BookPage May 2020 Issue

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Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir-in-mutts is about growing up, coming out and learning the art of love, loss and self-acceptance from seven very good dogs.

also inside



MAY 2020

cover story Jennifer Finney Boylan 12 A memoir of life, transition and seven very good dogs

features Max Brooks   11 World War Z author takes on the legend of sasquatch

Mother’s Day 13

Three books honor the complexity of mothers

Helen Jukes 14 Making a home among the bees

Shelf Life: Emma Straub 16 The author and bookstore owner on her life in the stacks

Austen adaptations 19 Two books inspired by Jane Austen brighten up the season

Graduation 26 Grab these books before you throw those caps in the air

Graphics 26 Images and words combine to draw readers in

Deborah Wiles 27 Reckoning with a dark moment in American history

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes 29 Behind the scenes of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel

meet the author 31

Lauren Castillo Meet the author-illustrator of Our Friend Hedgehog

reviews Fiction 21 Nonfiction 28 Young Adult 30 Children’s 16

columns Lifestyles 4 Romance 5 Audio 6 Whodunit 7 Well Read 8 The Hold List 9 Book Clubs 10 Sci-fi & Fantasy 4


The COVID-19 pandemic may cause release dates for some of the books in this issue to change. We know you’ll enjoy these books whenever they become available, and encourage you to continue to support authors, bookstores and public libraries. Cover art by Anne Twomey

PRESIDENT & FOUNDER Michael A. Zibart ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Elizabeth Grace Herbert CONTROLLER Sharon Kozy MARKETING MANAGER Mary Claire Zibart SUBSCRIPTIONS Katherine Klockenkemper

PUBLISHER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Trisha Ping DEPUTY EDITOR Cat Acree ASSOCIATE EDITORS Stephanie Appell Christy Lynch Savanna Walker




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by susannah felts

HKeep Moving A while back, during a difficult divorce, poet Maggie Smith began posting daily affirmations and directives on Facebook, ending always with two words: Keep moving. Her words have since provided solace and inspiration for countless readers, and now they’re compiled in Keep Moving (One Signal, $24, 9781982132071), along with brief essays. In a season of unprecedented uncertainty, Smith’s book has arrived just in time. Open it to any page, and chances are you’ll find reason to reflect in a productive way.

Drinking With Chickens I’m having a fine time imagining the pitch meeting for Kate E. Richards’ Drinking With Chickens (Running Press, $20, 9780762494439). “It’s a haute cocktail book . . . but with chickens.” “So we’ll give them luscious photographs of gorgeous cocktails . . . and chickens?” “Yes. Garden-to-glass stuff, and herbal infusions. But with store-bought cheats, too, because after you’re done cleaning the coop, who has time for all that?” “This isn’t, like, just for chicken owners though, is it?” “Hardly! Like Kate says, ‘You don’t need to own them (cough, cough . . . be owned by them) to live the Drinking With Chickens life. Go forth into the world, my friends, and find chickens to drink with.’ ” “Love it. Love it. It’s the perfect spring title. Someone mix me up an Early Strawberry Syllabub, pronto.”

Writing Wild


by christie ridgway

HThe Rakess Seraphina Arden, a notorious women’s rights advocate, retreats to Cornwall to write about the past that “ruined” her in Scarlett Peckham’s passionate Georgian romance, The Rakess (Avon, $7.99, 9780062935618). Widower Adam Anderson is an architect with ambitions, and consorting with a scandalous woman might hinder his goal of securing a good life for his young children. So Seraphina and Adam embark on a secret affair to assuage their mutual hunger. Their appetites are lustily described, but it’s how their hearts are affected that will keep the reader turning the pages. Peppered with Seraphina’s well-reasoned arguments on gender relations, Peckham’s print debut is unique, dramatic and vastly entertaining.

Starbreaker Strap in for a rollicking ride with Starbreaker (Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99, 9781492667162) by Amanda Bouchet. Tess Bailey and Shade Ganavan continue their quest to thwart the evil Galactic Overseer. The pair encounters challenging and surprising obstacles as old friends and old enemies pop up to create problems or become unlikely allies. And while Tess and Shade share a bed, issues still cast doubt on their romantic future. Tess learns of secrets from her past, and Shade must accept that he can never return to his previous life. This is a high-octane adventure with lifeand-death stakes. Sci-fi romance must satisfy on many levels, and Bouchet proves she’s up to the task. Her characters are witty and wise, and her world building is first-rate.

Stages of the Heart

If you’re a fan of nature and environmental writing, you may believe it’s something of a boys’ club—a forgivable assumption, as so many dudes get the attention in this genre (we see you, Thoreau). In Writing Wild (Timber, $24.95, 9781604699272), Kathryn Aalto sets the record straight with biographical profiles and brief introductions to the work of 25 women who have worked in this literary vein. Here are Vita Sackville-­West, Mary Oliver and Gretel Ehrlich; here, too, in brief roundups at the end of each profile, are still “More Early American Voices” who have taken on some aspect of the natural world in their writing. This book is a wonderful jumping-off point for anyone who loves the outdoors and wants to know more about the many talented female writers who have made it their work’s focus.

Jo Goodman’s Stages of the Heart (Berkley, $7.99, 9780440000679) is rich in detail and plot. Laurel Morrison—independent, tough and determined—manages a station that provides meals and accommodations along the stagecoach route. When a mine’s payroll goes missing from her station, she needs to solve the mystery to ensure her success. Enter quintessential Western hero McCall Landry, a laconic man with steely nerves and a shadowed past. McCall is looking for work and takes on the task of determining who stole the strongbox from the stagecoach. The couple is intrigued and attracted, but Laurel doesn’t expect forever—maybe McCall’s just passing through. The author of some 50 books, Goodman has a true storyteller’s voice that will have you feeling the dust on your boots and the wind in your hair.

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

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



by anna zeitlin

HStamped In Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown, 4 hours), Jason Reynolds uses his own voice to reinterpret Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning for young readers. He traces the origins of racism in the United States back hundreds of years, to when Greek philosophy and the Bible were first used to justify enslaving Africans with dark skin. In an engaging storytelling style intended for a young audience but appealing to anyone, Reynolds delves into different periods in American history to uncover the racism hiding in plain sight and how it connects to today. He equips listeners with the tools to notice when something is racist and to be antiracist in their own lives. Reynolds’ narration has a poetic, hip vibe that keeps the book flowing and never feeling like homework. This would make a great listen for the whole family, especially when incorporating breaks for discussion.

Everything I Know About Love Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love (HarperAudio, 8.5 hours), a touching memoir of early adulthood’s hilarious highs and relatable lows, is a must-read for anyone who grew up learning to talk to a crush through instant messengers. Alderton breaks up the memoir’s chapters with lists of the absolute truths that she believes about love at different ages in her life; the lists charmingly contradict each other as she gains maturity and perspective. Alderton makes for a delightful narrator despite, as she mentions, hating her posh, British boarding school accent. Her wit shines through, especially when narrating an imaginary, over-the-top bachelorette party from hell.

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Undercover Bromance Undercover Bromance (Penguin Audio, 9 hours), written by Lyssa Kay Adams, delivers on the goofy action the title promises. The bromance book club is made up of Nashville’s movers and shakers, from the city’s top athletes to its elite businessmen, including nightclub owner Braden Mack. When Braden accidentally gets Liv fired from her dream job as a pastry chef, he helps her get revenge on her sexual harasser boss. The fun cast of characters includes a hippie farmer landlord, a Vietnam vet who’s a softy at heart and a Russian hockey player who tells it like it is. Narrator Andrew Eiden’s macho, toughguy voice is suited to this testosterone-laden romance novel that fully embraces the form and proves that romance can be for anybody.

Anna Zeitlin is an art curator and hat maker who fills her hours with a steady stream of audiobooks.

an AUDIOBOOK for every listener

READ BY SCOTT BRICK “This work is an excellent example of the perfect melding of text and narrator.” —AudioFile on The First Conspiracy, Earphones Award winner

READ BY THERESE PLUMMER Barbara Delinsky presents a captivating new novel about a woman whose unexpected reunion with her estranged family forces her to confront a devastating past.


READ BY KATHLEEN MCINERNEY “This entertaining narration by Kathleen McInerney...captures the story’s colorful characters and themes.” —AudioFile on Ladies’ Night

READ BY THE AUTHOR A moving portrait of depression, from the host of the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression “An excellent life raft for those of us who are so sure that we are alone in our struggles.” — Jenny Lawson



by bruce tierney Before She Was Helen

It’s not often that I read a suspense novel in which the protagonist is older than I am, so I was delighted to meet Clemmie Lakefield, the feisty and likable 70-something heroine of Caroline B. Cooney’s clever new mystery, Before She Was Helen (Poisoned Pen, $26.99, 9781728205120). Clemmie harbors a secret so big that it required a midlife identity change. But when you’re trying to hide from your past, you never know what random occurrence may blow your cover. She was just checking on a shut-in neighbor, using the key he had given her, when she saw an unusual door and, naturally, opened it. It led into an adjacent neighbor’s home, where Clemmie feasted her eyes upon a beautiful glass sculpture. She sent a photo of it to her grandnephew, who ran a Google image search and discovered that it had been stolen. So he posted a note to the artist’s website, saying: “Your rig is sitting on a table in the house next door to my aunt.” When the police find a body in situ and Clemmie’s fingerprints nearby, her carefully constructed secret identity is threatened—with potentially lethal consequences. Half cozy Miss Marple vibe, half gritty murder mystery, this genre-bender works better than I would have ever expected.

Silence on Cold River Early on in her debut thriller, Silence on Cold River (Pegasus, $25.95, 9781643134086), author Casey Dunn describes rural Tarson, Georgia, as “more like a morgue than it was like Mayberry.” It will prove to be a prophetic characterization as three people from wildly disparate lives rendezvous with destiny on a rarely traversed mountain trail: Ama Chaplin, a successful defense attorney; Michael Walton, Ama’s former client, erroneously acquitted of animal cruelty; and Eddie Stevens, returning to the scene of his daughter’s disappearance one year later, gun in hand, suicide in mind, to ensure that his daughter’s case is never forgotten. But life has other plans for Eddie. When he notices that Ama has not returned to her car after a reasonable time, he sets off into the woods to make sure she’s OK. An abduction and a shooting follow in quick succession, and one person lies on the forest floor, bleeding out. Enter police detective Martin Locklear, tentatively distancing himself from his demons and eager to prove his worth once again. From there, Dunn ratchets up the tension with each successive chapter en route to a satisfying conclusion. Silence on Cold River doesn’t feel like a suspense debut but rather the work of a genre veteran. Read it, and you will be on the lookout for whatever Dunn writes next.

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Dead Land Dead Land (William Morrow, $28.99, 9780062435927) is Sara Paretsky’s latest mystery featuring the inimitable V.I. Warshawski. One of the major themes in the series is the political cesspool that is Chicago. Time and time again, Warshawski is drawn into investigating the shady dealings of Windy City businessmen and politicians. This time, those dealings still persist (hey, it’s Chicago, of course they do) but with international implications that date back to the repressive Pinochet dictatorship in 1970s Chile. A homeless folk singer is the link. Her deceased boyfriend, killed apparently at random in a mass shooting, was once an anti-Pinochet activist, and the repercussions echo forward to present day. As always, Warshawski is a dyed-in-the-wool, capital-L Liberal, and I suspect that her positions may ruffle a few capital-C Conservative feathers. But it’s only when our feathers get ruffled that we stand any chance of being motivated to rethink our positions on things. Paretsky might just be the Ruth Rendell of her era. Each time she releases a new book, it is invariably better than all the others that came before, and Dead Land continues this tradition with aplomb.

H Shakespeare for Squirrels Nobody writes mystery novels quite like Christopher Moore. In one of his books, the protagonist is helped and plagued in equal measure by the Navajo trickster spirit, Coyote. In another, a prehistoric sea beast is aroused from a long sleep and emits a pheromone that inspires uncontrollable lust in anyone within range. His latest, Shakespeare for Squirrels (William Morrow, $28.99, 9780062434029), is the third in a series, following Fool and The Serpent of Venice. Each entry is roughly based on a play by William Shakespeare and features a main character named Pocket, who is a Fool— as in, a court jester. The bones of the story resemble Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although in much the same way that a dinosaur skeleton resembles a living, breathing dinosaur chasing you through a prehistoric field. From that loose starting point, Moore builds relationships that didn’t exist in the original work, fleshes out conversations that Shakespeare only alluded to and creates from whole cloth some conversations that were never had (with verbiage decidedly bawdier than in the original). And as hilarious as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to begin with, Moore adds a contemporary dose of sly humor that I think would impress the Bard.

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.


well read | by robert weibezahl

More to love from Madeleine L’Engle This collection of forgotten short stories by the beloved writer of A Wrinkle in Time offers a fuller view of her mastery. The discovery of unpublished work by a now departed writer is always a treat. When that writer is Madeleine L’Engle, it is undeniably cause for celebration. The Moment of Tenderness (Grand Central, $27, 9781538717820) collects 18 short stories found among L’Engle’s papers by her granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis. Dating primarily from the 1940s and ’50s, all but one were written before A Wrinkle in Time made L’Engle a household name. The stories cover myriad genres, with only a couple falling into the category of speculative fiction that we’ve come to associate L’Engle with (and oddly, these are among the least successful stories in the collection). The early stories in the book center on childhood an d ad o l escence, and Voiklis surmises in her introduction that these—and indeed, many of the stories—are autobiographical in nature. They beautifully capture the sense of loneliness and yearning that is common to smart, somewhat isolated children. “The Mountains Shall Stand Forever” and “Summer Camp” both provide subtly chilling portraits of the cruelty children can adopt in order to run with the pack. Similarly, there is a Shirley Jackson-esque discomfort in “The Foreigners” and “The Fact of the Matter,” two of the numerous stories set in an insular rural Vermont community

and narrated by a central character named Madeleine. Before turning to fiction writing, L’Engle tried her hand at acting, and that experience informs stories about young, single women trying to make it in theater in New York City. These, like some of the Vermont stories, offer sharp slices of the midcentury American zeitgeist, when certain possibilities for women were just beginning to open up. L’Engle here enters the territory of such masters of the form as Alice Munro, John O’Hara and John Cheever. Some of the stories are so affecting—in particular, the e le gia c title story, the aforementioned “The Foreigners” and the somewhat shocking “That Which Is Left”— that it is surprising they did not find publication in L’Engle’s lifetime. Voiklis points out that her grandmother did recycle some of this material later as episodes in novels or incidents in memoirs, a fact that provides a glimpse into the writer’s process. “You have to write the book that wants to be written,” L’Engle once said. Due to the timelessness of her Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time, many people may think of L’Engle as a children’s author or a science fiction writer, or both. The engaging stories in The Moment of Tenderness collectively offer a different, fuller view of this talented master.

