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In White Poverty: How Exposing Myths About Race and Class Can Reconstruct American Democracy, MacArthur fellow and activist-pastor William J. Barber II makes the logical but nonetheless surprising point that, even though poverty has a disproportionately high impact on Black Americans, there is a vastly greater number of white people living in poverty, leading lives of unacknowledged despair in plain view. Yet we often equate poverty with Black communities, and as a result, poverty and all its ills are seen as a “Black problem.” 

Barber argues that this equation is based on four racist myths that deliberately divide poor white people from poor Black people, and prevent them from uniting against the policies and structures that favor the rich and powerful. These myths—among them that all white people share common ground, regardless of economic and social status—both justify and perpetuate our malign neglect of the poor. His examination of each myth, from its cause to its effect, exposes that what we were told were fundamental truths about poverty were actually dog whistles and racist tropes. 

But, important as this lesson is, Barber’s most powerful message is that if these myths are dismissed, and if poor white people recognize that they have far more in common with poor Black people, they could unite to demand living wages, access to health care and safe housing. Barber calls this union a “moral fusion,” and his descriptions of the power that is unleashed when Black and white poor people discover their common ground are the most hopeful and powerful passages in White Poverty. For example, a queer, poor, white woman named Lakin gave testimony at a Black church about the debilitating isolation of white poverty and the fear it engenders. By exposing the wounds of white poverty, Lakin created a space for empathy and understanding—and action.

White Poverty resonates like a powerful sermon. Like Jeremiah, Amos and other Old Testament prophets, Barber condemns the injustice perpetrated on the poor. And also like them, Barber offers a hopeful way forward to a more just and equitable society.

In White Poverty, William J. Barber II urges poor white and Black people to unite against the policies that favor the rich and powerful.
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When little Afia can’t sleep, her mind as active as a summer night, she and her papa travel in their imaginations to find love. And find it they do—in the sun-warmed sand, on a snowy mountain top, in the ocean’s friendly waves and even in the darkest night sky. Before she finally drifts off to sleep, Afia and her father discover that love looks like many things across the world; but most of all, it looks like them. What Love Looks Like, written by Laura Obuobi and illustrated by Anna Cunha, is a captivating addition to the bedtime bookshelf.

Against the safe coziness of a cream-colored background, Cunha’s characters are sweet and softly drawn, as well as a little messy and hazy, like a dream. Her oil painting style and warm colors enchant from the start, but as Afia and Papa journey on, Cunha’s art blossoms into magical worlds that feel wondrous and grand while remaining calm and welcoming. Cunha manages to make her art feel both old and contemporary—which means it will never be dated or stale.

Cunha’s artwork is so captivating, it hardly needs accompanying narration, but it’s perfectly balanced by author Laura Obuobi’s beautiful, well-chosen descriptions told with a storyteller’s sensibility. Obuobi’s writing begs to be read aloud and savored, and she peppers her narration with alliteration and a rhythm that pulls one gently forward. Her poetic descriptions are impeccable and lovely, conjuring new settings in seconds. All of these things make What Love Looks Like a perfect last book before bed: Readers may find themselves relaxing and feeling sleepy as they read. 

While there is no lack of picture books to help with bedtime procrastination, What Love Looks Like deserves a spotlight. Not many offerings are so well-matched in their text and art. Indeed, Cunha and Obuobi deliver the embodiment of What Love Looks Like: beautiful things to look at, gentle words before bedtime and someone dear to share them with.

Cunha and Obuobi deliver the embodiment of What Love Looks Like: beautiful things to look at, gentle words before bedtime and someone dear to share them with.
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Gennifer Choldenko’s The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman is a moving story about an 11-year-old abandoned by his single mom and left to care for his 3-year-old sister, Boo, inspired by Choldenko’s own childhood experiences of having undependable parents and a caring older brother who acted as a surrogate parent. Fans of the Newbery Honor author’s Tales from Alcatraz series won’t be disappointed. Hank is an engaging narrator, and his desperate plight, as well as the caring community of characters he encounters, are reminiscent of Kate DiCamilo’s Beverly, Right Here.

After about a week alone in their apartment, facing eviction with no money, food, or electricity, Hank, who has no idea who his father is, realizes that his mother isn’t coming back anytime soon. Hank loves his mom, but he knows  that sometimes she “will drive to Mexico in the middle of the night or invite strange people to our apartment or not come home at all.”

