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STARRED REVIEW

June 29, 2022

The 35 best memoirs of 2022 (so far)

There were plenty of personal narratives to laugh, cry and sigh over in the first half of 2022. Add the best of the best to your TBR now; you can thank us later.

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Why are some people drawn to darkness? It's understandable why some people seek it out as entertainment; to some, grisly murder is no more real than a sweet romance or an exciting adventure. But what about the people who choose to interact with darkness as part of their livelihoods? What makes someone say, “Serial killers—I want to hunt them down for a living”?

The best explanation readers might get is in Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases by Paul Holes, a retired detective from Contra Costa County in California. The region is where Laci Peterson was murdered, where Jaycee Dugard was held in captivity and where the Golden State Killer terrorized communities for decades. Holes spent his entire career in the county, with a particular focus on cold cases, and he devoted 24 years to investigating and ultimately finding the Golden State Killer.

Paul Holes, the cold case investigator who found the Golden State Killer, reveals the personal toll of his onerous career.

Holes' memoir, co-written with journalist Robin Gaby Fisher, unpacks one man's bruised brain. Unmasked is more about Holes' mental health journey than other “how I caught the killer” tales in the true crime genre (although, of course, there is some of that, too). Holes' blessing and curse was being gifted at a career that required him to think like a murderer, torturer, kidnapper or rapist. His book looks at what staring into that darkness does to a husband and father.

Unmasked is not for squeamish readers; investigations into many, many murders and rapes are described in detail. Additionally, Holes' honesty about how police use macabre jokes and gallows humor to cope with their difficult jobs may disturb some readers.

But for readers who would like to see a different side of the true crime genre—the lifelong impact that catching twisted individuals has on one man—Unmasked is a must-read.

Retired cold case investigator Paul Holes’ memoir looks at what catching murderers, kidnappers and rapists does to a husband and father.

Every childhood is unique, but Ada Calhoun's, as portrayed in her fearless new memoir, Also a Poet, stands out for its blend of adolescent freedom and paternal neglect. The daughter of art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, Calhoun grew up at the vortex of New York City's East Village bohemia, a world she wrote about in the history St. Marks Is Dead. Young Calhoun, eager and precocious, craved nothing more than the approbation of her father, a complicated, emotionally distant man famously given to saying the wrong thing—a trait from which his daughter was never spared. One piece of common ground that Calhoun and her father shared, however, was a love of the work of Frank O'Hara, the legendary New York School poet who died in a freak accident in 1966.

One day in 2018, Calhoun was searching for something in the basement storage of her parents' apartment building when she found dozens of loose cassette tapes from the 1970s, labeled with the names of famous artists like Willem de Kooning, Edward Gorey and Larry Rivers. Her father said they were interviews he had conducted with O'Hara's friends because he'd intended to write a biography of the poet. Circumstances—not least of all a roadblock erected by O'Hara's sister, Maureen—had killed the project. Schjeldahl told his daughter she could use the interviews for her own purposes, and Calhoun envisioned a new biography of the iconic poet based on these priceless recollections. But the book took on a new shape as she proceeded—in part, again, because of the obstruction of Maureen, who serves as her brother's literary executor.

As Calhoun began to delve into the interviews, short portions of which she shares in Also a Poet, she began piecing together a multifaceted portrait of O'Hara, greatly loved by friends who painted him as gregarious, whip-smart, generous, sexually fluid and happily promiscuous. (The latter two assessments are most likely at the core of his sister's posthumous protectiveness.) But the interviews also provided Calhoun with insight into the interviewer: her father.

Frustrated by the ways Schjeldahl had sabotaged his own project, Calhoun plunged back into their often difficult father-daughter relationship with fresh eyes. Lifelong resentments resurfaced as she viewed her father with redoubled awareness. When the aging Schjeldahl, who had smoked three packs a day for decades, was diagnosed with lung cancer, his solipsistic reaction to his illness rankled Calhoun, even as she dutifully stepped in to help.

The unexpected convergence of the challenging O'Hara book project and her father's sudden decline provide Calhoun with a singular perspective on the timeless issues of family relationships, most especially the vulnerabilities of following in a father's eminent footsteps and the elusive possibility of ever fully understanding our parents. Calhoun's honesty and willingness to push beyond her own resentments make Also a Poet a potent account of a daughter reaching out to a perhaps unreachable father before it's too late.

Ada Calhoun’s literary biography of the poet Frank O’Hara unexpectedly transformed into an absorbing and insightful personal memoir about her father.

Ellyn Gaydos' meditative Pig Years mixes memoir and nature writing as it details her four years of seasonal farm work in New York and Vermont. In punishingly long days as a farmhand, she planted seeds, tended vegetable plots (weeding, watering, coping with pests, harvesting, sorting and selling) and raised chickens and pigs. The book opens right in the middle of things, describing the pigs on a small farm in New Lebanon, New York, and zooming in to consider Gumdrop, an accidentally pregnant pig, and her piglets, who “came out like torpedoes all attached through different stems to one briny umbilical cord. . . . Nature, being unsentimental, accommodates the reality that some sows eat their young, but Gumdrop is gentle in her new domesticity, tenderly positioning her body so as not to squish anyone. She is a good mother.”

The book's loose narrative proceeds chronologically through the seasons, and through Gaydos' relationships with other farmworkers and with Graham, her partner. Gaydos' close eye on the natural world allows us to vividly see the cycle of a farm's blossoming and dying seasons. She doesn't look away from any part of it, either from newborn pig life, for instance, or from the pigs' later deaths—the procedures of slaughter and the preparation of the pork that she will eat and sell. “I keep seeing death's face in different ways,” she writes. “It is funny to choose a profession, like farming, in which death is taken into the fold and yet nothing is clarified. It does not steady me for loss even if I have held a pig's head in my hand or seen a chicken collapsed in the dirt. It is like a blunting of the real.”

The bulk of Pig Years takes place on the farm in New Lebanon, which is part of a former Shaker settlement that's now a Sufi commune in decline. Throughout the book, Gaydos turns to 19th-century Shaker farm journals for comparison, and we can see the similarities between the current-day farm's gains and losses and those of the long-ago Shakers. There's a coming-of-age aspect to Pig Years, too, as Gaydos, a young woman in an unsettled phase of life (and an inherently impermanent field of work), studies the women and moms around her. She reflects on her own path, imagining possible futures as a parent and life partner.

Gaydos' cleareyed, sometimes intense perspective reminds us that farm work is not always pretty: It often involves constant near-poverty, injuries, even desperation. Still, Pig Years is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the farmworkers who eke out a marginal living as long as they can. It's a narrative that evokes the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.

Ellyn Gaydos’ debut memoir, Pig Years, is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.

Séamas O’Reilly’s debut book, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is a tender, comic chronicle of the author’s upbringing as one of 11 children raised by their widower father in Derry, Northern Ireland. O’Reilly, a regular contributor to the Observer who has a knack for crafting uproarious anecdotes, is attuned to the extraordinary—and somewhat absurd—nature of his childhood. He takes a jovial approach in the narrative, and the result is a rousing tale of family fellowship.

The book opens in 1991, right after the death of O’Reilly’s mother, Sheila (Mammy), from breast cancer. O’Reilly, who was 5, struggled to make sense of the loss and the events that followed, including Mammy’s well-attended wake. When a family friend told him that Sheila was a flower picked by God to be in his garden, O’Reilly observes, “It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs—Mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings . . .”

After Mammy’s death, O’Reilly’s father, Joe, an engineer, was left to care for his 11 children. A devoted dad, Joe possessed seemingly bottomless reserves of patience and good nature, which allowed him to bring up a happy brood against all odds. (O’Reilly points out a particularly challenging juncture when six of his sisters were teenagers at the same time.) The O’Reilly children shared bedrooms and books, divvied up household duties (not always equitably) and traveled with Joe in a minibus dubbed the “O’Reillymobile.”

The author describes his parents as “comically, parodically, Catholic,” and religion is a constant undercurrent in the book. As O’Reilly came of age, the violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles was waning, but he still found himself reckoning with its long-term effects. One lasting repercussion: the sense of gallows humor that’s pervasive among the Northern Irish.

Indeed, finding comedy in tragedy seems to be an operative instinct for the author. Stylistically, O’Reilly is an unabashed maximalist, packing his sentences with adverbs and consistently minting fresh figures of speech. Throughout the book, as he sifts through memories of his boisterous upbringing, he never fails to find cause for joy or a good joke. As a result, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?—title aside—feels bracingly alive.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is a tender, uproarious chronicle of Séamas O’Reilly’s upbringing in Northern Ireland. Despite the title, it feels bracingly alive.

As a mother of three, I can attest that parenting often feels like it comes at you fast: the meals and snacks, bedtimes and books, laundry and more laundry; the hat-straightening, screen time-monitoring, play date-booking and chore-reminding whirlwind of it all. That’s why it’s fantastic when someone thoughtful manages to hit pause on the relentless motion and reflect on what it all means. In Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen does just that.

Covering everything from the surprises of a home birth to the days of desperately reading parenting manuals through a sleep-deprived haze, Gessen’s essays are at once intensely specific (he lives in New York, is the son of Russian immigrants and works as a literary writer and editor) and deeply relatable (even to me, a woman who lives in a suburb in the Midwest). For instance, he writes that fatherhood opened up heretofore unexamined aspects of his personality. Why, he wondered, did he want to speak to Raffi in Russian, even though all of their relatives are able to speak English? It is a mystery, more of a gut instinct than a bilingual regimen, that prompts his wife (the novelist Emily Gould) to nickname him “Bear Dad.” Throughout Raising Raffi, Gessen’s profound ambivalence over his Russian heritage feels pressing, heartfelt, sad and real. He also writes about the COVID-19 pandemic with a clarity that parents who have been raising young children during the last few years will appreciate and remember.

Gessen’s book raises the big questions: Who am I as a parent? What exactly am I passing down to my kids? And can I even really control what I pass down to them? Gessen’s essay about sports, for example, gently probes the pros and cons of getting Raffi to play hockey, eventually folding back and looking at itself as Gessen realizes that his own attachment to hockey wasn’t the best thing for him. Other essays, like his one on picture books, demonstrate the deep, abiding connection one can feel with a child through repeatedly reading poetry and stories.