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

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feature | the hold list

Remarkable people in remarkable times These books highlight heroes who give courage to our souls—but most of all, they reveal the true, relatable humanity beneath their subjects’ seemingly supernatural heroism.

The Black Rose By Tananarive Due The story of Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire, is one of the most remarkable American success stories. Her life inspired Netflix’s recent series “Self Made,” but I prefer The Black Rose, a gripping work of historical fiction by award-winning author Tananarive Due that chronicles Walker’s rags-to-riches rise. The first person in her family born free, Walker survived an abusive marriage and raised a daughter on a meager salary before launching a hair-care empire for black women. Ambitious and tenacious, Walker held fast to the idea that women like her deserved to feel beautiful and were willing to pay for it—despite naysayers all around, including famous men like Booker T. Washington. But money talks, and Walker’s success soon spoke for itself. She never forgot where she came from, giving back until her untimely death at 51. —Trisha, Publisher

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy By Mackenzi Lee Mackenzi Lee followed The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue with another smashingly entertaining historical road trip, this time focused on aspiring doctor Felicity Montague. Entering the medical field was nearly impossible for an 18th-century woman (even a rich, white woman), and Lee strikes the perfect balance between inspiration and historical realism. This is not a simple “girl power” fable. Felicity confronts her own internalized misogyny as she comes to appreciate women whose dreams and personalities are different from her own but no less valid or deserving of respect. The characters in Lady’s Guide know they are outliers in their own time, but they press forward anyway, confident that they are blazing a path for the generations of women who will come after them. —Savanna, Associate Editor

In the Time of the Butterflies

The Life of Blood Water Paint Frederick Douglass By Joy McCullough

By Julia Alvarez

By David F. Walker Illustrated by Damon Smyth & Marissa Louise

Blood Water Paint is an incredible true story. Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter The Mirabal sisters of Julia of an art dealer in Rome Alvarez’s powerful novel during the early 1600s and may sound like the stuff of Few Americans are more a talented painter in her myth, but they were real. remarkable than Frederick own right, was attacked Four women, known as Douglass. To learn about and raped by one of her “the Butterflies,” joined an his extraordinary life and father’s business associunderground movement in work, you could read the ates. Defying convention, the late 1950s against Presi- autobiographies he wrote Gentileschi pressed charges dent Rafael Trujillo and be- during his lifetime, or one came legends of resistance of the thorough biographies against her attacker, risking everything—including for the Dominican people. that have been penned her future as an artist—to Three sisters died in the since his death. Or, for a process, but they mobilized totally different avenue into seek justice for herself. Joy a nation to liberate itself the history of abolition, you McCullough tells Gentilesfrom a decades-long dicta- could read David F. Walker’s chi’s story in 99 poems, interspersed with the prose torship. Alvarez’s novel, like stunning graphic biograstories of Susanna and many feminist Latin Amer- phy. Written in the voice Judith, the biblical women ican works, is rebellious of Douglass himself and depicted in two of Gentileseven in its form, mixing illustrated with at times chi’s best-known paintings. timelines and genres in a violent, at times beautiful Gentileschi’s voice on the polyphonic, metafictive scenes from Douglass’ life, page is arresting, and her masterpiece. During dark this book offers a high-­ determination to prevail times, our impulse can be level portrait that is more and carve out a life for to protect ourselves before humanizing, vivid and herself as an artist, even in others, to stay silent out of heart-stirring than words the face of horror and traufear. Stirring to its very core, alone could paint. When ma, is unforgettable. You’ll Alvarez’s novel captures the the world seems full of imcrucial shift when a person passable obstacles, The Life never look at Gentileschi’s paintings the same way decides to stand up for of Frederick Douglass is a what they truly believe in, helpful reminder of how to again. —Stephanie, Associate no matter the cost. knock them down. Editor —Cat, Deputy Editor —Christy, Associate Editor

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


book clubs | by julie hale

Secrets of suburbia Reading groups who fell for Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere—now a series on Hulu—will savor these smart, sophisticated and brisk domestic dramas. Anna Benz, the protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau (Random House, $16, 9780812987294), leads an affluent life in Switzerland with her family. But when an increasing sense of emptiness—and a distant husband—lead her into a string of secret sexual assignations, she becomes caught up in a web of lies. This bold debut from Essbaum succeeds thanks to its nuanced portrayal of Anna. How much do gender stereotypes play into our responses to a character like Anna? Prepare for a lively debate. In Ask Again, Yes (Scribner,

Have I Ever (William Morrow, $16.99, 9780062855329), another new paperback release. Contented wife and mother Amy Whey’s peaceful existence is turned upside down during a book club meeting where she meets the captivating Angelica Roux. Angelica knows about a terrible incident from Amy’s past, and when she threatens blackmail, Amy must outmaneuver her. Readers can unpack themes of female friendship, morality and loyalty while delighting in the intricate, twisty plot and the novel’s singular momentum. Taut and enthralling,

BOOK CLUB READS FOR SUMMER SPRING FOR THE GERMAN HEIRESS by Anika Scott “Meticulously researched and plotted like a noir thriller, The German Heiress tells a different story of WWII.” —JESSICA SHATTUCK

New York Times bestselling author

THE ANCESTOR by Danielle Trussoni “Danielle Trussoni’s vivid and uncanny tale The Ancestor makes the most of her signature blend of science, myth, and mystery.” —DEBORAH HARKNESS,

New York Times bestselling author

THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF THE SHERGILL SISTERS $17, 9781982106997)—just out in paperback—Mary Beth Keane shrewdly dissects the tensions and connections between two families. Both new to the NYPD in 1973, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson are next-door neighbors grappling with work and personal issues. Lena, Francis’ wife, feels isolated, while Brian’s wife, Anne, is becoming increasingly volatile. The entwining of their lives over decades results in emotional devastation for everyone involved. Expect serious discussion of topics like mental illness and addiction, stemming from Keane’s portrayal of the ways families can be torn apart. Yet there’s hope in this dark drama, as Keane’s characters reckon with the past and find redemption and grace. Suburban life is anything but dull in Joshilyn Jackson’s Never

Jackson’s novel will inspire rousing conversation—while also providing an effortless read. Any Big Little Lies superfans in your group? Pick up another winner from Liane Moriarty, The Husband’s Secret (Berkley, $9.99, 9780451490049), which shares the same blend of propulsive writing and penetrating social commentary. Cecilia Fitzpatrick finds a letter from her husband that she’s not supposed to open until after his death. She reads it—naturally—only to learn that he harbors a shocking secret with repercussions that go well beyond their family. It’s the worst (best?) possible permutation of the “How well do you know your spouse?” plot, and readers of this provocative novel can look forward to fascinating discussion when their group convenes.

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

by Balli Kaur Jaswal

The author of the Reese Witherspoon Book Club selection Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows follows her acclaimed America debut with this life-affirming, witty family drama.

YOU AND ME AND US by Alison Hammer The heartbreaking, yet hopeful, story of a mother and daughter struggling to be a family without the one person who holds them together—a perfect read for fans of Jojo Moyes.

t @Morrow_PB

t @bookclubgirl

f William Morrow I Book Club Girl


Where Murderers Meet Their Match!


sci-fi & fantasy

by chris pickens

H Repo Virtual Corey J. White’s fast-paced caper Repo Virtual (, $26.99, 9781250218728) had me hooked from the first page. Julius Dax, a part-time gamer and more-thanpart-time thief, is hired by a messianic CEO to steal back a prize from a rival company. When JD and his friends find out what the company has stolen, they’re left with a choice: return a sentient artificial intelligence program to scheming corporate hands or find a way to save it. White creates a rich, grimy and charming cyberpunk world, and the action is snappy and never superfluous. The AI program has a real voice in the story, and that voice evolves as it learns what it means to be a person. Repo Virtual sets itself apart with its gleeful heart and underdog charm.

The Girl and the Stars Fo arm r c trav hair eler s


Summer might be on our doorstep, but Mark Lawrence lets the ice back in with his wondrous and chilling The Girl and the Stars (Ace, $27, 9781984805997), the first in his new Book of the Ice series. In a cold, dark world, children deemed too weak to survive are thrown into a deep, mysterious pit, never to be seen again. When Yaz sees her brother thrown into the pit, she goes in after him and discovers an entire world below the ice, along with answers to questions about herself she never knew to ask. Yaz is a worthy and tenacious heroine, wrestling constantly with her self-identity. Readers looking for an utterly fresh fantasy world would do well to give this one a try.

Stealing Thunder



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Available Everywhere Books Are Sold

In the desert city of Bikampur, not everything is as it seems, and Razia, the stylish and capable protagonist of Alina Boyden’s Stealing Thunder (Ace, $16, 9781984805461), has secrets of her own. A dancer by day and a thief by night, Razia is living a contented new life after running from her past and transitioning from male to female. When she meets Arjun, the prince of Bikampur, at a lavish party, she finds herself on a collision course with the past she’s been trying to outrun for so long. Razia’s layers of complexity and Boyden’s ability to deliver a sharp internal narrative bring gravity to each scene. There’s very little backstory or detail that isn’t necessary to the action, which makes everything feel trim and neat throughout. The Mughal India-inspired Bikampur is full of thrilling fantasy creations, such as the dangerous zahhaks (think of a dragon, but with various magical flavors). Come for the vivid world, stay for the intrigue, the dialogue and the top-notch character design.

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


interview | max brooks

More than a legend Max Brooks’ new sasquatch novel is (wait for it) a big feat.

Believe it or not, Max Brooks’ sensational new novel of anthropological horror, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, is about the real world. “It basically came out of the idea that we are racing headlong to build a society for comfort and not for resilience,” Brooks says. “And in order to have those comforts, we’re gutting all the safeguards that previous generations worked so hard to build for us.” After the global zombie apocalypse of his bestselling World War Z, Brooks now focuses his catastrophic lens on a microcosm of inevitable collapse. In Devolution, a small group of highly civilized individuals has created Greenloop, a perfectly fabricated environmentalist utopia in the woods of Washington state, in the shadow of Mount Rainier’s dormant volcano. When the mountain erupts, the community of Greenloop—now cut off from contact with the rest of the world—utterly breaks down. Then a family of sasquatch drops in. And they’re hungry. Greenloop goes to the very heart of our era’s technological hubris. Brooks describes the organization as the brainchild of Steve Jobs and Timothy Treadwell—the famous “Grizzly Man” who was mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear. “At the height of the Iraq War, I had an epiphany,” Brooks says. “Americans are dying, a whole country is going down in flames, the world order is collapsing. A couple of generations ago, our country’s best and brightest would be working on trying to solve that problem. And instead, we get a turtlenecked P.T. Barnum crowing about how the greatest new invention is the ability to watch ‘The Office’ on our cell phones.” Brooks is effusive about what he has learned from his parents, Hollywood icons Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, who were part of the gener-

ation that confronted the existential threats of the early and mid-20th century, and who imparted to him their values. “The stories I grew up with were Great Depression and World War II stories,” Brooks says. “They were about people digging inside themselves, finding the grit and courage they didn’t know they had. Because they had to.” That noble American generation is a far cry from Devolution’s characters Tony and Yvette Durant, the charismatic leaders of Greenloop. The Durants epitomize what Brooks sees as our civilization’s delu“It took me a long time sional belief in technology’s cato find out what the pacity to save us. “You have this divorce of the intelligentsia from world was really like.” the real world,” he says. “The problem with a lot of the environmental movement is that it comes from urbanites who have no idea how the natural world actually works. They have their own version of it, reliant on a kind of technology that allows you to have it all, no sacrifice, no compromise. That is so American.” The novel’s narrative is framed by a scientific researcher’s investigation into the mysterious occurrences at Greenloop, guided by entries from a found journal that belonged to one of its inhabitants, Kate Holland, and rounded out by interviews with witnesses of the site after the massacre. “I’ve always loved forensic horror,” Brooks says. “For me, the scariest moment of Aliens is when they get to the colony, even before they’re attacked. Devolution is a new version of the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia. To me, that’s very terrifying.” The oldest and youngest characters at Greenloop are Mostar, an elderly woman who survived the late 20th-century Balkan Wars, and Palomino, a girl adopted by her two mothers from a Bangladeshi orphanage. Mostar and Palomino seem to be the only characters prepared for the horror that arrives at Greenloop. Brooks agrees: “Exactly. They know how bad things can get, as opposed to everyone else who is living in a bubble and simply can’t believe it can get that bad.” Kate’s husband, Dan, is an urban-bubble guy: no direction, addicted to the internet, a huge chip on his shoulder. Brooks admits that he grew up inside a similar version of that bubble in west Los Angeles, even with all his parents’ powerful stories from the past. “It took me a long time to find out what the world was really like,” he says. When he finally did, he was ready to imagine how easily the bubble could burst. Reading about Kate’s (d)evolution into a person who confronts the ravenous sasquatch on her Devolution own terms is so exciting, so devDel Rey, $28, 9781984826787 astating, so delightful, it doesn’t even matter if Bigfoot really exists. Horror By the way, Brooks says, the jury is still out on that question. “I’m just exorcising my own fears,” he says. “I’m scared of zombies, and I had a lot of questions. If there was a real zombie plague, how would it really go down? And if Sasquatch was real, how would it exist? I’m always just answering my own questions.” —Michael Alec Rose Visit to read our review of Devolution.


cover story | jennifer finney boylan

Dogs of our lives

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s father came from a generation of men who didn’t cry in front of others. That’s why the anecdote in her new memoir, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs (Celadon, $26.99, 9781250261878), about seeing her father cry for the first time is especially poignant. Her father was watching a TV show, and in one of the episodes, a pet bloodhound dies. The Boylans had raised many dogs themselves by this point and were no strangers to difficult goodbyes with beloved pets. Still, this death was entirely fictional. It was happening on screen, not in real life. And yet. “When I turned to look at my father when the show was over, I was shocked to see that tears had rolled down his cheeks and that he was silently crying,” Boylan writes. “I had never seen my father cry before. He wiped his eyes. “ ‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s sad.’ ” This kind of emotional display was uncommon among men not only in Boylan’s family but also in the suburban 1960s and ’70s culture in which she was raised. At the time, Boylan—many decades away from coming out as transgender—looked to the family patriarch for instructions on how to be a man. The emotional strictures of maleness that she saw all around her were already a concern. “When you were a kid like me, who is female at heart but no one knows that . . . you’re wondering if your father is the person who’s going to be able to show you how to be in the world,” says Boylan, now 61, from the apartment in New York City where she lives for part of the year. “The idea of being in a world where I couldn’t express emotion more effusively was going to be a challenge for me.” The Boylans were not a touchy-feely family, she says, but a lot of love existed between them. In adulthood, Boylan has come to realize that one of the ways her family could express love and loss—and one of the ways she could express love and loss—was through their pet dogs. For example, it may be too difficult to say to an older sister who has left for college that her absence hurts. But the family dog, who is also mourning the sister’s absence, intuitively understands. Dogs, Boylan realized, were ideal avatars for explorations of love throughout her life. Good Boy begins with Boylan’s childhood as a boy in rural Pennsylvania and ends in the present day, when she is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University, married to her wife, Deedie, and the mother of two 20-somethings. Along the way, Boylan explores how dogs can teach us about all kinds of love: romantic love, familial love, love between friends and, most importantly, self-love. “It’s hard to talk about love without people rolling their eyes, which is just funny if you think about it, because we all know that there is probably nothing more important in the world then loving each other and expressing the love that we feel,” says Boylan. “And yet it’s the thing that we’re probably the worst at.”