A dreamer, but also smart and responsible, Hank wonders how he and Boo will survive, musing that at least the kids in From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler had money for tickets to the museum they found themselves living in. Instead, he lands on the doorstep of Lou Ann Adler, a friend of his late, beloved grandmother. This hard-nosed, 60-ish daycare provider welcomes Boo with open arms, but peers sharply at preteen Hank, announcing, “I’m not wild about teenagers.”

Hank does an excellent job coping with the endless uncertainties in his life, which are expertly channeled via Choldenko’s succinctly effective prose. Despite Hank’s grim situation, this is an upbeat, hopeful book that shows how supportive communities can rise up out of seemingly nowhere. Hank befriends Lou Ann’s kindhearted neighbor Ray Delgado, as well as Ray’s large, extended family. He attends a new school, where he finds an inspiring basketball coach as well as a lively, diverse group of friends. His relationship with Boo, who equally adores him, forms the heart of this novel: “Without Boo I feel like a shoe in a sock drawer,” Hank explains. Their journey features diligent social workers and a dangerous and dramatic appearance by Hank and Boo’s mother that forces Hank to make a gut-wrenching choice.

Readers will immediately be drawn into the world of The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman, whose endearing and memorable characters will inspire repeated readings. This book tackles a tricky subject with grace, showing readers that even seemingly hopeless situations can offer happy endings.

Hank Hooperman does an excellent job coping with the endless uncertainties in his life, which are expertly channeled via Gennifer Choldenko’s succinctly effective prose.
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There is an immediate richness to the historical fiction of Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring, Remarkable Creatures), one that goes beyond carefully researched details and evocative prose, and into deep emotion. In her 12th book, The Glassmaker, Chevalier weaves a tapestry of character and conflict, change and stability, to create a story that elegantly glides along the line between historical drama and something more experimental, while never losing sight of the tactile humanity that gives her work such pure, invigorating life.

The glassmaker of the title is Orsola Rosso, a young woman living on the island of Murano just off the coast of Italy next to Venice. When we meet Orsola, the Renaissance is in full swing, and Murano’s reputation as the “Island of Glass” means that her glassmaking family enjoys a stable, happy life. That all changes when Orsola’s father, the heart of the family, dies in an accident in their workshop, leaving his son unprepared to take over the business. With her family’s future in question, Orsola begins a secret glassmaking enterprise of her own, making beads over a burning lamp in a corner of the Rosso kitchen. What begins as a chance to earn some extra money soon turns into something more, as Orsola’s life, and the lives of those around her, are forever changed by her approach to her craft.

Chevalier, too, takes a uniquely impactful approach to her craft. Steeped in detail, The Glassmaker charts the history of Venice and the delicate balance of trade that keeps the glassmakers working. But instead of transpiring over decades, the Rosso family story stretches over centuries, with the same characters aging slowly while the world around them changes dramatically. Venice goes through wars, regime changes, plagues, political upheaval and much more, and all the while Orsola makes beads, and she and her family persevere.

Through her measured, passionate prose, Chevalier sinks us into this strange relationship with time, where the passage of years is as moldable and oozing as molten glass fresh from a furnace. The characters and their lives take on an almost meditative quality, and The Glassmaker becomes a study not just of history, but of what endures history. That makes it a potent, bewitching bright spot in a stellar career.

Tracy Chevalier’s 12th book is potent, bewitching and addictive as it elegantly glides along the line between historical drama and something more experimental.

Bestselling author Ellery Lloyd has become deliciously adept at drawing readers into the world of the wealthy: redolent of privilege and glamour, and tainted by darkness and deceit.

In their third thriller, The Final Act of Juliette Willoughby, Lloyd (a pseudonym for married British authors Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos) builds upon the contemporary social commentary that marked their previous books, People Like Her and The Club, by homing in on the past. 

In 1930s Paris, Juliette Willoughby is an up-and-coming British surrealist painter who’s fled her moneyed and terrible family, and is now living with her lover, fellow surrealist Oskar Erlich. Tragically, the two died in a fire shortly after their participation alongside Dali, Picasso, Man Ray, et al. in the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition (a real event which Lloyd describes in fascinating historical detail). Juliette’s mesmerizing painting Self-Portrait as Sphinx was destroyed by the flames, too.

Or was it? In 1991 Cambridge, art history students Caroline Cooper and Patrick Lambert are encouraged by their advisor to include Self-Portrait as Sphinx in their dissertation research. After all, Juliette’s Egyptologist father curated a collection of art and artifacts that might prove useful, and Patrick’s family has strong ties to the Willoughbys. As the duo grow closer—and more fascinated by the Willoughby family’s strange history, including rumors of a curse—they make some amazing discoveries. Chief among them is Juliette’s journal, the contents of which suggest that the fire that killed her was no accident.

