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R. Eric Thomas reflects on the experience of returning home in his funny, forthright Congratulations, The Best Is Over!. Accompanied by his partner, David, a Presbyterian minister, Thomas leaves Philadelphia and goes back to Baltimore, Maryland, where he grew up, only to find a once-familiar landscape very much altered. In this inspired collection, he showcases his gift for comedy, but he also takes on serious topics, like mental health. Reading groups can dig into a variety of themes, including connection, community and the meaning of home.

In She’s Nice Though: Essays on Being Bad at Being Good, cultural critic Mia Mercado trains her keen observational eye on her identity as an Asian American woman from the Midwest, tackling gender and cultural stereotypes as she tussles with the promises and perils of modern life. Over the course of this expansive collection, Mercado muses on a variety of topics, such as social media etiquette, power dynamics and the nature of performing niceness. A funny and companionable narrator, whether she’s writing about crossword puzzles, tasteless TV shows or life during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercado ably balances comedic commentary with moments of profound insight.

Amanda Turner chronicles the highs and lows of contemporary experience in her stellar How to Be Awkward. Embracing her inner misfit, Turner mines her own peculiarities to wonderful effect in essays about childhood mishaps, odd health issues, her lack of enthusiasm for exercise and her devotion to David Sedaris. Throughout, she writes with good humor while pondering the unique challenges of navigating the world. Turner’s compassionate treatment of important concepts like body image and self-esteem makes this a rewarding selection for book clubs.

Erika L. Sánchez’s Crying in the Bathroom is a personal, probing group of essays enlivened by the author’s bold voice and unapologetic narrative style. Looking back at her days as a teen in 1990s Chicago, where she was brought up by Mexican immigrant parents, S&aacutenchez documents her struggles with self-acceptance. She writes with thoughtfulness and sensitivity about feminism, beauty standards, motherhood, her literary career and her experience with depression. S&aacutenchez establishes a sense of camaraderie with readers, as if she’s opening the bathroom stall door to share her savvy observations. This welcoming spirit is sure to get book club members comfortable.

R. Eric Thomas, Mia Mercado and more spill their secrets and make savvy observations.
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A Shore Thing

In Joanna Lowell’s Victorian romance A Shore Thing, dashing bicycle store owner Kit Griffith teams up with botanist Muriel Pendrake for a multi-day biking contest to prove that women can ride as well as men. While this premise is delightful enough on its face, the story gains complexity and poignancy when the reader learns that Kit is trans, having recently left a sisterhood of female artists behind to live life true to himself. Muriel is surprised, but that doesn’t stop her from falling hard for the charming Kit, who swears he’s an affairs-only kind of lover. Through discussions of art, nature, community and identity, these fascinating characters grapple with the obstacles of their time and circumstances—all while on a one-of-a-kind road trip. Thought-provoking, heartwarming and possessing an entertaining cast of secondary characters, this romance is a winner all-around.

Just One Taste

Just One Taste by Lizzy Dent is a love letter to Italy and its cuisine as much as it is a love story between two Brits on a research trip to the sun-drenched country. When Olive Stone’s estranged father dies, he upends her world by leaving her his Italian eatery in London and the task of finishing his cookbook. That means a four-week trip alongside her dad’s sous-chef, the gorgeous Leo Ricci, who had reason to expect the inheritance to come his way. Dent takes the readers on a sensual vacation to four regions of Italy as Olive and Leo absorb the sights, smells and tastes of their surroundings while mulling over what to do about the struggling restaurant and their growing feelings for each other. This pleasure-filled, delicious romance will inspire dinner reservations at a fave Italian place—if not a food-centered trip abroad.

The Au Pair Affair

Tessa Bailey offers up another smiley, swoony and supremely sexy romance with The Au Pair Affair. Readers of Fangirl Down, the previous entry in Bailey’s Big Shots series, will already know pro hockey star Burgess Abraham, who enjoys his reputation on the ice as “Sir Savage,” his relationship with his 12-year-old-daughter, Lissa . . . and not much else. That is, until the titular au pair—Tallulah Aydin—enters his life. Grad student Tallulah is 11 years younger than Burgess, and has big trust issues for a very good reason. But Bailey makes the pages burn as usual, with a gruff, rough-talking man who surprises the heroine with the lust he inspires—and the love. In order to find their happy ending, the pair must consider Lissa’s feelings, whether the non-sporty Tallulah could ever become a rabid hockey follower and, most of all, if Burgess can envision a full, adventure-filled life off the ice. The Au Pair Affair is an energetic romp with wisecracking friends, but it also has a sizzling, distinctly sexual energy. Don’t be surprised if you need to fan yourself.

