Black history month offers fresh looks at freedom fighters John Lewis, Harriet Tubman and Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
Black history month offers fresh looks at freedom fighters John Lewis, Harriet Tubman and Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
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The legacy of Sherlock Holmes is a wide one, spanning genres. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup give two vigorous nods to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries while embodying radically different tones: While the first is a cozy sci-fi whodunit with romance sprinkled in, the other combines the classic Holmesian ethos with the sort of existential threat epic fantasy can provide. Both novels, however, are tightly constructed celebrations of the mystery form.

The second in Malka Older’s Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti series, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles rejoins Investigator Mossa and her paramour, the botanist Pleiti, as they investigate a series of disappearances around Valdegeld, the university community on the rings of Jupiter in which Pleiti makes her home. As they search for 17 missing students, staff and faculty, Pleiti and Mossa travel from the habitable platforms that surround the planet to Mossa’s childhood home on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. All the while, the specter of their last case looms large in Pleiti’s mind, the conclusion of which shook her faith in both the university and herself. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is a delightful cozy mystery: engaging, concise and as focused on its characters’ relationships as it is on the puzzle itself. If that wasn’t enough, Older delivers a world that is detailed enough to be believable but sidesteps away from distracting technical issues that could bog down the story. While lovers of hard sci-fi might feel frustrated by some of the implausibilities of Older’s depiction of life in Jupiter’s rings, the fantastical backdrop not only enables a clever mystery, but also serves as a subtle reminder of what might be in store for humanity if we can’t get our act together about climate change and income inequality.

Despite those faint warnings, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is ultimately a warm hug of a book. Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Tainted Cup, however, is a shot of distilled paranoia. The city of Daretana is under persistent threat of magical contamination and attack from the massive Leviathans that stalk the waters outside its sea walls. When an officer of the imperial engineering corps dies in a way that is both gruesome and horticulturally intriguing, famed investigator and notorious eccentric Ana Dolabra is pulled onto the case. Ever wary of engaging directly with the outside world, she sends her new assistant, the young Dinios Kol, in her stead. Magically engineered to remember everything he ever experiences, Din becomes Ana’s eyes and ears, and as they dig into the engineer’s death, they find a trail of intrigue that threatens the safety of the empire itself. The mystery within Bennett’s latest novel is slow and methodical, unspooling subtly throughout its 400-plus pages. True to the promise of its epic fantasy backdrop, the novel spins the consequences of the murder into something bigger than any could anticipate. Bennett expands the scope of this story in a way that feels both natural and occasionally surprising, dazzling readers with both his imaginative world building and perfect pacing.

As with many homages to Sherlock Holmes, both The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup are told not from the perspective of their singular investigators, but from the perspective of their assistants. Just as with Conan Doyle’s John Watson, both assistants are in many ways far more three-dimensional than their partners. Older’s Pleiti spends as much time thinking about her research and her budding relationship with Mossa as she does on the case itself. And Bennett’s focus on Din and his occasional misgivings about Ana are often more compelling than any depiction of Ana’s antics.

But even as both novels focus on the everyman features of their investigative assistants, they also continue the tradition of the idiosyncratic, possibly neurodivergent, investigator. Both Ana and Mossa are singular entities, their intellects unmatched by their peers and just as quixotic as Sherlock Holmes himself. While neither wakes up the neighbors at all hours of the night playing the violin, each will worm their way into readers’ hearts in similarly unlikely ways, whether it’s Ana’s tendency to question visitors about the smell of their urine or Mossa’s encyclopedic knowledge of every food stall in the greater Jupiter area. Their lineage is clear, and their prowess is unquestionable.

The Great Detective’s heirs take to the stars and tangle with magical murders.
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Canadian Boyfriend

Jenny Holiday’s Canadian Boyfriend, in which a dance teacher tends to her own emotional wounds while helping a young widower manage his new reality, is a true romance gem. When one of Aurora “Rory” Evans’ students, Olivia, returns to class after losing her mother, Rory is especially attentive to her and Mike Martin, Olivia’s pro hockey-playing dad. Rory and Mike connect immediately, and after Rory moves in to work as a nanny, they become intimate friends . . . and then lovers. Standing in the way of something more permanent is his grief, her people-pleasing ways—and the fact that when Rory was in high school, she told everyone that Mike was her boyfriend, seeing as he conveniently lived in Canada. Still, the bond between them won’t disappear, no matter what they tell themselves. Told in alternating first-person perspectives that are full of both revealing introspection and engaging banter, the heart-wrenching journey of Rory and Mike is tender, painful, joyful and, most of all, honest. This is everything a romance novel should be: a story of two people who learn from each other and are better together than apart.

