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Welsh author Carys Davies (West) is still breaking into American readership, but it won’t take her long. Her latest historical novel, Clear, which thoughtfully explores a passionate friendship set against religious and civic changes in mid-19th century Scotland, is bound to expand her audience.

John Ferguson is a poor Presbyterian minister struggling to provide for himself and his wife, Mary. Desperate, he accepts a challenging mission to evict the remaining inhabitants of a remote Shetland island. Soon after his arrival on the island, he is injured in a fall while walking the cliffs, and his unconscious body is found by Ivar, the island’s sole occupant. Ivar brings John to his croft and nurses him back to health. Unable to understand one another (Ivar speaks a dialect of an archaic Scandinavian language called Norn) the two men form a tenuous friendship and gradually share enough words to communicate, though John postpones admitting to Ivar why he is really on the island. Long-isolated and having had only animals for company, Ivar takes pleasure in living with and caring for another person, while John, who continues to keep his mission a secret, begins to have second thoughts about the morality of his assignment. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Mary grows uneasy with the nature of her husband’s undertaking and resolves to follow him, undertaking the difficult passage north on her own.

Davies sets her novel at the crux of two historical upheavals: the 1843 break of the Free Presbyterian Church from the Church of Scotland over the issue of landowners influencing the placement of clergy, and the final years of the Scottish Clearances, in which hundreds of rural poor were evicted to create additional grazing land for livestock. Davies is attentive to these details but keeps her focus on the relationships as the narrative moves seamlessly between the three main characters. With breathtaking descriptions of the natural world and a tender exploration of an unexpected friendship, Clear challenges readers’ expectations, offering a powerful and unusual story of connection.

Carys Davies sets Clear at the crux of two historic upheavals in 1800s Scotland but keeps her focus on her characters.
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Cat Sebastian’s latest queer historical romance is a love letter to resilience and the power of bravery. Set in 1960 New York City, the same midcentury journalism milieu of Sebastian’s 2023 novel, We Could Be So Good, You Should Be So Lucky tells the story of shortstop Eddie O’Leary and journalist Mark Bailey, both of whom are in a slump.

For the last year, following the death of his longtime partner, Mark has been on sabbatical from his role as an arts and culture journalist at the Chronicle. But his break is up and his first assignment is writing a highbrow sports feature about Eddie, a struggling player on the new baseball team in town, the New York Robins.

Eddie’s dealing with the worst slump of his career and desperately misses his old team in Kansas City, Missouri, both for the friends he made and the privacy a smaller stage afforded. No professional athlete or public figure really ever has privacy, but a gay baseball player in 1960 has a reason to keep secrets. That being said, Eddie is still surprisingly open and upbeat, the sunshine to Mark’s grumpiness.

One of Sebastian’s hallmarks is excellent character development, and how she uses her characters as a window into a book’s setting. We learn about the New York Robins and the Chronicle through the actions of Mark and Eddie. It’s very enjoyable to spend time in the presence of these likable, relatable characters, but their emotions and experiences will also grab readers by the heartstrings.

Eddie needs to stay at least somewhat closeted to continue playing baseball, and Sebastian does an exceptional job of outlining the difficulties of living and loving as a gay public figure. Mark’s late partner had political aspirations that required the two of them to pretend to be platonic roommates. Mark knows how to keep the personal parts of his life private, even when the pressure of maintaining that discretion is overwhelming. As their relationship evolves, one of the central conflicts is how Mark can balance his feelings for Eddie with his desire to avoid having to hide them.

Like baseball fans throughout history, You Should Be So Lucky roots for victory—even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

A romance between a baseball player and a journalist in 1960 New York City, Cat Sebastian’s latest is as enjoyable as it is emotional.
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If you are the sort of person who can’t bear to part with sentimental objects—“That belonged to Mamaw!”—this book is for you. Packed inside The Heirloomist: 100 Heirlooms and the Stories They Tell are photographs and stories of 100 items belonging to everyday as well as famous people, including Gloria Steinem, Rosanne Cash and Gabby Giffords. Their treasures might be a Rolex watch or a Rolleiflex camera—or simply scribbled notes, ticket stubs and even a plateful of spaghetti and meatballs. 

