used for the classroom rug and newsprint and dictionary pages for the desks. Brantley-Newton also wonderfully incorporates the theme of metamorphosis throughout the book. One especially beautiful and touching full-page spread depicts Vanessa, who has gone to bed in tears, wrapped up in a patchwork quilt that strongly suggests a chrysalis, floating on a deep blue, star-filled background. Inspired by Brantley-Newton’s personal experiences, Becoming Vanessa is paced just right and squarely addresses real fears and emotions in a compelling, empowering way. It’s OK to feel shy, a young dinosaur named Norman learns in Norman’s First Day at Dino Day Care (NorthSouth, $17.95, 9780735844148, ages 4 to 8), a sweet saga with a delightful prehistoric setting guaranteed to appeal to the pre-K crowd. Author-illustrator Sean Julian’s dinosaurs come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but Norman is among the smallest. The adorable fellow is so good at hiding that when he’s introduced, one of his classmates asks, “Is Norman an invisible dinosaur?” Norman’s teacher, a purple pterodactyl named Miss Beak, reassures him that his shyness “is a special part of who you are” and adds that the afternoon’s group activity will allow everyone to “discover what other amazing qualities you have hidden inside.” Norman’s partner, Jake, feels just as shy as Norman, but together they devise a creative way to overcome their fears. The day care setting shows what a warm and welcoming place school can be. Readers will delight in finding Norman’s many hiding spots. (Hint: Norman’s tiny tail often gives away his location.) Julian’s dinosaurs are cute and friendly, and Miss Beak is exactly the sort of teacher every parent and new student would hope for. Norman’s First Day at Dino Day Care is a much-needed rejoinder to the well-intentioned advice “don’t be shy.” This gentle tale suggests an alternative

approach: learning to recognize and accept who you are, while also discovering how to use those qualities to be part of a team. Author Reem Faruqi’s exceptional I Can Help (Eerdmans, $17.99, 9780802855046, ages 4 to 8) commands attention from its very first sentence: “Just when the leaves are thinking of changing colors to look like the spices Nana cooks with, school starts.” Narrator Zahra explains that she enjoys helping Kyle, a classmate who excels at drawing and drumming but needs help reading and writing. Faruqi establishes their strong bond in a series of scenes brought to life by illustrator Mikela Prevost. The vignettes exude youthful fun as well as Zahra’s pride in helping her friend. But poison lurks in the background, in the form of classmates Tess and Ashley. Prevost introduces them in an expertly composed spread in which Zahra swings blissfully high into the treetops while Tess and Ashley denigrate Kyle below, calling him a “baby” and “weird.” Zahra overhears their words, which awaken her own “mean voice” and ultimately destroy her friendship with Kyle—even as she yearns to do the right thing. One of this story’s many strengths is its authenticity. Zahra’s narration captures how easily we can be filled with unkind thoughts and conflicting emotions. Notably, the situation between Zahra and Kyle is never resolved, because Zahra’s family moves away, though she chooses a different path when a similar situation arises at her new school. An author’s note reveals that I Can Help is based on an experience from Faruqi’s own childhood. “I regret my actions to this day,” she writes in a striking disclosure. In her own note, Prevost adds that her diagnosis of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis caused her peers to see her differently and that she is thankful to those who “risked looking ’weird’ ” to help her. I Can Help is a memorable story about the rippling and lingering effects of cruelty and the redeeming power of kindness. Going to school can be tricky not just for the new student but also for the sibling left behind. In Henry at Home (Clarion, $17.99, 9781328916754, ages 4 to 7), a boy is completely gobsmacked to discover that his big sister and best buddy, Liza, is abandoning him to go to kindergarten. Henry is so angry that he stomps on Liza’s new crayons and roars after she hops on the school bus. A wonderful sequence shows all the experiences the siblings have had together, including scaling the furniture, capturing imaginary leopards and getting haircuts and even flu shots together. Most of all, they enjoyed swinging and relaxing at their gnarly Twisty Tree, bathed in sunlight and shades of green, gold and brown. Author Megan Maynor captures the passions of these young siblings in crisp prose. Alea Marley’s luminous illustrations convey their creative play and the bond that Henry and Liza have shared, as well as Henry’s anger and Liza’s excitement. Her warm tones provide a sense of security and help readers understand how Henry feels when things change. The illustrations completely focus on the siblings and their world, pointedly depicting only the legs and feet of a few adults. Henry learns to have fun on his own, and soon he and Liza are happily reunited at their Twisty Tree. Henry at Home is an excellent reminder that precious relationships can survive great change and that independence can strengthen, not threaten, a special bond. —Alice Cary