Bride

A Were and a Vampyre wed to broker an alliance between their two species in Bride, an impressive change of pace for rom-com queen Ali Hazelwood. Reminding herself that their union will only last a year, Misery Lark steels herself to live with Alpha werewolf Lowe Moreland and his people—who view her with open hostility and dislike. But Lowe himself is harder to read. While he’s at first studiously detached, he begins to connect with Misery over his irrepressible little sister and then aids in Misery’s search for her missing best friend. Danger and power struggles continually surround the pair, but Lowe and Misery offer each other a respite from all that . . . and then more. Told primarily in Misery’s snarky and amusing first-person voice, there is plenty of action, stirring love scenes and intriguing world building that will leave readers wanting more. Snippets from Lowe’s point of view offer insight into the tender interior beneath his tough exterior. Paranormal romance fans will swoon over this one.

Wild Life

Two lonely people find their way to each other and new lives in Wild Life by Opal Wei. Both Zoey Fong and Davy Hsieh have big plans, and neither of them expects or welcomes an attraction that goes from a smolder to full-on flames in a heartbeat. But after former boy band star Davy accidentally absconds with a crucial slide from scientist Zoey’s workplace, she follows him to his private island. Things only get more madcap from there in this hilarious spin on Bringing Up Baby. Wei writes well-drawn, one-of-a-kind characters that will elicit readers’ sympathy and laughter as they spur each other to grow and change. Put together the aforementioned sexual chemistry, a big cat (heard but not seen) and geese (both seen and heard, eliciting an appropriate amount of terror, if one knows geese) and the result is a vibrant, fast-paced and highly entertaining romance.

Fangirl Down

Tessa Bailey sets fire to the pages in Fangirl Down. When bad-boy golfer Wells Whitaker quits the sport in frustration, he stands up Josephine Doyle, his biggest fan, who recently won a lunch with him. Wells’ conscience nags him about the missed meal and he seeks Josephine out, only to find her golf shop in shambles from a hurricane. Wells hits upon an idea to help that will also get him back on his game: She’ll be his new caddy, and they’ll split the prize money. It’s delicious to watch the grouchy golfer find he has a heart after all as he falls for the sunny Josephine. Bailey is known for her witty repartee and Wells and Josephine don’t miss a beat, in addition to having some off-the-charts love scenes. Josephine’s endeavors to manage her diabetes without insurance add some gravitas to this delightful, laugh-out-loud love story.

Sex, Lies and Sensibility

Nikki Payne offers an engrossing tale that is part family drama, part romance and all deep emotion in Sex, Lies and Sensibility. After their father dies, sisters Nora and Yanne Dash are left with nothing but a dilapidated inn on an island in Maine. To complicate matters, they must rehab the place into a successful business in a year or lose everything. Their first glimpse of the environs doesn’t improve their moods, especially given that they’re the only two Black people around. And while Abenaki eco-tour guide Ennis “Bear” Freeman may be gorgeous, Nora doesn’t need a man. She has good reason not to trust them and she also notices that Bear is reticent to talk about his past. But as their businesses begin to work together, the attraction can’t be denied. Nora and Bear’s past mistakes keep them wary, even as familial and outside forces work against their possible happiness together. Payne will grab readers by the heartstrings even as they fall in love with noble, ambitious Nora and Bear and the eclectic cast of this compassionate novel.

Ali Hazelwood goes paranormal, plus wonderful new takes on Sense and Sensibility and Bringing Up Baby.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

What if we considered our lives as marked not by romantic entanglements but by the big friendships that nourish and thwart us? The first in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend depicts the early lives of narrator Lenù and her best friend Lila, who come of age, dramatically, by the book’s end. Their impoverished Naples neighborhood is rife with violence: Early in the novel, Lila’s father throws her out a window, breaking her arm, and the girls routinely witness neighbors being beaten in the street by the local mafia. Both girls show promise in elementary school; while Lenù must study hard, Lila seems to excel without trying. Idolatrous as much as they are envious of each other, Lila and Lenù are cutthroat competitive, but they find that their friendship creates space for imagination, creativity and envisioning a future outside of their neighborhood. Until that space abruptly closes, and Lila sees that her future will be one of mere survival. Few narratives capture the euphoric, gutting fluctuations of friendship so specifically. Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Lenù’s singular voice is propulsive and urgent. You will see yourself in both characters, and you will be drawn to the darkness. 