The love that Jennifer Finney Boylan’s dogs taught her is more than mere puppy love. It’s that healing, sustaining love that gets us through life’s letdowns and losses.

Through every section of Good Boy, Boylan shares one life lesson from each of her seven dogs. Playboy, Sausage, Matt the Mutt and others taught Boylan about coping with unrequited love, learning self-respect, reconciling a lifetime of struggle with her gender identity and accepting herself in the face of widespread cultural bigotry. “Dogs accept you for who you are, no matter who you are, when you can’t accept yourself,” she says. That particular lesson is crucial for Boylan, who unveiled herself (a more fitting phrase than “came out,” she thinks) as transgender at age 40. Boylan has written about her gender journey in several other memoirs, most notably 2013’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders—the first bestselling book by a transgender American. Good Boy is not exclusively about transgender issues but rather the transformative journey every human goes through in a lifetime. However, Boylan’s experiences as a trans woman, and as the parent of a trans child, are woven throughout. Chloe is the family’s only dog at present; she lives in Maine with Deedie while Boylan teaches at Barnard. The family adopted Chloe in 2017, at age 12, when her previous owner became ill. Eventually, it will be time to say goodbye to Chloe, too. “Sooner than you know, there’s this thing with a gray face that’s looking at you, saying, ‘You promised to take care of me when the time comes,’ ” Boylan says. “And then you lose the dog, and you weep your brains out.” In fact, it’s not so different from losing the humans we love in life. “That, in miniature,” she says, “is the process that we go through again and again and again.” —Jessica Wakeman Visit to read our review of Good Boy.

feature | mother’s day

Memories of motherhood Our relationships with our mothers can be beautiful, difficult and complicated. Three books honor mothers as the complex humans they are. quit her job and started back­packing solo around the Who is your mother, and what does she remember? world, visiting 17 countries in the course of a year. The answers can be a treasure chest or a Pandora’s Traveling on a frugal budget and roughing it, Downs box, and these three books explore them in very difencounters not only astounding vistas (such as the ferent ways. stately temples and rock formations in Hampi, India) After Maya Shanbhag Lang became a parent, her but also outright danger (as when she arrives in Cairo mom told a perplexing story about a woman trying in the middle of the Arab Spring uprising)—and more to decide whether to save herself or her child from a than her fair share of dis­comfort (for example, being deep, dangerous river, because she couldn’t do both. attacked by a monkey while volunteering at a Bolivian The tale reflected Lang’s own family’s past in ways primate sanctuary). Her entertaining account of this she could never have imagined, and she slowly, artyear seamlessly blends exciting travelogue tales with fully reveals the layers of this mystery in her engaging musings about her mother, punctuated by concerns memoir, What We Carry (Dial, $27, 9780525512394). about whether Alzheimer’s disease will eventually Lang’s mother, a psychiatrist from India, was always manifest in her own body. “Part of the reason I emher rock—a contrast to Lang’s cruel, verbally abusive barked on this trip,” she explains, “was to complete father, whom her mother eventually divorced. Dr. my mom’s goals, but this is also a battle against the Shanbhag was also a spitfire of a woman, like when disease itself, cramming myself full of my own memshe stood watch over Lang as a child in the dentist’s ories, hoarding them and holding them tight, before chair, chiding the dentist every time he used his gloved anything is taken.” By hand to readjust the the end of Braver Than light, thus breaking Perfect for Mother’s Day, You Think, readers may the sterile field. Unbe ready to embrace afraid of what the these powerful books explore Downs’ insatiable apdentist thought of mothers’ legacies in memoir, proach to life, “chasing her, she forced him to adventure for the sake put on a fresh pair of travelogue and microessays. of living deliberately gloves over and over and passionately.” again. Lang’s mother When novelist Edan Lepucki started an Instagram was “not sentimental or effusive, had never read to me account in 2017 called “Mothers Before,” she never as a child or baked me cookies, but she would travel imagined how popular it would become. Now congreat distances for me and carry astonishing weights. tinuing the phenomenon in book form, she’s gathered When I most needed her, she was there.” more than 60 essays addressing the question, “Who And then, suddenly she wasn’t. As Lang discovers was my mother before she was a mother?” Each conthat her mother has Alzheimer’s disease, she brings tributor to Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Shanbhag home to live with her and her family. During Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them (Abrams, $24.99, this time, her mother’s dementia and close proximity 9781419742941) was asked to submit a photo of their give the author a unique opportunity to learn surmother before she became a parent, along with a prising truths about their family’s past. As Lang exmicro­essay about the image and their mother’s life. plains, “I want to get to know her while I still can. I With contributors such as Jennifer Egan, Alison want to separate the myth from reality, to reconcile Roman, Lisa See, Jia Tolentino and Laura Lippman, the mom I always imagined with the more complithe results make for delightful browsing—ranging cated person I’m just starting to know.” Lang is an from sassy quips, like Tiffany Nguyen observing a picimmediately affable and honest narrator who offers ture of her mom in Vietnam in 1970 (“Here is my mom an intriguing blend of revelatory personal history and rocking it in a minidress”), to somber historical retouching insight about her mother’s illness. minders, like writer Camille T. Dungy’s powerful comDementia is also at the forefront of Maggie Downs’ ments about her mother’s childhood in Lynchburg, memoir, Braver Than You Think: Around the World Virginia: “The members of the Court Street Baptist on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime (Counterpoint, Church started a library fund to help my black moth$26, 9781640092921), but in a very different way. er’s black father buy the books he needed to preach While Lang delves into her past, Downs plunges into the sermons his black parishioners needed to hear the future as her mom begins a sharp, final decline. every Sunday in that deeply segregated, often hateful Whenever a new issue of National Geographic artown.” As Lepucki says so well, Mothers Before is rived in the mailbox of their Ohio home, Downs and “about seeking clarity, and interrogating history, and her mother would huddle over the exotic photographs trying to understand the myriad ways a woman might of faraway places, marveling at the many wonders and navigate a life.” Don’t miss this unique mini-museum vowing to someday see some of these sites together. of women’s history. However, when her mother’s early onset Alzheimer’s —Alice Cary robbed them of this opportunity, journalist Downs


behind the book | helen jukes


behind our neat desk cells, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion. I’d crawl under the covers at night feeling dulled, dumbed down, depleted. Into this space, this not-quite-home, arrived the bees. I was gifted the colony by a group of friends, and in the months before they arrived, I cleared the weeds in the garden, bought a hive and some beekeeping equipment and read a lot of not very practical books about beekeeping history and folklore. Honeybees in real life are not like the ones in books. They’re brittle and trembling, and when I lifted the lid of the hive, they didn’t buzz, they hummed—like a machine but more unstable, more liable to volatility. Once a week I made a full hive inspection, prizing the combs apart one by one as the bees rose up in a cloud around me—light, sharp and impossible to predict. The task was more involved than I’d anticipated, and I was going to become more involved, more unsettled, than I’d thought. What was I looking in on? Thousands of individuals, or a singularity? A superorganism? An intricate and fine-tuned system, or a confusion—a chaos? Often I had the sense of complex networks, of an intricate and highly sensitive collectivity. But as to what was actually happening inside the hive from week to week—well, it often felt like guesswork. The bees built in directions I hadn’t planned, responded to changes I hadn’t noticed or anticipated. Often, by the time I noticed a potential threat—a wasp raid, a hailstorm, a sudden temperature drop—they’d already responded to it. The colony was getting stronger; the comb was thicker, darker, fuller every week. I’d peer down at the honey collecting in the wax cells and feel a silent wonder at the journeys the bees had made—the distances they’d traveled and how they’d still found their way back home. Inside the house afterward, I’d feel oddly shaken, moved at the sight of all that work—the making and feeding, the living and dying and being born—going on inside. It was around this time that another beekeeper encouraged me to start an observation diary. “Note down what’s happening week to week,” he said. “It’ll help you pick out the patterns and spot when something’s amiss. The more you look, the more you’ll Helen Jukes reflects on the year that inspired her meditative memoir, notice; the more you notice, the more you’ll see.” A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings—a book that’s full-to-bursting with So I bought a notebook and began doing as he’d warmth, wildness and visions of the gleaming, humming natural world. said. I wrote what happened at the weekly inspections, and then I wrote what happened when I was not inspecting—when I was just sitting out by the hive, not doing anything What do we mean by “home”? It’s not a question one usually asks when very much. Soon I began noting other things, too—lines from books and feeling at home. It comes instead out of a sense of dislocation: when the articles I’d read, conversations I’d had, dreams I’d dreamed (one about home is present but lacking in some way; there but not there; visible but, honey seeping through my bedroom ceiling; one about hornets with huge for some reason, amiss. To ask the question is to state a nagging suspiteeth inside the house). cion that the word has become dislodged, detached, decoupled from its Reading my observation diary now, I see that these and other accounts meaning. The person asking is not necessarily homeless, but neither do are noted alongside newspaper headlines warning of bee-harming pesthey feel totally secure. They might say, as they leave the office, that they’re ticides, of colony losses and wild bee declines, of habitat destruction and going home, but the associations they have with that word, their expecfragmentation, of commercial beekeepers now operating at industrial tations about it—comfort, shelter, recuperation, rest—sit oddly with the scales, equipped with the tools to intervene in every part of the inner life house that they’re headed for. of the hive. I suppose I’d included these bleaker selections because a few I tend to reach dead ends when asking such questions of myself. For times, reading these articles on a lunch break at work, I’d felt a wave of answers, I need outside input, to have my thoughts interrupted by other affinity toward the tiny creatures in my garden. Weren’t we both suffering people, by books, by encounter and experience. What I want to describe the effects of a drive toward intensification, of a culture that placed market here is what happened when, for a short while, this question was interprofit above creature life? rupted, unsettled and ultimately reframed by a colony of bees. Back in my garden, watching the bees lifting, dustlike, from the hive I’d moved to Oxford from the south coast of England. A job offer had each week, I found myself again circling that question: What do we mean come at just the right time, and I’d moved towns to take it. I was renting by “home”? The word seems inseparable from houses now, and from noa room in a house not far from the city center, a small terrace room with tions of domesticity and ownership. Yet when I looked it up, I learned moths in the carpets and mold spores on the walls and a slim garden out that its original meaning referred not to a building or even a geographical back that had grown overcrowded with weeds. I’d brought cushions and location but a state of being—a place at the heart of the real. A place from houseplants, pictures and pans—all the trappings of a domesticity that, on which worlds could be founded; a place where meanings are made. the cusp of my 30s, I still felt ambivalent about—but, a few months in, the Humans have kept honeybees for over 6,000 years, but as a species place wasn’t feeling a lot like home. The new job was stressful. I got back they’ve never been fully domesticated. When a swarm of bees leaves a hive in the evenings tired and drained, too exhausted to do much more than today, they’re as wild as they ever were—not reliant on the shelters we’ve make some food and go to bed. This was nothing out of the ordinary, of made and just as capable of following their own instincts about how to course—in fact, when I looked around at my colleagues, all of us pinned

Making a home among the bees


live. What if home wasn’t about staying put, I wondered then. What if it was something in me? What if I carried it around, an active capacity? By late summer, there were honeybees among the sheets hanging from the washing line and wasps picking at the jam Home is a place from lid when we ate breakfast outside. On warm which worlds can be days, we left the winfounded; a place where dows of the house open and found bumblebees meanings are made. in the sink, butterflies on the walls, a dragonfly, once, on a bookshelf. Strange things happen when we pay attention. The Reverend William Mewe, experimenting with an early observation hive in the 17th century, claimed that when he began regular inspections of his colony, honey production increased. I saw no reason to suspect that my own gaze had prompted anything but mild agitation among the colony in my garden, but I did find that my own seeing and sensing changed. I was feeling more at home in Oxford—easier in myself, more alert, more sensitive to things around me. Sensitivity often gets a bad rap. We tend to associate it with being overly fragile, and as I struggled to adjust to the pressure at work, I certainly worried that I lacked robustness. But the bees were sensitive in a different way—highly alert and responsive, tuned to each other and to their environment. Watching them at work, that sensitivity seemed to me like a new and exciting form of power. A Honeybee Heart It isn’t sensible to identify with honeybees. Has Five Openings One risks spending the whole time searching for Pantheon, $26.95 similarities, or picking out likenesses where there 9781524747862 aren’t any. But I suspect that my impulse to identify signaled something important—an encounter Memoir that unsettled any easy distinctions as to who the true keepers were in this relationship, and who the kept. Surely this says something about the importance of encounters with other creatures, especially ones whose laws and logics are so different from our own. By the end of that year I was feeling more connected. Perhaps, unknowingly, I’d absorbed a little of that special honeybee sensitivity. Also, my sense of “home” had changed. I no longer thought of walls and windows but a feeling I could build and share. As summer drew to a close, “home” appeared less tangible, more movable, less fixed—and oddly, more immediate. —Helen Jukes Visit to read an expanded version of this essay and our starred review of A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings.


reviews | fiction

H All Adults Here By Emma Straub

Family Drama No one engages a reader quite like Emma Straub. I was 30 pages into her warmhearted new novel, All Adults Here (Riverhead, $27, 9781594634697), before I even realized it. Her writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend. Events take place in a small, fictitious town in New York’s Hudson Valley and center on the Strick family. The matriarch is 68-year-old widower Astrid, who witnesses an acquaintance being struck and killed by a school bus. This brings to light Astrid’s long-standing animus toward the victim, who, years ago, informed Astrid that her eldest son, Elliot—now a successful builder, married with kids—had been spotted kissing another boy. The fact that Astrid admonished Elliot, albeit subtly, has plagued her ever since, particularly now that she is in a same-sex relationship with her hairdresser, Birdie.