Plus, two swoony trips (a Victorian seaside bike ride! a food tour of Italy!) round out this month’s romance column.

Broken Harbor

In addition to her beautiful language and intricately constructed characters, one of Tana French’s great skills is her knack for an evocative setting. Think the deceptively quaint mountain village of Ardnakelty in The Searcher and The Hunter, or the siren call of cozy, idyllic Whitethorn House in The Likeness. But Broken Harbor is perhaps French’s finest achievement in terms of the setting as microcosm for the work at large. A luxury seaside development, Brianstown was supposed to represent the ultimate in upper-middle-class achievement for the Spain family, most of whom were murdered in their home by an unknown intruder. But a burst housing bubble left Brianstown’s construction only halfway completed: The neighborhood looks more like the decrepit cityscapes of Inception than the idyllic capitalist dream on the brochure, and instead of being part of a thriving community, the Spains were some of the only inhabitants of the urban equivalent of a sandcastle disintegrating on the beach. Things get even eerier when you get inside their house, which is literally full of holes, some of which have baby monitors placed next to them. There is an answer as to what the Spains were looking for, but the point is that they couldn’t stop searching, that materialistic striving can so quickly turn into paranoia, even as the walls literally crumble around you.

—Savanna, Managing Editor

Still Life

Still Life, the first mystery in Louise Penny’s beloved Armand Gamache series, draws Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sureté du Québec to Three Pines, a remote village in the mountains of Québec, whose eclectic residents cherish their solitude. What more does one need than a bistro owned by a lovable gay couple, a solid boulangerie, a musty used bookstore and a volunteer fire department headed by a misanthropic old poet with a penchant for cursing out her adoring neighbors? Here, one of these neighbors is found dead in the forest—a hunting accident, say the authorities, as one does when death visits a woman in the woods. Rather than view Three Pines as a backwater town that time forgot (even connecting to the internet becomes a plot point), the morals-driven leader and ruthlessly clever Gamache is eager to get to know a community that is much more than the sum of its parts. As seen through his eyes, readers will be taken by the wholesome charms and stark beauty of the village, despite murder after murder occurring in the next 17 books of the series. The audiobook, read by the exceptional Ralph Cosham, is as delicious as the bistro’s warm ham and brie baguette. 

—Erica, Associate Editor

The Secret History of Twin Peaks

Speaking as a born-and-raised Washingtonian, there’s no place like the Pacific Northwest. In particular, there’s no place like the Pacific Northwest for setting a mystery. There’s something about the towering old-growth Douglas firs and the ever-present mist and drizzle that makes a cup of good diner coffee and a great slice of pie that much more comforting—and makes an unsolved case that much more bone-chilling. If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing the eerie beauty of western Washington in person, Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks will just about transport you there. And if you’re a super fan who’s already seen every episode more than once, you can move on to Mark Frost’s book The Secret History of Twin Peaks. It’s written as a dossier compiled by a mysterious “Archivist” with commentary from the FBI agent assigned to review the file and determine the Archivist’s identity. The photos, newspaper articles and journal entries begin in the 1800s and continue through the action of the TV series in 1989. Read it to feel a misty northwestern chill creep up your spine.