—Erica, Associate Editor


Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Growing up, I was utterly obsessed with the ocean, and I wanted to be a marine biologist. Unfortunately, I eventually learned that marine biology was more science and less dolphin whispering, but I still get excited when I come across a story that recognizes the magic of the marine world. The premise of Remarkably Bright Creatures immediately caught my eye: a giant Pacific octopus befriends an elderly woman and helps her solve the mystery of her son’s death. Tova, our protagonist, is gentle yet resilient, earning the adoration of Marcellus (the octopus) as she works the night shift cleaning his aquarium. Marcellus has an agenda of his own—yes, we get to hear the octopus’s thoughts—but he balances it with compassion for Tova and for the human race that humans, honestly, could learn from. The characters in this story are kind to each other, yet the goodness doesn’t feel contrived. Rather, Shelby Van Pelt has achieved a tale where there are no villains but the stakes are still high. Tova and Marcellus each have a heart as big as the deep blue sea, and their unique bond reminds us what we stand to gain from offering love, empathy and generosity to the remarkably bright creatures around us.

—Jessica, Editorial Intern


First Test by Tamora Pierce

In First Test, Tamora Pierce takes readers back to the enchanting and beloved realm of Tortall, which was first introduced in her acclaimed young adult fantasy series, the Song of the Lioness. Although it has been 10 years since it was decreed legal for women to become knights, Keladry of Mindelan (Kel) is the first girl brave enough to openly train for knighthood. Facing extreme scrutiny, an unfair probationary year and a training master hellbent on her failure, it seems like Kel might never achieve her dream. Enter Nealean of Queenscove (Neal), who is also considered an oddity as the oldest of the first-year pages. Neal takes Kel under his wing and becomes one of her biggest champions in her uphill battle to prove that she’s just as good as the male pages. As they bond over being set apart due to their unusual circumstances, their friendship allows them to overcome every obstacle thrown their way, from hazing taken way too far to being thrown into the middle of a very real battle. Together, best friends Kel and Neal prove that they are exactly where they are meant to be.

—Meagan, Production


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an unusual love letter—written by a son to his mother, even though she cannot read. As a child in Vietnam, her school was destroyed by American napalm. Her son, called Little Dog, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, after she immigrated there with him, and became a writer. With this letter, he is putting into words the physical language of harm and care that forms their intricate bond. He describes the impact of her PTSD from living through the Vietnam War, combined with the isolation and vulnerability of being unable to speak English in Hartford: When he tells his mother he was attacked by bullies at school, her response is to hit him, then admonish him to use his English to protect himself, because she cannot. In a way, his journey into writing is an act of love towards her, the fulfillment of her wish, even as it takes him further and further from her. Vuong tells this story with arresting beauty and intensity, following Little Dog through world-shifting experiences with love, sex and loss into his adulthood as a published writer.

—Phoebe, Associate Editor

Valentine’s Day draws our attention to romance, but these four tales of friendship, connection and the parent-child bond affirm that platonic love is just as beautiful and impactful as romantic love—if not more.
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The Clinic

Celebrities in rehab: Newsworthy, if not especially surprising. Celebrities dying in rehab: front page, above the fold for at least a day, maybe even a week. But what about celebrities murdered in rehab? That’s the “what if” at the center of Cate Quinn’s deft new thriller, The Clinic. Let’s start with The Clinic itself, which is easily the creepiest setting for a suspense novel since the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The luxurious rehab center is set atop a remote oceanside cliff somewhere along the Oregon coast, awash in salt mist and mystery. When pop star Haley Banks dies of a heroin overdose at the facility, her sister, Meg, doesn’t believe the official story. Meg is a casino cop of sorts and, after some soul-searching, decides to launch an investigation of her sister’s death by posing as a patient seeking treatment. This will not be much of a stretch for Meg, as she is addicted to both alcohol and Oxycontin. If she is wrong about Haley’s death, she may get clean; if she is right, she may get killed. The story is told in the first-person perspectives of two different narrators: the aforementioned Meg and Cara, the manager of The Clinic. As they alternate chapters, Quinn tightly ratchets up the suspense. And the big reveal? I never saw it coming.