After becoming curator of her family’s important items, Shana Novak turned to other people’s stuff. Her photography and storytelling business, The Heirloomist, has documented over 1,500 keepsakes since 2015. No matter their financial value, she writes, “all are priceless, precisely because their stories will play your heartstrings like a symphony.” Take, for example, the daughter of a New York City firefighter who died on 9/11. Several years after that tragedy, she and her mother opened a toy chest and found an old Magna Doodle, on which her father had written: “Dear Tiana, I love you. Daddy.” 

The Heirloomist is meant to be shared with loved ones, especially those who harangue you to declutter. They may even start rummaging through basement boxes with a freshly appreciative eye. 

Shana Novak’s gorgeous, poignant The Heirloomist documents 100 treasures beloved by everyday and famous people.
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Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) takes his first foray into children’s books with Simone, a thoughtful and emotionally intense family story set during the California fire season. Simone, a young Vietnamese American girl, is dreaming of floating in the ocean when she is awakened by her mother (whom she calls M&aacute, the only Vietnamese word she knows). A wildfire is approaching their town, and they’ve been ordered to evacuate.

Simone and her mother are prepared with go bags and an evacuation route—but even then Simone has to make tough choices: “I’ll be back for you,” she reluctantly says to the books and toys she can’t take. The pain of leaving things behind and the panic of vacating her home in an emergency remind Simone’s m&aacute of when floods forced her to evacuate her childhood home in Vietnam and abandon everything but her precious crayons. Despite the disorientation and chaos at the evacuation shelter, Simone’s m&aacute helps Simone find a path forward: “You don’t fight fire with fire, / You fight fire with water,” she says.

Minnie Phan’s hand-lettered text reinforces Simone’s first-person perspective, and Phan’s colored pencil and watercolor palette gorgeously interprets the book’s themes. Simone dreams in color, but when she awakens, the world is black and white, with the only remaining colors the red and orange of the flames. Likewise, her mother’s memories of Vietnam are blue, like the floodwaters that engulfed her home. Toward the end, as Simone and her new friends use artwork to remember their homes and to re-imagine their future, color returns to the pages. The illustrations combine with Nguyen’s words—“It’s up to us”—to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

In Simone, Minnie Phan’s illustrations combine with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s prose to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

Adventure, anyone? While Ikumi Nakamura is best known as a Japanese video game artist and developer with an interest in horror and mystery, she has another fascinating side. As Project UrbEx: Adventures in Ghost Towns, Wastelands and Other Forgotten Worlds reveals, she’s also a fearless, adventurous photographer who has long traveled the world to explore and capture unusual and hidden locations. (For the uninitiated, UrbEx is short for urban exploration, a sometimes-dangerous pastime exploring structures and abandoned ruins in the human-made environment.)

This volume includes images from Nakamura’s explorations in North America, Europe and Asia accompanied by short, evocative essays and captions by Cam Winstanley, written based on interviews with Nakamura. The photos range from an old Italian garment factory, a decaying theme park in Bali nearly overgrown with lush vegetation, and the ruins of military planes baking in the Mojave Desert sun. A few depict Nakamura herself in precarious positions as she attempts to capture a shot.

It is unfortunate that the text is printed in neon orange, which readers may find difficult to read. Otherwise, this beautifully designed book is an intriguing conversation starter that may inspire photographers to undertake their own explorations.


In Project UrbEx, photographer Ikumi Nakamura explores and captures unusual and hidden locations throughout the world.
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Summer vacation has arrived, and with it the euphoric urge to pack a bag and hit the road (or skies. Or sea). But what is a well-traveled LGBTQIA+ person (or ally!) to do when the same old vacation spots have gotten a bit too-well trodden? Let Out in the World: An LGBTQIA+ (and Friends!) Travel Guide to More Than 120 Destinations Around the World guide the way!

Card-carrying, globe-trotting gays Amy B. Scher and Mark Jason Williams have assembled an impressive guide on where to go when and what to do when you get there, whether you’re a rugged hiker, a small town sightseer or are simply looking to relax at as many vineyards as possible before returning to real life. Even better, they’ve done it with an eye especially for the queer traveler, compiling lists of LGBTQIA+ owned eateries, tour companies, shops and bed and breakfasts. (They even note which hotels are dog-friendly, in the event of a furry plus one). Divided into chapters with headings such as “Where No One Gets Hangry,” “Nature and Nurture” and “Our Favorite Small Towns With Big Pride,” Out in the World is packed with unexpected and delightful new places to explore while unabashedly being exactly who you are.