reviews | children’s

Being Clem By Lesa Cline-Ransome

Middle Grade On the very first page of Lesa Cline-­ Ransome’s Being Clem (Holiday House, $17.99, 9780823446049, ages 8 to 12), a knock at the door brings terrible news: Clem’s father has been killed in the 1944 shipyard munitions accident that will become known as the Port Chicago disaster. Clem’s mother, unable to find anyone willing to hire a Black secretary, is soon behind on the rent, and his older sisters, busy with friends and boys, have little time for their little brother’s grief. When Clem skips a grade to attend middle school, he begins hanging out with Lymon, a new boy in town. But when Lymon begins to bully another new boy, Langston, who shares Clem’s affinity for the local public library, Clem must make a difficult choice. Should he go along with Lymon, despite his misgivings, or stand up for the new boy—but risk losing a friend in the process?

H I Am the Subway

By Kim Hyo-eun Translated by Deborah Smith

Picture Book Kim Hyo-eun’s splendid picture book, originally published in South Korea in 2016 and translated into English by Deborah Smith, is told from the perspective of a subway train in Seoul: “Carrying people from one place to another, I travel over the ground and rumble under, twice across the wide Han River.” Everyone has a story, and the train listens to and observes its passengers closely, capturing the nuances of their personalities. There’s Mr. Wanju, always running for the train so that he can spend as much time as possible at home with his daughter. There’s Mr. Jae-sung, a cobbler who “can tell so much about a person just from looking at their shoes.” There’s Na-yoon, a student taking classes after school who is “so tired she’s barely awake.” In alternating spreads that briefly shift among the different riders’ points of view, we follow these characters into their lives beyond the subway’s cars. Thanks to the subway train’s musings, readers gain poignant glimpses into the joys, sorrows and hopes of these passengers. The train’s voice is tender and compassionate, and the sound of its movement, “ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum,” is a refrain that anchors the book. Early spreads feature smudgy faces in shadow,


As if all this weren’t enough for one boy to deal with, Clem’s swimming lessons aren’t going smoothly either. How can Clem grow up to be a Navy man like his father when he’s afraid of the pool? Clem may know all the answers in school, but there’s still so much he doesn’t understand. Although Being Clem can be read independently, fans of Cline-Ransome’s previous books Finding Langston (which received a Coretta Scott King Honor) and Leaving Lymon will appreciate the daring narrative choice to place Clem in friendships with her two previous protagonists—who are, in turn, one another’s enemies. Cline-Ransome also fills Being Clem with rich details from 1940s Chicago, including the real-life,

but the faces of the riders whom the subway introduces are distinct and detailed. Kim’s eloquent, fine-lined watercolor illustrations capture the commuters’ humanity and the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as mundane. In a striking closing spread, “a gentle afternoon light . . . washes over everything,” and the image’s composition draws our attention not to the subway riders in the upper left-hand corner of the spread but to the light hitting the floor of the car—the extraordinary amid the ordinary. A poetic tribute to Seoul and its people, I Am the Subway (Scribble, $18.99, 9781950354658, ages 5 to 8) makes for an unforgettable journey. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. —Julie Danielson

H Dead Wednesday By Jerry Spinelli

Middle Grade Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli has created another middle grade masterpiece with Dead Wednesday (Knopf, $17.99, 9780593306673, ages 10 and up), a riveting tale about the awkward transition between middle school and high school and finding the confidence to be yourself along the way. It’s a serious story of life, death and

award-winning DuSable High School swim team, whose members were Black and against whom some white teams refused to compete. Cline-Ransome explores societal issues of race, class and gender alongside Clem’s more internal struggles to express difficult emotions like fear and sadness. Being Clem gains poignancy from Clem’s personal journey as he mourns the father for whom he is named and whose legacy he hopes he will one day honor. —Jill Ratzan Visit to read our Q&A with Lesa Cline-Ransome.

