September 2023 BookPage

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The most literary season of the year brings new novels from talents like LAUREN GROFF , MICK HERRON , ZADIE SMITH and WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER , whose latest standalone, The River We Remember, is as good as mystery gets.



Michael A. Zibart


Elizabeth Grace Herbert


Sharon Kozy


Mary Claire Zibart


Roger Bishop




Savanna Walker


Phoebe Farrell-Sherman

Yi Jiang

the secret backstory of Slough House


Meagan Vanderhill


Katherine Klockenkemper


Eric A. Ponce


Emma Rosenberg


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


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SEPTEMBER 2023 features q&a | s.l. huang ........................................... 4 The Water Outlaws is a paean to liberation and
blast q&a | mick herron ......................................... 9 In The Secret Hours, the
cover story | william kent krueger ........................... 10 A murder rips a midcentury Minnesota town apart in his new standalone mystery q&a | mitchell s. jackson ................................... 12 Fly is a gorgeous, glamorous look at the intersection of fashion and basketball feature | parenting ........................................ 13 Four parenting books with advice on diet culture, social media and more feature | christian fiction ................................... 14 The joys and complexities of familial relationships feature | bestseller watch .................................. 15 Watch for these six books from popular authors interview | etaf rum ....................................... 16 Her first novel was an instant bestseller—now she’s processing the aftermath interview | grace lin ....................................... 28 A mouthwatering tribute to American Chinese foods feature | meet the author .................................. 31 Meet Aya Ghanameh, the author-illustrator of These Olive Trees reviews fiction .................. 19 nonfiction ............. 23 young adult ............ 27 children’s .............. 30 columns romance ................ 5 book clubs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 lifestyles ................ 6 audio ................... 7 whodunit ................ 8
Cover inspired by The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger (Atria). Images Used: Dan Thornberg / Shutterstock. Goinyk / Adobe Stock.
resistance—and also an absolute
author reveals

A battle cry of a book

The Water Outlaws is a paean to liberation and resistance—and also an absolute blast.

In their high-octane and highly entertaining update of Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel about a band of noble bandits facing off against an oppressive government, S.L. Huang evokes the joyous spirit of classic martial arts films.

The characters of Lin Chong, a combat instructor who eventually joins the bandits, and Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s aristocratic students, feel like they are in conversation. Did you conceive of them as two sides of the same coin from the start?

It’s somewhat unusual for me to plan a character arc to this extent, but yes, that was 100% planned. In the real world, I’m frequently frustrated by a sort of “flattening” of people who are in marginalized spaces; we’re frequently perceived as a monolith who must all have the same views and make the same choices. In reality, there are plenty of difficult intracommunity conversations.

I wanted to portray real-feeling people who cannot be easily “purity tested.” Lin Chong has had to fight and claw to achieve an unusual job and status for a woman, but is determined to keep her head down so as not to lose what she’s wrought for herself. Lu Junyi has more high-flying ideals, but she can also afford to: She’s wealthy and insulated, and her social progressivism is more of an academic than a lived variety. Both are good people on the whole, and both are somewhat frustrated by the other’s politics.


Without giving too much away, I wanted their arcs to, in a way, reflect and cross—and for both of them to fall toward a messier gray area where they have to acknowledge hard truths about themselves and their society.

Historically, there’s been a dearth of middle-aged protagonists—especially middle-aged women—in science fiction and fantasy, but that has begun to change in recent years. Why did you decide to center this story around older characters?

Partly because there HAS been such a dearth of such characters—I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.

But also, for the story I wanted to tell, I needed characters who had some amount of life experience. I didn’t want this to be a story of only young prodigies; I wanted this to be a story that included people who’d had time to build extensive pasts, histories and baggage.

Many scenes—and characters!—are equal parts humorous and deadly. Why was it important to you to strike that balance?

The light but true answer is that I grew up on action-comedy movies! I love action, and I love it even more when it’s lightened by humor.

As much as I tried to treat the themes of The Water Outlaws deeply and seriously, I also wanted it to be escapist and fun.

You’re also a Hollywood stunt performer and your love of choreography shines in The Water Outlaws, as does your love of wuxia, the Chinese historical fantasy genre that focuses on martial artists. What drew you to those worlds?

Honestly, I think the same thing that draws a lot of us to sci-fi & fantasy—a hunger for adventure and a love of imagination.

I’ve said before that I think I ended up doing stunts because it’s basically extreme LARPing, ha. I guess I never grew out of yearning for that immersive experience of living the stories I grew up with. And my favorites were always the ones with swords!

How did you approach translating the fantastical brutality of wuxia onto the page?

I tend to write my action in what I like to describe as a “cinematic” way, in that I want it to feel both real and also slightly larger than life. This fits very well with wuxia, which tends to have a similar feel—think, for instance, of martial arts movies that engage in fantastical wire work without any acknowledgment of special powers.

It’s always important to me to engage with the harm and consequences of physical violence—but equally important to me to write glorious, imagination-spanning sword fights!

We don’t see a lot of magic in the early parts of the book, but it’s always hovering on the edges of your world. What was interesting to you about taking this understated approach to magic?

This was very much informed by my love of wuxia! Supernatural elements are often extremely understated, or an accepted part of the world that only comes up when it comes up. It’s not an approach I see a lot in European-derived fantasy—where the magical world building is often a central focus—and I was very interested in writing in that paradigm.

Classical Chinese literature also tends toward this approach to the supernatural, that it’s an expected part of the world and not the focus of the narrative. This includes Water Margin, which was the direct inspiration that I was reimagining in this book!

You have a beautiful way of bringing the nuances of gender fluidity to life. Why was it important for you to explore this in The Water Outlaws? Well, it’s personal to me and to many of my friends. My day-to-day life intersects with a lot of queer spaces, so the gender diversity of the bandits is simply a reflection of my reality!

(Although I adjusted the terminology and dialogue about it for my fantasy world, as I didn’t want it to feel exactly one-to-one with how any modern culture talks about it today.)

4 q&a | s.l. huang
“I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.”
H The Water Outlaws Tordotcom, $28.99 9781250180421
Visit to read our starred review of The Water Outlaws. © CHRIS MASSA

H Love Me Do

Lindsey Kelk’s sparkling Love Me Do (HarperCollins, $17.99, 9780008619329) is a fish-out-of-water rom-com with a Cyrano twist. Phoebe Chapman arrives in Los Angeles from England seeking a much-needed vacation and a distraction from her ex’s impending nuptials. Her sister was going to host her, but an unexpected business trip leaves Phoebe navigating the Hollywood Hills on her own. She’s fascinated by the neighborhood, by her sister’s sprightly personal trainer, Bel, and particularly by hunky carpenter Ren Garcia in the house next door. But since she’ll only be in town a short time, Phoebe tries to help Bel win the romantic Ren’s heart, using her writing skills to pen a killer love letter. Kelk offers a golden-hued, fairy-tale vision of LA, complete with a wild celebrity party and a mischievous octogenarian actor. Told from Phoebe’s self-deprecating and charming first-person perspective, Love Me Do is pure fun.

My Rogue to Ruin

The wild Wynchester family is back in Erica Ridley’s My Rogue to Ruin (Forever, $16.99, 9781538726112). An artist and forger, Marjorie Wynchester has always been overshadowed by her more flamboyant siblings. While she carries the same fire in her heart to right wrongs, she’s never felt capable of taking the lead on one of their crime-solving endeavors—until now. That fire leads her straight into the den of a notorious blackmailer and into the arms of Lord Adrian Webb, who has had a scandalous reputation ever since his father disowned him. But Marjorie sees the goodness in Adrian and as they team up to stop the blackmailer and save Adrian’s sister from ruin, they both begin to see themselves differently and appreciate family in a truer way. Cleverly plotted and filled with nonstop action and the delightful and talented Wynchester clan (including their fabulous woodland pets), this Regency romance will have readers speeding through the pages and smiling all the while.

My Roommate Is a Vampire

The title of Jenna Levine’s debut says it all: My Roommate Is a Vampire (Berkley, $17, 9780593548912). This breezy contemporary romance introduces the reader to Chicagoan Cassie Greenberg, a struggling 32-year-old artist who’s just desperate enough to respond to a toogood-to-be-true Craigslist ad for a roommate. The ad was posted by the awkward and strangely formal Frederick J. Fitzwilliam, who claims to sleep during the day and work at night. Though Cassie’s a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan, it takes time for her to suss out that Frederick’s a vamp, but by then, she’s already lusting after her charming, handsome and cool-to-the-touch roommate. Though hundreds of years old, Frederick appreciates Cassie’s looks, her art and just her. With steamy scenes and a bit of danger, this is an amusing, lighter look at love with the undead.

Ex-con Turned Super Hero Tells All

romance by christie ridgway
Christie Ridgway is a lifelong romance reader and a published romance novelist of over 60 books.
© 2023 MARVEL
“When the other Avengers wondered who should write a book about us, I knew Scott was the guy. He’s been full of surprises since the day we met, and this book is no exception. Everyone should read it.”

An autumn syllabus

Set in the 1800s, R.F. Kuang’s historical fantasy novel Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (Harper Voyager, $20, 9780063021433) follows the adventures of Robin Swift, a Chinese student at the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, where the act of translation is used to derive magical power. Though languages like Robin’s native Cantonese are the source of much of this power, Britain and its ruling class reaps almost all of the benefits. As Robin progresses at the institute, his loyalties are tested when Britain threatens war with China. The politicization of language and the allure of institutional power are among the book’s rich discussion topics.

Jason Fitger, the protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s witty campus novel Dear Committee Members (Anchor, $16, 9780345807335), teaches creative writing and literature at Payne University, where he contends with funding cuts and diminishing department resources. He also frequently writes letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, and it’s through these letters that the novel unfolds. Schumacher uses this unique spin on the epistolary novel to create a revealing portrait of a curmudgeonly academic struggling to navigate the complexities of campus life. Reading groups will savor this shrewdly trenchant take on the higher-ed experience, and if you find yourself wanting to sign up for another course with Professor Fitger, Schumacher’s two sequels (The Shakespeare Requirement and The English Experience—see our review of the latter on page 20) are also on the syllabus.

For a surrealist send-up of the liberal arts world, turn to Mona Awad’s clever, disturbing Bunny (Penguin, $18, 9780525559757). Samantha Mackey made it into the MFA creative writing program of Warren University thanks to a scholarship. The other writers—a tightknit circle of wealthy young women known as the Bunnies—convene regularly for a horrifying ritual. When Samantha is invited to take part, she learns difficult lessons about female friendship and her own identity. This haunting, often funny novel probes the dark side of academia and the challenges of the artistic process.

In her uncompromising, upfront memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up (McClelland & Stewart, $14.95, 9780771062209), Eternity Martis writes about being a Black student at Western University, a mostly white college in Ontario. Martis was initially thrilled to attend the university, but the racism she experienced in the classroom and in social settings made her question her life choices. Her smart observations, unfailing sense of humor and invaluable reporting on contemporary education make this a must-read campus memoir.

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

lifestyles by susannah felts

H Company

I began reading Company (Norton, $40, 9781324001508) a few months ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. This buzzy cookbook simmers cozily with very fine food writing and a particular Midwestern nonchalance that has my heart. Amy Thielen—a two-time James Beard Award winner and author of a memoir, Give a Girl a Knife—focuses here on comfort-food-forward menus for gatherings of six to 20 people, from “Saturday Night” to “Casual Walkabouts.” Nota bene: I am not, and probably never will be, a person who enjoys throwing dinner parties. But when Thielen says, “I probably shouldn’t say this . . . but when you’re having people over, the food doesn’t really matter,” I’m listening. (I’m still not ready to have even six people over, but I’m listening.) When she details “anti-hero appetizers,” such as warm bean dip or pickles, I’m leaning in. When she gets into “two weeks of Christmas, starting with the sweets,” I’m hungry but wary, until she describes herself as a “cackling enabler,” and I’m fully in again. When, in “a lazy summer’s day lunch,” she includes Black Currant Finger Jell-O and says, “You can just cut off a hunk of the Jell-O with a knife and walk around the house with it as you pick up clutter,” I’m utterly smitten.

Find More Birds

So much of watching birds is about being a) still and quiet, and b) familiar with bird behaviors, as one learns in Find More Birds (The Experiment, $17.95, 9781615199402), a book that makes you slap your head and think, “Why has no one done this before?!” Birding books typically center on the what (kinds of birds one hopes to see) rather than the how. As Heather Wolf points out, “the bulk of bird-finding is wrapped up in a multitude of tidbits of experience, knowledge, and intuition gleaned from years of observing birds,” and that’s just what she passes along here in morsels that make birding feel accessible, even fail proof. Wolf shows us how to home in on birds in almost any situation—at a superstore, in the car, on a college campus, by a body of water—and offers sound advice for finding birding buddies, too.

Share Your Joy

One of my neighborhood’s charming features is a “Little Free Art Library” where passersby are encouraged to both take and drop diminutive works of art. I have gleaned several works from the library and now, I will be able to return the gift with the help of Sarah J. Gardner’s projects in Share Your Joy (Quarto, $22.99, 9780760383094). Mixed-media is this artist’s sweet spot; for her, it’s about gathering materials, “surrendering to the process” and shifting focus away from the outcome. You’ll end up with a greeting card or small journal to mail to a friend. Gardner’s projects are an art-supply lover’s dream (I’m convinced I must add both a brayer and stencils to my stash), allowing for exploration of color and pattern and effects. While there is room within these projects to assert personal style, they provide ample direction to finish something and see the results.

clubs by julie hale
Take your book club back to school with tomes that spotlight the scandals and drama of academia.
Susannah Felts is a Nashville-based writer and co-founder of  The Porch, a literary arts organization. She enjoys anything paper- or plant-related.

Zero Days

Actor Imogen Church returns to voice another of Ruth Ware’s thrillers, Zero Days (Simon & Schuster Audio, 14 hours), the story of two hired hackers whose assignment to test a corporation’s security system goes badly awry. Madly in love, Jack and her husband, Gabe, cannot stop flirting with each other, but Church balances their passion with tension. When Gabe turns up dead, Jack becomes the main suspect and must go on the run while trying to find the real killer. Church narrates at the pace of a racing heartbeat, leaving the listener hanging onto every word.