Indeed, gender and sexuality are some of the central themes of the novel. Astrid’s daughter, 37-year-old Porter, pregnant via a sperm bank, embarks on an affair with her former high school boyfriend, who is married with kids. Astrid’s youngest son, Nicky, and his wife have sent their daughter, Cecelia, to live with Astrid after a scandal involving online pedophilia in her former Brooklyn school. At Cecelia’s new school, she befriends August, who is transitioning into Robin. Along the way, Straub imbues the novel with her trademark humor and comic turns of phrase, particularly Porter’s one-liners. Straub has taken on a lot of issues—gender politics,

abortion, bullying, sexual predators—and it’s to her credit that the subject matter never seems heavy-handed or detracts from the momentum. The characters are believable, and events unfold naturally. I found myself stepping onto a few trapdoors while trying to predict the plot. Having read Straub’s other novels, I should have known better; she’s always one step ahead. —Jeff Vasishta

shelf life | emma straub

Emma Straub—author, bookstore owner and all-around beloved human— shares a glimpse of her life in the stacks.


‘It’s all nerdy, I’m afraid’ Do you visit bookstores differently now that you own your own bookstore, Books Are Magic? I pay attention to different things—how things are organized, what kind of tote bag they make, what sales software they use. It’s all nerdy, I’m afraid.

even close to where I live, is the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, which has a truly magnificent children’s program, and which I treasured more than I can say when my family and I spent a few months there when my first child was brand-new.

What are your bookstore rituals? Where do you go first in a store? I tend to do a lap first, to see what’s what and to get a feel of the place. Then I usually go to the S section in fiction, just to see if my babies are there.

Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet? What’s on it? South America seems to have some truly magnificent bookstores and libraries. Instagram is always showing me ones with gorgeous staircases. Closer to home, there are lots on my bucket list—stalwarts like Square Books, Changing Hands and Left Bank Books, and newer stores like Wild Rumpus, Literati and White Whale. The list gets longer every year!

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature? Right now I’m reading the Harry Potter books with my 6-year-old, and so the Hogwarts library is in the front of my mind. Now those books are magic. While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful? Ha, yes! My first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, covered a whole lot of time—1920 to 1980—and I did a lot of research at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, where the librarians were patient angels and helped me find everything I needed and didn’t laugh at me when it was clear that I didn’t even know where to start. Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child. The library in Westport, Connecticut, sold me a copy of Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life from their annual book sale when I really needed it as a large, blond kid. The library that I think is the most terrific, though, even though it isn’t


How is your own personal library organized? The massive bookshelf in our living room used to be big enough to have everything alphabetized, and now it’s not, and books spill over in every direction. The books in my bedroom are in no order whatsoever, except that the closer they are to my pillow, the sooner I plan to read them. Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs? Although in general I am a cat person, I tend to think that dogs are better behaved hosts in bookstores. What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack? Our bookstore runs on candy. It shouldn’t, but it does.

reviews | fiction

HThe Knockout Queen By Rufi Thorpe

Coming of Age Rufi Thorpe has made a name for herself as a heavyweight in the literary world with her incisive, morally complex coming-of-age stories. Her debut novel, The Girls From Corona del Mar, was long-listed for several major literary prizes in 2014, and her follow-up, Dear Fang, With Love, was published to wide acclaim two years later. Now Thorpe comes back swinging with her best novel yet, a darkly comedic and tragic tale of a friendship between two outsiders. Set in sunny Southern California, The Knockout Queen (Knopf, $26.95, 9780525656784) is narrated by Michael, a closeted gay teen sent to live with his aunt after his mother is sentenced to prison for stabbing Michael’s father following one of the father’s violent outbursts. With long hair, a nose piercing and a penchant for eyeliner, Michael doesn’t fit neatly into the glossy world of his suburban North Shore neighborhood. Then again, neither does his next-door neighbor, Bunny, infamous for her dead mother and her extremely tall height. Thrown together by proximity and a shared sense of alienation, Michael and Bunny forge a fierce friendship and navigate their early high school years as an inseparable duo. Bonded by a mutual love of drag queens and a keen understanding of what it means to be rejected and relegated to the fringes, the two are ferociously protective of each other, and their love for one another is unconditional—or so Michael thinks, until a shocking act of violence triggers a devastating sequence of events that tests the limits of their friendship and changes the trajectory of their lives. From the very start, the story is infused with an unsettling sense of menace, which Thorpe skillfully wields to pierce through the veneer of her shiny California setting to honestly examine weighty topics such as friendship, sexuality, identity and belonging. Michael tends to see things in black and white, but the canvas of Thorpe’s novel is textured with shades of gray, its world morally ambiguous. With charismatic characters and a surprising and devastating storyline, The Knockout Queen is a moody and mordantly funny con-

templation of the rigors of growing up that will leave readers reeling. —Stephenie Harrison

My Mother’s House By Francesca Momplaisir

Literary Fiction It’s not often a contemporary novel is narrated by an inanimate object. In the 18th century, this convention was quite a bit more popular, referred to as “it-narratives” or “object narratives.” Francesca Momplaisir takes this classic form and combines it with contemporary issues in My Mother’s House (Knopf, $26.95, 9780525657156), narrated by the titular dwelling. When we first meet the house, called La Kay, it is describing its own suicide by fire. La Kay wants to burn itself down because of a man named Lucien. Decades before the fire, Haitian immigrant Lucien moved to Queens, New York, with his young wife, Marie-Ange. Now she is dead, and Lucien, elderly and frail, is estranged from their three daughters. Amid the fire, Lucien swears that “his girls” are in the house’s fireproof safe room. Is Lucien mistaken in his addled state? Though we first meet Lucien when he’s weakened, we learn soon enough that he’s not a good man. Momplaisir shows how Lucien’s wickedness and perversity allow him to exploit other Haitian immigrants, especially women. In this way, Momplaisir illuminates the darker side of immigrant life, in particular Haitian immigrant life, with parents separated from their children—by the parents’ own design— and people with expired green cards or visas who descend into the perilous underground economy or are otherwise forced to live in sketchy circumstances. There is also the ghastly legacy of colorism, in which light-skinned Haitians like Lucien are valued over those of darker hues. La Kay watches Lucien’s crimes for years, and even after it sets itself on fire, it still watches and waits. Still, Momplaisir makes you feel an ember of sympathy for Lucien, whose sole refrain since childhood has been “I am nothing.” He’s nothing without his wife, his daughters, the women whom he uses, discards and then reels

back in. He seems buffeted by love, an emotion whose demands he can’t understand or fulfill. Yet these women survive against terrible odds. In Momplaisir’s novel, cracks of light are always there to penetrate the dark. —Arlene McKanic

The Heirloom Garden By Viola Shipman

Popular Fiction It’s poetic that internationally bestselling author Wade Rouse uses his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, as the pen name for his books centered on family and heirlooms. His portrayal of strong, emotionally engaging protagonists is fresh and free of excessive sentimentality, while his unrushed pace and elegant language capture an old-world charm that makes for an enchanting reading experience. His latest novel, The Heirloom Garden (Graydon House, $16.99, 9781525804618), is a beautifully understated story about the loss and discovery of family and ourselves. In the summer of 1944, Iris Maynard loses her loving husband to World War II. Four years later, she loses her beloved daughter, Mary, to polio. Flash forward to 2003, when Iris, now reclusive, finds sole comfort in the flowers she propagates. They are her friends, family and the focus of her lonely life. When the Peterson family—steadfast Abby, husband Cory, who returned from the Iraq War a changed man, and their precocious daughter, Lily—moves in next door, Iris is drawn to them. Together, the four find healing connections and become a family. Shipman patiently and gently unearths the deeply flawed characters’ sorrows and reveals the delicate buds of happiness that eventually blossom. Iris’ anguish over the loss of her loved ones is palpable, and every memory stirs sadness, which makes bright moments—when she talks to her flowers and connects with the Petersons—so uplifting. Without making a political statement or moralizing, Shipman incorporates themes of loss and war into the story, credibly revealing how Abby’s family works through the effects of Cory’s PTSD. Iris’ and Abby’s alternating perspectives add a dynamic element to the story, while Iris’ flashbacks smoothly add backstory that deepens


reviews | fiction the connections among the characters. At once heart-rending and hopeful, this story is a bouquet of sorrow and joy, perseverance and patience. —Maya Fleischmann

Little Eyes

By Samanta Schweblin

Speculative Fiction In the thought experiment of Little Eyes (Riverhead, $26, 9780525541363), Samanta Schweblin’s latest novel, kentukis are the latest craze. They’re motorized, furry pets, like anonymous webcams on wheels. An explanation of how kentukis work emerges slowly, mysteriously, encounter by encounter. If you purchase a kentuki, you become its “keeper.” Someone else will purchase the rights to be the “dweller,” operating the toy and observing the keeper’s environment through the kentuki’s lens. Kentukis can be one of a handful of endearing animals, from dragons to moles. The people behind them, too, are a host of believable characters, ranging from preteen boys and teenage girls to retired people. But the kentukis’ too-good-to-be-true cuteness, coupled with the ordinary lives of the people who interact with the toys, foretells horrifying consequences. Drawn in quotidian elegance, the novel is a string of nonstop, colorful vignettes that follow a handful of international kentuki connections: Peru-Germany, Italy-Norway, Croatia-­ Brazil, Sierra Leone-Hong Kong, among others. The randomness of the assorted connections breeds unpredictability. Kentukis can move on their own, but only so far, and not on rough terrain. They make noise, not speech. Many connections create ways to communicate, but some communication becomes unwanted, and some develops into co-dependence. Some keepers grow fearful or wary of their kentukis, while some dwellers are set off by their keepers’ strange behavior. The links spread across the globe like a sticky web. Kentukis raise real-world questions about privacy and increasingly invasive, animated technology. Like Furbies or clowns, kentukis are both adorable and horrible. They’re reminders of basic human needs and vulnerabilities. They’re objects of obsession and


companionship, and yet they can also be too close for comfort. If Schweblin’s sci-fi thriller Fever Dreams made sleep difficult, Little Eyes raises the unease quotient. The book seems to watch viewers creepily as it unfolds. —Mari Carlson

The Poison Flood

through Hollis’ close viewpoint. The result is a story rich in compassion and empathy as Hollis tries to find his place in a world that would just as soon shun him and silence his dreams altogether. —G. Robert Frazier

The Book of Longings By Sue Monk Kidd

By Jordan Farmer

Crime Fiction The Poison Flood (Putnam, $26, 9780593085073) is a bizarre and fascinating read that proves that anything is possible in the capable hands of author Jordan Farmer. The novel is immediately engrossing, its characters uniquely memorable, its prose both heartfelt and stunning. As the hunchbacked son of an abusive West Virginia preacher, Hollis Bragg is a smart, deeply talented musician, albeit lonely and self-conscious about his condition. He used to jam with popular musical group the Troubadoors and penned some of their songs for band member/girlfriend Angela Carver, but now he’s more than content to hide out at his isolated farmhouse away from curious neighbors, even as he silently yearns for their acceptance. Into the mix comes obsessed fan Russell Watson, a member of a punk-rock group and the son of a wealthy local chemical manufacturer, as well as Rosita Martinez, a journalist looking to make a name for herself. Both coax Hollis into coming out of his shell and attending a concert in town, even as they maneuver to get closer to a stash of songs in Hollis’ private collection. When a chemical disaster happens on the outskirts of town and poisons the local water supply, Russell goes into a rage against his father. Rosita, who photographs the violent ordeal, manages to escape with Hollis to his home, with Russell hot on their heels. The novel takes a number of unexpected and thrilling turns as Hollis struggles with haunted memories of his past life with his father and his relationships with girlfriends past and present. The mix of situations and characters is admittedly odd, but Farmer more than manages to keep things grounded