The Wharton Plot

Before starting Mariah Fredericks’ The Wharton Plot, I decided to read up a bit on Edith Wharton. I knew she had been the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Still, I had essentially written her off as the poor man’s Dorothy Parker, sharp of tongue but lacking in humor. But The Wharton Plot showed me how very wrong I was. Fredericks’ mystery reads like a story from an earlier time, as it should. It conjures up the ghosts of American aristocracy in much the same manner as an F. Scott Fitzgerald or a Nathanael West novel, and is filled with historical figures such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and his extended family, and muckraking writer David Graham Phillips, whose real-life murder is investigated by Wharton in the novel. It may take a chapter or two to settle into the narrative, which is written a la one of Wharton’s own novels, but once that hurdle is cleared, the book is simply unputdownable. And as with a healthy meal, at the end you feel a sense of accomplishment, as you have done something good for yourself.

The Busy Body

It is, I think, not the easiest thing for a man to write a story from the perspective of a woman. That said, author Kemper Donovan has done that so well in his fun and entertaining mystery The Busy Body that I was totally convinced he was a woman until I read his bio. (I get it that as a male reviewer, I am not the definitive authority on the accuracy of his portrayal, so I will simply say that I never questioned it. Not even once.) The story begins with Dorothy Gibson, a former senator who has arranged for a ghostwriter to pen her autobiography. While they are together at Dorothy’s home in Maine, a neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances, and the politician and her ghostwriter (who is an engaging and offbeat character, even though she is never given a name) launch an amateur investigation into the death. There are overtones of Agatha Christie and Knives Out, both in the unlikeliness of the mystery and the cleverness of its solution. This is, I guess, no surprise as Donovan hosts the podcast “All About Agatha.”

The Ghost Orchid

Psychologist Alex Delaware is back, along with his sidekick, Los Angeles cop Milo Sturgis. Their arrangement is somewhat odd in that it is exactly the opposite of the typical setup in which a cop is the central character and a specialist serves as foil for the heroics. But boy, does it ever work. Author Jonathan Kellerman has created one of the most enduring and acclaimed series in suspense fiction, the latest installment of which is The Ghost Orchid. The tony LA enclave of Bel Air provides the setting for the story, which begins with the murder of Gio Aggiunta, a wealthy Italian high-society ne’er-do-well, and Meagin March, his older—and married—mistress. Both have been shot, and the police cannot determine whether one was the primary target, or if it was just a burglary gone wrong. Nothing seems to be missing, so initially they fixate on March’s husband, a multimillionaire investor, because hey, it’s always the husband, right? But as it turns out, Gio has been the “correspondent” in several affairs with married women, which raises the question: If it is the husband, which husband? Kellerman’s prose is fast-paced without being in any way hurried or abrupt, and Delaware and Sturgis play off one another exceptionally well. The characters are as comfortable as old slippers, fictional friends whose company and adventures readers have enjoyed for decades. The Ghost Orchid is another excellent addition to a series full of excellent editions.

Mariah Fredericks’ new historical mystery turns the magisterial author into a gumshoe and the latest Alex Delaware novel wows our mystery columnist.
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Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom tells the story of Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved husband and wife who—thanks to a courageous plan—fled Georgia in 1848. Ellen disguised herself as a white enslaver, while William pretended to be her captive, and together, they traveled to the Northern free states while successfully evading the authorities. News of their escape made them famous even as they faced new obstacles. Thoroughly researched and beautifully executed, Woo’s narrative explores themes of loyalty, courage and identity, making it a rewarding pick for book clubs.

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner traces the development of the antislavery movement in the early 1800s, especially in New York City, which gave rise to the underground railroad—the secret system that allowed scores of enslaved people to escape the South prior to the Civil War. Foner writes with authority and an eye for detail. Drawing upon new source materials, he documents the efforts of underground railroad agents, courageous abolitionists and determined freedom seekers to provide a revelatory look at a seminal chapter in American history.  

In Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, journalist Cate Lineberry chronicles the extraordinary achievements of Robert Smalls. In 1862, Smalls, an enslaved man in South Carolina, took over a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor, secretly brought his family members aboard and delivered the boat to Union forces, thereby securing their release from slavery. Smalls later participated in naval actions and went on to serve in the House of Representatives. Lineberry pays tribute to a remarkable leader in this meticulous account of Smalls’ life.

Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War assesses the rise of slavery and the rift it caused across the nation, demonstrating that freedom seekers were instrumental in bringing attention to the horrors of the institution. Delbanco looks at watershed moments, like the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, offering fresh perspectives on how they affected the country. Reading groups can dig into rich discussion topics like the notion of justice and slavery’s lasting impact on society.

Commemorate Black History Month with these odes to freedom.

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