mortality that speaks to tweens in an authentic and frequently funny voice. As he did in his Newbery Honor novel, Wringer, which depicted a town’s requirement that boys wring the necks of pigeons shot during an annual festival, Spinelli places another seemingly ghastly tradition at the center of Dead Wednesday. In this case, Robbie Tarnauer, known as Worm, is thrilled to finally be participating in “Dead Wednesday,” a day in which eighth graders take on the identities of the town’s teenagers who have recently died. Adults spend the day ignoring them, treating them as though they’re dead and therefore invisible. It’s intended, of course, to be a solemn affair that warns against dangerous, reckless behavior and its deadly consequences. For the kids, however, Dead Wednesday is a day of strange freedom and pranks. Worm receives the identity of 17-year-old Becca Finch, who suddenly, mysteriously appears on his desk at school. She can interact with him but is invisible to others. “Worm,” she informs him, “we have to work together on this. I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do.” Worm and Becca get to know each other and eventually enjoy each other’s company. In a particularly moving passage, Becca explains the events leading up to her death and addresses the aftermath. Spinelli takes an odd situation and makes it odder, but in his talented hands, the unbelievable becomes not only believable but also unputdownable. Worm is a shy, thoughtful and self-conscious protagonist whose quips will immediately draw readers in. He usually wears a watch, “a kind of compass that positions him in time and space,” but as he interacts with Becca, it becomes clear that all bets are off. Dead Wednesday is about how

reviews | children’s

Moon Pops

By Heena Baek Translated by Jieun Kiaer

Picture Book The moon is melting, but Granny saves the day in this picture book originally published in South Korea and now translated into English by Jieun Kiaer. Author-illustrator Heena Baek won the 2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and this is the

first of her books to be published in English. Based on the Korean fable of the moon rabbit, the tale takes place in a multistory apartment building at night. It stands tall against a pitchblack sky as we peer into each apartment to gaze at the tenants and their homes. The residents are anthropomorphized animals, and Granny is a bespectacled wolf. The summer heat is oppressive—“too hot to do anything”—and the sense of claustrophobia and sweat is palpable. Descriptive onomatopoeia (“whir-whir” and “hum-hum”) capture the animals’ attempts to cool off by firing up their air conditioners, turning on fans and opening refrigerator doors.

Moon Pops is a beguiling and delightful tale that’s cool in more ways than one. When Granny discovers that the moon is melting—the dripping luminescent moon makes for a surreal and indelible image—she catches some

drops in a bucket and whips up a batch of glowing moon pops, which cool everyone off. Then two hapless bucktoothed rabbits appear at her door. “Our home has melted away,” they explain. Ever resourceful, Granny brainstorms a creative way to send them back to their “home in the sky.” Baek illustrates the tale with photographs of intricate 3D dioramas that use light and shadow to beguiling effect. The image of the tenants enjoying their moon pops, which also adorns the book’s cover, shows the creatures gazing incredulously at their gleaming treats in the dark of night, their faces illuminated by their moon pops’ light. Granny’s solution for getting the rabbits back to their home on the moon also involves shimmering lights and sparkling orbs that shine against the starless sky. Moon Pops (Owlkids, $18.95, 9781771474290, ages 4 to 7) is a strange and delightful tale made for lingering over—and perfect for reading with your own moon pop. (You can always grab an ice pop from the freezer and pretend it’s lunar.) Leave room on your summer reading list for this story that is cool in more ways than one. —Julie Danielson


we choose to spend what time we have and how quickly that time can be lost. “You taught me more in one afternoon than I learned in my whole life,” Worm tells Becca. These are unforgettable characters, and Dead Wednesday is another award-­ worthy book from an author cementing his legacy. —Alice Cary

Author-illustrator C.G. Esperanza’s Boogie Boogie, Y’all (Katherine Tegen, $18.99, 9780062976222, ages 4 to 8) is the surreal story of the day that all the graffiti in the neighborhood leapt off the walls and came to life. It’s a vibrant tribute to the power of art to transform our everyday world. Esperanza was born and raised in the Bronx in New York City. He is also the author-illustrator of Red, Yellow, Blue (and a Dash of White, Too!) and illustrated Tania Grossinger’s Jackie and Me.