Better Living Through Birding

Christian Cooper came to national prominence as the Central Park birdwatcher who was the target of a racist incident in 2020, but that viral episode hardly defines his life story. In Better Living Through Birding (Random House Audio, 10.5 hours), Cooper delves into his identities as a gay man, a Black person, a devotee of comic books and superheroes—and, of course, a birder.

Cooper makes a compelling argument for his obsession—er, hobby—to become more inclusive. His voice is warm and approachable, and the bird songs that punctuate section and chapter breaks offer clever and appropriate ambiance.


In Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets (Random House Audio, 9 hours), New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger searches for the truth about his grandfather, a former Nazi party chief who was credited with shielding an Alsace village from Nazi reprisals—and also accused of being a war criminal who ordered the death of an innocent man.

Inflected by his fluency in German, and with a barely perceptible Oklahoma twang, Bilger’s voice is neither purely one thing nor another, but rather an unexpected amalgam reminding the listener that human stories are not drawn in black and white but in complex shades of gray.

The Covenant of Water

Abraham Verghese narrates his second novel, The Covenant of Water (Recorded Books, 31.5 hours), which follows three generations of a South Indian family from 1900 to the late 1970s. The tale begins with 12-year-old Mariamma, who is arranged to be married to a 40-year-old man whose family members have a “condition” that leads to water-related deaths. Verghese poetically weaves the family’s faith and mysticism as they search for an explanation for these losses.

There’s no denying that this ambitious novel makes for a very long audiobook, but the deep tenderness Verghese’s narration gives to the experiences of his ensemble cast will carry listeners through the whole tale.



The Second Murderer

Many a mystery writer has taken a shot at reimagining the work of Raymond Chandler, usually with mixed results. But in The Second Murderer , Denise Mina seamlessly resurrects Chandler’s supersleuth Philip Marlowe, right from the opening line: “I was in my office, feet up, making use of a bottle of mood-straightener I kept in the desk.” As was often the case with Marlowe as penned by Chandler, our hero can be found in a high-society mansion in one scene and sleeping off a hangover in a Skid Row flophouse in the next, but he’s a breed apart in both milieus. The Second Murderer is a pre-World War II, Los Angeles-set PI mystery, but with a modern sensibility—and it plays much better than one might expect of such an amalgam. Marlowe’s latest gig is to track down missing socialite Chrissie Montgomery, who will be in possession of a sizable bank account once her father dies—an event that could happen at any moment, by the looks of him. To ensure that Chrissie is found, her father insists that Marlowe team up with Anne Riordan, a gumshoe who is also the head of a detective agency staffed entirely by women. Mina has done what few before her have managed, ably resuscitating Marlowe for legions of Chandler fans yearning for one more installment.

A Killer in the Family

With last year’s inventive and suspenseful Little Sister , Gytha Lodge propelled herself onto mystery fans’ must-read lists (including that of this reader). I am happy to announce that her latest Jonah Sheen mystery, A Killer in the Family , is just as impressive. Aisling Cooley sends a DNA sample to an ancestry website in hopes of locating her long-missing father, but she’s horrified when she’s subsequently contacted by DCI Jonah Sheens. Aisling’s DNA closely aligns with that found at a murder scene, one of the grisly tableaus created by the so-called “bonfire killer,” who has left the bodies of two victims on pyres in fields. Aisling’s sons—the brooding and taciturn Ethan, and his lively and popular younger brother, Finn—naturally pique the interest of the police, who are desperate to stop the bonfire killer before they kill a third time. However, Aisling’s father is of even greater interest. Before he disappeared 30 years ago, he left a cryptic note saying that he loved his family but could not “keep living this duplicitous life.” Aisling thus finds herself caught on the horns of a dilemma: whether to assist the police or protect her family. Lodge has a surefire winner on her hands with A Killer in the Family , easily one of the most original mysteries since the aforementioned Little Sister .

A Chateau Under Siege

The medieval town of Sarlat is a bit outside the bailiwick of Bruno Courrèges, everyone’s favorite French policeman since the days of Inspector Jacques Clouseau, but there is to be a reenactment of the liberation of the town from England during the Hundred Years’ War and Bruno is on hand for the festivities. When a horse slips and falls, its swordsman rider is forced to improvise his role in the choreographed performance. After he is stabbed in front of the horrified onlookers, he appears to start bleeding out. A doctor appears out of nowhere to take charge of the emergency, and the patient is airlifted to a hospital, after which he vanishes from the face of the earth. Strange, right? It only gets stranger as Martin Walker’s A Chateau Under Siege , one of Bruno’s more unusual adventures, proceeds. Bruno is tasked with guarding the daughters of the victim, who may or may not have been a clandestine government agent of some sort. And, as happens with some regularity in the Bruno novels, our hero finds himself tangled up in a situation with international ramifications that would tax any smalltown cop (other than Bruno, of course). Balzac the basset hound, always a welcome diversion, plays a minor but pivotal role, and as with all the preceding books in the series, A Chateau Under Siege is by turns suspenseful, amusing and, in its Gallic way, nothing short of charming.

H Proud Sorrows

The latest Billy Boyle mystery from author James R. Benn, Proud Sorrows finds the wartime military investigator on leave in rural Norfolk, England, although it will prove to be the proverbial busman’s holiday, with little of the rest and recuperation the hero sorely needs after his adventures in the two previous novels, Road of Bones and From the Shadows. A downed German bomber that crashed two years prior resurfaces in a peculiar turn of the tides in a nearby bay. When one of the bodies found in the cockpit turns out to be that of an English officer, the case falls to Billy to investigate. It appears the English officer has been murdered, as his injuries are not consistent with the crash. It will not be the last murder tied to the bomber, however, as one of Billy’s informants, a shell-shocked veteran, gets stabbed to death in a melee following an air raid scare. Sir Richard Seaton, the father of Billy’s lover, Diana, is considered by police to be a good candidate for the perpetrator. To exonerate Sir Richard, Billy turns to his trusty allies: Kaz, with his powerful intellect; Big Mike, the tenderhearted muscle of the group; and quick-witted and lovable Diana. The mystery is firstrate, the dialogue is period correct and the series as a whole is the best set of wartime novels since those of the legendary Nevil Shute.

by bruce tierney whodunit 8
In The Second Murderer, Denise Mina seamlessly resurrects Chandler’s supersleuth Philip Marlowe.
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.

To Mick Herron, failure is more interesting than success

In The Secret Hours, the author reveals the secret backstory of Slough House.

Mick Herron’s bestselling, award-winning Slough House series, which follows MI5 agents who have fallen from grace, expanded its fan base recently with “Slow Horses,” the 2022 Apple TV+ adaptation starring Academy and BAFTA award-winners Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. Now, Herron will delight fans both old and new with his prequel to the series, The Secret Hours. Set in the postCold War era, Herron’s pithy and tense latest slowly reveals the cover-up of a classified op gone wrong, casting three decades of U.K. intelligence history in a radical new light.

How will the experience of reading The Secret Hours differ for new readers versus established fans of the series?

It’s impossible to quantify the experience of new readers, but I hope they’ll find The Secret Hours complete in itself, and not feel excluded from any larger framework. Regular readers will notice familiar elements, though; for example, the Regent’s Park setup, which—as in the Slough House novels— is the center of the U.K. intelligence service. And there are a few Easter eggs along the way . . .

What’s your typical practice in regard to research, and did you have to do anything different when taking on the Cold War era?

I’m not a great fan of research, for the most part, and only resort to it when absolutely necessary. When writing the Slough House books, I’m usually writing about London in the present day, so I can achieve a certain amount of verisimilitude simply through observation. But part of The Secret Hours is set in post-reunification Berlin—the years immediately after the Cold War ended—and this required a little more work. I focused on finding out what the city would have looked and smelled like. Who would have been most visible on its streets. What people did for entertainment. That sort of thing.

You’ve been hailed as the John le Carré of your generation. How did you feel when you first

heard that comparison, and did it affect how you wrote?

Any comparison to le Carré is both hugely flattering and somewhat misapplied. Le Carré was unique—there’ll never be another. His work defined the Cold War era. My work will never match up to that. If the comparison has brought new readers to my books, it’s done me a favor, but I’ve never tried to live up to it in the sense of trying to write more like him. That would be doomed to failure.

Were you an avid spy novel fan as a young reader?

I read le Carré, of course, and also Deighton, and also—in many ways, more importantly—about a million other thrillers I no longer remember, of hugely varying quality. Quantity matters more at that stage. Reading everything you can get your hands on helps you develop your own intuition about storytelling: what works, what doesn’t, what’s new, what’s been done a hundred times. The spy novel, though, wasn’t a particular interest; just one among many. I liked most stories—I was a total addict. Still am.

Unlike the high-flying protagonists of many other espionage series, the inhabitants of Slough House are all outcasts in some way. What made you want to center spooks in professional purgatory?

It’s largely because I wanted to write about failure, which I find intrinsically more interesting than success. More relatable, too. Few of us know what it’s like to be a hero, or, say, free fall from a helicopter. But we’ve all had squabbles in the workplace.

Who do you think of as important authorial influences? Do they cross genre boundaries? There are dozens, hundreds, of writers I admire, but it’s not easy to say who I’m

influenced by. They’re not necessarily overlapping categories anyway: There’s no living thriller writer I admire more than Martin Cruz Smith, but I don’t try to write like him and have never noticed myself doing so. A writer’s voice generally develops piecemeal, and by the time it’s formed, there’s no telling where its origins lie.

Thinking about it, I’ve probably been consciously influenced more by poets than by thriller writers. Not so much individual writers (though a keen-eyed reader might spot borrowed images, or even whole lines, from various poets on pages I’ve written) as the control that poetry requires: the weighing of individual words, the balancing of sentences with each other. All the things that go towards making writing seem natural. Genre writing is often dismissed as sub-literary, but only by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

The Slough House series was recently translated to the screen via the spectacular “Slow Horses” TV show. Were there ground rules or nonnegotiable elements that you had in mind or stipulated in the deal for “Slow Horses”?

I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to kill or maim any of the characters without my express permission.

9 q&a | mick herron
H The Secret Hours Soho Crime, $27.95 9781641295215
Visit to read our starred review of The Secret Hours. © JO HOWARD
“Genre writing is often dismissed as sub-literary, but only by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”


A murder rips a midcentury Minnesota town apart in William Kent Krueger’s latest standalone mystery, The River We Remember.

A fictitious waterway plays a major role in William Kent Krueger’s mesmerizing new novel, The River We Remember, so it seems more than fitting when Krueger says, “Your first order of business as a storyteller is to hook your reader.”

And boy does he, like a seasoned angler reeling in a prizewinning bass. At the end of a short prologue, after describing how the Alabaster River snakes across Black Earth County, Minnesota, in “a crooked course like a long crack in a china plate,” Krueger describes the catfish that feed along the bottom before announcing “This is the story of how they came to eat Jimmy Quinn.”

“I had that opening in mind for a very long time before I actually sat down to write the story itself,” Krueger says, speaking by phone from his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. The author of 19 Cork O’Connor mysteries adds, “I’m very fond of both prologues and epilogues,” which he believes have distinct purposes: the prologue gives readers “a sense of the story that they’re about to be a part of,” and the epilogue is his way of not leaving them “high and dry, wondering about what happened to characters after the story ends.”

The River We Remember is set in 1958, when the gruesome discovery of Quinn’s body in the river casts a deep shadow on the town of Jewel’s Memorial Day festivities. Quinn is the richest man and largest landowner in the area—and someone whom no one seems to like, not even his family. It’s up to Sheriff Brody Dern to get to the bottom of how Quinn came to such an ignominious end. Upon hearing the news, Brody is playing chess in the county jail with a prisoner, an otherwise law-abiding widower prone to frequent, disruptive Wild Turkeyfueled benders that land him temporarily behind bars. The friendly, avuncular scene is reminiscent of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Krueger laughs at the comparison, saying, “I don’t have a Barney Fife in my story, but yes.” Although The River We Remember is far from a comedy, he imbues Jewel and its intricate, long-established community

with rare authenticity and warmth. The author explains that although he and his wife have lived in St. Paul for many years, he spent much of his childhood moving from place to place, living in farm towns in states like Ohio, Oregon and California. “That’s really where my heart is,” he admits. “Whenever I write a story, I love to just tap into that small town sensibility.”

The townsfolk include a diverse cast of multigenerational characters, such as retired sheriff Conrad Graff, who helps Brody investigate, and 14-year-old Scott Madison, born with a hole in his heart, who delivers meals to prisoners from his mother’s cafe. This young character, Krueger says— one of his favorites—is much like he was as an adolescent, especially in his “desire to see the world, experience it, and somehow prove to everybody that he really is a man.” With his trademark finely chiseled prose and taut plotting, Krueger uses his characters to explore a variety of themes, including racism, prejudice, war, violence, manhood, justice and redemption. “One of the things that I’m aware of,” Krueger says, “is that if you write a popular mystery series, readers are going to be a little reluctant to follow you to a place that doesn’t have all of the series’ characters and elements in it. When I set out to write this book, I wanted to write a mystery first and foremost, and then use that mystery to explore other themes.”

Historical Mystery

When The River We Remember’s similarities to To Kill a Mockingbird are mentioned, Krueger says the book is his favorite American novel, “so it’s no surprise that I’m probably greatly influenced in every story by Harper Lee.” However, he says the comparison is more apt for his previous standalone novel, Ordinary Grace, which he calls “a kind of reimagined” Mockingbird. “War informs The River We Remember,” he notes, “although it’s not a war novel.”

Krueger first tried to write the book almost 10 years ago, inspired by his father’s experiences as an 18-year-old leaving to fight in Europe during World War II, as well as by similar ordeals suffered by his friends’ fathers.

10 cover story | william kent krueger
H The River We Remember Atria, $28.99, 9781982179212

Each of them “were deeply wounded by the horrors they had seen, and the horrors that they had been a part of,” he says. “All my life, I’ve wondered, how did these men manage to heal from that, those great wounds? And what about the people they left behind—mothers and wives and sisters and fathers—who were praying desperately for their loved ones while they were far away, and who in the end may have lost them? What about those wounds? That’s really what I set out to explore.”

