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We split in two sometimes: move to a new city, change a hairstyle, gain a new nickname. The other half vanishes, unused, like a dream, or perhaps a box of pictures in the attic. Desiree Vignes lost her other half years ago, when her twin sister Stella decided to pass as white, leave her family behind, never return. Some people can do that. What they don't realize is that the vanishing halves have a way of returning, spotting you across the room, looking you in the face and seeing the real you, the one you left behind. From start to finish, Brit Bennett's follow-up to The Mothers is a revelation. This is a novel you want to savor, even as it unfolds so naturally and beautifully that you can't help but devour it. If her first novel made her a new author to look out for, this one proves that Brit Bennett is here to stay.
— Rachel Copeland
There are different ways to write historical fiction, but one of my favorites is when writers such as Geraldine Brooks fill in the gaps in history, and that’s what Maggie O’Farrell has done with her triumphant novel Hamnet. Despite Shakespeare living during the Plague, he never specifically touched on it in his plays, but he did lose his son Hamlet to the disease. O’Farrell connects that tragedy to the play Hamnet, noting that in Old English, the two names are the same. But she goes a step further, sending Shakespeare into the background of the story and bringing to the center his wife and two children to tell this story of love and loss. Such beautiful writing!
— Daniel Goldin
At first, I felt like I was reading a memoir. But then I began to wonder. Was Ayad Akhtar’s father really Trump’s doctor? And then I realize – classic autofiction misdirect! As the plotline of this second novel unfolds, the story twists and turns around our assumptions about who Ayad Akhtar is. I’m still processing the story, and know that this is not an Indie-Bound-worthy recommendation, but I might have to read it again to say something one millionth as erudite, provocative, and searching as Homeland Elegies.
— Daniel Goldin
Akhtar might just have written that good and daring thing, a new entry into my favorite genre: the Great American Novel. Certainly it’s one of the boldest books on existing in this country post-9/11. Not since Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (and those in the know will know what I mean) can I recall a novel in which a writer was so unashamed to expose the ugliest parts of his country and of himself to create a portrait of an American living in, with, and against America. There’s far too much in this novel for any sort of reductive summary of its parts to give you an idea of what it’s ‘about,’ which of course is a part of its brilliance; there’s little so rare and as rewarding as to read a writer who is willing to do the necessary peeling away of layer after layer of nuance and contradiction, not just throwing out but dismantling and subverting platitudes and easy, false truths, to approach the world honestly. But here, a few broad strokes - it’s about being an immigrant, about being perceived at once as an enemy of the state and an enemy of your family’s homeland. It’s about how history, geography, education, economics, medicine, and yes, Donald Trump, put a father and son at odds with each other, with themselves, and with their country. Most of all, it is an exhaustive examination of that most base, central question in a time when it’s most needed - what is to be an American? This novel is astounding.
— Chris Lee
When Noemí Taboada’s father receives a most troubling letter from his niece, he sends Noemí as the family’s ambassador to determine if Catalina is in any danger. Immediately upon arrival it is clear to Noemí that she is an unwelcome visitor. Her cousin’s new family are the Doyles; an English family that lives in High Place, a crumbling mountaintop estate where nothing is what is seems and something sinister lurks. Mexican Gothic has everything you want in a gothic novel - gloom and doom, mystery and romance, monsters and nightmares. Silvia Moreno-Garcia cranks up the melodrama to thrill and delight readers. Unputdownable!
— Jen Steele
Let's get into it - Backman's Anxious People is an onion of a novel that's kind of about a bank robbery gone wrong, kind of about a father and son, and kind of about all sorts of anxious, endearing characters who are really just trying to find their footing in the world. These pages are full of layers and unassuming at first, but there's a good chance it'll make you shed a tear or two, and you won't regret it even a little bit. I always start out a Backman novel thinking it's a little cheesy, and yet he always ends up proving me wrong. His ability to really put into writing all of the facets of human nature, and to weave together a story that's at once multifaceted, compelling, laugh-out-loud funny, and utterly relatable is a gift, and I'm thankful to experience it. Anxious People and all of the ridiculous, complex characters within hold that truly perfect blend of depth and levity that Backman has perfected in his novels - I can't think of a better book coming out in 2020, and I can't wait to make all of my friends read it too.