Historical Fiction What Sue Monk Kidd has done with her latest novel is far from predictable, but she is steering her formidable narrative talents into somewhat familiar territory. How does one write a compelling, evocative and, most importantly, new take on one of the most analyzed and fictionalized people who’s ever lived? With a tremendous narrative voice. The Book of Longings (Viking, $28, 9780525429760) follows Ana, a young girl growing up under the reign of Herod Antipas with dreams of making her ideas resound across the ages. Ana’s sharp thoughts and probing mind eventually bring her into contact with an 18-year-old man named Jesus of Nazareth, who just happens to be as intellectually precocious and open as she is. Their curiosity about each other turns to romance, and Ana finds herself wrapped up in one of history’s great sagas, through it all searching for new and lasting ways to carry her own voice not behind Jesus’ but alongside him. The gripping conceit at the heart of this novel stems from the idea that, if Jesus were married, his wife might be completely erased by the history that followed their relationship. This raises spellbinding questions. What kind of spirit would have been so compelling to Jesus? What kind of strength would she possess? And most importantly, how hard would she fight to be heard? Kidd’s narrative, etched into the emotionally precise and tactile prose of Ana’s first-person voice, doesn’t always answer these questions directly. The Book of Longings is not an attempt to rewrite history. Instead it’s an exploration of a triumphant, fierce spirit and the stories she aches to tell. There’s an exuberance to Ana that vibrates off every page, and that is a testament to Kidd’s gifts. —Matthew Jackson

reviews | fiction

HSea Wife

By Amity Gaige

Literary Fiction Amity Gaige’s fourth novel tells the entrancing story of Juliet and Michael Partlow. As their marriage stalls after two children and relative normalcy in suburbia, Michael has a wild idea to take the whole family aboard a boat and sail for a year. Juliet, entangled in postpartum depression

and unable to muster the strength to finish her dissertation for her Ph.D., begrudgingly agrees to the adventure. The structure of the novel is a duet between Michael and Juliet, with Juliet’s lyrical, rhythmic first-person narration driving the story forward. She is a student of confessional poetry, and she is transfixed by the wind and its many faces. Entries from Michael’s captain’s log while aboard the Juliet weave throughout, veering more toward a diary. He journals about his childhood, his father’s early death, his initial attraction to Juliet and their problems as a couple. This marriage isn’t perfect, and it’s debatable whether Michael and Juliet are running from their problems or tuning in to fix them. But the sea opens up an avenue toward peace, with unending amounts of water to dump their minds into. Unafraid and perhaps unaware of all that

could possibly go wrong, Michael and Juliet’s daughter, Sybil, easily trades Barbie houses and elementary school for seashells and bottle caps. Their younger son, Georgie, called Doodle, watches Sybil and mimics her. When the sea brings squalls, Juliet and Michael must learn to communicate and come together on a whole different level. With taut prose and well-paced action, Sea Wife (Knopf, $26.95, 9780525656494) provides an excellent escape from reality while exposing universal truths about marriage, motherhood and childhood trauma. In a world where so many “shoulds” are thrown upon mothers, this story’s mother does her best to be honest. While in the beginning Juliet gives away too much of herself in service of her family, the sea and her sailing adventure bring forth her confidence and free her from traditional gender roles. The sea changes this family. They cannot go

feature | austen adaptations

Janeite updates Two novels inspired by Jane Austen brighten up the spring reading season. Centuries after she published Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen continues to influence pop culture and inspire spinoffs. Clueless, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, novels from Jennifer Weiner and so many others pay homage in ways overt and subtle to the queen of smart British novels. And every new season brings more new Austen adaptations. These two are extra special—one for Janeite traditionalists, the other for readers looking for something totally different. Janice Hadlow’s absolutely magical The Other Bennet Sister (Holt, $27.99, 9781250129413) invites us into the world of one of the less celebrated sisters from Pride and Prejudice, Mary. The middle child, Mary is plain, bookish and completely outshone by her beautiful older sisters, Jane and Lizzy, and her lively younger sisters, Lydia and Kitty. One by one, the other Bennet sisters are married and settled. Yet Mary struggles to find her place in a world oriented around the belief that marriage—not knowledge—is the only path to happiness for women. The sisters are “all read well enough and knew enough history and geography not to look absolutely foolish in company. Anything more was not only unnecessary, but probably unwise.” Education is not included in Mrs. Bennet’s list of wifely qualities, and she has “no desire to add to her daughters’ disadvantages by burdening them with a reputation for cleverness.” Mrs. Bennet is borderline abusive to her least charming daughter, and Mary withers in a family that neither supports her thirst for knowledge nor shows her any affection. After her father’s death turns the family estate over to a male cousin, Mary finds herself without a secure home or future. She lands with her aunt and uncle in London where, in the bustling city, she takes the first tentative steps toward choosing her own life trajectory. Hadlow is a former journalist, having run two of the BBC’s major television channels. It is a marvel that The Other Bennet Sister is her first novel. Her writing is elegant and wry, the story wise and engrossing. I had

to keep reminding myself I wasn’t actually reading Austen. Karen Tei Yamashita’s story collection, Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House, $16.95, 9781566895781), is an equally compelling—if slightly less literal—ode to Austen. A National Book Award finalist for I Hotel, Yamashita is a clever and spare writer. In many of her touching, surreal short stories, she uses Austen as a springboard into tales featuring Japanese Americans in California. (Sansei is a term that means people of Japanese descent born and raised in the Americas.) “Emi” is a hilarious take on the matchmaking-gone-wrong premise of Emma. In “Giri & Garman,” we see the dashing Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice reincarnated as Darcy Kabuto II, “captain of the football team, class vice president, and voted best looking, which meant he looked like he was the son of Toshiro Mifune.” (Mifune was a dashing Japanese movie star who appeared in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.) But the most powerful entry is “KonMarimasu,” Yamashita’s meditation on the phenomenon of Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo and how it relates to Japanese Americans’ experiences in World War II internment camps, where families’ few possessions were treasured and, later, passed down. Yamashita writes, “Kondo might say that this stuff in your family archive and this stuff in all these internment museums were parted with to launch them on a new journey. You cogitate the joy spark thing, and you think about simple furniture made from wood scraps, the pink crocheted dress, the sen nin bari, the green high school sweater, the jug of sake, and the waffle iron you know your family smuggled into camp.” Yamashita’s writing echoes the pain and strength of the Japanese American experience. A potent mashup of Austen and Japanese American culture, Sansei and Sensibility is both entertaining and profound. —Amy Scribner


reviews | fiction back to the lives they had before. Sea Wife is brilliant, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. —Jessica Bates

H The Book of V By Anna Solomon

Popular Fiction Anna Solomon’s The Book of V (Holt, $27.99, 9781250257017) is painted on a much larger canvas than the author’s previous novels, each of which focused primarily on one place and time period—1880s Dakota Territory in The Little Bride and 1920s Gloucester, Massachusetts, in Leaving Lucy Pear. The new novel opens in 2016 with Lily, a 40-something Brooklyn wife and mom who’s grappling with the woman she has, and hasn’t, become. The narration then drops back to early-1970s Washington, D.C., where Vivian, or Vee, the young wife of a power-hungry senator, is about to host a party. Just as quickly, the story drops all the way back to ancient Persia, where 17-year-old Esther (yes, the biblical Esther) is about to be handed off to a Persian king who has done away with his first queen, Vashti, and now plans to select a new bride from his kingdom’s population of beautiful young virgins. Solomon keeps these three stories moving as Lily, Vee and Esther find themselves in precarious situations. Lily second-guesses her marriage and contemplates an affair while trying to care for her sick mom, who doesn’t approve of Lily’s ambivalent style of feminism. Vee is cast out of her political life, with no clear path forward, while Esther is suddenly the queen of Persia and also under house arrest. Although the characters and their stories differ markedly from one another, Solomon’s omniscient narration serves as a lovely, wry guide. The Book of V offers plenty of thoughtful interiority while spinning a fast-moving story. Lily’s meditations on feminism, motherhood, friendship and middle-class striving will resonate with many readers. The novel’s unexpected retelling of the Esther story is imaginative yet, in its own way, faithful to the original. In her acknowledgments, Solomon credits inspiration for the structure of her new novel to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which also follows three different women in three different time periods. As with The Hours, The Book of V


connects its three characters’ stories not only thematically but also narratively, with a surprising yet inevitable and satisfying conclusion. —Sarah McCraw Crow

and illuminating window into the persecution of the Kurds, which has existed for decades and continues unabated today. —Deborah Donovan

Daughters of Smoke and Fire

The Anthill

By Ava Homa

Literary Fiction Ava Homa, a writer and activist born and raised in Iran’s Kurdistan province, has embraced the adage to “write what you know” in her stark and elucidating debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire (Overlook, $26, 9781419743092). The broad scope of her story encompasses 50 years of Kurdish history— and the ways Iran has attempted to eradicate that history. In much the same way Native American children were treated by the U.S. government beginning in the late 19th century, Kurdish children are alienated from their roots as early as first grade, when “overnight,” Homa writes, “we were robbed of our language, our heritage.” Homa centers her novel on a young Kurdish woman named Leila Saman and her family. As a boy, Leila’s father saw his six uncles massacred by Iraqi soldiers, and in the years that followed he was imprisoned and tortured for his leftist activities. Leila and her brother, Chia, grow up vaguely aware of their father’s horrific past, though he never opens up about it. In their 20s, the siblings move to Tehran, where Chia attends the university and Leila works in a bookstore, saving her meager earnings so she can eventually follow her long-held dream of making films “to tell our stories.” Through the courageous character of Leila, Homa paints a picture of many Kurdish women who have struggled against persecution and the misogyny embedded in religious extremism. When Chia is drawn more and more into the political scene, his activism attracts the attention of the Iranian authorities. He is jailed, and Leila is not allowed to visit her beloved brother for over a year. Frustrated by her inability to help Chia, Leila begins publishing his activist writings online, putting herself in danger as well. Her exodus from her birthplace mirrors that of the author, who now splits her time between Toronto and the Bay Area. Homa’s remarkable novel serves as a potent

By Julianne Pachico

Literary Fiction In her 2017 debut novel, The Lucky Ones, Colombian-born author Julianne Pachico ruminated on her home country throughout 30 years of civil war, when rebels and cartels rendered the country lawless. In her second novel, she updates her gaze to present-day Medellín. The Anthill (Doubleday, $26.95, 9780385545891) is riskier and more ambitious than The Lucky Ones, but every bit as absorbing. Lina is a 30-something doctoral student from Britain, daughter of a Colombian mother and English father. She has returned to Colombia after a long absence to volunteer at a day care center run by her childhood friend, Mattías. From the opening page, a sense of foreboding troubles Lina. Who is the stranger who greets her? What kind of a day care facility would be called the Anthill? Who are the other volunteers? Where do the children come from? The answers unfold in due time, the tension steadily rising like the cable cars that whoosh uphill to connect downtown Medellín with poorer, higher neighborhoods. Medellín is itself a vivid character in the book, a metropolitan tourist destination of swinging nightclubs and placid poverty, a city that has turned Pablo Escobar’s private zoo into a theme park. As Lina struggles to distinguish herself beyond the designation of “the new volunteer,” she wrestles with the violent politics of the country she knew as a child and the threats within this new, almost peaceful iteration of the country. Lina learns some of the truths of Colombia that Medellín tourist brochures never divulge. Mattías, leftist and anti-clerical, seems devoted to his work yet keeps his distance from Lina, in whose house he was raised. His attitudes suddenly shift midway; there are intimations of a feral child locked away behind Anthill doors. Vivid and at times surreal, this assured novel cements Pachico’s reputation as a gifted writer to watch. —Grace Lichtenstein

reviews | nonfiction

H The Language of Butterflies By Wendy Williams

Nature Science journalist Wendy Williams, perhaps best known for her New York Times bestseller The Horse, turns her attention to humanity’s long-standing love of butterflies, those “flying flowers” that inhabit the natural world and have long inspired poets, artists and avid, obsessive collectors. The idea for this informative, thought-provoking account was sparked after Williams viewed thousands of astonishing butterfly specimens collected over a century and now housed at Yale University. Curious, she embarked on a two-year quest to investigate not only the insects but also our fascination with all things Lepidoptera. Williams is a consummate storyteller, and her

My Life as a Villainess By Laura Lippman

Essays Laura Lippman does not feel bad about her neck. Like, at all. In fact, she writes in My Life as a Villainess (William Morrow, $18.99, 9780062997333), “I have decided, at the age of 60, that I am a goddamn knockout.” She is, objectively, but that statement’s about more than her appealing physical self; it’s a celebration of finally shedding decades of societally induced self-­ consciousness about food and her body. The essay in which it resides, “The Whole 60,” with its “positivity, damn it” vibe, is a fitting kickoff to a smart, thoughtful, sometimes vulnerable, always witty collection of essays. Some are new, some previously published, and together they offer an overview of a very special life so far. Lippman is aware of and thankful for said specialness, and she acknowledges her good fortune often. She adores her brilliant cultural-­ phenomenon-creator husband, David Simon, known for TV shows “The Wire” and “Treme,” et al. She loves her charming 10-year-old, who made Lippman a mom at 50; is fiercely grateful

narrative seamlessly integrates scientific facts with vivid portraits of characters as colorful as the butterflies that intrigue and inspire them. While some, like Charles Darwin, are household names, readers will also meet lesser known historical figures including Maria Sibylla Merian, whose artwork and observations provided scientific evidence of how a caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis to become a specific butterfly, and 19th-century Colorado homesteader Charlotte Coplen Hill, a mother of seven who discovered an incredibly

for a dazzling nanny named Yaya; and treasures her friends, even if she’s pretty sure she isn’t such a great friend to them sometimes. Before she was known for her critically lauded crime novels (her Tess Monaghan series, 12 books and counting, plus 10 standalones), Lipp­man was a newspaper reporter for 20 years. In “Waco Kid,” she writes of her early career struggles as a newly minted reporter adjusting to the alien Texas landscape, aghast at endemic racism but also thrilled at her burgeoning love of movies. Her later years as a reporter in her beloved city of Baltimore honed her prodigious writing and editing skills, but she’s still pissed that her growing off-the-clock career as a novelist was held against her (as opposed to male colleagues, who were praised for similar endeavors). In “Game of Crones,” she’s hilariously ticked off about menopause, too, and drops trash-talk and name-drop tidbits here and there like so many tasty, snappy breadcrumbs. There’s also a lovely remembrance of Anthony Bourdain (“Fine Bromance”) and a paean to a double boiler (“Revered Ware”), a cookware-as-tribute to her late father, who was also a journalist. With its “gleefully honest” hits of humor and willingness to take a close look at some discomfiting truths, it will come as no surprise to Lippman’s fans that My Life as a Villainess is an engaging read—an intrepid investigation of the author’s inner landscape and a raucous, no-holds-barred visit with that friend you admire for her candor, passion and unabashed nostalgia for 1980s fashion. —Linda M. Castellitto

detailed butterfly fossil. Williams also teams up with researchers and citizen scientists to explore threats to butterfly populations, including monarchs, whose life cycles are dependent upon milkweed. She retraces the work that led to the discovery of monarch overwintering sites in Mexico and delves further into the decline caused by habitat loss, climate change and other factors. While the news for butterfly populations is sobering, Williams urges us to never give up the work of conservation. She advocates for “the joining together of countless people of many different nations, across generations, in a united effort to protect at least one small joyful piece of the natural world to which we belong.” The Language of Butterflies (Simon & Schuster, $26, 9781501178061) is more than a small contribution to this crucial effort. —Deborah Hopkinson