This book is thoughtful, companionable, funny and memorable. Readers will return to it again and again—and will hope, like I do, that Gessen publishes a follow-up about Raffi’s next five years.

In his companionable, funny, memorable memoir, Keith Gessen hits pause on the relentless motion of parenthood and reflects on what it all means.

By most measures, Keri Blakinger lived a charmed life. As the daughter of a successful lawyer and a schoolteacher, her upper-middle-class suburban existence seemed, from the outside, perfect. Her childhood was filled with loving parental support, academic success and a fierce pursuit of competitive figure skating that took her all the way to nationals. But when that pursuit ended in disappointment, Blakinger’s life came undone.

In her exceptional debut, Corrections in Ink, investigative journalist Blakinger reflects on an important decade of her life that took her from figure skating to drug addiction, to selling drugs and sex, to an arrest on a drug charge while she was a college student at Cornell University. She got clean during the almost two years she was imprisoned, but afterward she still had to grapple with the inhumanity of being behind bars.

Blakinger details the cruelties, big and small, that she endured while she was incarcerated. She also acknowledges that, as a white woman, she was in a position of privilege and that Black and brown people are treated far worse, get tougher sentences and have worse outcomes than their white counterparts. It is a sad and powerless position for anyone to be in, as the prison system is designed to slowly strip away one’s humanity. To hold on to her humanity, Blakinger had to find joy in unexpected places.

Corrections in Ink is written with deep insight and urgency, and Blakinger’s gripping insider knowledge and experience is supported by research, strong analysis and a blistering indictment of the criminal justice system. It’s this rare combination of personal narrative and reporting that makes Corrections in Ink such a singular reading experience.

Blakinger’s raw and important memoir isn’t only a drug recovery and success story. It’s a searing condemnation of our cruel and unjust project of caging human beings, a firsthand account of what this entails and a challenge not to look away from America’s flawed and punitive carceral system.

Keri Blakinger’s combination of personal narrative and reporting makes her debut memoir about her life in prison an exceptional, singular read.

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Recent Features

There were plenty of personal narratives to laugh, cry and sigh over in the first half of 2022. Add the best of the best to your TBR now; you can thank us later.
Summer reading
STARRED REVIEW

June 2022

Your 2022 BookPage summer reading guide

Maybe your perfect summer read is pure escapism, heady fun, nonstop thrills or great big heaps of feelings. Whatever your summer vibe, we’ve got a book for you.

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Dinosaurs are such a large part of our culture—from books, movies and amusement park rides to children’s toys, clothing and even dino-shaped chicken nuggets—that it’s hard to imagine a time before we knew these huge beasts walked the earth millions of years before us.

The backstory to that revelation is thrillingly outlined in a new book by Reuters senior reporter David K. Randall (Dreamland) called The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World. While on an outing to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Randall and his family kept circling back to the captivating, terrifyingly surreal Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit, prompting his son to ask, “Who found these dinosaurs?” This perfectly reasonable inquiry inspired Randall to consider “the human stories behind prehistoric bones.”

In The Monster’s Bones, Randall delves into early fossil discoveries and scientists’ subsequent interpretations of these bones’ origins. As it turns out, industry titans weren’t the only ruthlessly determined men of the Gilded Age. This era also inspired the “bone wars,” literally a race to find the largest and most complete dinosaur skeletons. Housing these displays at museums and universities was a huge status symbol and a way to draw in the public and boost admission.

Randall focuses on the stories of two very different men who participated in this competition: paleontologist and Princeton graduate Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Barnum Brown, a farmer’s son from Kansas who was a skilled fossil hunter. Brown would travel thousands of miles, from the American West to Patagonia, in order to hunt down prize specimens for Osborn’s American Museum of Natural History. Their intertwined story is full of adventure, intrigue and conflict, leading up to Brown’s world-changing discovery of the ferocious T. rex.

Exciting as any action tale, The Monster’s Bones features characters from all walks of life, from cowboys and ranchers to scientists, railroad magnates and university scholars. As with any valuable assets, greed was a big factor driving this race to succeed. However, it also pushed science ahead by leaps and bounds, leading to findings that still inform paleontologists and biologists today.

Exciting as any action tale, The Monster’s Bones shares the human stories behind some of history’s most thrilling fossil discoveries.

On the island of Skyros, trans women are given safe harbor. When Wrath Goddess Sing begins, Achilles is hiding out on this island from those who wish her ill. She was a “wild spider of a boy-girl” when she first arrived but now has a cherished lover and an accepting community. All of that is threatened when Odysseus and Diomedes arrive, searching for the hero they know as the “prince” and “son” of the goddess Athena to help them win back the stolen Helen of Troy. Achilles herself would rather die than be forced to serve as a man in war, but Athena grants her another option: to fight with the body she’s always wanted. Due to her talent in combat, Achilles proves herself in Troy to be a valiant soldier. But the gods have endless secrets and machinations, and Achilles is now at the center of a deadly, divine game.

Author Maya Deane’s prose is lyrical without venturing into purple territory, poignantly guiding readers through Achilles’ internal and external trials. Take this moment, when Achilles contemplates returning to war as a man: “It would be worse than death—the death of her self, the inexorable corrosion of her soul, until even her name was forgotten and nothing was left but the shell of a man she never was.”

Why Maya Deane reimagined Achilles as a trans woman.

Some prior knowledge of the Iliad will maximize the enjoyment of this novel, if only to provide some context for Deane’s beautifully realized Mediterranean landscape and her depiction of the Greek gods as vivid, often malicious beings. Deane’s descriptions of these entities are utterly entrancing: Athena, for instance, has eyes “so unnaturally large [they were] too enormous to turn in their sockets—owl’s eyes.” Her vivid imagination also extends to the Iliad’s cast of complicated, iconic human characters, whom she brings to life with confidence and skill.

Wrath Goddess Sing is a mythic reinvention for the ages that asks questions about topics such as trans identity, passing and the politics of the body.

Wrath Goddess Sing is a mythic reinvention for the ages that follows a trans, female Achilles as she faces down divine machinations.

Readers are treated to two expertly crafted mysteries in Australian author Sulari Gentill’s The Woman in the Library.

Four strangers are sharing a table at the Boston Public Library when they hear a woman’s terrified scream. Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, Cain McLeod, Marigold Anastas and Whit Metters form a quick friendship while they wait for security guards to figure out what happened. When a woman’s body is later found in the library, the new friends realize they didn’t just hear a scream: They may have overheard a murder. Freddie, Cain, Marigold and Whit set out to discover what happened that afternoon, but they soon realize that their meeting wasn’t random—because one of them is the murderer.

But there’s yet another twist! The characters of Freddie, Cain, Marigold and Whit are just that: characters in a novel being written by an Australian woman named Hannah. She’s corresponding with an American writer named Leo, emailing him the chapters of her mystery novel as she completes them. Leo’s detailed responses follow each chapter, and readers soon realize he is more than an appreciative fan. Leo may be just as dangerous as one of the characters in Hannah’s story.

The author of more than a dozen mysteries, Gentill has created a smart, engaging novel that blurs genre lines. The mystery set within the library is a fresh take on the locked-room mystery, and Leo’s emails to Hannah create an increasingly ominous epistolary thriller, despite the distance between the characters. It’s an inventive and unique approach, elevated by Gentill’s masterful plotting, that will delight suspense fans looking for something bold and new.

Readers are treated to an inventive and expertly crafted mystery-within-a-mystery in Sulari Gentill's The Woman in the Library.

“Those were the good old days” is a phrase people love to say as they wax poetic about bygone eras. It’s understandable to feel nostalgic given our current chaotic landscape, but as The Lunar Housewife points out, it’s not necessarily merited. Caroline Woods’ historical thriller, set in the final days of the Korean War and the onset of the Cold War, spins a tale of big-city intrigue as it follows a promising young waitress-turned-writer and the increasingly disturbing secrets she uncovers. The result is an addictive binge of a read that’s equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

It's 1953, and Louise Leithauser has come a long way from Ossining, New York. The 25-year-old daughter of a housecleaner is now rubbing elbows with the likes of Truman Capote and Arthur Miller in New York City as a writer for the hip literary magazine Downtown. Louise is writing political pieces for Downtown (under a male pen name, but why look a gift horse in the mouth?), dating the magazine’s handsome co-founder, Joe Martin, and penning a sci-fi romance novel, The Lunar Housewife, in her spare time. She’s also certain her twin brother, Paul, who is missing in action in Korea, will come home any day now. But when Louise overhears a conversation between Joe and his colleague Harry regarding mysterious surveillance and their magazine’s dangerous connections, she begins to wonder if anything in her carefully constructed existence is really what it seems.

Coming off her critically acclaimed debut Fräulein M., Woods takes the reader into the tangled web of American-Soviet relations and the dark secrets underneath the New York literary scene’s sparkling surface. Even Katherine, the protagonist of Louise’s novel-in-progress, isn’t immune. A former World War II pilot who voluntarily defected from the States to go on a groundbreaking mission to the moon, Katherine starts to suspect all is not well on Earth or in space. Both Louise and Katherine live in a world that is run by men, but these smart, capable women are not going down without a fight.

The Lunar Housewife will have readers thinking long and hard about how good the “good old days” really were.

The Lunar Housewife is an addictive read that's equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

The Mutual Friend is a stylized, laugh-out-loud funny social satire with devastating aim.

Like his long-running sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” Carter Bays’ debut novel is a New York City-set ensemble comedy with plenty to say about the discontents of modern life and the difficulty of connection, with one character who acts as a pivot around which the story hinges.

Alice Quick, originally named Truth, was one of twin baby girls adopted by two different families in the Midwest shortly after birth. A musical prodigy turned chronic underachiever, Alice feels rudderless and lost. She wants to be a doctor—possibly, maybe—but lacks the energy to follow through. Even registering for the medical school entrance exam is overwhelming.

When Alice’s roommate gets engaged, things go from difficult to worse. Alice is suddenly in need of shelter, and desperation lands her in a basement apartment near Columbia University. Finding housing in a convenient neighborhood seems lucky, but Alice quickly gets caught up in the whirlwind that is her new roommate, the imposing and mercurial Roxy.

Roxy is a tour-de-force character who epitomizes the ephemeral nature of life in 2015 New York City. She has a complicated yet hilarious relationship with reality, and the push-pull of her conversations with Alice is priceless. But Roxy is just one of the wonderful and absurd creations within Bays’ debut.