Out in the World is an LGBTQ+ travel guide packed with unexpected and delightful new places to explore while unabashedly being exactly who you are.
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After sharing a year with Mouse in Mouse’s Wood, young readers can now enjoy a day on the river with Mouse on the River: A Journey Through Nature, a quiet picture book full of charm. As the titular hero spends the day rowing down a river that eventually meets the sea, the most dramatic event is a passing rainstorm—making this a good choice for a soothing bedtime tale.

William Snow’s rhyming text moves the story along as Mouse begins his solo journey early in the morning, while fellow anthropomorphic friends wave goodbye from the dock. This is very much an experiential book, with a multitude of details to scour, beginning with the full-spread map showing Mouse’s planned route. Numerous die-cut flaps encourage keen observation as they reveal cozy, detailed interiors of buildings along the way, including a floating house, a café and a treehouse. Additional fold-out flaps appearing as trees enhance the sense of Mouse’s ongoing progress, enlarging several scenes beyond the book’s borders. Once the journey is complete, an illustrated list of Mouse’s equipment—as well as depictions of flora and fauna encountered along the way—will encourage enthusiastic readers to go back and find these items. 

The star of this show is Alice Melvin’s rich illustrations, which are chock-full of details: squirrels having tea inside a bright cafe; a fox waiting on a customer in a well-stocked bakery; Mouse camping snugly in the rowboat underneath the stars. The book brings to mind another one that quickly became a favorite in our house when my girls were young: Welcome to Mouse Village, written by Gyles Brandreth and illustrated by Mary Hall.

Mouse on the River is a well-planned, enchanting adventure worthy of repeat enjoyment.

Mouse on the River is a well-planned, enchanting adventure in which the most dramatic event is a passing rainstorm—making this richly illustrated picture book a good choice for a soothing bedtime tale.

“Shabbat is the best day of the week and today is the best best day of all.” So begins Joyful Song, a cheerful contemporary story celebrating Jewish naming traditions, from the award-winning team of Lesléa Newman and Susan Gal.  

Zachary, the story’s narrator, is a new big brother—and especially proud to be pushing the carriage holding his new baby sister as he and both of his moms make their way to the synagogue. As they walk through their neighborhood, the family greets neighbors curious about the new baby. Of course, everyone wants to know her name. 

But although the baby has been called by cute nicknames such as “Little Babka,” “Snuggle Bunny” and “Shayneh Maideleh” (which means “beautiful girl”), Zachary is careful to explain that her real name will be announced on that very day, at her naming ceremony. 

Before long, friends join in to accompany the family in a happy parade. At the synagogue, Zachary steps up to play a leading role, reciting the words he has been practicing to get right. And just as the baby opens her eyes and stretches her hands out to him, he announces that she will be called Aliza Shira, which means “joyful song.” After a community lunch in the social hall, the family hurries home, where their two little dogs greet them with excited barking. 

Gal’s bright, exuberant palate is highlighted by brilliant sunshiny golds and luscious coral and orange shades. The colorful, vibrant art brings a natural warmth to the array of diverse characters depicted throughout. In an author’s note, Newman provides information about naming ceremonies and traditions around the choice of names, sharing that she was named for her grandfather who died just months before she was born. Hebrew translations are provided for several names as well. 

A final question in this heartwarming book opens the door to further conversations for all kinds of families: “Everybody’s name has an interesting story. What’s the story of yours?” 

Susan Gal’s colorful, vibrant art brings a natural warmth to the array of diverse characters depicted throughout Lesléa Newman’s Joyful Song.
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Theo remembers feeling uncomfortable with how the world saw them from a very young age. Frustrations built up, from boys assuming that they couldn’t play chess to being forced to cut their own hair because hairdressers always insisted on more feminine looks. But experiences in art school, at comic-cons and playing tabletop roleplaying games, plus countless searches on the internet, led Theo to realize they feel most at home identifying as nonbinary.

Homebody, by debut author Theo Parish, is a delightful, beautiful graphic memoir celebrating the journey they took to discover their gender identity. Reading it feels like receiving a warm hug. Parish dedicates Homebody “for you, whenever and however you need it,” offering frequently interspersed epiphanies anyone can hold on to, such as “living authentically in a world that takes every opportunity . . . to squeeze you uncomfortably into a box of someone else’s design . . . is the most radical act of self love.”