Brody is a World War II veteran, and Krueger writes that, “No one knew the details of his war experiences but they knew of the medals.” Brody has PTSD (although, of course, it wasn’t called that in 1958) after his experiences in combat and in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, while newspaper editor Sam Wicklow lost part of his leg in the battle of Iwo Jima. Many people in town suspect that Quinn’s killer may be Noah Bluestone, a Dakota Sioux veteran who returned with a Japanese wife, Kyoko. Krueger set his drama in 1958 so he could draw from some of his own childhood memories and because he “wanted a time frame that was soon enough after the war that the war experience is still going to be fresh in people’s minds. All of those deep wounds were still there, and yet we weren’t acknowledging them.”

However, Krueger’s first attempt at writing the story didn’t go well, so he put the idea aside for years, finally giving it another go during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I know the pandemic created a great deal of chaos in so many people’s lives,” he says, “but it was one of the most creative periods for me. I wrote two manuscripts for my Cork O’Connor series. I wrote three novellas, and then I turned my attention back to the original story for The River We Remember.”

“I don’t know what happened in the intervening years,” Krueger says. “Maybe I’d just grown wiser as a storyteller, or maybe it just required more time to gestate. But I saw how to write the story now. I heard the voice of the story speaking to me. And this time around, I was able to write a much tighter, more cohesive and more deeply felt narrative than I had created the first time around. I completely rewrote the story.”

“I wanted to talk about racism,” Krueger adds. “I wanted to talk about war, the way we characterize it, and the myth that we continue to feed our sons, particularly. But I didn’t want to write a polemic. Nobody’s going to read that, so if you wrap the ideas that you want to get across to a reader in a really good, compelling story, you get the point across so much more effectively.”

Krueger’s strong feelings against war emerged early and changed the course of his life. While a freshman at Stanford University in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, he joined a takeover of the president’s office to protest the university’s compliance in the production of military weapons. “They yanked my scholarship,” he says, noting that he had had a full ride.

When asked if he was shocked, he says, “No, I was really inspired. And I have to tell you, when I called my folks to tell them what had occurred, they told me that they had never been prouder of me.”

“Vietnam,” he says, “for so many of us, was finally a look at the reality of the horror that war is, and the destruction that it does to everybody.” After leaving Stanford, he logged timber, worked construction and did a lot of physical labor. “I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to be a career person,” he says. “I didn’t want to have a job that was going to suck all of my creative energy out of me.” He was inspired by his father, who taught high school English, worked for Standard Oil, then returned to teaching.

Krueger settled in St. Paul in 1980 and took a job researching child development at the University of Minnesota while his wife, Diane, attended law school. He wrote early in the morning at a coffee shop before work, and joined a mystery writers’ support group called Crème de la Crime. “That group was really tremendously important in my development as a writer,” he says, “because they never let an easy answer pass.”

Since those early days, his award-winning mystery series featuring private investigator Cork O’Connor, the half Irish and half Ojibwe former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. “In every book that I’ve written, even my standalones, the plight of the Native people here in Minnesota plays an important role,” Krueger says. “If you set a story in Minnesota, it’s hard to get away from the treacherous history of whites and the tragic history of the native people.” As he began researching the Ojibwe culture, he met and formed relationships with Ojibwe people, who, he says, “have guided me so beautifully. They’ve been so generous in their sharing.” Krueger notes that if he were starting out today, he would probably refrain from writing about a Native character “because of the very volatile issue of cultural appropriation,” which was not as widely considered when he began writing the Cork O’Connor series in the early 1990s. “The feedback that I’ve had from my friends in the Ojibwe community, and from Native readers who’ve contacted me, has been very positive. That encourages me, but I’m always painfully aware that I’m a white guy trespassing on a culture not my own, and I work very hard to get it right.”

Krueger is currently penning his next Cork O’Connor mystery. “When I put that to rest,” he says, “I have another standalone that is just beating at my door, begging me to write it.” In the meantime, visit his website if you want to arrange a Skype or Zoom book club visit to discuss one of his many books. “I have zoomed with hundreds of book clubs,” Krueger says, “and I really enjoy it. It’s a great way to connect with readers. It’s not quite like being there in person, but you can still connect.”

11 cover story | william kent krueger
Visit to read our starred review of The River We Remember.
“That’s really where my heart is,” he admits. “Whenever I write a story, I love to just tap into that small town sensibility.”

A style slam-dunk

Fly is a gorgeous, glamorous look at the intersection of fashion and basketball.

In his stunning, sharp new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson delves into the wide world of NBA fashion. Fly is a pictorial and cultural history of the major influence that basketball stars have had on style.

Tell us more about your fascination with and connection to fashion. Did your love of fashion or your love of the NBA come first?

I’ve loved fashion since I was a little kid. I guess it began with my mother dressing me up, but soon enough, I had my own opinion about what I should wear. At one point, that included cowboy hats and boots and big buckles; at another, pleather Michael Jackson “Thriller” jackets and white socks. At another point, it included IZOD polo shirts and khakis, and I’ve always loved print shirts and coveralls (not necessarily together).

I was a hustler in my late teens and early 20s and spent more money than I should have on clothes. All the above to say, my love of fashion came first. I started playing organized basketball in the fifth grade, which is kind of late for serious hoopers. I did, however, play all the way through junior college, and even thought that I’d one day play professional basketball overseas. Meanwhile, I had a couple of friends make the NBA and spent a fair amount of time around them and other NBA players. I must’ve attended NBA All-Star weekend 10 years in a row. And anybody that has been to All-Star weekend knows it’s a fashion extravaganza.

The eras you’ve chosen to cover in this book range from 1946 to the present: the Conformists, Flamboyance, Jordan, the Iverson Effect, Dress Code and the InstaTunnel Walk. How did you determine when one era ends and another begins?

I arrived at those divisions by looking at pictures from different time periods and noting the trends of those periods. If you look at photos of the early NBA players, they all wore the same thing: slim suits, dark shoes, skinny ties. But look at the 1970s and you’ll see individuals. Bell-bottoms. Fur coats. Butterfly collar shirts

unbuttoned to mid-chest or below. Afros. Long beards. Jewelry. It was clear those players felt freer to express themselves with their fashion. After I noted the distinctions of the eras, I’d ask myself what was happening in the culture that shaped those choices, and then I’d research around that subject. The titles came from me trying to encapsulate the crux of each chapter in a word or a phrase.

Do you have a favorite era of NBA fashion?

My personal favorite is a tie between the 1970s and now. Both are eras in which the players dress with copious creativity. I’d say in the ’70s though, the players had fewer professionals helping them. These days, many players have stylists and access to great brands, and the internet to hip them on trends, etc. Which also means many of them are more knowledgeable than the players of five decades ago. The players from the ’70s did more with less.

The photographs here are amazing, and they really bring your colorful descriptions to life. Do any of these photos hold a special kind of weight for you? Do you have a favorite player or outfit that appears in the book?

Probably my favorite pic in the whole book is “Pistol” Pete Maravich in a suit, butterfly collar shirt, sunglasses and gold chain. I used to watch Pistol Pete’s skills tapes when I was young as well as the highlight footage. He was a wizard with the ball and had a really flamboyant game. And when I saw that pic, it seemed like the perfect representation of him as a player, and of what I imagined his personality would be.

You note that during the Dress Code era (2010–2015), athletes started using personal style to express political views and to bring attention to social justice issues, such as when the entire Miami Heat team wore hoodies to honor Trayvon Martin. Do you have a favorite example of this?

There’s a picture of the Lakers at center court during a game in the NBA bubble, all of them

linked arm in arm, save LeBron James, who is holding his free arm up in the Black Power salute. It’s a powerful image and proof of the NBA’s stance on social protest. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, they were blackballed from track and field for many years. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee in the NFL, he was blackballed out of the league. That pic of the Lakers, and LeBron in particular, is ironic in that it shows not only how far we’ve come but how much further we have to go in terms of justice and equality.

In the current era of Instagram fashion, players have more control over personal style. Who do you think is one of the biggest and best fashion risk-takers right now?

Russell Westbrook is still one of the biggest risk-takers in NBA fashion. But because he’s already taken so many risks, it’s arguably less risky every time he does it. The same goes for James Harden, though one could argue he hasn’t had the same positive reception with his riskier outfits. I like what Jerami Grant is doing with the Portland Trail Blazers. He wears a lot of Maison Margiela, but it suits him. I admire when a player cultivates an aesthetic.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a novel titled John of Watts about a Black cult leader (he’s also an ex-basketball player, go figure). I’m working on a profile of a Civil Rights leader, another of an OG hustler from my hometown. And I’ll continue to write my column for Esquire.

12 q&a | mitchell s.
—Christy Lynch Fly Artisan, $40, 9781648290923

The kids are alright

H Fat Talk

With the rise of the body positivity movement, many parents have asked, “How do I raise my child to love their body, eat healthy foods without demonizing sweets and navigate all of the negative talk about the sizes of bodies?” Most parents don’t know, because they’ve also grown up in a fatphobic society swarming with confusing advice and thin privilege. That’s where journalist Virginia SoleSmith’s new book, Fat Talk comes in.

Sole-Smith presents research about how diet culture is promoted by Instagram influencers, doctors and pharmaceutical companies, all seeking to make a dollar. She also uncovers ample evidence that proves dieting doesn’t work, except as a strategy to blame the individual instead of society’s marginalization of larger, fat bodies. Rebalancing the narrative, she argues, will target the real problems. It even helps the parent resolve complications they have with their own bodies.

In addition to its science-based debunking of diet culture, Fat Talk gives tons of helpful advice for navigating food and provides conversation starters to help unpack fatphobia with your child, no matter their size. It also includes a list of resources for parents including picture and middle-grade books, memoirs, podcasts, newsletters, movies and television shows and other resources.

Erasing the Finish Line

Most parents have worried about how to prepare their children for leaving the nest and finding a successful life of their own. In Erasing the Finish Line by early career development expert Ana Homayoun, parents are encouraged to let go of the made-up finish line at high school graduation and college admissions. As an academic advisor, Homayoun has helped countless young people figure out a new blueprint for success by building core competencies that will benefit them throughout their lives. Though they may lead to academic success, these core competencies aren’t structured around test scores and GPAs. Instead, Homayoun’s method crafts a blueprint based on the individual child’s goals. She encourages parents to instead teach their children how to organize, plan, prioritize, adapt, start and complete tasks. These skills will get older children through young adulthood and are important for long term success in any job or role. Young people in their teens and early twenties are experiencing anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders at alarming rates, a fact that Homayoun says is contributed to by the intense focus on admissions to the “right” school. Erasing the Finish Line is a delightful read that functions as a handbook for loving and accepting your child just as they are. Only when our children feel an unconditional sense of acceptance can they find real success.

Calm the Chaos

Pulling from her own experiences as both a mother of a child who doesn’t quite fit the mold and a teacher, Dayna Abraham’s book, Calm the Chaos is about empowering parents of children who need extra emotional, physical and developmental support. Abraham presents a fivestage framework that helps parents navigate and quell the storm. Each stage has been broken down into manageable chunks, often with illustrations; Abraham knows the parents who need her help do not have a lot of free time.

In a conversational, relatable way, Abraham helps families create safety through love for their high-needs child so each member can move from surviving to thriving. Every chapter includes lists of questions that help assess your current needs, actionable steps to put into practice based on where you are with your child and notes that relieve any shame that may come up as you assess your family’s needs.

Abraham provides real stories about real children who have benefited from her approach, giving the reader examples to draw from as they begin implementing the strategies in the book. Calm the Chaos will be a fabulous tool for anyone seeking to give their child the power to be who they were born to be.

Growing Up in Public

Many parents struggle to have healthy boundaries around technology, let alone help their children navigate the complex landscape of social media, texting and access to potentially harmful content. Growing Up in Public by Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. offers a wealth of relatable information, and will steer parents away from simply monitoring the ways children use technology, arguing instead for a mentorship approach that will guide children through the many landmines it can create for us.

From strategies rooted in trust versus surveillance, character building versus shaming and consent versus boundary crossing, Growing Up in Public gives parents a gentle guide on how to keep lines of communication open between them and their child. Heitner writes to help “parents understand and empathize with their kids’ digital experiences in new ways.”

Heitner’s gentleness shines in her writing. Her style puts the reader at ease, while also giving them permission to support tweens and teens through compassionate care. Readers will walk away with a wealth of proactive strategies to prevent potential harm for their children who are engaging in the digital world, as well as gentle guidance on what to do when the worst happens. This is an important guidebook for all parents as they seek to give their children the skills they need to navigate our brave new world.

13 feature | parenting
Four parenting books with advice on diet culture, social media and more can help ensure this remains the case.

You can go home again

In these three Christian fiction picks for fall, the joys and complexities of familial relationships take center stage.

A Beautiful Disguise

Roseanna M. White begins her Imposters series, set in Edwardian London, with the soul-stirring historical romance

A Beautiful Disguise (Bethany House, $17.99, 9780764240928), which features a gentle, engrossing love, an eccentric cast and many surprises.

Known for her exaggerated gowns, Lady Marigold Fairfax manages to convince her peers that she is just another member of the elite. But behind her facade is a brave woman who is desperate to save her family’s impecunious estate, so she and her brother, Yates, are working as anonymous private investigators known as the Imposters. Years ago, the Fairfax mansion was host to a traveling circus, and retired circus lions and monkeys still roam the grounds. The circus performers also now live with the Fairfax siblings and are considered part of the family. Lady Marigold and Yates incorporate circus skills gained from this found family into their investigative work.

Sir Merritt Livingstone, an officer working in the War Office Intelligence Division, seeks the services of the Imposters when he suspects possible espionage that could jeopardize a soon-to-be established intelligence branch and, consequently, weaken England’s position against Germany. Along with this central political mystery, A Beautiful Disguise includes many suspenseful scenes and unexpected twists as the Imposters gather information for their various clients.

Lady Marigold struggles to balance her true persona with the false image she projects to protect their secret operations. Although she wishes to show her real identity to Sir Merritt, she is aware of the risks involved in such a disclosure. With Yates’ encouragement, she learns to let down her guard and allow her real self to shine, and soon a romance develops between her and Sir Merritt. A dramatic, rewarding finale concludes this fascinating novel.

He Should Have Told the Bees

In the triumphant contemporary Christian novel He Should Have Told the Bees (Revell, $16.99, 9780800742737), Amanda Cox explores the importance of facing childhood trauma and finding family in unexpected places.