Like The Bonfire of the Vanities for the era of reality TV and social media, The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in our age of distraction. Similar to Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, No One is Talking About This, Bays’ novel sometimes replicates the thought processes of a brain addled by the overstimulation of the internet and omnipresent media: run-on sentences, a litany of random bits of information hitting the reader from multiple sources and a narrative that bounces from one topic to another with abandon.

More than anything else though, the nearly 500-page novel explores people bumping into one another and deciding if they have what it takes to make it stick. And because the book is poised for laughs and broad humor, its painful, critical sections hit harder. For example, Roxy’s second date with a slightly older man, Bob, whom she met on a Tinder-like service called “Suitoronomy,” goes south when she discovers that he’s the focus of a “DO NOT date this guy” blog post. Exposed, charming, dimpled Bob hits back with misogynistic venom. His response is beyond cringe; it’s repulsive. Yet it’s hard to dismiss Bob as a mere internet creep, as the novel gives him an origin story, too, and his tendency to follow the newest, shiniest thing is reflected throughout the larger story in many ways.

The Mutual Friend dwells at the corner of restless and randomness, displacement and dissatisfaction. The narrative is full of stray thoughts and chance encounters, everything fleeting and devastating. All told, it’s riveting.

The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as debut novelist Carter Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in the age of distraction.

A former college roommate drops into Ava Wong’s seemingly perfect life after 20 years and wreaks havoc in Counterfeit, Kirstin Chen’s lively caper about importing counterfeit high-end handbags from China. Chen’s third novel is a breezy read with unexpected twists, carried along by Ava’s seemingly heartfelt narration as she confesses her involvement to a police detective. Along the way, there are plenty of fascinating details about luxury goods and the shadow industry of fake designer products. (Even readers who aren’t fashion devotees will likely find themselves checking the prices of crocodile Birkin 25s and Hermes Evelynes as the plot thickens.)

Ava, a Chinese American graduate of Stanford University and law school at the University of California, Berkeley, is a corporate lawyer on leave with a toddler son and a surgeon husband. She’s given little thought to former roommate Winnie Fang, who abruptly left college and returned home to China after what appeared to be an SAT scandal. Upon their unexpected reunion, Ava is amazed by Winnie’s transformation from an “awkward, needy . . . fresh off the boat” college freshman into a glamorous, successful businesswoman.

Rather quickly, Winnie inserts herself into Ava’s life. The timing is just right for such an intervention, as Ava is particularly vulnerable: Her mother recently died, her son throws nonstop tantrums, and Ava can’t stand the thought of returning to her legal firm.

Eventually Winnie recruits Ava to join her scheme: buying high-end handbags from luxury stores, returning imported counterfeits to the stores and then selling the real bags on eBay. Winnie maintains that it’s a victimless crime: “Those luxury brands, they’re the villains.” As the women dart back and forth to China and Ava falls in line with Winnie’s ways of thinking (“That level of audacity, daring, nerve—well, it was intoxicating.”), the novel explores questions of status, commerce and how the two are intertwined. As Winnie notes, “A Harvard degree is not so different from a designer handbag. They both signal that you’re part of the club, they open doors.”

Chen, author of Soy Sauce for Beginners and Bury What We Cannot Take, is a versatile, savvy plotter, and Counterfeit readers will be easily drawn into this morally complicated world.

Kirstin Chen is a versatile, savvy plotter, and Counterfeit readers will be easily drawn into this morally complicated world of high-end counterfeit handbags.

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Recent Features

Maybe your perfect summer read is pure escapism, heady fun, nonstop thrills or great big heaps of feelings. Whatever your summer vibe, we’ve got a book for you.
Bestsellers
STARRED REVIEW

April 19, 2022

Best of the bestsellers

Hundreds of books have hit the bestseller lists so far this year, but which ones deserve the hype? We think these 13 titles earned their places on the list.

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As she has consistently proven in historical novels such as The Alice Network and The Rose Code, Kate Quinn is a master at crafting an intoxicating, well-balanced blend of immersive period details and deft character work. With The Diamond Eye, she returns to the fertile storytelling terrain of World War II for a tale inspired by the extraordinary life of Russian sniper Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko, known as “Lady Death.”

Mila becomes a mother at 15; six years later, amid an impending divorce, she promises her son that she’ll teach him to shoot. In between working on her dissertation at Kiev University and raising Alexei, she finds that she’s brilliant with a rifle. When the Nazis invade the Soviet Union, her elite skill becomes a key asset in the Red Army’s fight to defend the motherland. Mila sets off for war and marches into her own legend.

In each of her novels, Quinn displays an innate awareness of how history can be warped by time and power. In The Diamond Eye, we don’t just follow Mila’s journey into war; we see her actions in sharp contrast to what the Soviet government will later say she’s done. Mila’s perceptions of events are shown in relief to those of the men around her, and even to the perceptions of the American public, thanks to a 1942 press tour hosted by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That press tour forms the novel’s narrative spine, unfolding in sections that alternate with Mila’s larger wartime odyssey. This structure steadily ratchets up the suspense as it becomes clear that Mila is not as welcome in the U.S. as she was led to believe.

The Diamond Eye is a remarkable combination of immersive wartime storytelling, rich detailing and wonderful pacing. What really makes The Diamond Eye land, though, goes beyond Quinn’s mastery of her chosen genre. This is, first and foremost, an exceptional character piece, a study of a woman who is a killer, a mother, a lover and, above all else, a survivor.

Kate Quinn’s track record for delivering captivating historical fiction continues with the remarkable story of the notorious Russian sniper known as Lady Death.

Serena Drew is returning to Baltimore after a daytrip to meet her boyfriend’s family. As she and her boyfriend wait for their train home, she thinks she spots her cousin Nicholas Garrett. Her boyfriend is incredulous; how can she be unsure whether or not the man is her cousin? But Serena doesn’t come from the sort of family in which first cousins recognize each other in the wild.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama and intricate depictions of characters’ lives. Her astute observations have earned her a Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons) and two turns as a Pulitzer finalist (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist), among other accolades. In French Braid, her skilled storytelling once again takes center stage as she reveals the minor family dramas that have resulted in Serena’s inability to positively identify her cousin. Chapter by chapter, Tyler follows a different member of the Garrett family, beginning with a family vacation in 1959 and ending in spring 2020.

As Tyler turns her attention to each Garrett, she reveals finely honed character portraits. Daughters Lily and Alice are opposites, and their little brother, David, often goes his own way. Mother Mercy searches for her identity as the kids grow up and leave the house, but father Robin is left confused; he has always been content with his home and family exactly as they were.

Each chapter is as well-crafted as a short story and reveals the heart of its central character. Tyler weaves these individual tales together to build something even greater, and like the braid of the novel’s title, this interpersonal family drama becomes more substantial as its pieces combine.

“That’s how families work, too,” says David, reflecting on the lasting effect of a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (His wife laughs and asks, “You are finding this out just now?”)

French Braid is a case study of the circumstances and interactions that shape the lives of one family.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama, and her skilled storytelling takes center stage in French Braid.

Reeling from loss, a woman takes the trip of a lifetime in One Italian Summer by bestselling author Rebecca Serle (In Five Years).

Thirty-year-old Katy Silver used to have it all: an adoring husband, a comfortable home near her family in Los Angeles and a rock-solid friendship with her mother, Carol. But her mother’s death turned everything upside down. Suddenly nothing makes sense or feels right for Katy, not even her marriage. After the funeral, she wonders, “If your mother is the love of your life, what does that make your husband?” Katy doesn't have an answer, but she knows she needs change.

So Katy leaves all her commitments behind and travels to Positano, Italy—a place her mother spent the summer 30 years ago, and where Carol and Katy had dreamed of visiting together. There, Katy stays at the gorgeous (and very real) Hotel Poseidon, and she immerses herself in the Amalfi Coast.

That may sound capricious, but to Katy these choices are necessary, even if she can’t quite explain why. What Katy doesn’t count on is running into a woman who looks and sounds exactly like Carol would have at 30—and even shares both her mother’s name and profession. Without understanding how it’s possible, Katy gets to know a different side of her mother as a young woman, and One Italian Summer becomes a sumptuous and sensuous feast of a book.

On a deeper level, Serle’s novel is a savvy meditation on the necessity of change and how roles shape what we see of each other. Carol was always stylish, beautiful and strong-willed, but marriage and motherhood made her cautious. The woman whom Katy befriends on the Amalfi Coast is free and adventurous, and this spirit rubs off on Katy.

One Italian Summer isn’t just about wild oats and adventure either—it’s about knowing yourself. Carol made some mistakes along the way: She was almost an idol to her daughter instead of a teacher, and now Katy doesn’t know how to function without her. In Italy, Katy is sunnier and more willing to experiment, even getting to know an older real estate investor who could be a potential love interest, while her marriage hangs in limbo.

For readers open to moral complexities, One Italian Summer is a thoughtful, fun escape, blending contemplations of love and loss with a touch of adventure. It’s also a beautiful tribute to the pleasures of Italian culture.

Read more: Actor Lauren Graham narrates the ‘One Italian Summer’ audiobook.

For readers open to moral complexities, One Italian Summer is a thoughtful, fun escape, blending contemplations of love and loss with a touch of adventure.

Every 10 years, the secretive Alexandrian Society, inheritors of the lost knowledge from its namesake library, recruits six of the most powerful young magic users, or medeians, to join their ranks. The half-dozen potential initiates are brought to the Society’s headquarters, where they study and learn from the greatest compendium of magical knowledge that has ever existed. This year, Caretaker Atlas Blakely has selected a sextet of particularly ambitious young medeians: three physical mediums, who specialize in manipulating external forces and energies for purposes as varied as deflecting bullets and obtaining midnight snacks; and three nascent masters of the mental, emotional and perceptual magics of reading minds and concealing acne. But these newest residents are confronted with even darker secrets than the arcane knowledge they all covet, for they are the linchpins in a conspiracy that could either save the world or utterly destroy it.