By Bill Buford

Memoir Bill Buford (author of Heat) again chooses a single-word title for his new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking (Knopf, $28.95, 9780307271013), a funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food—from learning how to cook it to exploring the medieval origins of the much-revered cuisine. France, he writes, “was secretly where I had wanted to find myself for most of my adult life. . . . But I could never imagine how that might happen.” Through a connection at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Buford comes to know many influential French chefs, among them Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud and the legendary Paul Bocuse. What follows is a familial move to Lyon, the terrors (or, shall we say, “terroir”) of parenting twin toddlers in a gritty French city, sadistic “stagiaires”—essentially apprentice chefs—in famed Lyonnaise


reviews | nonfiction restaurants (pot-throwing, anyone?) and food-sleuthing expeditions to remote areas in France, where Buford comes to appreciate the soil that grows the unique wheat responsible for the country’s finest bread. Dirt sometimes ventures into the weeds in its excavation of culinary history and lore, but this may be forgiven in light of Buford’s honest hunger for knowledge and personal evolution: “I wanted to re-examine my assumptions about the kitchen, to restart my education, to get as elemental and as primary as possible. Heat. Water. Labor. Place. And its dirt.” This book doesn’t offer any recipes, per se, but if perused closely, readers can find instructions for assembling perhaps the grandest concoction of them all: a life well and fully lived, seasoned with curiosity, perseverance and humor—and a dash of adventure. —Alison Hood

Death by Shakespeare By Kathryn Harkup

Science For fans of the Bard, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts (Bloomsbury Sigma, $28, 9781472958228) is the book they didn’t know they always wanted to read. A chemist with a penchant for poisonings (as in her book A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie), Kathryn Harkup dives deep into the details behind everything Shakespeare—his plays, poems, biography and the English history that provides the scaffolding—and unearths the science and stagecraft behind the more than 250 deaths his characters experience or inflict. For those who have found Will’s way with language difficult to digest, this is the book that may change all that, focused as it is on the action. Harkup quotes liberally from Shakespeare’s famous and obscure works alike, but these excerpts serve as more of a springboard for the blood, guts and gore that so enthralled Shakespeare’s first audiences in Elizabethan England. Murders, suicides, executions, swordplay, snakebites, poisons and poxes: They are all here and exquisitely detailed, even the ones that didn’t actually take place onstage. Beheadings, for example, were too messy to enact during performances; instead, the head


would appear in the hands of an actor, as proof of death. (Theater companies kept plenty of spare heads.) Burning witches at the stake also would have been too dangerous for both theater and audience. Thus, in Henry VI, Part 1, Joan of Arc meets her fiery fate offstage. Why did Claudius choose Old Hamlet’s ear as the vessel for his poisoning? What were the three witches in Macbeth throwing in that cauldron, exactly? As for the doomed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, what was in that stuff the sympathetic friar shared? Harkup has answers. Lady Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, Cleopatra—all have their moments, now embellished with the help of Harkup’s chemistry expertise. Yet Harkup is much more than a chemist. Looking over Shakespeare’s shoulder at the history in the Henry and Richard plays, she fills in so many details about the battles, treacheries, debaucheries and inflictions of those days that the plays become more vibrant for it. She ends with a thoughtful look at the way Shakespeare touched on sensitive topics, like depression and suicide in Hamlet—a reminder that the Bard’s words stay with us because he was always ahead of his time. —Priscilla Kipp

The Inevitability of Tragedy By Barry Gewen

Biography Henry Kissinger’s approach to American foreign policy continues to be a subject of controversy, even though he’s been out of government since the 1970s. Regarded as a brilliant statesman by many, he has also been called an appeaser, a villain and a war criminal. What was it that caused people to view him so differently? Are there lessons for today we can learn from him? Barry Gewen, a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review, explores these and other questions in his meticulously researched, consistently stimulating and deeply insightful intellectual biography, The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (Norton, $30, 9781324004059). Through detailed analyses of Kissinger’s policy decisions on Vietnam and Chile, the influence of his personal life on his professional worldview, and the views of other Jewish European refugee intellectuals, Gewen offers a better understanding

of Kissinger’s ability to challenge people to rethink their assumptions. Kissinger always loved the U.S. but remained skeptical about democracy. Although he downplayed the influence of his youth in Weimar Republic Germany during the rise of Hitler, who could forget that the leader of the Nazi Party came to power primarily by democratic means? Kissinger believed not in grand dreams but in dealing with realities. Peace is not the natural condition of humankind, he said, and democracy will not guarantee global peace and stability. A balance of power is essential. All of these ideas were controversial, of course, but probably nothing caused him more trouble than believing that we should accept evil in the world rather than trying to eradicate it. As he put it, “Nothing is more difficult for Americans to understand than the possibility of tragedy.” This beautifully written and engaging gem is an exciting, exhilarating must-read for anyone interested in international relations, American foreign policy or the ideas of Kissinger, whether you agree with him or not. —Roger Bishop

Wandering in Strange Lands By Morgan Jerkins

Social Science When Morgan Jerkins traveled the United States in search of her roots, she didn’t just look up the official records, useful as they sometimes were. She talked to relatives and knowledgeable strangers to explore what she calls the “whisper” stories: the ones African Americans and Native Americans quietly pass on through generations, because they are afraid to speak them too loudly. In the sensitive, insightful Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots (Harper, $27.99, 9780062873040), Jerkins, an African American in her 20s raised mostly in New Jersey, recounts her journey to uncover the meaning of those stories for her own relatives, as well as for the millions of others who moved north during the Great Migration. Seemingly unimportant traditions like eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day and half-serious references to “roots” hexes turn out to be important clues to the culture of kidnapped Africans in Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana.

reviews | nonfiction Jerkins finds the hard truths of racism in her research: a great-grandfather who fled a lynching threat; Gullah landowners forced off their property by whites; relatives who “passed” as white and cut family ties. But she also struggles emotionally with the discovery that her background is more diverse than she had understood. Among her ancestors are whites, free Creole people of color who owned slaves, and, possibly, Native Americans. After her illuminating visits to Louisiana, Oklahoma and the Georgia-South Carolina low country, Jerkins ends in Los Angeles, where she spent part of her childhood. California, she says, was the last Promised Land for black people, but it turned out to be as disappointing as everywhere else. Now many African Americans are leaving in a reverse migration to the South. As Jerkins finishes her moving chronicle, she says she is “exhausted” by the constant racial violence she finds, most recently in the massacres in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, where a high proportion of the victims were people of color. One way forward, she writes, is for black people to “regain their narrative and contextualize the shame.” The answer, Jerkins says, is not flight but true community informed by deep knowledge of the past. —Anne Bartlett

H Sigh, Gone By Phuc Tran

Memoir With Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In (Flatiron, $27.99, 9781250194718), Phuc Tran has written the great punk rock immigrant story. Or should that be the definitive refugee punk rock story? Or a story about how punk rock and great books helped a Vietnamese kid in small-town America fit in by standing out? Whatever order we put the words in, Tran’s book is my pick for the best, the funniest and the most heartfelt memoir of the year. Currently a high school Latin teacher and a tattoo artist, Tran honed his unique blend of intellectual misfittery in blue-collar Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his family settled after evacuating Saigon in 1975. Tran and his brother, initially the only Vietnamese kids in school,

learned to punch first when dealing with racist bullies on the playground and in the streets. Star Wars, skateboards and punk rock later offered Tran a haven where friendships were formed through shared mixtapes and band T-shirts. Code-switching between hardcore shows and life at home with his Vietnamese-­speaking parents was not easy. With grace and clarity, Tran writes pivotal scenes involving the sometimes violent disconnect between his traumatized refugee parents and their Americanized children—a testament to the sensitivity and balance he brings to his exploration of generational and cultural conflict. While it might seem ironic, literature and punk subculture equally teach Tran about universal themes like existentialism, displacement, alienation and community. Hilariously, quite a few of Tran’s high school literary choices are occasioned by his love of Morrissey and the Smiths. As someone who also had a poster of Victorian bad boy Oscar Wilde on her high school bedroom wall (next to the Smiths poster), this rings so true as to be uncanny. Sigh, Gone filters the archetypal high school misfit story through the lens of immigration and assimilation, building it into a larger narrative about the ways music and books can bring us together, even when the larger world threatens to tear us apart. —Catherine Hollis

H Stray

By Stephanie Danler

Memoir With the success of her novel, Sweetbitter, which spawned a television series, it might seem like Stephanie Danler has led a charmed life. Anyone who reads her fierce, unsparing memoir, Stray (Knopf, $25.95, 9781101875964), however, will be quickly disabused of that notion. From a rental house in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon where some members of Fleetwood Mac may have once lived, Danler ranges over the whole of her life as the daughter of two parents who failed in the most essential task: providing their offspring with a safe and loving home. Danler’s mother’s alcoholism is complicated by her near death from a brain aneurysm in her 40s, forcing Danler to confront her


reviews | nonfiction obligation to care for someone who repudiates her attempts at care. Her father, who abandoned Danler when she was 3 years old and later brought her into his Colorado home when she was 16, spirals toward ruin in the grip of an addiction to crystal meth, his life a cloud of lies and neglect. Out of this “veritable sea of alcoholism and narcissism,” Danler is flung ashore, ill-prepared for the demands of adulthood. As if the struggles of her parents’ illnesses and addictions aren’t painful enough, in the wake of her own short-lived first marriage, Danler also finds herself in a destructive affair with a married man she nicknames the “Monster.” As she oscillates between the seemingly irresistible pull of her desire and her understanding of the toxicity of that relationship, she simultaneously draws closer to another man she calls the “Love Interest,” whose self-­ imposed mission is to introduce her to some of the bleaker features of Los Angeles’ landscape, like a lake that’s turned into a dust bowl, “yet another god forsaken place.” In Danler’s evocation of California’s complicated history and the darkness that lurks under its sunny exterior, Stray brings to mind the work of Joan Didion, and her frank portrayal of the nightmare of addiction is akin to Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. But in its painful candor and hard-earned wisdom, Stray is every bit its own vivid creation. —Harvey Freedenberg Visit to read our Q&A with Stephanie Danler.

Who Ate the First Oyster? By Cody Cassidy

History There have been so many “firsts” throughout human history that it would be impossible to calculate them all. But what if you took a few very important ones and deconstructed their evolution—how, when, where and why they happened, their outcome and their effect on humankind? That’s exactly what Cody Cassidy (co-author of And Then You’re Dead) does in his intriguing new book, Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History (Penguin, $17, 9780143132752).


Delving deep into our primordial past, Cassidy profiles “seventeen ancient individuals who lived before or without writing” whom he deems responsible for humankind’s greatest “firsts.” These range from “Who Invented Inventions?” and “Who Discovered Fire?” to “Who Discovered Soap?” and “Who First Rode the Horse?” Using these individuals as examples, Cassidy describes in detail what it was like to live in premodern times, along with contemporary touchstones for how these firsts have shaped who we are today. He gathers expert data to offer opinions from a variety of disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology and engineering, providing a well-rounded vision of each subject. Some results are rather surprising, such as the scholarly speculation that geniuses were just as common throughout ancient history (perhaps even more so), and the finding that head surgery was performed over 7,000 years ago with a stone tool (not a sterilized scalpel). He also discusses the things that universally define us as “human,” such as body decoration and the fact that the wheel and axle were independently invented by parents in both Europe and the Americas to make a toy. Ultimately, Cassidy presents the impact of new technology on our current knowledge base. “With modern tools,” he writes, “scholars can now engage in more educated speculation about the greatest people, moments, and firsts of ancient history than ever before.” Who Ate the First Oyster? is a fascinating dive into the history of us all. —Becky Libourel Diamond

As an author, Safina furthers his educational efforts with award-winning books about the natural world. In his 10th book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace (Holt, $29.99, 9781250173331), Safina turns his insatiable curiosity to sperm whales, scarlet macaws and chimpanzees, studying how these animals aim to live well in their individual environments. Safina brings his considerable knowledge to his research, and it’s clear he doesn’t leave his heart at home. Of an early morning spent observing scarlet macaws, he writes, “In a few minutes it will be 8 a.m. How long and rich a morning can be if you bring yourself fully to it. Come to a decent place. Bring nothing to tempt your attention away. Immerse in the timelessness of reality. Attention paid is repaid with interest.” Becoming Wild is full of such rich observations, and many others by scientists who recognize their own humanity in the animals they study. “Trying to learn what the whales value has helped me learn what I value,” behavioral ecologist Shane Gero explains to Safina. “Trying to learn what it’s like to be a sperm whale, I’ve learned what it’s like to be me.” But Safina and the researchers he joins are not focused merely on what humans can learn from animals; they find joy in the animals’ very existence. Becoming Wild offers readers a window into the complex and curious lives of the three species it depicts and invites humans to observe the beauty and joy of each species’s nuances. —Carla Jean Whitley

Becoming Wild

Philosopher of the Heart

By Carl Safina

By Clare Carlisle

Nature What can humans learn from the animal kingdom? Quite a lot, it turns out, and Carl Safina is eager to glean all he can. As an ecologist, Safina studies the wild creatures that humanity lives among. He’s won MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim fellowships, and he shares his passion for conservation and nature as a professor at Stony Brook University in New York. The Safina Center, the nonprofit he founded, blends that scientific knowledge with emotion and then prompts people to act to protect the natural world.