— Kira McGrigg
Here’s proof positive that you don’t have to be obsessed with a podcast to enjoy the spinoff book. Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlsedt’s 99% Invisible has been around for ten years, but I had never heard of it. This very enjoyable book (one of my customers described it as upscale bathroom reading) looks at everything from left turns to squirrels to uncomfortable benches to brick veneers. Alas, it’s not an urban planning podcast – this is just the first topic they decided to cover. Mars’s show reminds me a bit of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, as hosted by Rod Serling. As an aside, the publisher chose to give a different ISBN inventory code to the signed (well, initialed) edition, even putting it on the bellyband. Sometimes we have a different ordering ISBN, but the book itself has the same identifying code, to make reordering easier when the signed copies run out. But in this case, the sales are separate, maybe not on national bestseller lists, but on the Edelweiss industry peer sharing site. Some stores (like Boswell) override to the unsigned ISBN, but other stores clearly don’t. But to you, that’s invisible!
— Daniel Goldin
People don’t get swept up by history, they make it. Walter’s latest is a grand and sweeping Western saga of the Wobblies 1909 free speech fight in Spokane. Over the course of a year, two vagrant brothers, a bawdy vaudeville performer, and firebrand labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn take actions big and small that change the West and America forever. Walter gets deep under the skin of people living during a time of upheaval, in a world that’s ever-shifting, bending, and changing – though he reminds us: when isn’t it? With moral obligations and the arc of history on the line, what’s a young dreamer to do? Which side are you on? Hopefully, the right one.
— Chris Lee
If I were to take Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and reflect it through the prism of The Sisters Brothers, I might come up with The Cold Millions, a period novel set during the rise of the IWW or The Wobblies. Gig and Rye are two brothers, the first a self-proclaimed hobo (mind you, not a bum or tramp) in early twentieth-century Spokane, and the second, his younger brother who seeks him out after their mom dies. The two become embroiled in a complicated scenario involving industrialists, organizers, prostitutes, sleuths, and bounty hunters, starting when Gig is arrested during a labor action and Rye unwittingly agrees to pass information. Keeping a plot as complicated and double-cross-filled as this one is no small feat, nor is creating what many would say is a modern take on Steinbeck. I love that this is the Spokane-iest book I’ve ever read. But once again, as in Beautiful Ruins, the thing that takes it home is the emotional heft, and with Rye, who slowly is revealed to be the center of this terrific novel, you’ve got that too.
— Daniel Goldin
Jess Walter carries us back to the Pacific Northwest of the early 1900s, using vivid details to show us the raucous, vibrant, fast growing town of Spokane. The heart of the story is two Dolan brothers jumping trains to get work, fighting for workers’ rights with the hard-nosed bosses and cops who routinely use men and then dump them as bums. Workers want decency. They have fearless leaders, but the people with wealth and power aren’t giving anything away. They don’t play nice, and they have ways of controlling it all. The brothers believe in the cause, but they're also looking to settle down in this new whirlwind home. Their stories and the way they turn phrases had me smiling ear to ear, and then shaking my head in amazement at their resilience. I think I’ll remember their hard-earned wisdom forever. It’s a suspenseful novel, a window into early days of labor battles, delivered with a sharp, clever style. It’s entertaining, and also very timely considering the gap between rich and poor has never been greater than it is now. The plot twists and characters are fascinating, many based on real events and people. The ending is satisfying. I stayed tied to each page.
— Tim McCarthy
Macdonald hopes this collection of essays, both old and new, will convey her sense of wonder at the curiosities of the natural world. In a time of frightening environmental loss, she tells us that we need more than science. Science can define and help mitigate the current great extinction humans are causing, but we need literature as well, to communicate what the losses mean, the value of those things disappearing, "so that more of us might fight to save them." Her objective is beautifully met. These essays have me more in love with nature and more ready to fight for it than ever. She’s even convinced me to hope, and given me comfort by revealing mysteries beyond understanding. Her prose moves quickly and gracefully from the concrete science to the emotions we feel and their moral and political implications. She sees in marvelous detail the love and heartbreak of sharing the world with other creatures and their habitats. (An autistic boy dances in complete harmony with a parrot.) She examines how we attach our own personal meaning to their lives. (A massive flock of cranes reflects the movement of refugees searching for safe rest.) Her unique perspectives open worlds I never would have imagined. (A skyscraper raises her into immense airspace filled with flying and floating life.) And they close the gaps between us. (A total solar eclipse erases the differences between all watchers.) The broad range of topics, the wit alongside intellect, and the stunning depth of wisdom all left me awed, and gratefully surprised! Best of all, Macdonald openly show us herself, a complex person with an inspirational passion for life, a force of nature in her own right. Humanity needs this book.