In the present day, Caroline is now the foremost Juliette Willoughby expert and has traveled to Dubai to authenticate Self-Portrait as Sphinx, which seems to have resurfaced after all these years and is about to go on auction. Alas, Patrick—her ex-husband, now a gallery owner—is arrested for murder as decades-old mysteries bubble up to the surface. Is he guilty? Is the formerly lost painting authentic? Was the Willoughby curse real, or just an excuse for horrendous misdeeds? Is there more to Juliette’s story?

Readers will enjoy unraveling the threads of history and mystery alongside Caroline and Patrick as they soak up art-world atmosphere and intrigue across the decades. The Final Act of Juliette Willoughby is a twisty and compelling exploration of power and obsession, secrecy and surrealism, artifice and art.

The Final Act of Juliette Willoughby is a twisty and compelling exploration of power and obsession, secrecy and surrealism, artifice and art.
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Trains are, for whatever reason, surprisingly common in contemporary genre fiction. Perhaps it is their predictability, with their reliance on firmly laid tracks and regular timetables representing an imposition of order on a chaotic world. But rarely is this made so explicit as in Sarah Brooks’ The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands, where a train is the last bastion of civilization in the region that was once Sibera, which has now become a chthonic cauldron of mutated flora and fauna, all of it hostile to humankind.

Brooks never explains why, exactly, Siberia transformed into the riotous Wasteland. She simply asserts that it has, that it is enclosed by a wall and that only one entity dares cross it: the Company, via its Trans-Siberian Express. On its last voyage, there was an accident that resulted in the deaths of three people. The Company, being a sinister avatar of faceless, capitalistic inhumanity, is dedicated to preserving the secrecy around these events, while Marya Petrovna, daughter of the glassmaker who was blamed for the accident, has dedicated herself to piercing that veil. However, none of the train’s crew or its most frequent passengers seem to remember what happened, from its captain and first engineer, Alexei, on down to a bookish professor and the enigmatic Zhang Weiwei, who has spent her entire life on the train.

Part of me felt like I had read this book before, or perhaps seen it on film. The obvious comparison is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but I found more commonalities with classic sci-fi like Asimov’s Foundation and Earth and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, mixed with Borges’ more animistic magic and a few dashes of Agatha Christie for good measure. The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands reads more like magical realism than fantasy, forcing the reader to inhabit the same inexplicable universe as the characters themselves. Brooks’ concise prose prioritizes clarity over decoration, and is suffused with casual slang and inside jokes. This steampunk fairy tale may be largely populated with archetypes and borrowed tropes, but Brooks has still made it compelling and novel. Her train through perdition is a worthy addition to the pantheon.

The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to the Wastelands is a compelling steampunk fairy tale that follows a train journey through the dangerous place that was once Siberia.

“Rat stories are like ghost stories: everybody has one,” writes British author Joe Shute at the start of Stowaway: The Disreputable Exploits of the Rat. Shute’s own original rat story involves going to an alley to watch a ratcatcher and his trained dogs at work. The rats escaped down a sewer, sparing the author the carnage of a rat versus dog encounter. 

Still, it was unsettling. After all, as Shute points out, rats have long loomed as fearsome creatures in our imaginations. “We are obsessed as a society with the notion of rats mustering in the gloom and waiting to invade our lives,” he writes. That’s not surprising, given history. Although it’s now thought that the 14th-century bubonic plague was spread by lice and fleas, rats still shoulder the blame for the death of millions.  

To challenge his own biases and overcome his fears, the author purchased two dumbo rats, Molly and Ermintrude. In the early days of their relationship, Shute walked a “tightrope between disgust and fascination,” but as he continued his “rat therapy,” he was amazed by their social habits and how responsive the rats were to his touch. In fact, Shute interviewed a neuroscientist who, while exploring the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and the loss of touch on humans, studied—wait for it—how tickling rats impacted their behavior and hormone levels. (Conclusion: Touch helps both humans and rats build resistance against stress.)

One fascinating section delves into how rats help humans in unexpected ways. Shute traveled to Tanzania to learn about Apopo, an organization that trains rats to detect landmines as well as tuberculosis. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was awarded a Dickin medal for sniffing out landmines in Cambodia. “Not for the first time,” writes Shute, “rats are cleaning up humanity’s mess.” And, of course, rats have been used since the 1800s in laboratories that study human diseases. That use has accelerated, in part because, as Shute points out, almost all human genes associated with disease have counterparts in the rat genome. 