For a book with such a melodramatic premise (think “Big Brother,” but half the cast can read their companions’ minds and the other half can conjure actual black holes), Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six is curiously matter-of-fact, dispensing with on-page relationship drama and coasting through tense fight scenes with brevity. Likewise, instead of providing flowing backstory, Blake communicates personalities through lighthearted conversations and depicts the world outside the Library’s magically warded walls entirely through the scars it left on her protagonists. The Atlas Six is stingy with its exposition, with the lengthiest passages being debates between characters on topics such as the nature of time and the conservation of magical energy. But in Blake’s hands, these tracts are engaging and often very, very funny. This duality—an extremely pulpy plot married with smart and nimble writing—is the core of The Atlas Six’s appeal.

This macabre romp of a magical reality show nevertheless revolves around one weighty question: Is there knowledge that should not be shared? Blake draws heavily on the structures and practices of academia, which in our world is in the midst of a push for greater transparency and democratization of knowledge. Analyzing the costs and benefits of advanced technology or abilities has been central to speculative fiction since its inception. That Blake is using academia as a vehicle for it, adding her agile and cutting voice to the likes of Neal Stephenson and Cixin Liu, feels particularly relevant to the present moment. And if she happens to suggest some legitimately wholesome uses for small wormholes along the way, all the better.

Olivie Blake marries an extremely pulpy plot with smart and nimble writing in her debut fantasy, The Atlas Six.

Several years ago, in Ford’s Theatre Museum in Washington, D.C., I found myself staring at the Deringer pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. I stood there, transfixed, amazed that this small, surprisingly delicate and decorative weapon could change the course of American history. I felt similarly mesmerized as I devoured the 480 pages of Karen Joy Fowler’s triumph of a historical novel, Booth. I was torn by conflicting urges: to race ahead to see what happens next, or to read slowly and savor Fowler’s exquisite language and fascinating rendering of the various members of this legendary American family.

Many readers will begin Booth with the basic knowledge that John Wilkes Booth came from a famous theatrical family, but it’s unlikely that they’ll know just how celebrated and fascinating the Booths were, or that their lives were full of drama well before John Wilkes picked up that pistol. Think of Louisa May Alcott and her storied New England upbringing, and then pivot to something darker.

Fowler has previously written several short stories about the Booths and explains in an author’s note that she decided to write about them in novel form “during one of our American spates of horrific mass shootings.” She wondered about “their own culpability, all the if-onlys” and “what happens to love when the person you love is a monster.”

The Booths’ lives play out on their 150 acres of farmland in Bel Air, Maryland, in a mixture of 19th-century horror and family drama. John Wilkes was born in 1838, the ninth of 10 children, four of whom would die before reaching adulthood. They faced poverty, hunger and disease while patriarch Junius Booth, a famous Shakespearian actor, was on tour much of the year. He was an alcoholic with deep, dark secrets, which Fowler hints at with one simple sentence early on: “A secret family moves into the secret cabin.”

The story is told primarily by three of John Wilkes’ siblings—Rosalie, Edwin and Asia—all of whom are equally fascinating and well voiced. Early scenes narrated by Rosalie are particularly powerful and memorable. Fowler includes short passages about Lincoln and his family, ratcheting up the tension of what’s to come. With a master’s touch, she also incorporates vital depictions of racism through the lives of an enslaved family that works on the Booth farm, and shows how the issue of enslavement divides the Booth family through the years.

Like the very best historical novels, Booth is a literary feast, offering much more than a riveting story and richly drawn characters. It offers a wealth of commentary about not only our past but also where we are today, and where we may be headed.

Karen Joy Fowler discusses the literary and political inspiration behind ‘Booth,’ her wholly original American history novel.

Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth is a triumph in its fascinating rendering of a legendary American family.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimate relationships in her fiction (White Houses, Lucky Us), yet never has she gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage. In Love begins, as Blooms puts it, with a “not quite normal” trip to Zurich. She traveled there with her husband, Brian, in January 2020, but the plan was for her to return without him. This is because her husband was pursuing a medically assisted suicide following his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In the compressed, gripping pages that follow, scenes alternate between the couple’s grim journey and the strenuous months that led up to it. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Brian commented within days of his diagnosis. Because he was already experiencing mild dementia, it fell to Bloom, who had always been strong and resourceful, to figure out the logistics of what came next. The window of opportunity was small: A key criterion of an accompanied suicide is that the patient should be capable of making an independent and firm decision. With pressure mounting, Bloom explored options on the dark web, wept with friends and therapists, and received deep, unshakable support from the people she loves, including her sister, who gave her $30,000 to cover the next few months’ costs. (Medically assisted suicide is not inexpensive.)

Bloom, in turn, was steadfastly present to Brian, though the couple’s emotional connection, she makes clear, flickered unevenly. The mundane was still inescapable. Words spoken hastily were regretted for months afterward. Suffering simply hurts, but Bloom shares the details without flinching. “Please write about this,” Brian exhorted her.

Just as Bloom found comfort in watching videos made by families navigating this impossible situation, In Love now offers comfort to those who follow in her footsteps. People who are disturbed by the way death in the United States seems increasingly impersonal, or passionate about giving the people they love agency to do what they want to do, will strongly connect to this book—but so will anyone interested in deep stories of human connection.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage.

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The editors of BookPage highlight their favorite books that are riding the bestseller lists this year.
STARRED REVIEW

December 2021

The Best Books of 2021

The BookPage editors are pleased to present our most highly recommended books of the year.

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2021 has been quite the ride, but books have been there for us at every twist and turn, offering comfort, escape and even illumination. As the year comes to a close, it's time to look back on the titles BookPage readers have enjoyed the most.


20. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

In her exhilarating third novel, Maggie Shipstead offers a marvelous pastiche of adventure and emotion as she explores what it means (and what it takes) to live an unusual life.

19. Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

Readers will feel as attached to Tia Williams’ characters as Eva and Shane are to each other.

18. The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Like a well-brewed potion, Sarah Penner’s first novel simply overwhelms with its delicate spell.

17. Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

This young adult historical fiction novel is as meticulously researched as it is full of raw, authentic emotion.

16. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Razorblade Tears transcends genre boundaries and is a must-read for anyone looking for a mystery that provokes and thrills in equal measure.

15. One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Bursting with heart, banter and a respect for queer history and community, One Last Stop may be the best read of the summer.

14. Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling

An abandoned English manor house sets the stage for a cracking mystery involving a missing friend and a long-lost diamond necklace.

13. Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello

There is pain in every divorce story, but not every divorce story can be related by a narrator as capable as Gina Frangello.

12. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

With her second novel, Charlotte McConaghy proves that her particular brand of deeply evocative literary lightning can indeed strike twice.

11. The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.

10. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

Grab a cup of tea and a scone, and curl up with Jennifer Ryan’s positively delicious novel about a cooking contest during World War II.

9. The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

The Witch’s Heart shifts the focus of a well-known myth to a secondary character with stunning and heartbreaking results.

8. The Children's Train by Viola Ardone, translated by Clarissa Botsford

Viola Ardone’s novel will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante, but it stands on its own as a fictionalized account of a complicated social experiment.

7. The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of this imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams.

6. The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List illustrates the ways one book can act as a shared point of empathy, uniting individuals into a community.

5. Billy Summers by Stephen King

Though Billy Summers includes many classic King touchstones, its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works.

4. What Comes After by JoAnne Tompkins

In JoAnne Tompkins’ debut novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.

3. The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Laura Dave has given us what we crave right now—a thoroughly engrossing yet comforting distraction.

2. Win by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben raises moral dilemmas and offers pulse-pounding action scenes in this suspenseful and surprising novel.

1. Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand

Killing off the main character just a few pages into a book is somewhat unorthodox, but it’s just the first of many interesting choices Elin Hilderbrand makes.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.


This list was compiled based on analytics from BookPage.com between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, 2021.

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to look back on all the books that BookPage readers have enjoyed the most.

We begin each new reading year with high hopes, and sometimes, when we’re very lucky, we find our expectations rewarded. So it was with 2021.

It must be said that a lot of these books are really, really long. Apparently this was the year for total commitment, for taking a plunge and allowing ourselves to be swallowed up. 

Also, it should come as no surprise that books-within-books frequently appear on this list. For all our attempts at objectivity within our roles as critics, we just can’t help but love a book that loves books. Amor Towles, Ruth Ozeki, Jason Mott, Maggie Shipstead and Anthony Doerr all tapped into the most comforting yet complex parts of our book-loving selves. 

But most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could’ve prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations, such as in Will McPhail’s graphic novel, which made us laugh till we cried, and Colson Whitehead’s heist novel, which no one could’ve expected would be such a gorgeous ode to sofas.

And at the top of our list, a book that accomplishes what feels like the impossible: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ epic debut novel, which challenges our relationship to the land beneath us in a way we’ve never experienced but long hoped for.

Read on for our 20 best works of literary fiction from 2021.


20. What Comes After by JoAnn Tompkins

In JoAnne Tompkins’ debut novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality for many that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.

19. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

To those disinclined to question the role that economic exploitation plays in supporting our modern lifestyle, reading this novel may prove an unsettling experience.

18. Gordo by Jaime Cortez

In his collection of short stories set in the ag-industrial maw of central California, Jaime Cortez artfully captures the daily lives of his characters in the freeze-frame flash of a master at work.

17. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro continues his genre-twisting ways with a tale that explores whether science could—or should—manipulate the future.

16. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford’s graceful novel reminds us that tragedy deprives the world of not only noble people but also scoundrels, both of whom are part of the fabric of history.

15. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life, and his incisive new novel, the first in a planned trilogy, is by turns funny and terrifying.

14. In by Will McPhail

Small talk becomes real talk in this graphic novel from the celebrated cartoonist, and the world suddenly seems much brighter.

13. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

With hints of Jami Attenberg’s sense of mishpucha and spiced with Jennifer Weiner’s chutzpah, Melissa Broder’s novel is graphic, tender and poetic, a delicious rom-com that turns serious.

12. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

Robert Jones Jr.’s first novel accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

11. Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.

10. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

“There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye . . . than a well-read copy of one of his books,” says a character in Amor Towles’ novel. Undoubtedly, the pages of this cross-country saga are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by numerous gratified readers.

9. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Devastating, hilarious and touching, Torrey Peters’ acutely intelligent first novel explores womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie therein.

8. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Peter Ho Davies’ third novel is a poetic look at the nature of regret and a couple’s enduring love. It’s a difficult but marvelous book.

7. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief? Ruth Ozeki explores these questions in her novel, a meditation on objects, compassion and everyday beauty. 

6. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff aims to create a sense of wonder and awe in her novels, and in her boldly original fourth novel, set in a small convent in 12th-century England, the awe-filled moments are too many to count.

5. Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

A surrealist feast of imagination that’s brimming with very real horrors, frustrations and sorrows, Jason Mott’s fourth novel is an achievement of American fiction that rises to meet this particular moment with charm, wisdom and truth.

4. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Sorrow and violence play large roles in the ambitious, genre-busting novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr, but so does tenderness.

3. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Colson Whitehead exposes the layers of rottenness in New York City with characters who follow an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics.

2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

In her exhilarating third novel, Maggie Shipstead offers a marvelous pastiche of adventure and emotion as she explores what it means (and what it takes) to live an unusual life.

1. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story that encompasses not only a young Black woman’s family heritage but also that of the American land where their history unfolded.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

Most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could’ve prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations. Read on for the 20 best literary fiction titles of 2021.

Nonfiction is the broadest publishing category, with books that delve into the past, present and future of every aspect of our world. There are books that rifle through our innermost emotions and books that search the outer universe. Books that strike while the iron is hot and books that are cool and classic. You’ll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.


20. Cultish by Amanda Montell

In her incredibly timely book, Amanda Montell’s expertise as a linguist melds with her research into the psychological underpinnings of cults.

19. Cuba by Ada Ferrer

With interesting characters, new historical insights and dramatic yet accessible writing, Ada Ferrer’s epic history of Cuba will grab and hold your attention.

18. Fuzz by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s enthusiasm and sense of humor are contagious in her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations.

17. Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of being.

16. American Republics by Alan Taylor

Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor’s latest American history, covering the United States’ expansion from 1783 to 1850, is sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting.

15. My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: All of these words describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ memoir.

14. Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello

Frangello’s raw, eloquent memoir is singed with rage and tinged with optimism about the power to recover one’s life from the depth of suffering.

13. Unbound by Tarana Burke

Unbound is Tarana Burke’s unflinching, beautifully told account of founding the #MeToo movement and becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.

12. The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

For readers seeking to understand the twists, turns and amazing potential of gene-editing CRISPR technology, there’s no better place to turn than The Code Breaker.

11. 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei

This heart-rending yet exhilarating memoir by a world-famous artist gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live.

10. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s unique combination of personal narrative, a search for higher meaning and comic ingenuity will leave you pumped up and smiling.

9. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

This epic, transformative book covers 400 years of Black history with the help of a choir of exceptional poets, critics, essayists, novelists and scholars.

8. A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg

Gorgeously written and sophisticated, Jonathan Meiburg’s book about a wickedly clever falcon will move readers to protect this truly remarkable creature.

7. Chasing Me to My Grave by Winfred Rembert

From surviving a lynching to discovering the transformative power of art while imprisoned in a chain gang, Winfred Rembert recounts his life story in his distinct and unforgettable voice.

6. Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

Most of the Japanese American patriots who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment are gone, but their stories live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.

5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Beloved author George Saunders shares invaluable insights into classic Russian short stories, unlocking their magic for bibliophiles everywhere.

4. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make this a richly provocative read about the ways America does (and doesn’t) acknowledge its history of slavery.

3. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

In jaw-dropping detail, Patrick Radden Keefe recounts the greed and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s quest for wealth and social status.

2. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In her debut memoir, Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother, wrapping her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

1. A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib’s brilliant commentary shuffles forward, steps sideways, leaps diagonally and waltzes gracefully throughout this survey of Black creative performance in America.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

You’ll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.

We’re calling it now: The mystery and suspense genre is on the cusp of a golden age. From psychological thrillers to procedurals to cozies, these books reached new heights and brought new perspectives to the forefront in 2021. 


10. Mango, Mambo, and Murder by Raquel V. Reyes

Mango, Mambo, and Murder has everything readers look for in a cozy mystery but also feels like a breath of fresh air thanks to its funny, grounded characters and lovingly detailed setting.

9. Bad Moon Rising by John Galligan

John Galligan’s trademark dark humor and clear-sighted social commentary are in fine form as he follows Sheriff Heidi Kick, one of the most complex yet lovable heroes in current crime fiction, on her latest investigation. 

8. The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

This cozy mystery is even better than Richard Osman’s utterly charming debut, The Thursday Murder Club.

7. The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish

No one can pull off a twist like Louise Candlish. This gorgeous, meticulous nail-biter is a smooth work of narrative criminality. 

6. The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

Having reached a pinnacle of critical and commercial success that most authors only dream of, Louise Penny still somehow manages to top herself with the latest Inspector Gamache mystery.

5. Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The genre-hopping Silvia Moreno-­Garcia (Mexican Gothic) moves into pulp adventure territory with a novel set in 1970s Mexico City that evokes the best conspiracy thrillers.

4. Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

The Jazz Age setting infuses this mystery with a crackling feeling of possibility. Readers will unequivocally root for Nekesa Afia’s amateur sleuth.

3. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Razorblade Tears transcends genre boundaries and is a must-read for anyone looking for a mystery that provokes and thrills in equal measure.

2. Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Set in a Japanese American neighborhood during World War II, Clark and Division is as much an exposé of communal trauma as it is a mystery.

1. Silverview by John le Carré

Master of espionage John le Carré’s final novel is one of his most impressive accomplishments. A gift for the devoted readers mourning his loss, it looks back and comments on his unparalleled body of work.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

We’re calling it now: The mystery and suspense genre is on the cusp of a golden age.

The rom-com revival shows no signs of stopping, and some truly impressive follow-ups defied the sophomore slump in 2021. But one of the biggest takeaways from this year is quite unexpected: Is paranormal romance about to make a comeback in a big way? All we know for sure is that writers like Suleikha Snyder are using the subgenre to craft poignant political statements, and witchy romances are popping up like toadstools. 


10. Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

This sexy paranormal romance stands out for its first-rate world building, breakneck pace and incisive social commentary.

9. Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Beneath Sally Thorne’s charming prose and irresistible characters lies a tender, deeply felt story of two overlooked people seeing the beauty in each other.

8. Payback's a Witch by Lana Harper

This supernatural romance is hilarious, moving and glue-you-to-the-page engrossing, and it has one of the most enviably cozy small-town settings you’ll ever find.

7. Seven Days in June by Tia Williams

Readers will feel as attached to Tia Williams’ central couple as they are to each other in this meta romance between two authors.

6. One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Bursting with heart, banter and a respect for queer history and community, One Last Stop proves that Casey McQuiston has no intention of resting on her laurels after the unprecedented success of Red, White & Royal Blue

5. Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

This warm, inventive take on You've Got Mail swaps bookstores for dueling halal restaurants, using the beloved rom-com as a starting point rather than a template.

4. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

This is a deeply emotional, rewarding story about a woman finding her true path and true love, surrounded by delicious baked goods.

3. Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

In her final Brown Sisters novel, Talia Hibbert exhibits masterful control of plot and character, as well as a wonderful blend of escapist tropes and more difficult truths.

2. People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

This inspired and achingly romantic reimagining of the beloved rom-com When Harry Met Sally firmly establishes Emily Henry as the millennial heir to Nora Ephron.

1. All the Feels by Olivia Dade

Heart-wrenching and wildly sexy, this romance details the difficult work of personal growth while cannily commenting on celebrity in the digital age.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

The rom-com revival shows no signs of stopping, and some truly impressive follow-ups defied the sophomore slump in 2021.

To find the most structurally daring, format-breaking novels of 2021, turn to the far-flung worlds of science-fiction and fantasy. From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, these books perfectly match form and function in their creation of universes both big and small. 


10. The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

With a magic system that’s two parts enchantment and one part pseudoscience, The Helm of Midnight is one of the most well-executed and original fantasy novels in recent memory.

9. The Witch's Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Genevieve Gornichec’s beautiful, delicately executed debut shifts the focus of Norse mythology to one of Loki’s lovers, the witch Angrboda, with stunning and heartbreaking results.

8. The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

This astonishing, haunting short story collection overflows with vivid characters and relatable themes as Marjorie Liu puts her own spin on traditional archetypes.

7. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

This novella is the perfect distillation of Becky Chambers’ ability to use science fiction to tell smaller, more personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.

6. Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Boasting immersive settings, delightful characters and all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny, lightening its sweeping supernatural and intergalactic symphony with notes that are all-too human.

5. A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Clever, elegant and ambitious, Arkady Martine’s second novel eclipses her acclaimed debut, A Memory Called Empire.

4. Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Beautiful and enthralling on every page, Nnedi Okorafor’s elegiac and powerful novella is an example of how freeing the form can be.

3. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister terrifyingly depicts the otherworldly and uncanny horrors of the spirit world, but it is also funny and poignant, full of the angst and irony of a recent graduate living with her parents.

2. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

An instant classic, Zoraida Córdova’s magical family saga is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.

1. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan’s gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. Fans of epic fantasy and historical fiction will thrill to this reimagining of the founding of China’s Ming dynasty. 

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, the 10 best science fiction & fantasy novels of 2021 perfectly match form and function. 

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Recent Features

These are the 100 most highly recommended books of the year, in every genre.
STARRED REVIEW

September 15, 2021

Reading recommendations for National Hispanic Heritage Month

From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate the history, culture and contributions of Latinx people in the United States—and what better way to celebrate than with a book? Check out these 17 great reads for all ages by Latinx authors who are breaking new ground in American literature.
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Carolina De Robertis’ conversational fifth novel is as much about storytelling as it is about José “Pepe” Mujica. The former Uruguayan leader is known as the “world’s poorest president,” as he donated nearly 90% of his presidential salary to charity. Without ever naming him outright, The President and the Frog takes Mujica’s stranger-than-fiction life story and imbues it with a quirky, mystical grace.

De Robertis’ Mujica is an old man at the tail end of his political career. After surviving well over a decade as a political prisoner and then serving as president, he now lives as a humble flower farmer “in a near-forgotten country.” On a November afternoon, he entertains the questions of a prying Norwegian journalist. He endeavors to hide the reality of his past from her, but his mind cannot help but drift back to the years he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and the reader is transported back in time with him. We discover that he survived those difficult years through the help of a talking frog.