— Tim McCarthy
Leave the World Behind is the kind that asks people find out who they are when the crisis comes. When strangers knock on the door, when the technology fails, when the animals start acting weird and the whole world becomes a threat. Yet these people aren’t ex-military-loner action movie heroes, they’re not the plucky last-girl-standing from your favorite slasher flick. They’re just your average, all-American family of the dwindling middle class. Alam’s magic trick here is his ability to draw you so close to these characters with such intimate detail that within a few chapters they become as familiar as a reflection. So by the time things become, let’s say, strange, it’s not just one family’s worst fears on display. Alam is holding up a mirror so we can see some of our own. This is a book about all the ways the vast world can so quickly reduce us to the animals we’ve always been - scared, fragile, and oh so human.
— Chris Lee
Two very different families reluctantly agree to temporarily share a remote Long Island house owned by one of the families. Over the course of three days, all six individuals encounter odd phenomena, usually while alone. Eventually, they all are well-aware that something strange is happening, but no one can articulate what it is. Rumaan's portrayal of a world suddenly turned upside down, and his characters' unfolding reactions to it, are unsettlingly credible.
— Kay Wosewick
Emira finds that her friends are passing her by in the growing up department, but she’s enjoying babysitting (not even nannying!) for professional influencer Alix (née Alex) Chamberlain and has become particularly attached to daughter Briar. An uncomfortable grocery-store incident with racist overtones seems likely to blow up, but Emira really wants to put this behind her and convinces bystander Kelley, who recorded the incident on his phone, to not release it. When Emira and Kelley meet again, they start dating (even though she doesn’t usually date white guys), but what Emira doesn’t know is that Alix and Kelley have a past that ended poorly and they each have very different takes on it. With a story that bounces between the three viewpoints, Kiley Reid’s debut novel features a wonderfully engaging and wiser-than-she-thinks-she-is heroine and is alternatingly inspired, infuriating, hilarious, and thought-provoking, touching on race, class, gender, friendship, dating, and motherhood, and filled with a whole mess of bad advice from everyone concerned. Lots of bad advice!
— Daniel Goldin
Millet gathers a large group of old friends and their children for an extended summer vacation in a ginormous rented house. The children, largely teens, are more or less forgotten by their drunken, self-absorbed parents. The kids, embarrassed - even horrified - by their parents’ behaviors, actively disown them and take charge of their own vacation. A gigantic, climate-change-driven storm takes them all by surprise, causes significant destruction, and widens the wedge between adults and kids. Without giving away more of the story, Millet suggests the younger generation has the drive, but perhaps not all the tools, to save themselves, and even their disdained parents. Millet has penned a thoughtful, appropriately angsty, and definitely possible tale set in the not-very-distant future.
— Kay Wosewick
I loved this book! Journalist Kolker chronicles the Galvin family, who settled in Colorado Springs with the creation of the Air Force Academy. Don and Mimi wound up having twelve kids, and six of them were eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. The family history, often from the perspective of Lindsay, the youngest child (non-diagnosed) alternates with a history of the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. The split between advocates of nurture and nature hypotheses continues since the break between Freud and Jung. I can’t believe how Kolker was able to give such distinct life to the six men who presented their illnesses in such different ways. It’s a tragic story, but it’s also about the survival story of the six kids who weren’t diagnosed, including one who seems to have skirted by the illness. If you are a fan of Brain on Fire, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, or the recent Boswell pick An Elegant Defense, Hidden Valley Road is for you.
— Daniel Goldin
Imagine living your adult life never knowing how old you’ll be when you wake up on your next birthday. This is Oona’s life, starting with what should be her 19th birthday, when she wakes up 51 years old. Before the book ends, she flips through seven more birthdays, ranging from 19 to 53. Oona’s reactions to this craziness, such as attempts to adjust her fate and to right past wrongs, feel surprisingly believable. This is a unique, fun, and thought-provoking book.