Stowaway may not be an obvious choice as a gift for a family member who loves animals. But it will undoubtedly be enjoyed. Be prepared, though: You may end up with your own rat experiment. In Shute’s family, Molly and Ermintrude were joined by Aggy and Reyta, forming a rat colony. In getting to know the rat better, Shute did not find a creature with no redeeming qualities, but “empathy, cooperation, mischief, fun, loyalty and resilience.”

In the entertaining Stowaway, Joe Shute explores and exalts the resilient, cooperative, derided and, ultimately, misunderstood rat.
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Armed with well-honed combat skills and a magical connection to nature, Princess Eve wants nothing more than to defeat the Knight, a mysterious figure who’s been preying on the people of her kingdom. But just as Eve is about to turn 17, her mother, the Queen, secludes herself in her room, mumbling to a mysterious mirror. Eve decides that the time has come to fulfill her destiny and sets out to defeat the Knight once and for all, a journey that leads to treachery, battles, and answers about who the Knight really is—and who Eve really is, too.

Kalynn Bayron once again puts an inventive twist on a classic fairytale in Sleep Like Death. This time, she turns Snow White into a story of morally complicated characters and twisted legends. There’s a meta layer, too, as Eve collects tales of the Knight and observes how they change over time, allowing Bayron to explore how truth distorts into rumor and how that could lead to the birth of a fairy tale.

Sleep Like Death expands the world of Snow White into a universe of gray morality and ulterior motives. The Queen, for example, isn’t a jealous villain with clear motives; she’s a mother torn between her duty and her love for her daughter. The mirror isn’t just a soulless tool, it’s also a way for the characters to talk to the Knight’s charismatic and mysterious liaison, Nova. And Eve isn’t a dreamer, she’s a warrior—one whose passion grows into a balance of wisdom and experience.

Like the tale it’s based on, Sleep Like Death is a moving, memorable story about love, revenge and triumph. But it gives its characters room to breathe, letting them grow. Eve’s story strikes that delicate balance between classic and inventive: Bayron honors the heroine she takes inspiration from while maintaining the originality of her own character. It’s fun to recognize callbacks to Snow White while seeing how Bayron repositions familiar tropes and characters in new, innovative ways, turning the fairy tale on its head without betraying its heart and soul. 

Full of heroism, romance and wisdom, Sleep Like Death is a wonderful coming-of-age fantasy that will delight readers searching for a robust fairy tale retelling.

Full of heroism, romance and wisdom, Sleep Like Death is a wonderful coming-of-age fantasy story that will delight readers searching for a robust fairy tale retelling.

Julia Ames is shopping for her husband’s 60th birthday party, on the hunt for ingredients that were out of stock at her regular grocery store. It seems like an ordinary task, traveling two towns over for crab meat—until Julia spots in the aisles the one woman whom she intended to avoid for the rest of her life.

Helen Russo was a volunteer at the botanic garden when the two women met about 20 years earlier. At the time, Julia was struggling to find ways to fill the days with her young son. She had never felt completely at ease in life, although meeting her husband made her feel tethered in a way she didn’t feel with her mother, who had raised Julia on her own. After becoming a mother herself, Julia  loved her son madly, but she felt the impact of her early loneliness: “She’d never had a proper set of tools, but it had mattered less before; now there were others involved.”

Since giving birth, Julia had been adrift, and everything seemed too much. Helen—older than Julia by two decades, more experienced as the mother of five grown sons—recognized what the younger woman needed and quickly befriended her.

Now, running into Helen in the grocery store sends Julia’s mind racing back to those early days of motherhood and decisions that nearly destroyed her marriage. Told in chapters alternating past and present, Same as It Ever Was explores the challenges of motherhood and of being mothered. As in her New York Times bestselling debut, The Most Fun We Ever Had, novelist Claire Lombardo dives deeply into her characters’ lives to mine the family dynamics that shaped them.

Lombardo peels away years of secrecy to reveal the choices that led Julia to—and then away from—her defining friendship with Helen. The reader gets to know Julia not only as a nearly 60-year-old mother of adult children and earlier as a struggling new mother, but also as a teenager with her own difficult, tumultuous mother. As Lombardo draws back the curtain on Julia’s past, the parallels to her present life become clear. Same as It Ever Was is an engrossing story of maternal complexity and a reminder of the myriad ways the past can quietly inform the present.