—Phoebe, Associate Editor

House of Roots and Ruin

The sequel to Erin Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows, House of Roots and Ruin is a story of introspection, deception and supernatural enigmas. Verity Thaumas has struggled to find her place in the shadows of her successful older sisters, especially Camille, the duchess of their family estate, Highmoor. When Verity is offered a job from the Duchess of Bloem to paint a portrait of her son, Alexander, Camille panics and confesses that Verity sees ghosts and can’t differentiate them from real people, making her a liability to the family name if she were to go out on her own. Consumed with doubt, fear and resentment, Verity flees Highmoor later that night. With nowhere to go, she makes her way to Bloem, an ethereal region of lush scenery and bright colors; it’s a stark difference from the salty, dreary mood of her homeland. But it doesn’t take long for the dreamy Bloem estate, Chauntilalie, to expose its dark side, from Duke Gerard’s poisonous botanical experiments to the ghosts stuck in a time loop. Amid her growing love for Alexander, Verity confronts the challenges of her new home, all while trying to keep her abilities hidden. But if Verity isn’t careful, she might not only reveal her identity, but also uncover family secrets that could threaten Chauntilalie as a whole. Readers will relish how Craig juxtaposes eerie details with her extravagant setting in this gothic, fantastical and romantic story.

—Jena, Sales Coordinator

All good mysteries must have a fiendishly compelling plot, but truly great mysteries place their central puzzle in an equally fascinating setting.
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A Refiner’s Fire

Hard to believe though it may be, Commissario Guido Brunetti has survived 32 hair-raising adventures thus far, and is back for number 33 in Donna Leon’s sophisticated police procedural series set in Venice, Italy. As A Refiner’s Fire opens, members of two rival gangs have been herded into the police station following a late-night dust-up in a town square. One by one, the parents of the teenagers pick up their unruly offspring until only one boy is left. Orlando Monforte explains to Commissario Claudia Griffoni that his father never answers his phone when sleeping. In the interest of expediency, Griffoni decides to accompany the boy home; it is a decision that will come back to bite her. Meanwhile, Brunetti has been tasked with the vetting of one Dario Monforte, a onetime hero of the Carabinieri, the Italian military police, and, coincidentally, the father of the aforementioned Orlando. As his investigation proceeds, Brunetti is troubled by the ambiguities of Monforte’s supposed heroism, most particularly by the fact that he never received any sort of medal or commendation, seemingly because he was under investigation for antiquities theft. Tangentially, Brunetti’s friend and co-worker Enzo Bocchese, a collector of antiquities, is badly beaten and his collection is vandalized, likely by a particularly nasty gang member who lives in his building. The cases begin to dovetail as Brunetti and Griffoni uncover disturbing connections to the highest levels of the government. The grand finale is truly inspired, explosive in every sense of the word and perhaps the best of Leon’s long career. 

The Night of Baba Yaga

The Night of Baba Yaga, the English language debut of Japanese writer Akira Otani, features all the elements you could hope for from a crime thriller set in the Land of the Rising Sun: a heroine spiritually descended from samurai stock; two pairs of lovers on the run; a beautiful and spoiled young woman treated like a hothouse flower by her doting father; and a yakuza presence that is gloriously, gratuitously violent, well beyond the traditional chopping off of a pinky finger for perceived insubordination. Both the dialogue and the prose, translated by Sam Bett, are staccato and to the point; there are no wasted words. In that regard, the story is very akin to Japanese illustrated novels (only without the illustrations, which would almost certainly be too graphic for Western sensibilities). Baba Yaga, for those of you unfamiliar with her, is a legendary Russian witch who lives in the forest, in a house built on gigantic chicken legs that would raise and lower upon her command. She is noted for her cruelty, her rather bizarre sense of humor and her occasional kindness to those who are pure of heart, few though they may be. She figures strongly in Otani’s narrative, which is nicely done, indeed.

Think Twice

When the feds pay a visit to sports agent Myron Bolitar, he is more than a little surprised by the reason: They want to know the whereabouts of Myron’s nemesis-turned-friend, former basketball star Greg Downing. Problem is, Greg Downing has been dead for three years; Myron delivered the eulogy. The second problem is that Downing’s DNA has been found under the fingernails of someone who was just murdered, so now Myron is a person of interest in the investigation. Think Twice is the 12th installment of Harlan Coben’s popular series featuring Myron and his uber-wealthy and mysterious sidekick, Windsor Horne Lockwood III (aka “Win”), and the mystery is much more than a possible case of a faked death. The authorities suspect that the recent murder was but one of a series of homicides all perpetrated by the same person, a serial killer who then artfully and seamlessly framed someone close to the victim. The difference with this latest case is that the perp apparently got a bit sloppy and left DNA at the scene: Greg Downing’s DNA. And now the FBI is closing in on Downing (who may indeed be dead) and his known associates. First-person accounts by the as-yet-unidentified murderer appear here and there throughout the narrative, with “How I did it” details that are both inventive and jarring. Cool story, cool characters, tasty twist ending. What’s not to like?