Beckett Walsh’s idyllic life is rocked by her father’s sudden death. In addition to dealing with this powerful grief, Beck discovers that her farm, including her treasured apiary, has a new co-owner—Callie Peterson, who learns she was named co-trustee of a farm by a man she never knew. Callie is determined to build her own life while supporting her mother through her substance abuse issues. Although unsure how to proceed, she believes money from selling the farm could help her avoid plunging into debt while paying for her mother’s rehabilitation process. Cox handles difficult topics—including childhood trauma from parental neglect

and substance abuse—in a gentle yet realistic way. The characters’ struggles are considered in depth: For years, Callie has grappled with her mother’s broken promises and the effects of growing up in an unstable environment, and Beck has her own painful childhood memories of waiting for her mother to return. Secondary characters have moving stories too, and readers learn more about Beck’s father’s past.

For every difficult emotion in He Should Have Told the Bees, there are just as many uplifting moments. Beck builds a friendship with Fern, a young neighbor who shares Beck’s fascination with bees. Two subtle romantic relationships also infuse the story with compassion and warmth. The facts given about beekeeping are fascinating, and family secrets add a few twists.

Cox’s hopeful, heartwarming novel touches on complicated relationships, the value of friendship and the impact of trauma with great heart and kindness.

The Wings of Poppy Pendleton

Melanie Dobson’s captivating dual-timeline novel The Wings of Poppy Pendleton (Tyndale House, $16.99, 9781496474575) chronicles the disappearance of a young girl from a castle in New York’s Thousand Islands and, years later, the investigation into her disappearance.

In 1992, Chloe Ridell is determined to safeguard the privacy of her island and protect it from public scrutiny. Eighty-five years earlier, Poppy Pendleton disappeared from a castle that still stands, albeit in ruins, on the same night that her father, Leslie, mysteriously died. Both incidents remain unsolved. When a girl named Emma with connections to the Pendleton family shows up at Chloe’s doorstep, Chloe decides to look into the castle’s past. With help from a reporter named Logan, Chloe works to unravel a baffling mystery that could save Emma’s life. Chloe’s bond with Logan also helps her to navigate difficult childhood memories and financial issues that could lead to the closure of her candy shop. Meanwhile, Logan grapples with his own past experiences, some of which have been devastating, but he stays committed to doing what is right.

The 1907 island setting comes to life through evocative descriptions of Poppy’s world and that of her parents, Leslie and Amelia, who aspire to be recognized as members of New York’s gilded society. On the night of Leslie’s death and Poppy’s disappearance, the elegantly decorated castle bustles with activity as guests await President Theodore Roosevelt’s arrival. This central mystery is layered and exciting, tracing the story as far back as Amelia’s childhood in England. After Poppy disappears, Amelia tries to build a life for herself, but her past continues to haunt her.

Dobson’s characters find redemption, discover their own strength and experience the power of family relationships to pull us down—or lift us up.

14 feature | christian fiction

Major September releases

Watch for these six books from popular authors.

September 5

One Blood

Forge, $29.99 9781250276193

Millner is a total powerhouse: six-time bestselling author, Emmy Award-nominated TV show host and editorial director of Denene Millner Books. Her next novel is a family saga of three women that stretches from the Great Migration to the early 2000s.

September 12


By Paulette Jiles

William Morrow, $30, 9780063252684

The bestselling author of News of the World, which was adapted for a feature film starring Tom Hanks, delivers a dark fictional odyssey set amid the post-Civil War frontier.

Flipping Boxcars

By Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles

Amistad, $30, 9780063258990

From the winner of multiple NAACP Image Awards comes a crime caper set during the Great Depression and World War II that pays homage to his grandfather. Cowriter Alan Eisenstock has also worked on books with comedians George Lopez and Robert Schimmel.

September 19

Starter Villain

By John Scalzi

Tor, $28.99, 9780765389220

The bestselling, award-winning author of The Kaiju Preservation Society delivers a new sci-fi romp about a man who takes over his uncle’s supervillain business.

September 26

The Armor of Light

By Ken Follett

Viking, $38, 9780525954996

Since The Pillars of the Earth was published more than 30 years ago, Follett’s Kingsbridge series has sold 49 million copies worldwide. The highly anticipated fifth installment explores a clash of progress and tradition.

The Fragile Threads of Power

Tor, $29.99, 9780765387493

The bestselling author of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue returns to the world of her Shades of Magic trilogy, which travels between four alternate versions of Regency London. In this series opener, new threats arise in two of the four Londons.

All publication dates are subject to change.

feature | bestseller watch

Write a book, change your life

Bestselling Palestinian American author Etaf Rum was utterly transformed by the characters in her debut, A Woman Is No Man. With her second novel, she begins to process the aftermath.

Etaf Rum barely remembers the exchange, but as a child, she apparently used to jokingly threaten to write a novel about her mother. At least that’s what her sisters tell her, and as the oldest of nine children of Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, Rum no doubt had plenty of family stories to tell. “I was an avid reader,” she says, “and I think that storytelling came to me as second nature.”

Despite these early inclinations, the wild success of Rum’s novel, A Woman Is No Man (2019), is still astounding. For readers, Rum seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a meteor lighting up the sky. “To think that I penned a New York Times bestselling novel with no experience—even talking to you now, it still blows my mind,” Rum says, speaking by phone from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. A Woman Is No Man chronicles several generations of Palestinian American women, all of whom are forced to marry a man of their family’s choosing, live by his and his family’s rules, and undergo verbal and physical abuse—until one young woman finds a way to break the cycle.

“I thought I was writing a story for underrepresented Arab women,” Rum says,” [but] the story has touched women across cultures. The universality of the message has stunned me. Women, regardless of their race and ethnicity, have identified with these characters—whether in themselves or their mothers or their sisters or their aunts—and have reached out to tell me how much the book has transformed them.”

These readers have been eagerly awaiting Rum’s second novel, Evil Eye, which begins with mention of a family curse. Protagonist Yara’s grandmother peers into leftover Turkish coffee grounds to read the fortune of her daughter, Meriem, who is about to marry and immigrate to the United States. The novel then flashes forward several decades, to when Yara is experiencing serious job trouble while teaching at a North Carolina college, and Meriem suggests that this predicament is a continuation of the old curse. It’s an opening scene reminiscent of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, and it sets the stage for the way fear, curses and superstition permeate Yara’s story.

“Fear that something bad will happen, that you have to worry about someone or something robbing you of that goodness— it’s such a human trait,” Rum says, noting that this is the root of habits like knocking on wood or hanging an evil eye at an entrance. On a recent trip to Greece, she was amazed by the number of evil eyes she saw. “When I say they were everywhere,” she says, “I mean

everywhere. Like every store. I thought it was an Arab thing, but I think the Greeks have definitely won this one.”

In many ways, Evil Eye is a continuation of A Woman Is No Man, although the writing processes were vastly different. The plot of Rum’s debut came “in a flash” as a result of processing “repressed emotions” with therapy and journaling. “Instantaneously, overnight it seemed, I wanted to write a novel,” she says. “I had this urge to write about the Arab American experience, or at least one aspect of it. I drew very heavily on my own upbringing and my own experiences as a Palestinian woman. I had to capture these feelings and maybe make someone feel seen.”

Not only did Rum write quickly, but the novel was also published quickly, making the whole experience feel like a “miracle” and leaving her with a startling revelation: “Up until that point, I was living a life that I thought was of my own choosing, but really wasn’t,” she says. “I think I went through a sort of awakening. I found my voice, and I found out who I was.” As a result, she ended up divorcing her husband, much to her family’s shock and dismay. “I cannot want courage and freedom and bravery for these characters and yet, in my own life, be living in this sort of denial,” she says.

There were repercussions, of course, including a long period of estrangement from her family. As a result, writing her second novel was a struggle—“the opposite of a flash”—but she once again called upon her own experiences. Yara resembles Rum in many ways: Both grew up in Brooklyn, married young and moved to North Carolina. Both have two children and taught college courses, and both felt trapped in their marriages, especially by the expectations placed on them as Palestinian American wives. Like Rum, in Evil Eye, Yara becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage and begins to journal about her life at the urging of her therapist, which helps her chart a new course.

Family Drama

Ironically, Rum did not want her second novel to be autobiographical, but she soon realized, “I’m a sheltered artist who grew up in a sheltered world, so I can’t escape the fact that some of the novel is autobiographical.” Like Yara, Rum grew up with highly protective parents and was given none of the freedoms that her brothers enjoyed.

“Their future is so uncertain,” she says of her Palestinian family. “And even though they live in America, that trauma is still there for my mom and dad; it’s present with them every day. They

16 interview | etaf rum
“I had this urge to write about the Arab American experience . . . I had to capture these feelings and maybe make someone feel seen.”
Evil Eye Harper, $30, 9780062987907

conduct their life out of fear and wanting to protect their family. Because my caregivers are still traumatized, they raised me in that trauma. That feeling of displacement—it’s even more than that, because it’s almost as if you’re actually displaced from your own body. You’re constantly running, you’re constantly searching, you’re constantly trying to improve. And I think that’s inherited and acquired. Even now, as a mother of my own kids, I sometimes catch myself and say, ‘Relax. No one’s coming to hurt you or to take away your home.’ But how do you relax when you’re raised on fear?”

In Evil Eye, the author notes similarities between Arab culture and life in the American South, “a place [Yara knows] about only from her favorite southern writers: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. From their books she’d gathered that southern culture was not so unlike her own: full of loud and large close-knit families where women married young and had many children, focused on conservative values with an emphasis on religion or tradition, with an adherence to recipes that were passed down through generations. Even the obsession with tea at every possible social gathering—though southerners preferred it iced while Arabs served it boiling—felt like a point of connection. The similarities filled her with both comfort and dread.” Indeed, a simmering culture clash becomes a flashpoint in the novel when a colleague makes an offensive remark, causing Yara to explode in a way that has serious career consequences. While depicting her culture in fiction, Rum remains wary of perpetuating stereotypes, especially because there are so few American writers of Arab or Palestinian descent. “Unfortunately, my stories are very dark, and that just happens to coincide with the world I come from. I’m sure there are many Palestinian communities and families that do not live in such a stereotypical world. I wish I could write about those worlds, but I’m not there yet.”

After initially feeling like an outsider when she moved to North Carolina, Rum has now established a robust sense of community. She has remarried, and she and her husband own both a pizza shop and a coffee shop called Books and Beans. “Now I feel like this place is home,” she says. As for her next project, she’s ready for a change of pace and is considering a screenplay or a children’s book. “There are a lot of ideas popping up in my head,” she says, “but I think that the literary adult trauma novels are for now complete.”

Visit to read our review of Evil Eye. ©
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H The Fraud

Historical Fiction

Any new novel by the acclaimed British writer Zadie Smith (Swing Time ) is cause for celebration, but her first foray into historical fiction will garner fresh admirers with its detailed 19th-century narrative, while also satisfying fans who have long enjoyed her on-target observations and richly drawn characters.

Witty and incisive, The Fraud (Penguin Press, $29, 9780525558965) is based on actual events in Victorian England surrounding the Tichborne trial, in which a lowly butcher claimed to be the heir to a wealthy English family. The case quickly divided British citizens over the very notions of truth and entitlement.

Scottish housekeeper Eliza Touchet is cousin and employee of William Ainsworth, a prolific novelist whose books once outsold Charles Dickens’ but who, by 1868, is wallowing in

H The Vaster Wilds

Historical Fiction

After Matrix , her vivid feminist novel starring a medieval nun, Lauren Groff returns with another historical novel, The Vaster Wilds (Riverhead, $28, 9780593418390), about a young Colonial-era woman’s journey out of a sick and starving Jamestown, Virginia.

As the novel opens, the girl (the narrative refers to this teenage main character only as “the girl”) has fled the Jamestown fort for the wilderness, aiming north to find a French colony that she’s heard about. She’s managed to steal a few key items—an ax, a pewter cup, two coverlets, leather boots, gloves—and now she runs through the late-winter night, aware of danger from wild animals, the Jamestown men sent out to find her and “the people of this place,” her phrase for Native Americans.

The novel’s omniscient narration recounts the girl’s journey in language that’s by turns earthy and visceral (she suffers repeated bouts of “hot liquid shits” after eating whatever she can gather), and poetic and visionary. Groff closely follows the girl’s intrepid, remarkable efforts to stay alive—building fires, hunting for food,

obscurity. William recently married a housemaid named Sarah Wells, who is obsessed with the man claiming to be Sir Tichborne, inheritor of a family fortune who reportedly drowned in a shipwreck. Quite likely a local butcher from East London, the “Claimant,” as he is called, is passionately defended by many working-class Londoners who regard him as a true man of the people being treated poorly by the elite.

Eliza’s interest in the trial is piqued by Andrew Bogle, who was formerly enslaved by the Tichborne family in Jamaica and is called to testify. A Catholic and

creating makeshift shelters. As the girl travels, she remembers scraps of her past: her childhood in the London poorhouse where she was called Lamentations; the years with her wealthy mistress, who named her Zed; the hair-raising voyage across the Atlantic Ocean; and days spent with the mistress’s mentally disabled little daughter, Bess, the one person who ever loved and was loved by the girl. The girl is illiterate, but she knows her Bible, and her existential questions run deep as she walks and ponders. The narration also lets us in on the stories of the few people the girl passes, like a hermit who fled his colony years before, and two Native American girls.

The Vaster Wilds is propelled by the girl’s struggle to survive, but also by her interiority and what her memories reveal about her previous life in London and that dreadful year in the Jamestown colony. Groff romanticizes neither English colonists nor Native Americans, and the brutality that the girl remembers and encounters can make for hard reading. But there’s also natural beauty at almost every turn, and the novel’s descriptions of rivers, ice storms, waterfalls and vistas are gorgeous and haunting, sometimes almost hallucinatory.

Though brief (272 pages), The Vaster Wilds is a layered, dense novel that can be read as an allegory about the follies of the American experiment and humans’ planetary depredations. While it’s often a dark story with only slivers of hope, Groff’s inimitable style and language makes it a memorable, immersive reading experience.

an abolitionist (and the secret lover of William’s first wife), Eliza relates to Andrew as a fellow outsider, although she is often unable to see beyond her privilege.

Smith writes eloquent, powerful and often quite humorous novels with social issues at the fore, and The Fraud is no exception. As with Lauren Groff’s Matrix or Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait , the novel’s firm grounding in the past offers a rich reflection of the present—and the ways race and class impact our understanding of ourselves and our complicated history.