Claire Lombardo finds “difficult characters much more interesting”: Read our Q&A with the author about Same as It Ever Was.

As in her New York Times bestselling debut, The Most Fun We Ever Had, novelist Claire Lombardo dives deeply into her characters’ lives to mine the family dynamics that shaped them, delivering an engrossing story of the challenges of motherhood.
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National Book Award-winning author Tiya Miles has tackled a variety of tough, intriguing subjects in books like Wild Girls and All That She Carried. She felt stymied, however, as she approached the life of the legendary Harriett Tubman. As one friend told her, “No one could catch her then. It’s going to be hard to catch her now.” 

And yet that is exactly what Miles so beautifully achieves in Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People. One of the biggest hurdles Miles faced was Tubman’s illiteracy, which meant her life experiences were all documented by others—“typically white, middle-class, antislavery women who recorded her speech and told her story.” Despite the roadblock of such “swamped sources,” often “submerged in the perspectives and biases of others,” Miles applauds a number of existing traditional biographies. As she explains, her goal was not to replicate these, but rather to explore Tubman’s eco-spiritual worldview. 

In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman “prepackaged in a box of stock stories and folksy sayings” among other “abolitionist avengers.” Instead, she places her firmly within the realm of Black female faith culture, noting that she was “one of a kind—singularly special and part of a cultural collective.” To illuminate Tubman’s spiritual purview, Miles delves into several memoirs written or dictated by Black women evangelists of Tubman’s time, writing that their relationships with the divine mandated “challenging entrenched social systems of racial and gender subjugation at the risk of [their] own safety, health, and social acceptance”

Calling her “arguably the most famous Black woman ecologist in U.S. history,” Miles also brings to life the haunting sights, sounds and dark, bewildering moments that Tubman experienced as she led herself and others to safety through the night wilderness. Tubman studied the plants, animals and stars as a matter of necessity for survival, believing that these god-given guides were proof of the need for spiritual and political liberation. 

Often, when Tubman told her story to biographers, she touched the writer, as if “by laying her hand on this person, her feelings may be transmitted.” With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.

With the exquisite Night Flyer, Tiya Miles looks at Harriet Tubman from an entirely new perspective: her spirituality.

Soil sensors prevent trees from dying in a college town in the Netherlands. A Boston arborist digitally tracks the city’s urban forest, helping efforts to maintain and preserve the canopy. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur develops an app to alert residents of wildfires. In The Nature of Our Cities: Harnessing the Power of the Natural World to Survive a Changing Planet, author and ecological engineer Nadina Galle sprints from one environmental challenge to the next, studying—and sometimes offering—possible ways to repair urban ecosystems in a time of urgent climate disaster. 

As Galle moves from region to region, the book finds its emotional center through the different people she works with. One of the most instrumental connections she makes is with Richard Louv, the 73-year-old bestselling author of Last Child in the Woods and an advocate for fostering relationships between children and nature. On a hike outside San Diego, Louv shares his belief that technology should be used “to restore our equilibrium with nature,” noting that “The right tech gets us outside, enriching our experience. The wrong tech locks us into a screen.” The conversation prompts Galle to study kid-friendly apps that draw people out of their homes, like Pokémon GO and iNaturalist, while also noting that “nature’s value should not be reduced to what it does for us.” 

The Nature of Our Cities is an approachable and easily digestible read for anyone interested in learning more about the convergence of technology in urban landscapes from a social science perspective. However, the optimistic, accessible tone means that the book skates over directly naming systems like capitalism or colonialism as the causes of vulnerability in our most critical infrastructures. Instead, Galle tends to stick to the small picture, calling out “planners and municipal leaders who subscribed to an ill-fated ambition to sever our connection with the ecosystems around us.” 

Galle visits lands recovering from disaster, such as Paradise, California, an area left scorched by wildfires. In this chapter, the author makes a rare nod to the land management skills of Indigenous people, acknowledging the “bounty of plant and animal life” that European and American settlers encountered in the Pacific Northwest. “They believed it to be a perfect representation of an unspoiled, permanent landscape rather than a delicate equilibrium in everlasting flux.” More research into Indigenous land management and technology would have deepened the narrative and provided a less Eurocentric lens. 

Galle, who grew up in a once heavily forested part of southern Ontario, is a naturalist in the way of Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing, “The longer I stay in the woods, the more I change.” The Nature of Our Cities shows her deep enthusiasm for finding ways that technology can support ecosystems in crisis, and will be of use to those interested in such innovations. 