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Anyone who ever had issues with a controlling and overprotective mother will empathize with Cleo, and anyone who ever had issues with a rebellious teenage daughter will certainly empathize with Cleo’s mother, Kat. But their fraught relationship is about to change in ways neither could predict, within pages of the opening of Kimberly McCreight’s new thriller, Like Mother, Like Daughter. It’s been a while since they met; they’re not exactly estranged, but are nonetheless distant. Kat has extended an olive branch, however, in the form of a homemade dinner and a promise not to be contentious. But when Cleo arrives, Kat is nowhere to be found. Food is burning on the stovetop and in the oven, and a bloody canvas shoe suggests foul play of some sort. Chapters alternate between Kat’s and Cleo’s perspectives, sometimes in flashback to each of their childhoods, but more often cutting back to the week leading up to Cleo’s discovery that her mom has gone missing, and then moving through the investigation. We learn that Kat’s law firm job was quite a bit more convoluted than she lets on, that Cleo was a part-time drug courier, that several million dollars have mysteriously gone missing from Kat’s bank account, and that Cleo’s exceptionally bad choices in lovers threaten to bring things to a very unpleasant denouement. And we also learn that Kat’s rigidity has at times been tempered by a dangerous rebellious streak, while Cleo’s fierce individuality can be overshadowed by an equally fierce protective urge, given the right circumstances. Like Mother, Like Daughter is intense, thought-provoking and completely unputdownable.

Akira Otani makes her English language debut with The Night of Baba Yaga, plus the latest from Donna Leon and Harlan Coben in this month’s Whodunit column.
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Diane Marie Brown’s Black Candle Women tells the story of three fierce Black women united by the spells and elixirs that have been passed down in their family. Willow, Augusta and Victoria Montrose lead a quiet existence in California until Victoria’s teenage daughter, Nickie, becomes involved with Felix. Unaware of the family curse—that anyone a Montrose woman falls in love with is doomed to die—Nickie risks everything for her new relationship. Richly atmospheric, Brown’s moody, magical novel is a profound exploration of family, legacy and love.

In Thao Thai’s Banyan Moon, Vietnamese American artist Ann Tran struggles with the loss of her grandmother, Minh. After unexpected events jeopardize her romance with Noah, a professor, Ann goes to Florida for a difficult reunion with her mother. As they work to heal their frayed relationship, they learn that Minh has bequeathed them Banyan House, their old family home—an inheritance that may help them find a way forward. Thai’s poignant portrayal of three women connected by the bonds of family offers many discussion topics, including the immigrant experience and the nature of grief.

Hula, Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes’ moving multigenerational novel, takes place in Hilo, Hawaii. Hi’i Naupaka has a deep interest in hula and hopes to win the Miss Aloha Hula contest, a competition her mother triumphed in years ago. But painful questions haunt Hi’i. She doesn’t know who her father is, and her grandmother—a formidable figure in the community—has nothing to do with her. When the truth about her parentage comes to light, Hi’i’s world is turned upside down. Hakes uses elements of Hawaiian history and culture to create a transportive tale of family and community.

With Burnt Sugar, Avni Doshi probes the complexity of the mother-daughter tie. In Pune, India, newly married Antara is disturbed by the behavior of her mother, Tara, who seems to be suffering from dementia. A headstrong, free-spirited woman who walked out on her marriage, Tara was a less than ideal mother throughout Antara’s childhood. Now she and Antara must come to terms with the past as they face an uncertain future. With themes of memory, forgiveness and aging, Doshi’s multilayered novel is a rewarding reading group pick.

Four powerful novels chronicle the drama and intensity of mother-daughter relationships.

Discover your next great book!

BookPage highlights the best new books across all genres, as chosen by our editors. Every book we cover is one that we are excited to recommend to readers. A star indicates a book of exceptional quality in its genre or category.