Coming of Age

“For my first two years at Idlewild, I had no friends. I didn’t mind it much. I appreciated that no one paid attention to me, that I could move through the school unnoticed.” This is how we meet Nell Rifkin, a public school transfer on scholarship to the titular posh Quaker high school in Manhattan. Idlewild is the kind of place where wealth runs deep and silent: “Flaunting your wealth went against Quaker ideals, plus Idlewild parents tended to be shabby-chic trust fund artists, so it was often hard to tell who was really rich.”

Nell eventually befriends Fay VasquezRabinowitz, a “lifer” who has been at the school since kindergarten. On 9/11, they form a bond when Fay has nowhere to go while waiting for her artist parents to answer the phone. The two become F&N, an inseparable, sarcastic duo.

F&N are into school theater and making fun of their peers. Nell is also into Fay, and although Fay suspects as much, it’s an unspoken part of their friendship. “For a year and a half, my brain merged into hers until I had no idea where she ended and I began,” Nell says. F&N befriend Theo and Christopher, fellow students who seem to

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have a similar kind of friendship. A lot of what they do is typical teenage stuff: They party a little and ditch school to eat waffles at the diner near campus. But then the friendships turn dark. Using the nascent medium of internet journals, the four try to dazzle each other with their cleverness, with predictably awful results.

James Frankie Thomas’ first novel, Idlewild (Overlook, $28, 9781419769146), is a fever dream of a book, full of longing, regret and hormones. It’s reminiscent of such coming-of-age classics as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides yet also wholly original. Chapters shift between Nell’s and Fay’s perspectives, both as estranged adults looking back on their Idlewild years, and as F&N in 2002. Nell is especially compelling as a queer, extremely smart teenager who doesn’t try to hide anything about who she is.

Set against the backdrop of a post-9/11 nation on the verge of war, Idlewild is about the consequences of choices, big and small.

The English Experience

Comic Fiction

Hasn’t Jay Fitger suffered enough?

That’s what readers of Julie Schumacher’s novels Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement might think upon beginning The English Experience (Doubleday, $27, 9780385550123), the final installment in her excellent trilogy. Fortunately, Schumacher’s skewering of academia remains sharp as ever, and more of Fitger’s hilarious frustrations are in store for fans.

He’s still at little-known Payne University, now as chair of the English department. His five novels are out of print. He has been divorced from Janet, a senior administrator at the law school, for more than a decade. Part of the appeal of these books is how Schumacher deftly helps readers sympathize with a 63-year-old man weighed down by those sandbags while making his travails funny and charming.

The provost calls Fitger into her office and, “after arranging her features into a facsimile of cordial goodwill,” offers him “truly a plum” opportunity: As part of “Experience: Abroad,” a program he argued against, he gets to teach the three-week “Experience: London” class starting in January. He says no, but the provost offers persuasive arguments, including London’s theaters and museums, tea with scones and the threat of cutting off his funding unless he agrees.

Soon, Fitger and 11 undergraduates are on their way to England, with planned stops in London, Oxford and Bath. Much of the narrative is devoted to those undergraduates and the papers they have to write each day. The topics range from an “object of interest” at the British Museum to the historical figure of their choice. One of the pleasures of The English Experience is the way Schumacher uses these essays to flesh out her characters, a group that includes a young woman who has never been away from her cat and a young man who was under the impression they were going to the Cayman Islands and packed accordingly.

Some running gags go on too long, but fans of the first two entries will find much to like here. “What can happen in three weeks?” Fitger asks to assure himself the trip won’t be as bad as he anticipates. He finds out, uproariously, in this worthy final adventure.

H Learned by Heart

Historical Fiction

With novels like The Wonder, The Pull of the Stars and Haven, Emma Donoghue has proven herself a masterful storyteller of historical worlds populated with deeply imagined characters. Though the universes she creates seem like they could expand infinitely, she builds small, confined spaces at the center from which grow rich possibilities. This is all especially true of her latest biographical novel, Learned by Heart (Little, Brown, $28, 9780316564434), a story of risk, love and two young women discovering themselves by way of each other.

In 19th-century York, England, Eliza Raine is an orphan heiress living at an all-girls boarding school. When Anne Lister becomes her roommate, Eliza’s world shifts—and along with it, her understanding of herself and who she might become. The story moves between the year they meet at school and a series of letters that Eliza writes to Anne some years later. In these shifts, the reader witnesses the ways that the past shapes and haunts the present, that stories are made and unmade, and that love surprises and overwhelms.

The language here—of deep friendship and longing, text and subtext—is captivating. Sentences sing, and details shine. Donoghue has a remarkable ability to hold you in a moment, allowing you to see as a character does, knowing the questions each breath contains. Throughout,

she keeps the narrative intimate while still allowing for commentary on wider considerations of societal constraints and expectations.

After reading this wonderful story with its countless discoveries, perhaps the greatest surprise of all is in the author’s note, in which Donoghue shares how she meticulously researched and reimagined this true tale. While Anne Lister’s story has been brought into our contemporary awareness, most recently through the HBO series “Gentleman Jack,” Eliza Raine’s story—and their story together—has not. Donoghue investigated their personal histories for years, focusing on Lister’s secret journal and Raine’s letters (the ones she was able to find). This rich saga gets its bold and dazzling moment at last.

Swim Home to the Vanished

Literary Fiction

Emily Dickinson famously pronounced that “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” providing the enduring metaphor of a spritely little bird that dwells within each of our souls. With Swim Home to the Vanished (Harper, $30, 9780063241084), poet and first-time novelist Brendan Shay Basham suggests that, in contrast, grief is a thing that may be best embodied by fins and gills.

Basham’s peripatetic novel recounts the extraordinary odyssey of a Diné man named Damien after his younger brother drowns in the Pacific Northwest. Still reeling six months after Kai’s body washed ashore, Damien finds himself irresistibly called to the water, the source of his loss but also the source of all life. When gills begin to sprout behind his ears, he quits his job as a chef and makes his way south—first by truck, then by foot—to a small seaside fishing village. There he encounters village matriarch Ana María and her two daughters, Marta and Paola, with whom he shares a certain kinship, as they too have recently lost a family member. However, the early hospitality offered by these women may not be as it seems. Rumors of their supernatural origins swirl, and Damien soon finds himself caught up in poisonous family dynamics and power struggles that threaten to consume not only him but also the entire village.

Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s

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forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands. Basham’s own brother died in 2006, and while Damien’s grief causes him to lose the ability to speak, Basham’s words course across the page, sucking readers in with their vivid imagery and raw emotions.

Basham has a particular gift for transmuting inner intangible turmoils into corporeal form; the various characters’ physical transformations from human to creature are a creative epigenetic exploration of the ways in which trauma and grief shape who we are. For readers desiring straightforward writing and an unambiguous narrative, Swim Home to the Vanished may frustrate with its dreamlike nature, but for fans of poetic storytelling, Basham’s narrative will prove a challenging yet cathartic read.

H Happiness Falls

Family Drama

Happiness Falls (Hogarth, $28, 9780593448205) is proof that a thriller doesn’t have to feature private eyes, secret agents, ticking time bombs and exotic locales to keep the reader spellbound. Angie Kim’s suspenseful second novel after Miracle Creek follows a family that lives in a quiet and even bucolic neighborhood near Washington, D.C. They try to stay out of trouble. But trouble comes to them.

The mom, Hannah, is Korean American and an academic. She’s married to Adam, who’s white and a stay-at-home dad. His last name is Parson, hers is Park, and their three kids bear a portmanteau of the two: Parkson. Mia and John, 20 years old, are fraternal twins. The youngest child, 14-year-old Eugene, is diagnosed with autism and mosaic Angelman syndrome (AS), “which means he can’t talk, has motor difficulties, and . . . has an unusually happy demeanor with frequent smiles and laughter.” One day, Eugene comes home upset, pushes his sister out of the way and runs up to his room, where he jumps and vocalizes for hours. Later, Mia finds blood beneath his fingernails. Their dad, who took Eugene to the park that day, is nowhere to be found.

At first the Parksons believe that Adam got lost, and he’ll return. But as the hours drag on and he doesn’t show up, analytical Mia goes into Sherlock mode. (Or Vulcan mode—the Parksons are huge Trekkies.) As narrator, Mia devotes pages to possible scenarios, and adds footnotes to nearly every chapter. The family realizes that waiting 48 hours before calling the police about

a missing person is a dangerous myth, and soon the cops are involved. The lead officer’s name is, of course, Janus. On the one hand, she wants to help the Parksons. On the other hand, she’s all but sure that Eugene killed his father and can’t wait to clap the traumatized boy in handcuffs.

Calling a book

California and work with their newly designed poetry AI to craft a long poem that will be the first of its kind. It’s a game-changing collaboration, and her participation would be an endorsement from a major poetic figure.

So Marian heads out to meet Charlotte, the poetry-composing software who’s eager to work but not necessarily able to write the kinds of stanzas Marian considers good, meaningful poetry. Over the course of a single week, as other people—including an endearing but enigmatic driver and an up-and-coming fellow poet—drift in and out of the picture, Marian and Charlotte get to know each other and the way they work together.

more pages.

Calling a book unputdownable is a cliche, but it has been a while since this reviewer fought off sleep just so she could read one or two more pages. Did Eugene actually kill his father? Why? Is he as noncommunicative as everyone thinks he is? Not only will these and other questions swirl around your brain, but you’ll also come to love the Parksons, especially tetchy, brilliant Mia. You love them for the fierceness of their love for each other, and for their determination, which becomes your own, to get to the bottom of this.

Do You Remember Being Born?

Literary Fiction

Scotiabank Giller

Prize-winning author

Sean Michaels ( Us Conductors) achieves an astonishing level of narrative, emotional and psychological density with his tightly focused novel Do You Remember Being Born? (Astra House, $27, 9781662602320), which centers on two minds—one human, one artificial intelligence—as they try to do something that’s never been done before: write a poem together. With this edgy 21st-century hook, Michaels maps the interior of a great human mind, and raises relevant questions about AI and the nature of creativity.

Michaels’ narrator, Marian Ffarmer, is an aging poet whose reputation is secure, but whose finances are not. She does well enough to get by on her own, but not well enough to help her son buy the house of his dreams. In an effort to provide for a child from whom she’s always felt a little distant, Marian takes an unusual assignment: visit a towering tech company in

If you’re going to narrate your novel from the point of view of a poet, you must be able to think like one, and this is where Do You Remember Being Born? achieves its greatest success. Sentence by sentence, line by line, Michaels builds a beautiful structure with dizzying, surprising imagery, conjuring metaphors that will leave you with a smile and lingering questions.

Beyond that, though, the novel is after something bigger, probing concerns about art that humans have struggled with for millennia while also attempting to comprehend Michaels’ own AI bot that he specifically programmed to assist in writing this novel. Michaels doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but it doesn’t seem like he’s out to write a grand theory of artificial intelligence and creativity. Rather, he’s created a controversial novel in the midst of a hot debate, sure to keep us hooked and asking our own questions. In that regard, Do You Remember Being Born? is a captivating success.

H The Romantic

Historical Fiction

There’s a bit of the trickster in William Boyd’s delightfully engrossing 17th novel, The Romantic (Knopf, $30, 9780593536797), which purports to be the biography of a real man named Cashel Greville Ross (1799–1882), drawn from an oddment of journals, letters, sketches and maps (some of them reproduced herein). With a wink, Boyd writes in his author’s note that Cashel’s story is best told as fiction.

And what a story it is! Orphaned as an infant when his parents’ ship sank, Cashel is raised by his loving aunt, a governess in County Cork, Ireland. He leads a downstairs childhood until the revelation of his true parentage so upsets him

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unputdownable is a cliche, but it has been a while since this reviewer fought off sleep to read one or two

that he runs away from home. At 15, he becomes a drummer boy and is gravely wounded in the Battle of Waterloo. That experience gives Cashel cachet with the infamous Romantic poet and wannabe soldier Lord Byron, with whom Cashel strikes up a friendship some years later in Italy, along with Percy and Mary Shelley. The sharpeyed chapters about this poetical crowd—their privilege, dalliances and tragedies—are some of the novel’s greatest pleasures.

When the self-regarding Byron throws a party for Cashel (a fete that turns out to be a celebration for Byron himself), Cashel meets Contessa Raphaella Rezzo. They share a this-is-the-one moment, but unfortunately, she is married to a wealthy man almost 50 years her senior. With the help of a conniving servant, Cashel and Raphaella carry on an affair, which is eventually brought up short by a lie Cashel is foolish enough to believe. For him, she is the touchstone of love, but he will not see Raphaella again for 40 years. Cashel, it turns out, is unlucky in love but mostly fortunate in adventure.

Cashel goes on to live a Zelig-like existence, standing at the edges or unseen in the midst of historical moments. A sprightly comic element recurs: For every success, there is a disaster, and after every disaster, Cashel eventually lands upright. When Cashel writes two bestsellers—a travel book and an anonymous roman à clef—his publisher steals his royalties. Cashel ends up in debtor’s prison, out of which grows an idea to found a Utopian colony in Massachusetts. And so it goes.

Cashel’s life spans most of the 19th century, and Boyd is both interested in and very knowledgeable about the period. Humming beneath the exuberant plot are fascinating details ranging from the life of a military drummer boy to the class privileges available in debtor’s prison. Issues of money, power and privilege also reverberate. And of course there is Cashel, a goodhearted innocent whose luck and haplessness make The Romantic such an enjoyable read.

Coleman Hill

Family Saga

Kim Coleman Foote’s debut, Coleman Hill (Zando/SJP Lit, $28, 9781638931140), is a sweeping family epic—an accomplished and assured intergenerational story that feels fresh but remains deeply steeped in Black American literary traditions and history. Foote describes

the project as a biomythography, a word coined by writer and scholar Audre Lorde to describe her memoir, Zami . And like Lorde, Foote invokes literal ancestors alongside literary ones; the novel is a fictionalized account of her own family history. As this vivid novel navigates the rich texture of everyday Black life throughout the 20th century, Foote’s emotional investment in telling complicated stories truthfully and openly is apparent in every scene.

Digging Stars

Coming of Age

A girl from Zimbabwe finds new ways to read the stars in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s second novel after House of Stone (2019). When Athandwa Rosa Siziba is born in 1994, her astronomer father leaves her and her mother, traveling to the United States to participate in the Program, a mysterious and highly selective astrophysics program for radical and non-Western approaches to science.