An ecological engineer travels the world to learn how technology can address urban eco-crises in the approachable The Nature of Our Cities.
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Bestselling author Riley Sanger’s latest spooky thriller, Middle of the Night, is reminiscent of a ghost story told around a crackling campfire. This missing-person mystery dances tantalizingly on the edge of horror without ever totally crossing the line.

One summer night in 1994, 10-year-old Ethan Marsh invited his neighbor, Billy, over for a backyard sleepover. When Ethan woke up in the morning, the tent was slashed open and Billy was nowhere to be found. Until that moment, the Marshes’ suburban neighborhood was considered extremely safe, but Billy’s disappearance irrevocably changed the lives of everyone living on Hemlock Circle.

Now 40, Ethan is back in his childhood home, after his parents moved to Florida. He’s not alone either; various circumstances have brought the now-adult children of 1994 back to the cul-de-sac where they lived that fateful summer.

Ethan never recovered from Billy’s disappearance, and being in his childhood home has triggered PTSD symptoms like insomnia and nightmares. Then, in the middle of the night, messages start appearing that seem to be from Billy to Ethan. Ethan can’t help but wonder if Billy is somehow reaching out to him from the afterlife, and he becomes obsessed with solving the mystery, a quest that involves reaching out to the people he grew up with—some of whom want nothing to do with the case. There is also a matter of the Hawthorne Institute, an occult research center that Billy was obsessed with the summer of his death.

Despite its ghostly happenings and some genuine jump-scare moments, Middle of the Night never veers into full-on horror. Instead, Sager builds tension by casting doubt, never letting the reader forget that the shadows in the corner could be ghosts—but they could also be products of Ethan’s own mind, trying to protect him from an even more awful truth. Either way, this thriller unfolds with a frenetic, almost feverish pace that will keep readers hooked, even as Ethan’s own hold on reality seems ever-closer to breaking altogether.

Riley Sager’s Middle of the Night dances tantalizingly on the edge of horror without ever totally crossing the line.
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Like any metropolis where the excessively wealthy think they’re untouchable, Nigeria’s most populated city, Lagos, has a reputation for corruption and a swollen wealth gap. Bestselling author Akwaeke Emezi’s sixth novel for adults, Little Rot, is set in a city called New Lagos, a very different place from the southeastern Nigerian village of The Death of Vivek Oji (2020). When the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s ravaged Igbo villages with lynchings and riots, the privileged urbanites of Lagos found life largely undisturbed. New Lagos shares this high-rise mentality—as if tinted windows are enough to keep one safe.

Little Rot begins with a breakup, as religious Aima leaves her longtime boyfriend, Kalu, because he won’t marry her. Aima seeks comfort in her friend Ijendu, who takes her out dancing, which leads to a night of queer pleasure and then a morning of anguish. Meanwhile, Kalu attends an exclusive underground sex party hosted by his best friend, Ahmed, and stumbles upon a nauseating scene: a group of masked partygoers with an underage sex worker. In a rage, Kalu attacks one of the men, who turns out to be the kind of man who can and will enact his own retribution. Glamorous sex workers Ola and Souraya soon become members of this tangled mess as well.

As in their 2022 romance novel, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, Emezi writes a killer sex scene and is always willing to slip into the taboo corners of intimacy. But in Nigeria, queerness is illicit enough to get you killed, and this threat borders the whole narrative. Even in the gilded strata of New Lagos, there’s always someone more powerful than you, and everyone is touched by the hypocritical political power of Christianity, whether in the form of an evil pastor called “Daddy O,” Aima’s marriage obsession or the self-flagellation of queer characters.

Little Rot hurtles toward devastation, but even as you anticipate the horrors ahead, the escapist thriller-style pacing will keep you pushing on. Chapters rotate through this cast of beautiful people, who are all endangered and empowered by their entanglements. “You think you’ll never be a part of things you hate,” a woman says to Kalu at Ahmed’s party. “You think you’re protected somehow, like the rot won’t ever get to you. Then you wake up one day and you’re chest deep in it.”

These characters are plunged well past their chests, submerged in realities we might prefer to avoid. With their previous books, Emezi has been heralded for courting duality in stories that are described as unapologetic, visceral and radical. But if You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty tipped over into the light, Little Rot tumbles into shadow. For every arousal, there is violence; for every moment of love, there is ruin.

Akwaeke Emezi’s sixth novel for adults, Little Rot, hurtles toward devastation, but even as you anticipate the horrors ahead, the escapist thriller-style pacing will keep you pushing on.

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