Biography Books by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard aren’t likely on many readers’ nightstands these days. After all, titles such as Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Repetition and The Concept of Anxiety don’t exactly inspire a desire to dig deeper into their contents (even though the latter title sounds at least like it might be fitting for our unsettling times.) Yet, as Clare Carlisle demonstrates in the absorbing and captivating Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (FSG, $30, 9780374231187), reading Kierkegaard is much

reviews | nonfiction like reading a good novel or a thoughtful poem. Above all, his work struggles artistically with what it means to be human and what it means to love, expressing these concerns in rhetorical styles that seduce the reader into complex philosophical sketches about aesthetics, ethics and religion. Carlisle, Reader in Philosophy at King’s College London, eschews the contours of traditional biography, focusing instead on Kierkegaard’s growth and development as a writer through a careful look at his publications. Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, says Carlisle—the “most vibrant love of his life.” (“All his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed against his native land.”) Among these other loves, Carlisle deftly illustrates the ways that Kierkegaard’s breakup with his fiancée, Regine Olsen, haunted him through all his life, weaving itself in some fashion or another through all of his writings. Carlisle points out that Kierkegaard’s work of “soul-searching, exploring his own anxiety and suffering,” deepens “his understanding of being human, and [gives] his philosophy a power to affect others.” Philosopher of the Heart does what the best biographies do: It sends us back to Kierkegaard’s time so we can see for ourselves the beauty, intricacy and literary artistry of what he accomplished. Carlisle’s meticulous reading of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre reveals that his work deserves a wider audience for its insights into what it means to be human. This penetrating introduction will encourage us to put Fear and Trembling or Stages on Life’s Way on our nightstands. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

The Compton Cowboys

By Walter Thompson-Hernández

Biography Start with the TV show “Bonanza.” Lose the Ponderosa Ranch, the ten-gallon hats, the wholesome hijinks and Pa’s endless supply of cash. Add a heaping dose of institutional racism, gang warfare and black cowboys. In some ways, Walter Thompson-Hernández’s The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland (William Morrow, $28.99, 9780062910608) is a totally different take on the cowboy way of life, but at its heart

is the recognizable hope that human goodness will triumph over inequality. Given that the publication of Thompson-­ Hernández’s book is accompanied by features in the New York Times and The Atlantic, an exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and an upcoming feature-length film called Concrete Cowboys starring Idris Elba, it’s safe to say that black cowboys are having a moment. Well, another moment. According to historians, black cowboys made up 25% of the cowboy population during the West’s early days. (No, Will Smith was not the first cowboy of color in the wild, wild West.) And though this book alludes to the tradition’s beginnings, its main concern is recent history—specifically, the story of a small group of riders in one of America’s most notorious zip codes. Today’s Compton Cowboys are alumni of Mayisha Akbar’s Compton Jr. Posse, an equestrian program aimed at providing academic support and an alternative to gang life to low-income students in the Richland Farms area. The program has operated under Akbar’s steady hand since the 1980s, offering Compton’s youth a safe haven in the middle of a neighborhood known for its violence. The book begins at Akbar’s retirement—a tenuous transition from her strict, formal leadership style to the more laid-back approach of her nephew, Randy Hook. Hook must navigate his move from group member to group leader while securing long-term funding and facing the challenges the group was created to combat: gang violence, poverty and the limiting effects of racism. Thompson-Hernández’s integration of research into readable prose makes room for readers to grapple with the book’s toughest questions about bias, inequality and the future of the black cowboy tradition. —Sarah Carter

Inge’s War

By Svenja O’Donnell

Memoir Svenja O’Donnell was never particularly close to her grandmother, Inge, whom she describes as an “aloof, somewhat selfish woman.” Unexpectedly, though, when O’Donnell visited the East Prussian town where her grandmother grew up, Inge suddenly an-

nounced during a phone call, “I have so much to tell you.” Thus began what the author calls a “decade of discoveries” into the secrets that lay at her “family’s heart, unspoken, undisturbed, unsuspected for years.” At one point, her normally reticent grandmother even began hearing the voices of her dead friends and family in the form of “waking dreams.” The past had come back to haunt her. As a seasoned print and television journalist and a former political correspondent, O’Donnell was well-equipped to track down her family’s buried truths. In Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler (Viking, $27, 9781984880215), she lets events unfold chronologically while seamlessly interspersing conversations with her mother and grandmother, both natives of Germany, with her own research and travel to important family landmarks in Europe.

Svenja O’Donnell has created a story that reads like a novel filled with fascinating history and excellent detective work. In the midst of World War II, Inge became a young, unmarried mother while her beloved boyfriend was off fighting the war; his father forbade them to marry. Later, as the Russian Army approached, Inge, her toddler (the author’s mother) and her elderly parents escaped just in time to Denmark, where, as Germans, they weren’t well received. The tale of their flight is harrowing, and O’Donnell provides thoughtful commentary every step of the way, observing, “Silence has always dominated women’s experience of war.” She notes that German children like her mother had “to bear the weight of an identity that made them pariahs at birth” and that she herself remembers feeling uneasy during a school trip to a war museum in Normandy, as she was the only half-German student in her class. Even so, O’Donnell makes no excuses for anyone, noting that many Germans conveniently hid behind the phrase “I did not know” when it came to the realities of the Holocaust. As she notes, the goal of her investigation was “to learn the truth of my family’s story, to recognize in its shifts, its hopes and its flaws, the hybridity that shaped my own identity.” Mission accomplished—with Inge’s War, O’Donnell has created a story that reads like a novel filled with fascinating history and excellent detective work. —Alice Cary


feature | graduation

feature | graphics

Congrats to the grads!

Draw us in

Grab these books before you throw those caps in the air.

In two new graphics, images and prose entwine to create distinct atmospheres.

May is commencement month, a time for saluting students as they cross the academic finish line. In honor of the occasion, we’re featuring two terrific books that will empower graduates as they prepare for the future. What comes next? It’s a question most grads ponder—and one that’s not easily answered. For those looking to land a dream job or pursue another degree, Meredith Fineman’s Brag Better: Master the Art of Fearless Self-Promotion (Portfolio, $27, 9780593086810) is a must-read. Fineman is CEO of the professional development company FinePoint, and in this eyeopening guide, she explores the ways in which bragging—a practice that’s often equated with pushiness and aggression— can serve as a key to success. Fineman takes a bold approach in this accessible book. Her advice: Go ahead and sell yourself! “Bragging better,” she says, “requires cultivating pride in your work and then taking small actions that help you share it with those around you.” She offers pointers for identifying and articulating personal strengths and helps readers leverage that info to create standout resumes, social media profiles, personal websites and more. She also provides tips on how to make a great first impression. When done in the right way, Fineman says, speaking up about skills and accomplishments can change a life trajectory for the better. Her book will give a boost to grads who are grappling with big career questions and help them move forward with confidence. As grads say goodbye to fond friends and familiar routines, it can be helpful to remember that the path to fulfillment is often indirect and that finding a new sense of direction can take time. Jesmyn Ward, the award-winning author of Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, emphasizes these ideas in Navigate Your Stars (Scribner, $16, 9781982131326), a beautifully illustrated edition of the commencement speech she delivered at Tulane University in 2018. Paired with whimsical visuals by artist Gina Triplett, Ward’s text mixes moving personal anecdotes with words of inspiration. In this exhilarating little volume, Ward shares memories of growing up poor and black in Mississippi and looks back at the obstacles she’s encountered over the years, including the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. She also provides insights into her evolution as a writer. Throughout, she stresses the importance of identifying goals and ambitions and then pursuing them. “Take a step that will lead you toward the realization of your dream,” Ward writes, “and then take another, and another, and another.” Her reflections will fortify readers as they embark on a new phase, whether that’s entering graduate school, starting a job or a business or slowing down to decompress and strategize. Commencement is a time to celebrate—and recalibrate. Ward’s book will help grads do both. —Julie Hale


Sometimes a story can be told solely through prose, but these two graphics make it clear that some stories need more than just powerful words. Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, these books find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder. Tyler Feder confronts loss with a gentle smile in Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir (Dial, $18.99, 9780525553021). No stone is left unturned as Feder recounts her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflects on her own ever-present grieving process. Feder walks us through her journey in hilarious, moving detail, and the illustrations enable us to experience her pain even more deeply. When Feder and her sisters go to the mall to get “black mourning clothes,” they stumble into Forever 21, where 2000s-era neon dresses are comically lurid against their sullen faces. Feder jokes lovingly about this experience. She also shares insights into the grieving process that recall Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, as when she refuses to let anyone clean out her mother’s closet or when she admits to feeling like her mom is “just on a long trip somewhere far away.” While Feder’s experience is uniquely Jewish American, including kriah ribbons and a shiva, her memoir looks beyond culturally specific ideas about death to face loss and grief on a personal level. With a mix of sadness, compassion and joy, Feder tells

a touching story for anyone who has lost someone—or really, for anyone who loves someone. Borja González’s A Gift for a Ghost (Abrams ComicArts, $24.99, 9781419740138) is the ensorcelling, strange yet familiar tale of the intertwined fates of a 19th-century girl who longs to be a horror-poet and a 21st-century high school punk band. The story and images are reminiscent of something Kurt Cobain wrote about the Raincoats, another amateurish band: “Rather than listening to them, I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still, or they will hear my spying from above, and if I get caught, everything will be ruined.” The novel creates a similar effect: The story unfolds slowly and endearingly, and you find yourself drawn in to its air of mystery and magic. As Teresa prepares for her poetry debut, and as bandmates Gloria, Laura and Cristina try their hands at songwriting, the story builds, with anxiety rising in all of their lives. As the four girls struggle to decide which sides of themselves to embrace, González’s artwork can be both spare and hyperfloral. We begin to wonder who the girls will become and what brought them all together in the first place. Once (some of ) these questions are resolved and the story reaches its end, you can’t help but feel that you missed something, but that feeling is actually just a desire to read the book all over again. —Eric Ponce

q&a | deborah wiles

‘How can this happen in America?’ Deborah Wiles proved herself a master of historical fiction with her Sixties trilogy. Now she turns her formidable gaze toward the horrific events at Kent State University when, 50 years ago, the National Guard killed four students protesting the Vietnam War. Kent State is ambitious, elegiac, powerful—and urgently contemporary. Kent State has a very distinct style. How did you arrive at this form? I call this form “lineated prose.” It’s a conversation among six voices. In trying to find a way to tell this story, I worked closely with my editor, David Levithan. We had some conversations about “ways of telling,” and a book we’d both loved, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, came to both of us as a way to use disembodied voices to tell the story from afar. David then had the idea to use “collective memory” to tell the story of an event that has so many different angles of truth and myth that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened and be totally factual.

there,” if possible. Did you go to Kent State before you decided to write this book, or after? What was it like? How did “going there” inform what you could bring to the page? This is such a good question. I’d decided to write the book before I went to Kent State. I traveled there three times, and each time was different. The first time I went with my husband, and we met our helpers at the May 4 Visitors Center so they could guide us through the landscape and general history. We participated in the all-night silent vigil on May 3 and the yearly remembrance/observance on May 4. Anyone can go and take part in the vigil and observance each year. There is nothing like being there to give you a sense of the gravity of what happened there, and to know that the country is still grieving, still trying to come to terms with this slaughter. It’s a powerful experience, and it doesn’t leave you. On subsequent trips, I interviewed survivors and worked in the Special Collections archive at Kent State’s library, which was a rich mother lode of meaningful information for the book, and where I discovered the BUS—Black United Students—and their story, which became an essential part of the book.

May 4, 1970, was three days before your 16th birthday. What do you remember of your experience in that moment? What I remember is kids whispering on the school bus on the way home from school and not knowing what they were talking about but understanding that it was ominous. Then, on the nightly news, there it was, the killing of four Kent State students and the wounding of nine more by the Ohio National Guard. I still remember the hair on the back of my neck standing on end, my throat closing, the skitter across my shoulders, thinking, “How can this happen in America?” and the talk at school for days and days after, trying to process it. We were all just stunned, and so was the country. It changed everything for me in how I looked at the war— and I was an Air Force kid, with a dad who was flying missions to Vietnam, taking supplies over and bringing bodies back. I wanted the war to end as much as those kids at Kent State did. Kent State Scholastic, $17.99, 9781338356281 In your author’s note, you write that any storyteller Historical Fiction worth her salt tries to “go

Can you discuss your decision to include what you call “faulty memory” in the book? I grew up living with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t hear me when I tried to reason with them, so I know how helpless that feels and how powerless that renders the person who becomes invisible to others. People get desperate when they feel they have no voice. In this country, we’re in a time where people seem so divided in their worldviews that it’s hard to hear one another. The Kent State


Two-time National Book Award finalist Deborah Wiles reckons with a dark moment in American history.

story is one where people couldn’t communicate, and where viewpoints about what led to the shootings and why they happened are so diverse and divided and so passionately held that I felt they deserved to be heard. From “They should have killed more of you” from the townies, to “We were just kids” from the students, to “You see a white man holding a gun and you don’t think it’s loaded?” from the Black United Students, to “We didn’t want to be there” from the National Guard. It was mayhem, and yet, taken all together, we have a story of a time and a place, and everyone is heard. They don’t have to agree. They need to be heard. What gives you hope? I hope it’s not too corny to say that the American people, as fractured as we appear to be at times, give me hope. At our best—and we are seeing this right now—we know what is most important, for ourselves and for the world. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And we have to be activists for those truths. People out there on the front lines right now, in all walks of life, are heroes. Those staying home and caring for one another are heroes, too. There will be time for other actions. And we will come together, I feel certain. —Stephanie Appell


reviews | young adult

H The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea By Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Fantasy In Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s self-assured debut, The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea (Candlewick, $18.99, 9781536204315), an imperialist system clashes with the ancient power of the sea while two teens from different backgrounds find unexpected love. Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, the black sheep of an aristocratic family, faces a journey aboard a ship called the Dove that she’s been dreading: She’s being married off to a stranger. A member of the Dove’s crew, Florian—born Flora—has been assigned to attend to Lady Evelyn. Tough and capable of handling the violence common to the harsh world of the Dove, Florian is working to earn enough to return with her troubled