This premise calls to mind Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as the president uses (deep, hilarious, tangential) conversation to survive the literal and figurative darkness of incarceration. De Robertis also breaks up this darkness by describing the president’s present-day surroundings, a lush landscape that is reflective of his passion for making things grow. He is a charming man who pours endless cups of yerba mate to share with anyone who cares to take a sip, and the novel that surrounds him is similarly inviting.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: In The President and the Frog, Carolina De Robertis explores the socio-political transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country: “You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics.”


La novela del dictador—“the dictator novel”—is a staple of Latin American literature that explores the political and psychological implications of authoritarian governments. Think Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). As the novel’s gaze turns toward contemporary North America, however, De Robertis goes a step further by remixing the genre. In North America rather than Latin America, a celebrity “dictator” has risen to power. This political leader is never named outright as Donald Trump, just as De Robertis’ protagonist is never dubbed Pepe Mujica—yet there is no room for doubt. Despite this grand statement, De Robertis is ultimately less concerned with critiquing political systems than with unveiling how survival might be achieved within them.

While De Robertis’ choice not to name the people and places of her novel may be viewed as stylistic bandwagoning, it allows her to remain engaged with the “once upon a time” dreaminess with which her novel kicks off. Yet it is perhaps because the novel is inspired by a real man’s life that it ultimately succeeds. The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Like Burgos herself as a child, the narrator must share a bedroom—and her big sister snores!—so she’s jealous of her family’s overnight guests and the attention they receive. “It would be so much fun to have the whole living room to myself!” she declares, not fully grasping that for children like Lisa, whose grandmother cleans offices, or Edgardo, whose mother plays music gigs that last until the wee hours of the morning, it’s not that simple.

Being separated from their families and sleeping on the unfamiliar cot affects each overnight guest differently. Raquel asks to keep the light on, while Edgardo discovers that the narrator’s mother doesn’t know his favorite lullaby. The narrator nonetheless maintains that the situation is unfair until one night when the cot isn’t occupied and she sleeps on it herself. Suddenly, she realizes how scary it is to try to fall asleep in a strange, dark room, and her newfound empathy helps her to come up with a creative way to comfort Raquel the next time she comes to stay.

Gaby D’Alessandro’s warm illustrations depict the family’s home as a safe and welcoming place. City buildings appear through the windows and on blocks of the colorful quilt that’s depicted on the book’s bright, decorative endpapers. Both Burgos and D’Alessandro are Dominican American, and D’Alessandro incorporates subtle cultural details, such as floral paintings and a Carnival mask displayed on the family’s living room walls.

Burgos, author of the middle grade novel Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle (2018), writes in spare, evocative prose that makes the narrator’s journey of personal growth feel natural and genuine. Text and art work in harmony to create a portrait of a close-knit community where neighbors help one another through small but meaningful acts and where hard work is a way of life. The Cot in the Living Room beautifully captures the gifts we receive when we open our hearts to others.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Through her popular historical novels, bestselling author Chanel Cleeton offers a fresh glimpse into Cuba’s tumultuous past. Her latest, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, is set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, as the island country is ravaged by conflict between Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish military.

The story unfolds through the eyes of three women: Evangelina Cisneros, a beautiful socialite who finds herself in the infamous Recogidas prison after rebuffing the advances of a Spanish military official; Marina Perez, who along with her husband is aiding the revolutionaries while living in deplorable conditions at a reconcentration camp; and Grace Harrington, a cub reporter trying to make her mark at William Randolph Hearst’s New York newspaper.

The women all come from wealthy families yet have chosen their own paths as they seek more than the comfort provided by their privilege. This is a recurring theme in Cleeton’s work: women turning their lives upside down to fight for what they believe in. For Evangelina and Marina, they’re fighting for the dream of a liberated Cuba. For Grace, it’s a career as a serious journalist in an era when few women (aside from Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells) could imagine working for a newspaper. Their fates intersect when Hearst places Grace on the Cuba beat, reporting from the front lines.

The heart of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is ostensibly Evangelina, who is the title character and based on a real person. And indeed, her story is fascinating. She was briefly the most famous woman in New York after a daring rescue landed her stateside to advocate for Cuban independence. But Cleeton’s examination of the state of journalism at the turn of the century is an equally compelling part of this engrossing book. The battle of Hearst versus Joseph Pulitzer for the biggest circulation is fascinating. Both of their newspapers used the discord in Cuba to bolster their sales and arguably influenced the conflict more than was appropriate for a supposedly neutral press.

Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

Chanel Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Xander Amaro, the restaurant’s new hire, has never really felt at home anywhere. Originally from Mexico, he’s spent the last 10 years living with his grandfather in the U.S. without legal documentation, always looking over his shoulder, always feeling he doesn’t quite belong. If only he could track down his biological father, Xander thinks, he might finally feel comfortable in his own life. 

When a dangerous loan shark threatens the community, Pen and Xander must work together with their families—the ones they were born into and the ones they’ve made—to save the restaurant. Along the way, they discover exactly where they’re meant to be.

Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut YA novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, is fueled by vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, from the chaos of the kitchen on a busy night to the smells of the restaurant that linger in Pen’s hair after each shift. Chapters alternate between Pen’s and Xander’s first-person perspectives as Kemp explores their nuanced personalities and never shies away from their dark places, including Pen’s depression and Xander’s anxiety about his immigration status. Kemp develops these aspects of her protagonists with respect, making them parts of their whole, complex selves. 

Pen explains to Xander that Nacho’s Tacos employees are a family, and this perfectly describes the cast of characters Kemp has assembled. Though the book’s villain, El Martillo, feels a bit underdeveloped, the other supporting characters are as complex and well-crafted as the protagonists. This is a powerful, heartwarming story of family, first love and resilience.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Laekan Zea Kemp reflects on the role that hunger has played in her own life as well as in her first book.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.

Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless?

In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary.

The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep.

While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough?

After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel.

In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale—a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified—into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is a richly mined topic in fiction. In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature. 

Of Women and Salt tells the intertwined stories of women in two families from the 19th century to the present day. After an unstable childhood during the Cuban revolution, Carmen leaves her mother behind and immigrates to Florida. Later, in a wealthy suburb, Carmen tries to provide her daughter, Jeanette, with a comfortable American life. Jeanette has a drug addiction, is hiding a tragic secret and is desperately seeking a purpose. 

Their lives intersect with that of Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who hopes to give her young daughter, Ana, a better life in Miami. Then Gloria is seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Ana must reunite with her mother at a detention center in Texas. They are deported to Mexico with no resources and forced to start over on their own.

Some novels attempt to tell a sweeping narrative only to get bogged down by a busy plot and too many characters, but despite a large cast from numerous time periods, Of Women and Salt expertly threads each woman’s story to another’s and pulls their stories taut. Disparate hardships propel each of their lives, but they are linked by a shared struggle to carry on in a harsh world, whether each survives her circumstance—or not.

Motherhood is “a constant calculation of what-if,” Garcia writes. At the heart of Of Women and Salt are the sacrifices made by mothers so their daughters can have different lives—perhaps better ones. But daughters may make choices based on their own wishes and needs, and this possibility is ever poised to pierce a mother’s heart. In this way, the novel is quietly heartbreaking. As Garcia writes, “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.”

In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature.

Set in the tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, Jamie Figueroa’s debut novel centers on two bereaved half siblings, Rufina and Rafa, as they navigate their palpable grief. Four months after their mother’s death, they are still reeling from her crushing loss, which Figueroa captures in vivid, evocative prose: “Grief waited at the edges, sniffing the boundaries of their bodies, waiting to be let in.” The ghost of their mother literally hovers nearby as the siblings try to reckon with her death.

Rufina, desperate to help her disconsolate brother, decides they will take to the streets to perform for white tourists. Perhaps if they make enough money over the weekend, they can move away and escape their misery.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer combines folklore with magical realism in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Along with ghosts who appear as recurring characters, the prose is cut with imagery and metaphor in rhythmic patterns, adding another otherworldly element to the story.

Figueroa addresses important issues, including depression, suicide and personal and generational loss, with nuanced insight. She also skewers the tendency of white Americans to exoticize people with darker skin, portraying the impact of this prejudice in a deeply stirring manner. A lyrical contemplation of how we can never run away from our past, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is an exquisitely woven story about resilience and trauma.

Ghosts hover over Jamie Figueroa’s debut, a lyrical contemplation of how we can never run away from our past.

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is a 21st-century odyssey about a Colombian family bifurcated by immigration rules. It’s an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Escaping poverty in Colombia, the family initially arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas that later expired. They remained together until the father, Mauro, was briefly imprisoned and then deported. Unable to bring infant Talia to her minimum-wage jobs, mother Elena sent the child, the youngest of three, to live with Talia’s grandmother in Bogotá. 

The story opens as Talia, now a nervy 15-year-old, breaks out of a Catholic reform school where she was sent after an impulsive, violent act. One of the novel’s multiple storylines follows Talia as she hitches rides back to Bogotá, where Mauro waits with a plane ticket to the United States, offering the possibility of a long-delayed family reunion.

Another major storyline follows Elena, who tries to make a life for herself in New Jersey with her two older children. She is mistreated by one employer in a restaurant and disrespected by another. She finally lands a job with a wealthy family, taking care of a son who forms a stronger bond with Elena than with his own mother.

Infinite Country joins a growing category of fiction about the U.S. and its attitude toward Latinx immigrants, and Engel stands out as an especially gifted storyteller who elevates this saga through the use of Andean folk tales. She also heightens our interest by shifting the novel’s perspective to Talia’s sister in New Jersey more than midway through the book, and her voice adds a new dimension to the tale.

Engel does a marvelous job of rendering these characters as individuals, each with a unique story. Mauro’s journey is illuminated by his visits to the sacred Lake Guatavita outside Bogotá, where gods of wisdom reside, and where the birds above the lake mirror the family’s mantra: “We are all migrants here on earth.”

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

“My anger against machismo started in those childhood years of seeing my mother and the housemaids as victims,” writes Isabel Allende in The Soul of a Woman, her reflection on how feminism has shaped her life. “They were subordinate and had no resources or voice. . . . My feelings of frustration were so powerful that they marked me forever.”

Allende, a fixture of Latin American storytelling since the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1982, is well qualified to deliver a feminist manifesto. Those who have followed her career are familiar with the number of times she has struggled defiantly to overcome roadblocks in her path. The House of the Spirits, which addressed the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was rejected by Chile’s macho publishing culture. (Eventually it was published in Argentina instead, to great acclaim.) While many critics have praised her work, comparing her to Gabriel García Márquez, she’s also had many detractors, mostly male writers who seemed determined to dismiss her. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende describes these experiences and others that imbued her with the grit and tenacity that define her today.