— Kay Wosewick
At her 19th birthday party on New Year’s Eve, 1983, Oona is preoccupied. Should she accept an offer to study in London or go on tour with the boy she loves and their band? At the stroke of midnight, before she can make her choice, time and fate intervene. Just as Oona’s boyfriend leans over to kiss her, she blinks awake decades later in a strange house and an unfamiliar body. This is the first of Oona’s jumps along the timeline of her life, and from then on, each New Year’s Day, she wakes up either younger or older than the moment before, but never in the right sequence. She struggles to fit herself back into her own life as she reconnects with friends and people she loves (or loved or will love) as her past and future selves, and mourns the ones she has left behind. Particularly meaningful is her relationship with her mom, who is just so charming and full of life, and who veers between being a mother, a friend, a frenemy, and the wisest person in the novel. I enjoyed thinking about, as Oona learns to, what it really means to live in the moment, with consequences delayed for future Oona, who might be much more adept at solving her problems - certainly much better than past Oona! For anyone who’s been waiting seventeen years for a novel as engrossing as The Time Traveler’s Wife, this is the book for you!
— Jenny Chou
If you like your magical boarding school fiction delightfully dark and scary (and who doesn’t?), then I have a book for you. Main character El Higgins has survived the killer (literally) breakfasts and ominous monsters who feed on students to begin her second-to-last year at the Scholomance, a school that instructs students in the art of magic. As for survival against the hungry monsters known as maleficaria (or mals for short), students either figure that out on their own or perish trying. Each student has a talent, and some are more useful for fighting off mal than others. El keeps her talent for complete and utter destruction a secret, hoping that a sudden and spectacular revelation will ensure her a safe home among society's most elite sorcerers if she manages to survive the carnage of graduation. Always wrecking her plans is the infuriatingly nice Orion Lake, who quest to save as many students as possible is stupid and hopeless, but maybe a little endearing too. The constant bickering between El and Orion create lots of laugh-out-loud moments in this creative mix of scorching humor and horror. Naomi Novik has a talent for creating fantastical settings, but the heartfelt way she develops prickly El into a character to root for proves her genius as a writer. The gasp-out-loud last sentence left me desperate for the sequel. A Deadly Education might sound like fun for really brave kids, but trust me, this magical treat is for grown-ups.
— Jenny Chou
From its beginnings as a 1920s fad whose detractors sounded much like today’s video game vigilantes, crosswords were the bones of one major publisher (Simon & Schuster) and even developed an English accent, with British cryptic crosswords more focused on clue wordplay than the American counterparts. Puzzle creation etiquette was soon standardized under Margaret Farrar, with two sea changes to follow – the triumph of the pop culture guard over traditionalists (so OREO could now be a cookie instead of a mountain prefix) and the rise of crossword creation software, which has coincidentally led to a decline in the percentage of women constructors. Raphel visits the annual Stamford tournament and goes on an ocean-crossing crossword cruise. She looks at the clue-driven connections to mysteries and notes the puzzle’s place in culture, from Vladimir Nabokov to Sex and the City. And she looks at how technology has changed the avocation, from construction programs to user apps. As a person who is attracted to puzzles but struggles with solving them, I am continually fascinated by the world of crossword puzzles, and it didn’t seem to matter that I’d already seen Wordplay and read Marc Romano’s Crossworld some years ago, I was thoroughly entertained by Thinking Inside the Box. Maybe it’s a memory thing; I hear crossword puzzles are good for helping with that.
— Daniel Goldin
In an alternate version of 19th century America, where a plague has killed so many and the U.S. has dissolved, Ada has been deemed an outlaw due to the fact that her marriage has been childless for a year. There's a bit of Salem here, as women who are infertile are considered witches and are dealt accordingly. Ada strikes out on her own to solve her problems and save her family from her barren stigma. Joining the Hole in the Wall Gang, made up mostly women in her own situation, she thinks she has only one objective. However, the longer she is with the gang and the more struggles she shares with these outlaws (whether or not they like her or want her there), the more she comes to discover what is most important to her. Anna North has delivered a worthy novel that can be shelved with The Handmaid's Tale and the like. So many issues circulate through this world that I was wondering how Anna North could possibly wrap this up; I had no need to fear as the pulse-pounding ending surprised and shocked. It's a violent world that Ada lives in, so it's a good thing she has a tough constitution.
— Jason Kennedy