The Life and Medieval Times of Kit Sweetly By Jamie Pacton

Fiction Kit Sweetly loves working at a medieval-­ themed dinner theater restaurant called the Palace. Although her role is “serving wench,” she longs to ride out as a knight like her older brother, Chris, crushing the patriarchy and earning a desperately needed higher wage. Corporate policy says only men can play the knight roles, but when Kit secretly takes Chris’ place one night, triumphantly revealing herself at the end of the tournament, she sparks a movement that could earn her and her fellow wenches the opportunity they’ve been dreaming of. The Life and Medieval Times of Kit Sweetly (Page Street, $17.99, 9781624149528), Jamie Pacton’s pitch-perfect debut novel, has nerves of steel beneath its mischievous exterior. Kit’s feminism is rooted in her utter confidence that women can do anything men can do, but Pacton gives her would-be knight higher stakes than mere glory. Without the additional


brother, Alfie, to their homeland. Lady Evelyn surprises Florian at every turn with kindness, humor and openness. But their growing relationship is a problem, because the Dove isn’t a passenger vessel. It’s a pirate ship whose passengers have no idea that the captain and crew plan to sell them into slavery. This intriguing premise blooms into an enchanting, complex tale that explores politics, piracy and the magic of storytelling itself. In Tokuda-Hall’s world, witches can use words to coax magic out of any object, a pirate’s honor is signaled

by their relationship with the sea and mermaids can both preserve and destroy memories. Tokuda-Hall’s imperialist political system, clearly inspired by the Japanese and British Empires, is brilliantly detailed. While the romance between Evelyn and Florian moves quickly, both characters have well-defined perspectives and appealing motivations. Queer and gender nonconforming characters are everywhere, and their normalization within the world of the book is remarkable and praiseworthy. A strikingly original and accomplished debut, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea reads like an undiscovered classic with impressively modern flair. —Annie Metcalf

income from the knight’s role, Kit won’t be able to pay for college, and her family may lose their home. Kit’s determination to help her single mom provide for her family and carve out a future for herself keeps the plot moving without weighing it down. The world of the Palace is vibrant and expertly realized, with a cast of finely honed characters who support Kit, throw obstacles in her path and even infuse the novel with a sweet touch of romance. A fantastic blend of frankness, feminism and pure fun, The Life and Medieval Times of Kit Sweetly will appeal to anyone who has ever felt called to do more than is expected of them. —Sarah Welch

scholar with deadly powers; Lucian, a repentant soldier who wants to be a monk; Vespir, a servant and dragon trainer; Ajax, a thief; and Hyperia, a cunning and savage member of the nobility. The teens compete with their dragons in challenges that test their physical strength and political prowess. Although they know only one will be crowned and the other four will be killed, the competitors bond when a mysterious puppeteer begins toying with them, turning the atmosphere from cutthroat to cautious. As certain death looms, they must unite to expose a sinister plot before the kingdom— and everyone they love—is destroyed. Despite clocking in at over 500 pages, House of Dragons (Random House, $18.99, 9780525648154) moves at a fast clip. Dragon races and basilisk-hunting—aided by romantic drama and villainous face-offs—fuel the action, while the short chapters, narrated by perspectives that rotate among the five protagonists, drive momentum and tighten pacing. Jessica Cluess effortlessly juggles individual arcs for all five protagonists and explores thought-provoking questions about the relationship between nature and nurture. Ajax, for example, a thief raised by the man who raped his mother, shares the circumstances of low birth with Vespir, the dragon trainer, but finds common ground with Hyperia, whose ruthless actions are shockingly violent. Yet Ajax also uses humor as a defense mechanism, which brings much-needed levity to tense scenes, and the nuance in Hyperia’s character

House of Dragons By Jessica Cluess

Fantasy In the kingdom of Etrusia where dragons fly, the emperor has died, and five teens must compete to become his successor. But instead of calling the eldest child of each house, as tradition dictates, a ragtag bunch of misfits have been selected: Emilia, a

q&a | david levithan hints that redemption may await her in later books. Readers will be lured in by the dragons and “Game of Thrones”-style subterfuge, but Cluess’ world building and high-stakes conflict will ensure they stick around for the sequel. —Kimberly Giarratano

Girl, Serpent, Thorn By Melissa Bashardoust

Fantasy Soraya grew up with her mother’s stories about a cursed princess whose poisoned skin killed any living creature she touched, and of a cruel prince who consorted with the demonic entities called divs until he became one himself. But these weren’t just stories. They were tales to help Soraya cope with the truth: She is the princess in the story, living in fear that her div-green veins mean she, too, will give in to darkness and transform from girl to monster. Just before Soraya’s brother, the shah, is to be wed, a captured div named Parvaneh makes Soraya an offer. If Soraya can bring Parvaneh a magical feather from the simorgh bird, her curse will be lifted. At first Soraya is suspicious, as divs are notorious liars. Despite her mis­ givings, Soraya sets out to find the feather. As the plot begins to twist like the secret passageways beneath the shah’s palace, Soraya’s conflicted loyalties lead her to a fork in her path. Which parts of herself will she embrace? Girl, Serpent, Thorn (Flatiron, $18.99, 9781250196149) is YA literature at its best. Characters suspended between two forms—here, human and demon—are ideal metaphors for the half-child, half-adult nature of adolescence. The book’s queer romance conveys the headiness and sensuality of falling in love for the first time. Author Melissa Bashardoust draws heavily on the ancient mythology of Persia and includes a fascinating author’s note detailing her sources. Careful readers will also find motifs from fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Rapunzel.” Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a richly metaphorical story of a teen claiming her identity and her place in the world. —Jill Ratzan

Passport to Panem Editor David Levithan reflects on working with Suzanne Collins on her hotly anticipated Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. How did you balance the way The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would speak to adults who grew up reading the Hunger Games, as well as to a new generation of teen readers? I think what’s so exciting about the book is that it will appeal both to fans and to a new generation of readers. As to how we maintained this, we were lucky to have two editors on this project: my colleague Kate Egan and me. Kate reread the trilogy right before we started work, so it was fresh in her mind. I did not—so I represented all the readers who loved the books but who might not have stopped by Panem since the last book (or movie) was released. We had to make sure it worked for both of us—and it did. Collins has explained that The Hunger Games was inspired by her experience of channel-­surfing between a reality TV show and news footage of the war in Iraq. Have contemporary realities similarly informed this new book? I can’t speak for Suzanne about specific inspirations. But I will say that the book engages larger philosophical issues about power and personhood. It’s striking that they are as relevant now as they were a decade ago . . . or hundreds of years ago. What was it like when you read The Hunger Games for the first time? Just when I think I know where Suzanne is going with a book, she always manages to drop the floor out from beneath me. With many of the authors I edit, you get to know their writing well enough that you can see into their bag of tricks. Suzanne’s bag of tricks is still a complete mystery to me. Editors shape books in subtle, invisible ways; other times, their involvement can be more straightforward. Will you share with us something in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes any of Collins’ books that’s there because of you? Scholastic, $27.99, During the writing of the trilogy, when the first 9781338635171 drafts came in, it was a little clear who Suzanne felt had the greater claim on Katniss’ heart. So to make Dystopian Fiction it more of a fair fight, I argued a lot for Gale, which I believe in Suzanne’s head made me very Team Gale. (I believe this because at some point she told me, “You’re Team Gale.”) But honestly? If Katniss were going to choose either of them, I’m glad she made the choice she did. What is one of Collins’ unique strengths as a writer or as a storyteller? Not many of us manage to write books that effectively challenge readers to question how they see the world and how they see their role within it. But that’s exactly what Suzanne does. Writers often mention things they learn from their editors. What’s something you’ve learned from Collins? Rarely have I seen someone structure a story as deliberately and as well as Suzanne. Editorially, I am by nature a tinkerer. But I know not to try to tinker with Suzanne’s structure, because its calibrations are vital to the storytelling. What’s something about Collins that might surprise readers, who only know her from her words on the page? I think the natural thing for readers to do is conflate authors with their most famous characters. So I’d understand if people assume Suzanne loves to forage through the wilderness in her free time. But really, she likes the feel of a good recliner as much as the rest of us. —Stephanie Appell


reviews | children’s

H Love, Sophia on the Moon By Anica Mrose Rissi Illustrated by Mika Song

Picture Book The image on the title page of Love, Sophia on the Moon (Little, Brown, $17.99, 9781368022859, ages 4 to 7) immediately establishes the story’s stakes. Sophia is in timeout for having broken a vase while playing rambunctiously inside the house. So she heads out the door, towing along her pink backpack and pet cat, having left behind a note for her mother: “I’m running away. . . . From now on, I live on the moon.” The note kicks off a flurry of communiques between mother and daughter in this tender, funny epistolary tale. Spreads alternate between Sophia’s adven-

The Little Blue Cottage

By Kelly Jordan Illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

Picture Book A young girl and her parents enjoy idyllic summers by the bay year after year in The Little Blue Cottage (Page Street, $17.99, 9781624149238, ages 4 to 8), an endearing celebration of summer traditions and the ways those traditions inevitably change over time. Author Kelly Jordan succinctly conveys the child’s bond to this special place. Days at the cottage are filled with sensory fun—the songs of seagulls, the smells of pancakes and sunscreen, the sight of boats with colorful sails in the distance. The cottage is a home away from home where the girl plays boisterously and, in quieter moments, sits on a window seat in a cozy alcove, gazes out at the waves and tells the cottage, “You are my favorite place.” Illustrator Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s vibrant art imbues the cottage and its inhabitants with a classical feel while retaining a modern sensibility. The blue cottage gleams beside the bay’s turquoise waves and shimmers amid green hills and grass. Courtney-Tickle’s use of varying frame and image sizes is admirably effective, as in one spread composed of three long,


tures on the moon with her new friend, a unicorn named Frurgbert, and her unperturbed mother at home, straightening up Sophia’s bedroom. Observant readers will spot clues in the room—such as a stuffed unicorn and a night light that projects stars onto the ceiling—that hint that Sophia’s journey may be more imaginative than astronautical. All the while, Sophia’s mother patiently reminds Sophia of the good things that await her, including her favorite bedtime story and homemade cookies, should she decide to return home. Illustrator Mika Song conveys the ups and

downs of Sophia’s interior world with soft, relaxed watercolors. Hand-lettered notes between mother and daughter add intimacy to their communication. With clear affection, author Anica Mrose Rissi (best known for her Anna, Banana series) captures the determination and obstinacy of children and the steady, unwavering love of a parent. In one of her letters, Sophia’s mother provides a memorable expression of this unconditional love: “Even when you’re mad, I love you to the moon.” —Julie Danielson

horizontal panels that show the girl growing older and taller each year while befriending a redheaded boy. Eventually, years creep by with no summer visitors at all, and the cottage grows dilapidated. Then one glorious day, the girl—now a mother—returns with her daughter, her redheaded husband and her white-haired father. Times do indeed change, but readers will find reassurance in this reminder that traditions can endure, even as they are transformed and passed on to new generations. —Alice Cary

older sister, who miss their former life in town. Wolk vividly invokes the shock of losing an old way of life—of trading sidewalks for pine-needle paths, of swapping paper currency for barter with haircuts, eggs and firewood. She also sensitively conveys the swirl of emotions surrounding the accident that has put Ellie’s dad in a coma for months and left his family in a state of suspended grief. Ellie’s mother and sister blame Ellie for the accident, and Ellie’s mother copes by discouraging her daughter’s adaptability and curiosity, worrying that she’s becoming too wild. Despite these hardships, Ellie remains determined to use her skills to keep her family safe and fed and to find a way to wake up her father. Her dubious yet logical efforts on this front are humorous and heartbreaking—and, just maybe, hopeful. Ellie’s life contains some big mysteries, as well. Who is leaving her beautifully carved miniature figurines? Might the “hag” who lives up the mountain know how to heal her father? Fans of Wolk’s previous novels, including the Newbery Honor book Wolf Hollow, will once again relish the author’s evocative and touching language (Ellie cuts her hair “because the trees kept trying to comb it”) and her gift for revisiting history through the lens of fulsome and fascinating characters. In this complex, memorable novel, Wolk explores themes of social responsibility, modern versus traditional medicine, biological versus chosen family and more. Through it all, the book pays heartfelt tribute to resilience and resourcefulness. As seen through the indefatigable Ellie’s wise young eyes, no detail, emotion, creature or scrap of

H Echo Mountain By Lauren Wolk

Middle Grade Twelve-yearold Ellie feels at home in the Maine woods of Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain (Dutton, $17.99, 9780525555568, ages 10 to 14). Her parents lost their home in the Great Depression and were forced to move, along with many neighbors, to the woods, where Ellie learned to hunt, fish and start a fire. Now, Ellie’s skills and confidence put her at odds with her resentful mother and

reviews | children’s fabric on Echo Mountain is too small to be without value. —Linda M. Castellitto

H We Dream of Space By Erin Entrada Kelly

Middle Grade Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly’s latest novel is a work of historical fiction that pulses with contemporary relevance. We Dream of Space (Greenwillow, $16.99, 9780062747303, ages 8 to 12) chronicles the lives of three siblings during

the month leading up to the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. Life in the Nelson-Thomas home is anything but easy. Mom and Dad fight constantly, and the family feels “like its own solar system,” with members who are “floating objects that sometimes bumped or slammed into each other before breaking apart.” Twins Bird and Fitch couldn’t be more different. Fitch loves arcade games but can’t control his temper (a cruel outburst gets him suspended from school), while Bird thrives in her classes (the budding engineer spends her spare time drawing schematic diagrams of everything from VCRs to cassette tapes). Big brother Cash feels he isn’t particularly good at anything, especially since he’s repeating seventh grade, putting him in the same class as the twins. Kelly develops the siblings’ personalities through short, focused chapters, allowing their stories to emerge naturally as the book progresses. Much to Bird’s delight, science teacher Ms. Salonga, who hopes to become a teacher in space like Christa McAuliffe, organizes stu-

dents into flight crews as part of Space Month. Lively classroom scenes add to the anticipation of the launch. Bird yearns to one day blast off to become NASA’s first female mission commander. In a series of touching inner monologues, she imagines conversations with Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik. Kelly vividly resurrects the 1980s with references to President Reagan, Madonna and Atari and integrates astronomy metaphors throughout her prose as the Challenger’s fateful liftoff approaches. Her sensitive description of that terrible day captures the shocking impact of the tragedy, particularly for classroom viewers like Bird and Ms. Salonga, whose enthusiasm and empathy provide a stark contrast to the Nelson-Thomas parents. We Dream of Space offers an exceptional portrayal of the endless ways in which parental dysfunction affects every member of a family. It’s also a celebration of the need for optimism, compassion and teamwork in the face of disasters both individual and communal. —Alice Cary

Our Friend Hedgehog (Knopf, $16.99, 9781524766719, ages 5 to 9) is a warmhearted story of friendship and adventure, full of Lauren Castillo’s signature mixed-media illustrations. When Hedgehog loses her friend, she makes new friends on her quest to find him. The authorillustrator of the Caldecott Honor book Nana in the City, Castillo draws and dreams in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.