Allende discusses her past matter-of-factly and directly, without losing her piquante humor. Her mother was an unconventional and vivacious woman who grew bitter under the heavy hand of patriarchy and misogyny. Allende decided to adopt a different way of life for herself, despite the misgivings of her mother and stepfather, the Chilean ambassador to Argentina. She details her career from its roots in feminist journalism through the literary pursuits that made her a success in spite of adversity and personal tragedy.

Ultimately Allende tells us of a life lived fully, for better or worse. The passionate choices she has made are boldly laid out without apologies in this slim volume. Allende even reflects on the twilight of her life, though it seems unbelievable that such a vibrant spirit could ever dim. But when it does, the blaze her life leaves behind will illuminate this world for decades to come.

 

In The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende describes the experiences that imbued her with the feminist grit and tenacity that define her today.

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STARRED REVIEW September 15, 2021 Reading recommendations for National Hispanic Heritage Month From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate the history, culture and contributions of Latinx people in the United States—and what better way to celebrate than with a book? Check out these 17 great reads for all ages by Latinx authors who are […]
STARRED REVIEW

September 29, 2021

The best debut memoirs of 2021 so far

Shoutout to all the first-time memoirists whose words have made us clutch their books to our chests so far this year. Here are the personal stories of family, tragedy, love and identity that stand above the rest.

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Debut author Chloe Shaw traces her own emotional development through the roles dogs have played in her life. There was Easy, whom Shaw’s parents had before they had children. Then there was Agatha 1, the Christmas puppy who, days later, went to the veterinarian and never came home. Her replacement was Agatha 2, whose name hinted at the family’s tendency to plow forward through difficult times. As an only child, Shaw turned to her dogs for entertainment and companionship. She wanted to “be the dog,” to lose herself so deeply in connection with an animal that human problems and obligations fell away.

Shaw was exploring these tendencies in therapy by the time she met Booker, the dog who came along with Matt, the psychoanalyst whom Shaw would marry. Together the couple adopted Safari, who seemed the canine embodiment of Shaw’s anxieties. Booker taught Safari how to be a good dog, and both dogs bonded with the couple’s children.

After Booker’s death, Shaw insisted on adopting Otter. Shaw was the family member who clung to the idea of another dog, so she tried to assume all responsibility for Otter’s care. But raising Otter shows Shaw that she can’t be completely self-sufficient. Otter reminds her that she is human, not canine—and that her humanity is good. “When we open ourselves to the possibility of love,” she writes, “we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again.” 

What Is a Dog? is a tender memoir that showcases the vulnerable self we often risk revealing only to our pets. The dogs in Shaw’s life show her how to love another being, yes—but that love also leads her deeper into the human experience, flaws, risks and all. Shaw’s sensitive recollection of a lifetime of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to examine their own insecurities and to find acceptance in the process.

Chloe Shaw’s tender recollections of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to accept their most vulnerable selves, which we often only reveal to our pets.

“When emotional truth is the goal, and courage is part of the equation, the process is deeply therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” writes Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier in her debut book. Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting is memoir, autobiography, creative process guide and journal of spiritual formation all in one. It’s a true expression of the inseparability of songwriting, spiritual practice, recovery and relationship that have been endemic to Gauthier’s 25-year career.

Saved by a Song is organized topically, with each chapter pairing a song title with an element of craft; for example, “Drag Queens in Limousines: Story/Meaning.” Starting with the song’s lyrics, Gauthier recounts her personal connection to the song through concrete, accessible personal narrative. By the end of each chapter, readers have gained a behind-the-scenes scoop on the real-life experiences that influenced the song and a wise takeaway for their own lives.

Readers also get a play-by-play of how to put art into practice. One of the biggest questions novice writers have is, “How did the artist get from this (their own experience) to that (a polished work)?” The elements of craft can seem like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. Gauthier creates an external map of the mysterious internal songwriting process not once but 13 times throughout the book.

Alongside these gems from her lifelong study of creative practice—think Anne Lamott meets Julia Cameron meets Patti Smith—Gauthier also shares all the gory details of her recovery from addiction, plus quotations from the artists and writers who influenced her own development. In Gauthier’s words, “I believe songs that heal come from a higher place. They help us with the struggle of being human and by letting us know we are not alone. This is the greatest gift a song can give a songwriter and a songwriter can give the world.”

Anyone who can still write from the heart about writing from the heart after being in the music business as long as Gauthier has is the real deal. Her book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Mary Gauthier’s debut book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

When Alexander Lobrano arrived at a Paris bistro one evening, the maitre d’ led him to a table where an older woman sat sipping a glass of white wine. Eventually, with “an avalanche of awe,” Lobrano realized his companion was none other than Julia Child. After confessing that he hoped to someday become a food writer, she replied, “That’s a good boy. But you don’t want to get too big for your britches.”

That memorable scene epitomizes Lobrano’s memoir, My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris. It’s a scrumptious, humor-filled love letter to Paris and its food, written by a James Beard Award-winning writer who is the first to admit that his life’s trajectory sounds highly improbable: “suburban Connecticut guy becomes a restaurant critic of a leading French newspaper.”

Lobrano’s childhood memories are rich, although laced with sadness, loneliness and sexual abuse. His father worried that Lobrano was “a bit of a fruit loop” and sent him off to a two-month “Adventure Camp” in hopes of transforming him into a “regular boy.” Gradually, food became Lobrano’s savior: “my muse, my metaphor, and my map for making a place for myself in the world and finding my place at the table.”

By happenstance, as a young man in 1986, he landed an editorial position at Women’s Wear Daily in Paris to write about menswear, a topic he found “excruciatingly dull.” His slow, steady attempts to transition to food writing are fascinating fun, and Lobrano’s nonstop curiosity and enthusiasm are particularly engaging—especially when they lead him to a dinner with Princess Caroline of Monaco and several encounters with Yves Saint Laurent.

Lobrano’s culinary heritage is hardly sophisticated; in fact, his mother was a Drake of Drake’s Cakes fame. (Remember Ring Dings and Devil Dogs?) At one hilariously recounted dinner with renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, Lobrano’s mother told her, “Andy’s favorite foods when he was little were Cheez Doodles and Sara Lee German Chocolate Cake.” But by the end of Lobrano’s transformation into a cosmopolitan restaurant critic, readers will find themselves longing to be seated at a Parisian table alongside him. (If this can’t be achieved, his memoir contains the next best thing: Lobrano’s list of his 30 favorite restaurants in Paris, with descriptions.)

Lobrano concludes that “gastronomic expertise is dull and can be irritating unless it’s leavened by humility, humor, and emotion.” Rest assured, there’s never a dull moment in My Place at the Table. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

There’s never a dull moment in Alexander Lobrano’s memoir of becoming a food writer in Paris. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

In one of the most disturbing and tender scenes in Somebody’s Daughter, a middle-aged Black woman lights a match and sets a snake nest ablaze. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people,” Billie Coles explains as her granddaughter, the author Ashley C. Ford, looks on. Coles is attempting to demonstrate how families shouldn’t abandon each other, but Ford’s memoir offers an alternative survival strategy—one that sometimes depends on a person leaving.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration. Ford’s father was jailed shortly after her birth, and her mother’s quests for new love often ended in frustration, which she unleashed on her eldest child. Their relationship was so volatile that after an adult kissed Ford when she was a child, and later when her first love sexually assaulted her, it took decades for her to reveal the truth to her mother.

In the meantime, she coped with her pain through daydreaming, dissociation and wandering the halls of her local high school, a precursor to the peripatetic life that would lead her away from her family in Indiana. It’s tempting to view Ford’s mother antagonistically throughout this book, but the author’s familial bonds aren’t that simple. Ford’s contentious relationships with her parents—a mother who often withheld affection and a father who was physically unavailable to express it—loom large, and it’s fitting that the book begins with a phone call from one parent and ends with a reunion with the other.

This book’s title is deceptively simple. In African American Vernacular English, it can be a euphemism for a woman in danger; but when Ford reunites with her father, it becomes a revelation of the author’s self. Finally, it makes clear that the life one builds in the aftermath of a tragedy can, in time, coexist with the life left behind.

After returning to her hometown near the end of the book, Ford writes, “However complicated, I could exist in both [New York and Indiana], as me, fully me.” Perhaps the greatest lesson of Somebody’s Daughter is that a Black child marked by poverty and sexual violence can create multiple spaces in which to thrive—and that anybody’s child can do the same.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration.

In Danielle Henderson’s memoir, The Ugly Cry, she renders her family with searing honesty and wit. There’s the brother whose greatest gift is flouting all the rules and surviving the damage; the abused mother who cannot protect her children or herself; and the mother’s boyfriend, the malevolent Luke, who ravaged the family with verbal and physical abuse.

And then there’s Grandma—foulmouthed, hardworking and loyal, whose favorite television show is “The Walking Dead.” She delivers frequent smacks to the head alongside gusts of equally fierce unconditional love. She also advises 9-year-old Henderson that she “should never get married, but . . . sleep with as many people as possible before settling down.” This is the family that, in the tumultuous 1970s, Henderson somehow survived. Now she brings them to life with her indefatigable sense of humor, which is as quick and sharp as the violence she lived with as a child.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Danielle Henderson reflects on a memoir’s ability to create connection, and connection’s ability to heal old wounds.


The author of the popular book and Tumblr Feminist Ryan Gosling, Henderson grew up poor, mostly motherless and often left to figure things out on her own, in a small New York town that made it difficult to be different—and Black. But Henderson opts for mirth over pathos, and the results are often shocking and funny simultaneously.

Her unflinchingly honest voice especially shines through when treading softly around the sexual abuse she endured. Luke, her abuser, is villainous, too mean to even share a single takeout French fry while a hungry child watches. As she lays out the details of their relationship, Henderson uses understatement so masterfully that her pain acquires the force of a snowball careening downhill. When she finally reveals how Luke has treated her, Grandma says, “I’m going to kill him, and then I’m going to kill your mother, okay? . . . Good. Can I give you a hug?”