Parish generates gorgeous imagery through a color palette of pinks and blues, sometimes blending the colors together. Shades of joyful pink illustrate Theo’s moments of gender euphoria. The most striking time Parish uses purple is in a full-page introspection about moments when they felt . Throughout the memoir, Theo is drawn with a literal house for their body, as an extended metaphor that is both powerful and charming.

This title truly matches the sweet nature and adorable, expressive illustrations of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper, while being exceptional in its own way as a nonfiction offering. On the first page, Parish lists facts about their life before even mentioning that they’re nonbinary: In this vein, while Parish includes musings concerning general transgender and nonbinary identity, Homebody is first and foremost a memoir centered around Parish’s specific coming of age in England. Still, through this deeply personal exploration of gender identity, many who traditionally have been left out of narrative storytelling may see their own experiences reflected, as Parish “[shines] a beacon of hope to those yet to flourish.” 

Homebody is a delightful, beautiful graphic memoir celebrating the journey Theo Parish took to discover their gender identity.

In her immersive and beautifully photographed debut, Hot Springs: Photos and Stories of How the World Soaks, Swims, and Slows Down, Maine-based photojournalist Greta Rybus ushers readers to 23 soaking spots worldwide via 200-plus images of ethereal landscapes, ruddy-cheeked bathers, striking architecture and even a blissed-out monkey. 

The book is steeped in steam and serenity, conveying the author’s lifelong reverence and enthusiasm for these “geological marvel[s]” that “giv[e] us a sense of belonging to each other and the earth.” From Mexico to Iceland, Japan to India, Alaska to Italy, Rybus shares fascinating details about each spring’s historical, cultural and spiritual significance, and reflects on their interconnectedness with the communities surrounding them. 

She visits springs both energizing and restful: In Portugal, a volcanic fissure only safe at low tide speaks to “the part of us that seeks out the thrilling, the tumultuous, the electrifying,” while the brutalist architecture of Switzerland’s Therme Vals creates a “meditative, inward, and connected atmosphere.” 

Whether they’re looking for a vacation destination or their next book to savor in the (hot) bath, readers are sure to join Rybus in marveling at “What a miracle a hot spring is: an earthly riot, a terrestrial bonus, an unexpected geologic twist!”

Steeped in steam and serenity, photojournalist Greta Rybus’ Hot Springs is perfect for those looking for a vacation destination or their next book to savor in the (hot) bath.
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Adam Higginbotham’s international bestseller, Midnight in Chernobyl, chronicled the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor explosion in Ukraine that was caused by a Soviet program plagued with a toxic combination of unrealistic timelines and dangerous cost cutting. His new book, Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space, describes a surprisingly similar catastrophe that very same year, this time at the hands of NASA: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven people aboard. Hefty, compelling and propulsive, Challenger overflows with revelatory details.

Reading this book is like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion. One can’t help but hear a drumbeat of dread while getting to know the astronauts—Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith—and their families. Details will stay with readers long after they close the book: McAuliffe’s appearance on The Tonight Show, her husband’s increasing anxiety at launch time, the horror and disbelief of the families as they watch their loved ones die, the grim details of the recovery efforts and the attempts of professionals both to warn against the mission and to bring to light why it failed.

Among the latter is engineer Roger Boisjoly, who, over a year before the explosion, wrote a memo voicing fears to senior management, stating, “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action . . . we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch facilities.” Unbelievably, in the hours just before the mission commenced, Boisjoly and a team of 13 other engineers unanimously advised against the launch, yet their concerns were not even voiced up the command chain. After the explosion, physicist Richard Feynman sought to bring clarity to the commission tasked with investigating the tragedy. The scientist noted that “the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

Higginbotham excels at delineating not only the science, technology and history of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but also the bureaucratic snafus and mismanagement that led to the catastrophe, including economic pressures and a nonstop race to get people into space. As with Midnight in Chernobyl, Challenger proves Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, demonstrating an unflinching ability to pierce through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.

Challenger proves Adam Higginbotham is a master chronicler of disasters, piercing through politics, power and bureaucracies with laser-sharp focus.
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Cory Wharton-Malcolm, a London-based coach who established the running group TrackMafia, joyfully makes room for people to bring their full selves to the track in his charmingly illustrated All You Need is Rhythm & Grit: How to Run Now—for Health, Joy, and a Body That Loves You Back. “Do your research and decide what works for you,” he advises in a section about fueling on the go. “I’ve seen people dip pizza in Coca-Cola. . . . It’s not something I’ve tried personally, but, like I say, everyone’s different.” 