The novel begins in 1916 with an exodus. Like so many other Black people during the Great Migration, Celia Coleman and Lucy Grimes leave their homes in the South, intent on escaping racism and poverty. Both women settle in the small community of Vauxhall, New Jersey, but soon find that life in the North, though different, is not always better. Over the following decades, the Colemans and the Grimeses experience shattering losses, form surprising friendships, get into heated arguments, hold grudges and keep secrets from each other—all while trying to stay alive in a world that often treats them like they don’t matter.

Three generations come to life in poignant, beautifully rendered scenes. The narrative moves quickly through time, jumping from the 1920s to the ’40s to the ’70s. Each section begins with a photograph, which lends the book a powerful immediacy and makes it feel even more like a living history. The point of view also shifts quickly from person to person, as mothers and then sons, daughters, aunts and cousins add their memories to the tapestry of the two families’ lives. The result is a polyvocal symphony that highlights the complex and often contradictory experiences of characters who—even if unintentionally—perpetuate cycles of abuse. Foote zooms in and out to illuminate her characters’ deeply personal choices as well as the long aftereffects of slavery and the insidious ways that trauma moves through generations.

Coleman Hill is rife with violence, racism and abuse, but it never becomes maudlin. Foote’s prose is effortlessly poetic, yet it feels conversational and direct. This remarkable debut is a reminder that sometimes the best stories don’t have an answer but, instead, unflinchingly tell the truths of human lives—even, and maybe especially, when the telling hurts.

Athandwa’s father finds great success at the Program and even takes a ride on a billionaire’s rocket into space. He teaches Athandwa to appreciate the beauty of the cosmos as well and eventually tries to bring her to the U.S. These plans fall apart when he is killed in a car crash. Over the next few years, Athandwa works hard and eventually gets accepted into the Program, where she can finally fulfill her father’s dreams of researching Indigenous astronomies and perhaps uncover the truth behind his death.

Tshuma writes beautifully about the stars and the people who watch them, mixing poetic prose with tangibly emotional descriptions. In the first part of the book, when Athandwa visits the U.S. and stays with her father and his new family, Athandwa’s childish jealousy provides a hilarious and touching counterpoint to the vexing complexities of immigration. While her father tries to convince her mother to let Athandwa become a U.S. citizen, Athandwa mocks her stepmother and pinches her stepbrother, unsure where her anger is coming from but nonetheless expressing it—showing the depths of her displacement and her desire to belong. This palpable emotional confusion continues in the later parts of the book when Athandwa returns to the U.S. to join the Program. While she feels welcomed at first, she finds that her father’s reputation looms large, and soon she is forced to carve her own niche in astronomy while finding a way to continue honoring her father’s legacy.

The layered nature of Digging Stars (Norton, $27.95, 9781324035176) allows readers to uncover new ideas and emotions well into the book. Between Athandwa’s desire to follow her father, the rejection she faces from American society and the distressing backdrop of a wartorn Zimbabwe, this book re-creates an intricate web of immigrant life. Tshuma traces multiple stories of family, immigration and self-discovery into a thrilling and beautiful constellation.

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Kim Coleman Foote’s emotional investment in telling complicated stories truthfully and openly is apparent in every scene.

H While You Were Out

Certain memoirs are easily devoured, practically in one sitting, leaving the reader breathless. Such is the case with Meg Kissinger’s While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence (Celadon, $30, 9781250793775). Like Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road, it sheds light on the viselike grip that mental illness can have on generation after generation. In this case, however, Kissinger—an investigative reporter and a Pulitzer Prize finalist—writes from an insider’s point of view.

Born in 1957, Kissinger spent most of her childhood in Wilmette, Illinois, in a large, rollicking family. The many scrapes, mishaps and family tales are entertaining and often poignant, such as Kissinger’s description of how much she enjoyed an eye doctor’s appointment because it afforded a great rarity: one-on-one time with her mom. Kissinger gradually ups the tension, noting that her mother was taking medication “for her

H Daughter of the Dragon


Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was Hollywood’s first great Chinese American actress. At 15, she had her first starring role in a silent film. Shortly thereafter, she played opposite film legend Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (at 5 feet, 7 inches, she was taller than him). She was a friend, and perhaps a lover, of Marlene Dietrich. A brilliant student of accents and languages, she successfully made the fraught transition from silent film to “talkies” and, later, to television.

As Yunte Huang’s fascinating biography Daughter of the Dragon (Liveright, $30, 400 pages, ISBN 9781631495809) clearly shows, however, Wong’s career was consistently hampered by racist, sexist and ageist strictures. She often had to play problematic archetypes: submissive Asian women in relationships with powerful white men or the devious, sexually powerful Asian women often called dragon ladies. Hollywood prevented women of color

dark thoughts” before she was married, and that throughout Kissinger’s childhood, her mother would disappear for hospitalizations that were neither discussed nor explained. Kissinger explains her family’s situation in a nutshell: “Take two alcoholics—one with bipolar and the other with crippling anxiety— and let them have eight kids in twelve years: What could possibly go wrong?”

Plenty, of course.

A number of Kissinger’s siblings began having difficulties in high school or college, especially her older sister, Nancy, who, at age 24, shortly after having her stomach pumped for taking too many tranquilizers, ended her life in front of a train. Kissinger’s father instructed his family to tell others that Nancy’s death was an accident. Kissinger recalls her devastated and stunned thoughts at the time: “Why couldn’t we just

from kissing white men on screen, which effectively barred Wong from romantic leading roles. Stalled by such barriers, Wong went to Germany, learned the language and starred in smash hits like Song. Later, after being passed over for a role in the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth, despite the writer’s desire for the film to star Chinese actors, Wong went to China to study Chinese drama, with the hopes of bringing this classical form home.

Huang, a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, offers a rich and complex view of Wong’s life and times. His book is less an intimate, psychological biography than a revealing look at Wong’s experience within the history of the era and its flow of cultural biases. Many chapters, like one on the ghettoized origins of Chinese laundries and Hollywood’s strangely enduring fascination with Los Angeles’ Chinatown, are as illuminating as they are unexpected. Huang offers penetrating descriptions of the making of some of Wong’s most famous movies, bringing to light her abilities and the prejudices and challenges she faced. During her stay in China, for example, Wong was feted as a breakthrough star and also berated for portraying shameful Chinese stereotypes on screen. When questioned about this by local reporters, she noted that she rarely had the power to choose her parts.

Wong died at 52, perhaps of alcoholism and definitely in financial distress. A reader is left

tell the damn truth? By hiding what really happened, we’d not only be dismissing Nancy’s suffering but fortifying the notion that her mental illness was a choice, one that we should all be ashamed of.”

In 1987, Kissinger wrote an essay for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Nancy’s suicide. “Meg needs to tell this story,” her mother told her horrified father. Indeed, she did—especially when, 19 years later, a similar tragedy struck the family.

While You Were Out is a spellbinding account of one woman’s experience living through trauma and a thoughtful attempt to reckon with the past. Kissinger asks tough questions and freely admits her own regrets while pointing out systemic problems with no easy answers. Her best advice comes from a letter from one of her siblings, a piece of wisdom that became her mantra: Only love and understanding can conquer this disease.

thinking that what she was offered was never quite what she was worth. Of the rules that constrained her career, Huang writes, “these puritanical and overly racist guidelines became a virtual form of foot-binding for Anna May, shackling her career ambitions for the rest of her life.”


Three months after her father died, Canadian author and artist Kyo Maclear took a DNA test from a genealogy website. Her resulting memoir, Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets (Simon & Schuster, $29, 9781668012604), could have taken its subtitle from the test’s disclaimer: “You may discover unanticipated facts about yourself or your family.” Nothing was more unanticipated than the discovery that her beloved father, journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear, was not her biological father.

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Maclear is able to piece together her biological father’s identity and the names and locations of her half siblings. But she is unable to uncover the truth of her origins—the hows and whys of her birth—without the help of her mother, her father’s unruly, Japanese ex-wife. And that is where her quandary lies, because her mother has no interest in reconstructing the past. Furthermore, even if her mother wanted to tell Kyo the entire story, her ability to do so is fading as she gradually succumbs to dementia.

As Maclear probes into the intertwined story of her three parents—her mother, her father and her biological father—more questions are raised. What is identity? What obligations do we have to people who happen to share our DNA? These questions become more personal as her mother’s memory fades. Reconciliation seems impossible to Maclear, though, when the other person will not or cannot break the silence.

Maclear’s writing is poetic in the best sense. Using the image of her mother’s wild, rambling garden as a foundation, Maclear examines these questions in detail, without proposing pat answers because, ultimately, they are unanswerable. Instead, Maclear allows the reader to struggle with them as she did, granting her audience the space and silence to reconcile the gaps and secrets in their own lives.

H Crossings


Roadways are one of the best examples of how civilization can paradoxically both give and take away. The planet’s millions of road miles have enabled the mobility of people and goods, but they have also impacted the DNA of wildlife, contributed to climate change and created a significant amount of noise pollution. In Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet (Norton, $30, 9781324005896), Ben Goldfarb (Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter) confronts this conundrum head-on, like an 18-wheeler barreling down an interstate. As he states, “North America and Europe constructed their road networks with little regard for how they would affect nature and even less comprehension of how to blunt those effects.”

Organized into three sections: “Killer on the Road,” “More than a Road” and “The Roads Ahead,” Crossings is a comprehensive guide that uncovers the many different factors that led

to global road transportation systems and their continued impact. Goldfarb’s synopsis includes lots of important dates and statistics, such as how “between 1807 and 1880 the U.S. Army carved twenty-one thousand miles of roads through prairies, forests and mountains, cracking open America’s interior” and the history behind terminology coined as roads became mainstream such as “Sunday drivers,” “road hogs,” “juggernauts” and “flivverboobs” (inconsiderate motorists).

Through commentary from experts such as ecologists, biologists, historians and government officials, Goldfarb examines the severe impact of roads on wildlife populations and their migration and reproduction. He also explains the game-changing significance of deer collisions, which have made deer North America’s most dangerous wild animal.

Now embedded in human culture, roads have contributed to major change, a fact made blatantly evident through Goldfarb’s extensive research and analysis. Roads aren’t going away anytime soon, but Crossings will spark conversation around the future of motorized vehicles and transportation.



George Orwell, born Eric Blair, is celebrated for novels like Animal Farm and 1984, as well as for his political commitments, including fighting fascism on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Like many men, he relied on women to provide him with food, assistance and comfort while he focused on writing. While much is known about Orwell’s personal life, no one person has vanished more definitively from his biographies than his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

Anna Funder sets out to correct this absence in her compelling hybrid biography Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life (Knopf, $32 9780593320686). Mixing historical detail with the immediacy of personal memoir, Wifedom brings readers into the personal life of O’Shaughnessy both with and without Orwell, while also detailing Funder’s own domestic discontent. By focusing on O’Shaughnessy’s diminished status in Orwell’s biographies, Funder reveals how the invisible, unpaid labor of domestic work erases women from history. Patriarchy’s narrative about literary genius tends to leave out the typist.

Funder’s most impressive achievement is her revision of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a text

documenting his time at the Spanish front that fails to mention O’Shaughnessy by name. In fact, as Funder demonstrates via archival evidence and imaginative reconstruction, O’Shaughnessy committed multiple acts of heroism in Spain, including extracting Orwell from potential imprisonment. But Orwell never acknowledged her, as if admitting he needed help would have detracted from his own heroic narrative.

The memoir portions of Wifedom aren’t quite as captivating, but it’s clear why Funder wanted to embed her biographical scholarship within her own experiences. Making visible the extent of Eileen’s influence on Orwell’s life and work matters because the condition of “wifedom,” understood as daily unpaid care work, continues to be distributed unfairly, falling mainly on women’s shoulders. Yet this undervalued work is as necessary as what Funder does so well in Wifedom: retelling history to be more considerate and accurate.

H Up Home

The most persistent plot in literature—from Homer to Tolkien—portrays individuals journeying away from home in search of some object, only to eventually return, sometimes tattered and torn, but always wiser. In the South, musicians and artists record the meaning of home as a place that people carry with them in their hearts, that shapes them and to which they long to return. In her poignant memoir, Up Home: One Girl’s Journey (Random House, $27, 9780593446993), Ruth J. Simmons carries readers with her as she recounts the contours of her own journey from sharecroppers’ daughter in Grapeland, Texas, to president of Smith College and Brown University, memorializing the many individuals who guided her.

Simmons chronicles her upbringing in Grapeland with her brothers and sisters, where they explored dirt roads and nearby fields, observed wild animals and the animals on the farm and played various games when they weren’t toiling in the fields or keeping up with the drudgery of household chores. Her parents fell into the rigid marital patterns typical of the 1940s and 1950s. Her father was a severe disciplinarian who did not think women should be educated or work outside the home, and he “did not act like a caring husband who appreciated my mother’s love and sacrifices.”

24 reviews | nonfiction

When the family moves to Houston, Simmons begins to excel in the classroom and in various extracurricular activities, launching herself on the journey that carries her from the limiting factors of home in Texas—race, poverty, segregation—to the expansiveness of Europe and eventual leadership in higher education. Along the way, she introduces readers to teachers who helped her, such as her first grade teacher Ida Mae Henderson, who shows Simmons “the kind of independence of spirit that made life free, happy, and meaningful. If learning could lead to such a result, I wanted it to be a part of my life forever.”

Up Home recalls a life richly shaped by experiences with language, literature and mentors that helped Simmons become a person she never expected to be. Her sparkling prose and vibrant storytelling invite readers to accompany her on her journey.

H Exit Interview

Kristi Coulter


Kristi Coulter ( Nothing Good Can Come From This ) details her 12 grueling years as an Amazon executive in Exit Interview (MCD, $29, 9780374600907), her funny, candid memoir. In 2006, Coulter felt stalled in her work and life. She had earned an MFA in writing at the University of Michigan, but now worked in management, marketing DVDs in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When she spotted an opportunity at the then still-newish Amazon, she went for it, getting hired to manage the team that merchandised books and media. Soon, she and her husband, John, had a new West Coast life.