Henderson survived a terrible childhood, and it’s her resilience that comes to define her. She has girlfriends who know her better than she knows herself and an aunt who teaches her how to nurture and display her differences. And Grandma hangs on no matter what, steadfastly following, if not leading, Henderson toward something better.

Danielle Henderson brings her family to life using humor as quick and sharp as the violence she survived as a child.

When Krys Malcolm Belc sees pregnant women, he turns the other way. He doesn’t want to hear pregnancy stories and finds it difficult to share his own. But in The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, the transmasculine author doesn’t turn away from his story. Instead, he lays it out page by page, with pictures and legal documents juxtaposing his poetic prose.

Belc’s process of becoming himself—the growing realization that he identified as male, the move toward a nonbinary and eventually masculine presentation, the decision to start taking hormones—happened alongside the rest of his life, as he married his partner, as she bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well, only a few months after his wife gave birth. 

The result is a family that looks one way now—a father, a mother and three boys—but looked another way several years ago. This is the story of how that family came to be, and of the erasures (often painful) that happened along the way, including the legal erasure of the friend who donated sperm for all three pregnancies. There’s also the erasure of the body Belc had, which he generously laid out to birth his son Samson. “He has permanently altered my composition,” Belc writes.

But in the midst of these erasures, something new emerged: an identity and presentation that was always there but in shadow, just beyond view. Bearing Samson clarified the man Belc wanted to be.

The Natural Mother of the Child refuses easy stories or pat answers. Instead, Belc tells a counterstory that resists hegemonic narratives and pushes toward something messier and truer. Belc’s devotion to his son—and especially his bodily devotion—comes through powerfully, a clear signal. By comparison, some of the other signs that supposedly tell us who we are—birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates—seem desperately incomplete.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s growing realization that he identified as male happened as his wife bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well.

Trent Preszler’s memoir, Little and Often, opens with a phone call. It’s from his dad, Leon, from whom Trent has been estranged for years, inviting him to come home to South Dakota for Thanksgiving. At 37, Trent is at a high point professionally. He’s the CEO of a Long Island vineyard, he mingles with celebrities and his house has an idyllic view of Peconic Bay. But his personal life tells a different story: Divorced after a brief marriage, he’s working too much, drinking too much and has distanced himself from his friends.

As Trent makes the long drive home, he contemplates his years growing up in flyover country. His parents eked out a marginal existence raising cattle on a South Dakota ranch, 145 miles from the nearest McDonald’s. Leon was always the strong one, a former rodeo champion whose favorite book of the Bible was Job. Long ago, Leon made it clear that he didn’t accept Trent’s sexuality as a gay man—but during this visit, Leon surprises Trent by asking about his ex. Not long after this, Leon dies from cancer, and Trent loses his chance to reconnect.

Leon has left Trent two items, his toolbox and a taxidermied duck. As he ponders his dad’s tools, Trent makes an odd decision: He will build a canoe. The remainder of the memoir details Trent’s quixotic project as he teaches himself about different kinds of wood, power-tool skills and the patience to fail and try again. “Little and often makes much,” he remembers his dad saying, coaching teenage Trent through a difficult project. Throughout the book, the narrative returns to such father-son episodes, evoking ranch life with its biblical weather, rattlesnakes, long horseback rides, cattle auctions and rodeos.

The writing in Little and Often is lucid and sometimes lyrical, building on unexpected connections, such as the geological links between South Dakota and Long Island. As the narrative walks the reader through the process of hand-building a canoe, we see Trent reconsidering his parents’ lives and his own, and finding calm and trust in himself.

This lucid, lyrical memoir recalls father-son episodes in South Dakota, with its biblical weather, rattlesnakes, long horseback rides and rodeos.

In West African Igbo mythology, an ogbanje spirit is a troublesome entity temporarily housed in a human body. Akwaeke Emezi’s stunning debut novel, Freshwater (2018), uses this element of “Igbo ontology” to tell a story of what it’s like to grow up ogbanje, death-haunted and multiple. Subsequently, Emezi has written about identifying as trans and as ogbanje themself—as something other than human.

Emezi’s brilliant Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir develops their ideas about identity and art through a sequence of letters to friends, lovers, students, writers and deities. This book tells of growing up in Aba, Nigeria, witnessing casual violence and injury, and of a childhood shaped by the works of literature brought home by Emezi’s parents. Emezi recounts writing Freshwater, having a breakdown during the ensuing book tour and pursuing surgeries that would free them from a gendered human body. These surgeries, which Emezi accepts as “mutilations,” are how the “spirit customiz[es] the vessel” and have as much to do with being ogbanje as being trans.

Perhaps Emezi’s greatest achievement with this memoir is their insistence on centering Igbo ontology within their story rather than reaching for tired Western metaphors about psychiatric conditions like trauma, PTSD or disassociation. Emezi’s work reminds us that these diagnoses are limiting boxes, shaped by colonialist, racist and sexist assumptions. Dear Senthuran explodes these human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

Each letter in Dear Senthuran is hypnotic and poetic, but the letters to Nonso, which read like letters to a student or a “baby writer,” are particularly powerful. These letters discuss “worldbending” with reference to Octavia Butler’s fiction. Writers make worlds exist from nothing—a godlike power available to anyone willing to “face their work.”

In Dear Senthuran, Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring writers and artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of making, loving and being.

In Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi explodes human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

“I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies,” writes Lilly Dancyger. “Both of these things are true.” Her father, Joe Schactman, was not a famous artist, but he was prolific and left deep impressions on those who knew him. His sudden death when Dancyger was 12 threw her into a tailspin but also cemented Schactman as an artistic idol in her mind.

In her memoir, Negative Space, Dancyger carries us back to New York City’s gritty East Village in the 1980s as she investigates Schactman’s tumultuous life. She pages through her father’s old notebooks that she saved after his death. She studies his often strange artwork (depicted throughout the book) made from found objects and roadkill. And she interviews Schactman’s friends, colleagues and even her own mother to learn how and why he descended into heroin addiction.

Dancyger’s struggle to escape the need to prove herself to everyone, including her dead father, is moving. Mourning is not linear, and she skillfully shows how grief mutates during different stages of life. The phantasm of closure stalks all of us who have experienced loss, as both Dancyger’s writing and Schactman’s artwork make clear.

The strongest portions of Negative Space explore Dancyger’s experience as the child of addicts. She largely parented herself, and when she builds a more stable adulthood than the one modeled by her parents, it’s a hard-won victory. Other children of addicts who experienced difficult transitions into adulthood will find much to relate to here.

To this end, Dancyger’s bravery in the face of negative revelations about her dad is admirable. She wants the whole truth, no matter how painful it is to reopen these wounds. Dancyger knew little about Schactman’s addiction when she was young, and she knew nothing about his sometimes abusive relationships with women. But in Negative Space, Dancyger allows her father to be an imperfect and much loved person—her idol still, but a troubled and complicated one.

Lilly Dancyger sets out to uncover the whole truth about her late father’s art, relationships and addiction, no matter how painful.

“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” From the moment we read the opening sentence of Michelle Zauner’s poignant memoir, Crying in H Mart, we’re hooked. It’s a rare gift; Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

The daughter of a white father and Korean mother in a rural area outside of Eugene, Oregon, Zauner felt closest to her mother when shopping for and eating food together. She shares fond memories of them prowling the aisles of H Mart, the Asian grocery store and food court where she discovered kimchi, rice cakes and tteokguk, a beef and rice cake soup. Growing up, Zauner found that her mother could be distant, but she soon learned that “food was how my mother expressed her love.”

As a girl, Zauner traveled with her mother to Seoul, South Korea, where Zauner met her aunts and grandmother and celebrated life and family with hearty meals. When Zauner was in her 20s, she moved from Philadelphia back home to Oregon to take care of her mother as she died of cancer. As Zauner recounts her mother’s slow, painful decline, she recalls the highs and lows of their life together, often in stories of meals shared with friends and family. After her mother’s death in 2014, Zauner struggled to accept it. She writes, “Maybe we hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t believed enough, hadn’t force-fed her enough blue-green algae.”

Crying in H Mart hardly ends in defeat, however. As difficult as her grief is, Zauner celebrates her mother in the very place they shared their most intimate joys, losses and pleasures: H Mart.

Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

“In every era, it takes a bus of change to lead the way. . . . Thankfully, a change bus is always a comin’.” So says Charles Person in his inspiring account of the 1961 Freedom Ride, Buses Are a Comin’. Person began taking notes when he got on his change bus at age 18. He would later lose those notes during a savage beating by a white mob in Birmingham, Alabama, but he still recalls it all vividly now that he’s in his 80s.

Growing up in the Bottom, a poor Black neighborhood in Atlanta, Person was unaware of racism’s reach. But when he was refused admission to Georgia Tech in 1960, despite an outstanding academic record that was good enough for MIT, he grew enraged. His grandfather prodded, “Do something!” But what could a teenager do?

Soon he knew. As a freshman at Morehouse College, Person witnessed his classmates’ participation in nonviolent sit-ins at Atlanta stores that refused service to Black people. He joined in, was arrested and served 10 days in solitary confinement because he sang protest songs too loudly. 

By the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was recruiting people for nonviolent tests of two recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting segregation on interstate buses and trains. Person applied, after assuring his parents he would be safe, and received nonviolence training in Washington, D.C. He admired his cohorts, including a young John Lewis, but was skeptical of their concerns about the trouble they might encounter en route. Before embarking on two weeks of Trailways and Greyhound bus rides to New Orleans, they were encouraged to write their wills. Person declined.

What happened on that trip almost killed these 13 riders, but their horrifying experiences brought global attention to the escalating U.S. civil rights movement. Four hundred more Freedom Riders would join them that summer, and the South would be forever changed. Person tells it all in riveting detail, with help from his friend, historian Richard Rooker.

And why tell this story now? Person writes, “Nothing will change if you, my reader, my friend, my fellow American, do not take Papa’s advice and ‘do something.’ What change needs to happen? Get on the bus. Make it happen.”

A bus ride to New Orleans in 1961 almost killed 13 Freedom Riders, but changed the South forever.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.

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STARRED REVIEW September 29, 2021 The best debut memoirs of 2021 so far Shoutout to all the first-time memoirists whose words have made us clutch their books to our chests so far this year. Here are the personal stories of family, tragedy, love and identity that stand above the rest. Share this Article: Share on […]

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