Wharton-Malcolm is so refreshingly real about the pains and the joys of running that one feels simultaneously intimidated and inspired, a sense of “I can do this, but it’s going to be tough.” He admits that his base pace as a beginner was around 13 minutes per mile. Now, Wharton-Malcolm thanks running for everything from meeting his wife to finding purposeful work to tapping into what he calls “cardio confidence.” Running also provided space for him to consider his trauma, most notably the loss of his grandmother, whose death he didn’t process until he started clocking hours on the pavement. 

Though running culture is fueled by a few high-profile corporate sponsors and not equally available to everyone, Wharton-Malcolm, who is a large-bodied Black man, argues for a more inclusive sport. The last words of All You Need is Rhythm & Grit, “KNOCK KNOCK,” suggest that running is waiting on the other side of a closed door that the reader must open. 

Wharton-Malcolm undeniably achieves much in this slim volume: encouragement, connection and tips to nudge any would-be runner off the couch and into the world.

In the accessible, inclusive All You Need is Rhythm & Grit, running coach Cory Wharton-Malcolm will convince you to get off the couch and into the world.

Beyoncé’s new album, Cowboy Carter, has sparked a sometimes contentious debate about the nature and identity of country music. It’s an invigorating topic that has long been explored by writers and scholars. A number of excellent books, such as Charles L. Hughes’ Country Soul, Francesca Royster’s Black Country Music and Daphne Brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution, have contributed deeply to the conversation about race and country music. Now, acclaimed songwriter, producer and novelist Alice Randall (Black Bottom Saints, The Wind Done Gone) provides a detailed and far-reaching account in her mesmerizing My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future

Part autobiography and part music history, Randall’s sprawling yet tightly controlled text uncovers the roots of Black country and reveals its future in the work of contemporary country artists such as Miko Marks, Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens, Mickey Guyton and Allison Russell. Randall reveals that Black country was born on December 10, 1927, when banjoist DeFord Bailey played “Pan American Blues” on “Barn Dance,” a radio show out of Nashville, Tennessee; Bailey became the first superstar of the Grand Ole Opry. In addition, as Randall points out, other Black performers stood at the forefront of country music. The eight-fingered Lesley Riddle, who created a new three-fingered picking technique for playing the guitar, taught songs to the folk group the Carter Family, and pianist Lil Hardin, who would marry Louis Armstrong, was the first Black woman to play on a hillbilly record—Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel No. 9, also known as Standin’ on the Corner

In Randall’s brilliant genealogy of country music, “DeFord Bailey is the papa, Lil Hardin Armstrong is the mama, Ray Charles is their genius child, Charley Pride is DeFord’s side child, and Herb Jeffries is Lil’s stepson.” As Randall reiterates, “Black Country is a big tent with many entry points.” For example, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner can be considered Black country because their songs meet some criteria on the generally accepted country checklist: influences of Evangelical Christianity, African music and English, Irish or Scottish ballad forms; “concerns with female legacy”; offering advice, using “banjo, fiddle, steel guitar, fife [and] yodeling voice,” to name just a few. Randall adds that these qualities aren’t a litmus test, but “a likeness test. It’s a way to educate your ears and your eyes. Is there Blackness you have refused to see and hear?”

Randall’s songs have been recorded by artists Glen Campbell, Radney Foster and Justin McBride. Trisha Yearwood scored a number one hit with Randall’s song, co-written with Matraca Berg, “XXX’s and OOO’s.” Yet, as she writes, “I had been so whitewashed out of [my songs], the racial identity of my living-in-song heroes and sheroes so often erased.” Randall devotes a portion of My Black Country to documenting the recording of an album released at the same time as the book, featuring Randall’s songs as reimagined by her “posse of Black Country genius,” which includes, among others, Marks, Giddens, Russell and Randall’s daughter, Caroline Randall Williams.

My Black Country is a landmark book and an essential starting point for conversations about the nature of country music. It is true that mainstream dialogue comes late in country’s history, but coupled with Cowboy Carter, My Black Country feels right on time.

Alice Randall’s brilliant genealogy of Black country music, My Black Country, is both long overdue and, thanks to Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, right on time.

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