Coulter takes us along on her wild Amazon ride, from her first days at a company where desks were made of plywood scraps, where there were no perks like free food or on-site child care and where the crises came fast and frequently. Early on, she notices that there was “something lumpy about Amazon’s demographics. When I’m in a room with people beneath me in seniority . . . a solid third of them are women. But when I’m with my peers or senior leaders, men usually outnumber women at least three to one.” Working seven days a week, Coulter found that the feeling of failure rarely left her, and she needed three or more glasses of wine every night to calm down from the day’s stresses. Nevertheless, over the next 10 years, she rose through multiple departments, including Amazon Publishing and Amazon Go.

Coulter is a delightful, funny guide to Amazon’s quirks and toxicities, and she’s alert to the personalities and characters around her (including glimpses of Jeff Bezos and his management style). Occasionally, the memoir uses alternative forms, like the chapter “Events in the History of Female Employment” that mixes memoir and women’s history to funny and infuriating effect.

An engaging, well-paced, and thoughtful memoir, Exit Interview takes a cleareyed look at women in corporate America, particularly tech, noting how far from parity they remain in those worlds.

H The Six

As the first American female astronaut to fly into space on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride made history. Her name became synonymous with courage, excellence and the breakthrough of women, at last, into the storied all-male, all-white culture of NASA. In this eye-opening, untold chapter of history, The Six (Scribner, $32.50, 432 pages, ISBN 9781982172800), acclaimed space reporter Loren Grush ensures that Ride’s five female colleagues in NASA’s astronaut group 8 also get their due. Each left their mark in a field often hostile to their gender.

Grush roots the women’s stories in the context of their times, explaining the political and cultural pressures NASA was under when they chose to admit the six women in 1978. But she also maintains a detailed focus on each astronaut, imbuing her portraits of each with an intimacy that makes them utterly memorable.

Geologist and oceanographer Kathy Sullivan would become the first American woman to walk in space. Judy Resnik, who lost her life on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, specialized in the shuttle’s robotic arm, which served as “the world’s most sophisticated arcade claw game.” Emergency physician Anna Fisher became the first mother to fly into space. Surgeon Rhea Seddon, married to a fellow astronaut, gave birth to the first “astrotot.” Biochemist Ph.D. Shannon Lucid, a married mother of three, once held the record for the longest continuous stay in space, aboard the International Space Station. Sally Ride was a former junior tennis champion and held degrees in physics and English. Upon her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012, it was revealed that she was the first LGBTQ+ astronaut.

The women had to deal with the male-dominated media of their day, fielding questions from Tom Brokaw like, “Did you ever wish you were a boy?” and jokes from Johnny Carson: “Imagine a woman astronaut . . . out in space. She says, ‘My God, I forgot to leave a note for the milkman.’” Grush makes it thrillingly clear: These six women rose far above such misogyny, smashing our planet’s highest ceilings as they soared.

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons


If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had an idle moment when they met in 1941 to hammer out the Atlantic Charter, they might have talked about Roosevelt’s stamp-collecting or Churchill’s painting. It is perhaps less likely they chatted about one big thing they actually had in common: Strong, intelligent American mothers, widowed young, who provided them with plenty of runway for political takeoff.

Not that Jennie Jerome Churchill or Sara Delano Roosevelt would have liked each other much. Although both were daughters of rich upper-class New Yorkers, their personalities were starkly different. Jennie had a reckless streak (like Winston) and was prone to problematic romances, while Sara waited to marry until she found a wealthy, serious older man in her own social circle. Nevertheless, as wellknown Canadian author Charlotte Gray shows in her dual biography Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons (Simon & Schuster, $29.99, 9781668031971), 19th-century culture shaped both into women who believed influence was only attainable through men.

Jennie’s life was sufficiently flamboyant that she has attracted a number of biographers; Sara was more conventional, and she tends to be dismissed by historians as possessive and overbearing. Her real story is more complex. FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had to battle out of what they saw as Sara’s smothering embrace, but Sara effectively raised their five children while the couple built public careers. After Sara’s death, Eleanor consistently denigrated her mother-inlaw, but the children spoke of Sara with affection and gratitude. In contrast, Jennie was no grandmotherly nurturer. Aside from the important political help she provided her first husband and eldest son, her accomplishments included

25 reviews | nonfiction

chartering wartime hospital ships and learning piano from a friend of Chopin.

Through detailed historical research and scenic retellings, Gray makes a persuasive case that Franklin and Winston depended on their mothers’ devotion, influence and money. Had they been born a century later, one can imagine Jennie as a supermodel-turned-Hollywood producer and Sara as a Fortune 500 CEO. Instead, Gray tells us, they funneled their prodigious energies into their statesmen sons, both of whom were profoundly impacted by their fascinating and formidable mothers.

H The Deadline


Harvard historian Jill Lepore says that she “never set out to study history. I only ever set out to write. The history I read bugged me.” Now she pursues both history and writing with great intelligence, boundless curiosity, a relentless pursuit of facts and concern about very important subjects. Her books include the bestselling These Truths: A History of the United States and Bancroft Prizewinning The Name of War. Since 2005, she has also been a staff writer at The New Yorker where most of the essays in her dazzling new collection The Deadline (Liveright, $45, 9781631496127) originally appeared.

Many of these essays concern the relationship between what has happened in the past and how it relates to the present. In “Battleground America,” Lepore discusses the complicated history of the Second Amendment while in “The Riot Report,” she focuses on the numerous special commission reports that have been published and how little has come from them.

In “Drafted,” first published last year, Lepore writes: “Beginning in the summer of 2022, women in about half of the United States may be breaking the law if they decide to end a pregnancy. This will be, in large part, because Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appears to have been surprised that there is so little written about abortion in a four-thousand-word document crafted by fifty-five men in 1787.” Of course, then, “Legally, most women did not exist as persons.”

Lepore considers this while also spending time in other essays investigating such varied topics as why King John affixed his seal to what became known as the Magna Carta, whether mission statements for organizations are just

“baloney” and the history of the term “burnout.” There are perceptive discussions of the lives and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Rachel Carson, Eugene Debs and Herman Melville. Whether the subject is technology, law, culture, bicycling or children, her insights hold our attention. Overall, this is an outstanding collection, sure to be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult


If you’re a Maria Bamford fan, you’ve probably already ordered your copy of her hilarious, devastating, fascinating new memoir Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere (Gallery, $28.99, 9781982168568).

If you aren’t yet clued in, you might look at the wide-eyed, beautiful woman on the cover and think, “What do I know her from?”

The answer is: loads of things, from stand-up specials to “Arrested Development” to “Lady Dynamite” to iconic Target commercials. She’s an accomplished comedian who’s brought joy to countless people—and she has also battled debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders and bipolar disorder since childhood.

Bamford is a winsome and unapologetic tour guide through her life thus far, musing on her “splintered, discomfiting need to reveal all my thoughts and flaws—which is either radical honesty or narcissistic showboating” and sharing her hope that “if I can be grandstandingly open about something taboo, maybe someone else might feel a little less isolated.” Bamford reflects on the groups she’s joined in search of achievement, belonging and healing, including Suzuki Violin, Overeaters Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous. She’s also a self-taught expert in the work of Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) and Richard Simmons (Richard Simmons’ Never-Say-Diet Book).

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult is the definition of kaleidoscopic: In addition to loopy riffs, career insights and beautifully sad recollections of her mother’s illness and death, there are painfully honest chapters about the time period in which Bamford’s “mind/body had become a vibrating razor blade of electric psychic pain.” The resulting psychiatric hospitalizations were often grueling, but ultimately offered a path forward.

The importance of getting such help is central to Bamford’s story and at the heart of her hopes for readers. She writes that, rather than a

book about triumphing over obstacles, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult is more of a “series of emotional sudoku puzzles.” And no matter where readers are on their own puzzle-solving journeys, she wants them to internalize something the late Jonathan Winters said to her after her first hospitalization: “You just keep going, kid.”

They Called Us Exceptional By

From the outside, Prachi Gupta’s life looks self-directed and accomplished. After winning awards for her writing as a political reporter for Cosmopolitan and Jezebel, she is now a freelance writer in New York City. Gupta is successful, like her father and her late brother, Yush, but behind these public victories is Gupta’s mother. The family believed in a powerful myth of Indian American exceptionalism: They were destined for greatness. It came at a high personal cost.

In They Called Us Exceptional (Crown, $28, 9780593442982), a complicated and emotional memoir written as a letter to her mother, Gupta unearths the impact of this foundational myth on the lives of her family. She explores the ways she was taught the same orientation toward success that had also driven her father and her aunt (both medical doctors) and pushed her grandfather to immigrate from India to Canada. A brutal racial hierarchy underlies this emphasis on accomplishment: It is through force of will that members of Prachi’s family have broken through economic barriers in America. Gupta grew up mostly in Pennsylvania and shows how being a minority in a culture of whiteness is deeply disorienting. Simultaneously, the gender hierarchy within their home—an intensely manifested patriarchy in which her father held the economic, social and intellectual power—caused Gupta to initially identify with and worship her father. As she began to question the roles laid out for women and to experience her father’s unpredictable wrath, her attitudes toward home, culture and identity began to shift.

Now estranged from her parents and grieving the sudden death of her brother, Gupta has written a memoir that is part olive branch and part reckoning. For readers interested in complicated, thoughtful and beautifully written family stories that explore the cost of the model-minority myth, this book is as good as it gets.

26 reviews | nonfiction

Everyone’s Thinking It


Iyanu wants nothing more than to fly under the radar at Wodebury Hall, a prestigious English boarding school where fitting in is everything. But then someone steals the photographs she took at a matchmaking event and spreads them throughout the school. The photos are all captioned with shocking secrets—including one about her estranged cousin, Kitan. Lies, betrayals, scandals: No one’s sure what’s true and what’s not, and everyone thinks Iyanu started it all. Kitan and Iyanu begin investigating—one seeking the truth behind the secret she received and the other determined to clear her name— but along the way, they discover the school may have even darker secrets.

Rez Ball

Contemporary Fiction

Byron Graves’ debut novel is a slam dunk that joins stories like Friday Night Lights in depicting the alchemy of young people dreaming beyond their circumstances and working hard to change their lives.

Tre Brun wants to burn just as brightly as his deceased older brother Jaxon, who was a basketball supernova. That’s hard under the weight of his parents’ grief and the close-knit Ojibwe rez community that has seen so many stars flame out. But Tre is determined to not only help Jaxon’s friends on the varsity team win their first state championship this year, but also be the first person from the rez to make the NBA.

Girls and peer pressure to party prove to be potent distractions, not to mention the external and internal voices telling Tre and his teammates they’ll never amount to anything. Rez Ball (Heartdrum, $19.99, 9780063160378) powerfully shows how our communities can lift us up, but they can also disappoint us. Based on the real-life Red Lake Warriors that Graves played for as a high schooler in Minnesota, the novel is unsparing in showing the harsh realities and racism faced by young Native Americans. “We’ve been losing to the white man for five hundred

Everyone’s Thinking It (Balzer + Bray, $19.99, 9780063225671) is an intense mystery about privilege and community. The story unfolds through two perspectives: Iyanu, a self-proclaimed outcast and photographer, and Kitan, desperate to keep her place in the school’s most popular trio.

Though they’re both Nigerian students in a majority white and upperclass environment, Iyanu and Kitan have developed completely different approaches to the Wodebury experience. Iyanu cuts herself off from anyone who could hurt her, while Kitan is willing to compartmentalize her pain in order to fit in. The stolen photos challenge Iyanu and Kitan to ask themselves hard

years,” one of Tre’s teammates says during a climactic game. “The battles, the stolen land, the broken treaties, the way their cops hunt us down. We can finally have a victory.”

Rez Ball reverberates with passionate prose, dramatic turns and easy-to-root-for characters. Graves uses his vast pop culture knowledge to round out Tre with nods to comic book and sci-fi nerdery.

Like any good basketball game, Rez Ball contains nail-biter moments, incredible clutch plays, a whole lot of swagger and, more than anything, love. The heartbeat of Tre’s Ojibwe community beats like a dribbling basketball page after page in this uplifting and raucous debut.

The Infinity Particle

Graphic Novel

It’s the 26th century, and humans have colonized Mars with the help of artificial intelligence.

Aspiring teenage inventor Clementine Chang needs a fresh start, so she books a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, where she has scored her dream job working in a robotics repair shop for an AI pioneer. There, she meets the infamous Dr. Marcella Lin, and her assistant, Kye, a

questions: What would it mean to let yourself be seen? What do we lose when we give up our personal beliefs in order to please others?

As Iyanu and Kitan explore different ways to build community, they learn how to cut off ties that do more harm than good. Ultimately, they discover the value of being truthful—both to others and to themselves.

Sharp social commentary, compelling plot twists and tender moments of love make Everyone’s Thinking It a fun, insightful mystery and a great read for anyone seeking a mature YA novel that’s true to the experience of growing up.

humanoid custom-built AI with whom Clem is immediately fascinated.

When Kye begins glitching and seeing a strange child within his hard drive, he seeks out Clem’s help. As their relationship grows, the line between AI and human begins to blur for Clem, who resolves to help Kye break free, even if it means risking everything she came to Mars for.

The Infinity Particle (Quill Tree, $18.99, 9780062955760) is a stunning standalone graphic novel that offers a tender and timely look at AI. Questions of autonomy and generational trauma ground readers in the humanity of this sci-fi tale, while small details such as chapter headings written in binary code build a sense of immersion in this futuristic world. The one complaint readers may have is wanting more—more background about the AI system, more time with Clem and Kye.

Wendy Xu (Tidesong) uses a two-color palette to great effect. Panels are largely shaded with blue, while sparingly used reds can instantly make scenes romantic or dramatic. Dynamic gutter backgrounds add to the visual appeal and mood. Xu plays with unique panel shapes; for example, scenes of Kye glitching are given a dreamlike quality with wavy outlines. Occasional chibi figures and exaggerations like giant sweat drops add lightheartedness and are sure to appeal to manga readers.

A hopeful vision of life alongside technology is a welcome deviation from the trope of antagonistic AI. The Infinity Particle is perfect for fans of speculative works with well-developed characters such as Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Girl from the Sea and Danie Stirling’s Crumbs.

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The increase in incidents of anti-Asian violence during COVID-19 compelled award-winning writer and illustrator Grace Lin to compile this mouthwatering tribute to American Chinese foods.

Writer and illustrator Grace Lin loves to order takeout Chinese food but confesses she’s not a whiz when it comes to chopsticks. Speaking by phone from her home in Northampton, Massachusetts, she laughingly explains: “I can get the food to my mouth, but you’re supposed to hold one like a pencil, and just one chopstick is supposed to move. When I do it, both chopsticks move. It’s definitely not the correct way, but it works.”

Lin’s latest creation, Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Food , will make readers’ mouths water regardless of their chopstick skills. It’s a project she has been contemplat ing since 2004 but wasn’t ready to tackle until recently. Beautifully illustrated by Lin—who has won both the Caldecott Honor and the Newbery Honor— Chinese Menu features 40 or so stories about the legends and history behind pop ular American Chinese foods— everything from egg rolls and wonton soup to General Tso’s Chicken and fortune cookies.

“I spent most of my childhood trying to pretend that I wasn’t Asian,” Lin says, reminiscing about growing up in Utica, New York, where few Asian families lived at the time. “The two tenuous connections I had to my heritage were reading Chinese folk tales and legends that my mom snuck me and the food that we ate every day. So those were the two ways that my culture was passed on to me as a child. I guess that’s why I use them so often in my books, because they were the only roots that I felt I had. I’ve been strengthening them over time.”

Even though her very first books— Vegetables (1999) and Dim Sum for Everyone (2001)—were about Chinese food, she says, “I think for years I almost felt like I was faking it. That I look Asian on the outside, but didn’t really feel Asian on the inside. It’s really through

doing all these books that I finally feel like I can claim that part of my identity.”

Her first editor advised her to write a book featuring a white character to avoid being pigeonholed as a “multicultural author and

Lin has created board books, picture books, early readers and children’s novels featuring Asian and Asian American characters. Several novels (Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days) are based on her own life as the child of parents who grew up in Taiwan while it was still called the Nationalist Republic of China. Lin has come a long way since those early days of self-doubt. In 2022, the American Library Association awarded her the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. As for , she says, “This book is not me claiming that part of my identity. This book is not to prove to myself or to others that I’m Asian enough or American enough. This book is a celebration to show the world how wonderful that identity is. It’s something with a lot of richness, joy and wonder, and that’s enjoyable for everyone, because it’s food.”

Over the years, Lin had filed away numerous Chinese restaurant menus that she found interesting, and she would occasionally discuss the project as a possibility with her current editor (who happens to be a best friend she met in fifth grade). During COVID-19 lockdowns, incidents of anti-Asian prejudice and violence increased, and Lin felt compelled to tackle this book. “It seemed like an opportune time to celebrate being Asian American,” she says. She dove into her boxes of material and hired a research assistant, Izabelle Brande from the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture at Smith College. Lin doesn’t read Chinese, but Brande provided her with translations of many secondary sources. “I had a lot of stories via word of mouth from my parents and relatives,” Lin recalls. “I would know one version of a story, and [Brande] was really amazing because she would tell me that there are actually three versions.”

“I absolutely adore myths, legends and folk tales, as you can tell from all of my work,” she

28 interview | grace lin
“In my circles, it seems like people know lo mein just as well as a hot dog, you know? Working on this book has really shifted my idea of what American food is.”
Illustration from Chinese Menu © 2023 by Grace Lin. Reproduced by permission of Little, Brown.

continues. “But one of the things that I really wanted to do with this book was to show how these stories are still part of our culture today. What’s more tangible and easier to understand than the food that we eat?”

Lin not only wrote Chinese Menu , but also illustrated it, using her tween daughter and her daughter’s friend as models. Being both an illustrator and writer allows Lin to make adjustments in both pictures and prose as she goes— for instance, shortening text that she realizes is shown in the art—even up until the last minute.

“I wanted to separate the folktales from present-day life,” she says. Lin is happy with the results, but it took a toll physically—she moved around less at the computer and became sore from being in the same position for hours. Nonetheless, she says, “I often dream about doing a graphic novel, and I realize now that the only way I would ever be able to do that is to embrace digital media.”

H Chinese Menu

Little, Brown, $24.99, 9780316486002

Middle Grade

Chinese Menu is unusual because it’s the first time Lin has illustrated digitally. For the cover and the present-day food pictures, she painted with gouache by hand—her usual way—but to illustrate the traditional stories, she scanned initial drawings and colored them digitally in a limited color palette.

review | H chinese menu

Lin encountered a few surprises as she worked. First, she hoped to find a good story about soy sauce but found nothing—“just stuff about trying to make food salty without using so much salt. It was all really boring.” One discovery that delighted her, however, was the realization of how important American Chinese food is to American culture: “It’s become integrated into our lives just as much as hamburgers and pizza. In my circles, it seems like people know lo mein just as well as a hot dog, you know? Working on

Award-winning author Grace Lin leads readers on a fascinating, mouthwatering tour of American Chinese food in Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods (Little, Brown, $24.99, 9780316486002). Her enthusiastic, attention-grabbing narration often makes readers feel as though she’s addressing them directly.

Lin describes American Chinese dishes—which have been adapted and changed from those found in China—as “the flavor of resilience, the flavor of adaptability, the flavor of persistence and triumph. Above anything, this food is the flavor of America.” Chinese Menu is jampacked with chapters that are organized according to course, including tea, appetizers, soup and chef’s specials. Foods like Bird’s Nest Soup, General Tso’s Chicken (he was a real general during the 1850 Taiping Rebellion) and Chop Suey make an appearance. There’s history, too: Lin explains that the fork may have been invented in China, but that as chopsticks evolved from long bronze cooking tools to their wooden form, Confucius advised people to use them to eat instead, believing that knives and forks resembled weapons and brought disharmony to meals. Adding to the offerings are numerous color illustrations, diagrams, a map of China, informative endnotes, an extensive bibliography and an illustrated timeline showing

this book has really shifted my idea of what American food is.”

Her book includes just one recipe, for her mother’s scallion pancakes. “It’s called Chinese Menu because it’s about food that you order at a restaurant,” Lin says with a laugh. “I don’t mind cooking, but I would rather read a book!”

when various dishes emerged. There’s also a recipe for Lin’s mother’s scallion pancakes.

Though all of the above is compelling, what makes this book shine are the numerous retellings of food-related myths and folktales, many of which Lin first heard as a child at the dinner table. A story about the origin of Dragon Well Tea involves a dragon, a poor old woman and a mysterious stranger who knocks on her door. Dumplings are said to have been invented during the Eastern Han Dynasty (24–220), when a doctor named Zhang Zhongjing found an innovative way to treat villagers’ frostbitten ears during the Lunar New Year. Some tales are not for the faint of heart and involve subjects like death and poverty, but throughout, Lin’s sensitive narration remains mindful of her young audience.

Lin’s illustrations are further icing on the cake—starting with the book’s ornate cover showing a young girl holding out a steaming bowl of soup, inside of which readers see the faint suggestion of a bridge and a building, hinting at the tales waiting inside.

Chinese Menu is a treat in every way: an exceptional compilation that can be read all at once or taken out from time to time as a reference while eating certain dishes—a family ritual that all ages will enjoy. Either way, it’s scrumptious!

29 interview | grace lin
“What’s more tangible and easier to understand than the food that we eat?”

H Eagle Drums

Middle Grade

In her debut middle grade novel, Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson crafts an exquisitely immersive tale describing the mythical origins of the Iñupiaq Messenger Feast and how the Iñupiaq people acquired song and dance.

A boy named Pinja is sent on a mountain journey by his family to get obsidian for their toolmaking. His mother can’t help but worry; it’s the same mountain where his two older brothers disappeared. Nonetheless, it’s a vital task, because this small family lives off the land and never takes more than what’s necessary, surviving “thanks to the animals and their kindness and generosity—and a heavy dose of luck.” They rarely see others and are extremely cautious the few times they do.

When Pinja reaches the mountain, he is immediately confronted by an immense eagle god named Savik, who snatches him

Ludwig and the Rhinoceros



Picture Book

If you don’t see something, can it still exist? This engaging picture book takes inspiration from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who once argued to his professor Bertrand Russell that one couldn’t prove there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room.

Enhanced by the vibrant blue, gold and green palette used by GOLDEN COSMOS (Berlin artists Doris Frieigofas and Daniel Dolz), Ludwig and the Rhinoceros: A Philosophical Bedtime Story (NorthSouth, $19.95, 9780735845275) opens with a red-haired Ludwig sitting on his bed at night and chatting with a large blue rhinoceros. However, when his father pops in to ask Ludwig whom he’s talking to, Ludwig answers, only to have his father assure the boy that there isn’t a rhinoceros—it’s just his imagination. Ludwig directs his father to search in various places: in the dresser, under the bed and under the desk. While Ludwig’s father can’t see the rhinoceros, young readers will delight in pointing him out. (Ludwig’s blue friend even manages to snag a pair of briefs on his horn!) Matters soon come to a head as Ludwig challenges his dad to

and takes him far away to Savik’s eagle god family. Pinja remains prisoner for 14 moons, learning many difficult lessons from the eagle gods, including how to dance, sing, drum, build a large gathering hall and become a leader.

Pinja is thoughtful, intelligent and determined, and his intense yearning to return home drives him to study and learn from everything he encounters—even a cute lemming teaches Pinja to see the power of combining strength with others. Gradually, Pinja realizes an important new concept, one foreign to his family: “Why would you do things alone when you can accomplish so much together?”

Rainey’s writing is taut and finely chiseled, as in this description of the endless ennui of Pinja’s imprisonment: “The days cut at him like obsidian

actually prove there isn’t a rhinoceros, using the example of the not-yet-risen moon to illustrate the notion that even if you don’t see something, it can still be there.

While at first glance Wittgenstein may seem a little advanced for a picture book, author Noemi Schneider has found a clever way of introducing philosophy to children. Adults will appreciate the back matter, which includes further context about Wittgenstein and his argument.

This original offering makes for an unusual bedtime tale that combines humor and depth— just right for budding philosophers everywhere.

H A Walk in the Woods

Illustrated by Brian Pinkney and Jerry Pinkney

Picture Book

When opening an envelope from his recently deceased father, a young boy is confused to only find a map of the woods: “The woods were our place. Why would Dad ask me to go back without him?”

Begrudgingly, the boy laces his hiking boots and begins down the familiar path, along which he is able to recognize several animals—showing how many hours he and his father have

against grass with their slow emptiness.” Her fine-toned illustrations showcase the beauty of the Alaskan landscape and its people, while her knowledgeable, passionate descriptions of survival in a harsh environment integrate well into the ongoing action. Rainey herself lives with her family in a remote Alaska Native village in the Brooks Range, where they follow a predominantly subsistence life and try to preserve traditional Iñupiaq values and knowledge.

Eagle Drums (Roaring Brook, $18.99, 9781250750655) marks the impressive debut of a gifted writer. Rainey gives readers an engrossing, exciting look into Iñupiaq culture while offering invaluable lessons about the power of community, kinship and celebrations.

spent in the woods. Eventually he comes to a lone chimney, the last remnant of a long gone home. “What was it Dad used to say? There’s always something that remains.” Inside, the boy finds a locked metal box containing drawings and scribbled stories about the forest wildlife.

Nikki Grimes, Brian Pinkney and his late father, Jerry Pinkney, have gifted us a heartbreakingly beautiful picture book about loss and grief. Endnotes explain the creation journey behind A Walk in the Woods (Neal Porter, $18.99, 9780823449651), where life imitated art in an almost unbelievable way. After Jerry’s wife (and celebrated author) Gloria Pinkney asked in 2019 why Jerry and Grimes had never worked together, the two longtime friends began to lay the groundwork for a story featuring an African American child exploring nature.

In October 2021, Jerry died, leaving behind an incredible legacy in children’s literature— but also incomplete artwork for A Walk in the Woods. Brian was given his father’s artwork just a few short weeks after his death, along with an invitation to finish the story his father began. With the help of Charnelle Pinkney Barlow (Jerry’s granddaughter and Brian’s niece), Brian began to merge his ethereal watercolor paintings with Jerry’s original line work, in an experience he calls “mysterious and mystical.”

Grimes’ text is full of depth and feeling and combines with the art in a brilliant display of color and life, capturing in detail the animals as well as the boy’s emotions on every page. The cool blues and purples in the beginning feel rife with grief, while the golds and reds of the woods

30 reviews | children’s

bring a sense of lightness to both the story and the reader, and hints of green signify that life will continue.

A Walk in the Woods is truly an exquisite story of heartbreak and hope. The collaboration between Grimes and both Pinkneys is seamless, as if all were completely of one mind.

On the last page of the book, as the boy gathers his father’s drawings and begins his trek home, he asks, “Can you smile and cry at the same time?” Readers likely will.

Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred

Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Picture Book

Move over Prince Charming, for Cinderella and a Mouse

Called Fred (Anne Schwartz, $18.99, 9780593480038).

Deborah Hopkinson (a frequent contributor to BookPage) and Paul O. Zelinsky’s queer retelling of the age-old Cinderella tale centers on a tiny gray mouse living in a pumpkin patch. The kind Cinderella (or “Ella,” as her friends call her) gives him his name, Fred. A grumpy fairy godmother turns Fred into a horse so that Ella can go to the big ball. The prince, however, is a brat, and Ella heads home at midnight—but not until she grabs some seeds from the pumpkin that had been her carriage. Later, she watches as the prince tries to fit her glass slipper onto her stepsisters’ feet. “I’ll find my own destiny, thank you very much,” Ella says to Fred.

The following spring, Ella plants the pumpkin seeds, and one grows to a splendid size. At the fair, she wins a blue ribbon and meets her future wife: another young farmer “who fell madly in love with Ella, just as she was.”

Zelinsky combines bustling, full-bleed spreads with an eye-catching palette marked by various shades of pink and—naturally—the deep orange of pumpkins. The masterfully composed spread in which Fred transforms into a horse at the tip of the fairy godmother’s magic wand is especially striking. And Hopkinson’s characters sparkle on the page: The fairy godmother is a hoot, Fred is charming and Ella possesses a refreshing amount of spunk. The text is funny (“Seriously?” says Ella, “Glass high heels?”), and the abundant dialogue flows seamlessly, making this spirited and romantic retelling a great choice for storytimes and classroom reader’s theater activities.


Aya Ghanameh is a Palestinian illustrator, writer and designer from Amman, Jordan. Her work moves away from state-centric ways of thinking to center the voices of ordinary people. Her debut children’s picture book,  These Olive Trees  (Viking, $18.99, 9780593525180), is inspired by the experiences of her family who cultivated her love of the earth throughout her upbringing in exile.

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