Alice Cary

Two-time Booker Prize-winning British author Hilary Mantel's books pack a memorable punch, no matter what she writes. Fans have devoured her Wolf Hall trilogy, whose final book, The Mirror & the Light (2020), was 784 pages long. Her memoir was lengthy, too—400 pages for Giving Up the Ghost (2003). Now readers are in for a decidedly different yet equally rich treat: a brief collection of short stories (clocking in at 176 easily digestible pages) that she intriguingly describes as “autoscopic” rather than autobiographical. 

Learning to Talk consists of seven stories, arranged chronologically, in which Mantel reflects loosely on her English childhood and explores, as she writes in the preface, “the swampy territory that lies between history and myth.” She explains that the writing of these stories was a “strenuous” process that took years. For example, the first and final lines of “King Billy Is a Gentleman” arrived almost simultaneously, but she needed “twelve years to fill in the middle.” 

These are evocative, precisely drawn, ghost-ridden tales about impoverished, difficult times, yet they are also filled with a growing awareness that better things await. In the aforementioned “King Billy Is a Gentleman,” the narrator describes her gradual realization that her mother created a scandal by bringing in a lodger who became her mother's lover. In the arresting “Curved Is the Line of Beauty,” the narrator and her family take a day trip to Birmingham, where the narrator becomes hopelessly lost in a junkyard with another girl—just as Mantel wanders in the memories, myths and secrets that filled her childhood. In “Learning to Talk,” the narrator is beginning to find her voice while taking elocution lessons to learn to “talk proper.” Notably, the narrator says, “Surely it was not necessary to talk for a living? Wouldn't it be possible to keep your mouth shut, and perhaps write things down?”

Why write such stories after publishing a memoir? In the final story, which shares its title with Mantel's memoir, the author answers this question precisely: “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synesthetic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense of impressions, which reemerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.”

Learning to Talk is an unusual and ultimately fascinating amalgam of fact and fiction as Mantel sorts through the puzzle pieces of her past. 

Learning to Talk is a brief, unusual and ultimately fascinating amalgam of fact and fiction as two-time Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel sorts through the puzzle pieces of her past.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood

Louis lives with his determined, free-spirited grandmother. When neither she nor City Hall can tell him how many dogs live in their neighborhood, Louis takes Grandma's advice to heart: “Sometimes if you want something done you've just got to do it yourself.” 

Louis decides to go door to door to take a census. Along the way, he learns a lot about his neighbors and their pets. Two corgis named Wilbur and Orville enjoy bird-watching, while a small white terrier named E.B. “dreams of writing stories.” Such clever references elevate the story, even if younger readers might not immediately grasp their meanings. An older man tells Louis that he has learned many lessons from his dogs, Aesop and Fable, while a house in which musicians practice saxophone and flute is also home to a pair of hounds named Thelonious and Monk. All of these touches are artful and light, just there for the taking.

Meanwhile, Grandma is occupied with a project of her own, as she's unsatisfied that the city has fenced off an abandoned lot. Her efforts and Louis' dovetail pleasingly, and there's a lovely surprise for Louis in the end.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is an easy book to fall in love with. Philip C. Stead's writing is exquisite, and illustrator Matthew Cordell's artwork portrays a delightful menagerie of humans and their four-legged friends. Stead (author of the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee) makes every word count, while fellow Caldecott Medalist Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) brings the bustling sidewalks of Louis' neighborhood to life. His signature loose, expressive lines have fabulous energy and personality reminiscent of the work of Quentin Blake and Jules Feiffer.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is a memorable story about energetic grandparenting, the importance of being a good neighbor and the fruits of civic engagement.    

The Pet Potato

Move over, Sophie's Squash: Albert's potato has arrived. In Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf's beloved 2013 picture book, a young girl befriends a squash she finds at the farmers market. Josh Lacey and Momoko Abe's The Pet Potato pays similar tribute to the power of imagination through the story of Albert, a playful boy with circular red glasses and a mop of curly hair who longs for a pet but whose parents have squashed all of his suggestions.

Despite his parents' firm stance, Albert pleads unrelentingly until, one day, his father hands him a small wrapped package, which turns out to contain a potato. “You wanted a pet,” Dad tells Albert. “It's a pet potato.” Albert sets the potato aside, then notices that it looks sad. The next day, he gives the potato a ride on his train set, and soon the pair are inseparable.  

British author Lacey is no stranger to unusual pet tales; he's also the author of the Dragonsitter chapter book series. Here, he employs excellent comic timing as he describes Albert and the potato's adventures at home, on the playground and even at the library, where, “for some reason, the potato particularly liked books about pirates.”

Abe's illustrations capture it all, from Albert and the potato palling around on the playground to Albert drifting off to sleep at night, the potato resting on the pillow next to him. A limited color palette of greens, reds, yellows and browns allows Albert's and the potato's facial expressions to shine. Using minimal linework and an arsenal of adorable potato-size hats, Abe creatively animates the potato, who becomes an intrepid safari explorer, a railway engineer and more.

Of course, like all pets, potatoes don't live forever, and Lacey crafts a satisfying ending that leaves everyone happy, including Albert. A final spread portrays a diverse array of neighbors discovering how much fun a pet potato can be.

With great style and gentle humor, The Pet Potato demonstrates how a vivid imagination can transform an ordinary spud into an extraordinary buddy.

The Surprise

When Kit receives a guinea pig as a surprise birthday gift, her household's other animals are perplexed by the creature. Bob the pug, Dora the cat and Paul the bird pronounce, “If you're not a cat or a dog or a bird, you're an oddball.” Co-authored by award-winning novelist Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and her husband, Nick Laird, The Surprise is a spirited celebration of the unexpected. In the world of this story, anything can happen—and it does. 

The Surprise (as the newly arrived guinea pig is called for most of the book) is dressed for judo, which she loves, but her new companions abandon her to watch TV, leaving her feeling sad and lonely. As she experiments with ways to fit in, the Surprise winds up in big trouble. Fortunately, she is rescued by a fellow oddball, an older woman named Emily Brookstein who lives in a flat below Kit's. “Life's too short not to be an oddball,” Emily advises.

Illustrator Magenta Fox's artwork is well suited to this tale of anthropomorphized animals. The guinea pig is an immediately adorable and sympathetic protagonist. Ginger-haired, exuberant Emily Brookstein and loving new pet owner Kit make perfect foils to the disapproving trio of Bob, Dora and Paul. Fox excels at facial expressions, whether it's a smug yet puzzled look on a bespectacled pug's face or the Surprise's downcast eyes as the other animals talk about her as though she can't hear them. There's plenty of action, too, including an airborne guinea pig and a dynamic series of panels that depicts an exciting elevator journey. 

When Kit returns home from school, she finally christens her new pet Maud. It's clear that Maud will fit right in with the animals and humans of her new family, but she has also gained an appreciation for what makes her stand out, too. 

There’s nothing quite so wonderful—or as challenging—as bringing a new pet into the family. These three picture books showcase the happiness that these companions add to our lives.

Ten-year-old Tad Lincoln loved the theater, especially one animated performer he watched at a Washington, D.C., playhouse in 1863. “I'd like to meet that actor,” he said. “He makes you thrill.” Tad quickly got his wish: After the performance, the stage manager escorted him and his friend into the actor's dressing room, where John Wilkes Booth greeted them warmly. “The future murderer of Tad's father gave a rose to each child from a bouquet presented him over the footlights,” writes historian Terry Alford in his endlessly fascinating book In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.

Alford knows his subject inside and out, having written Fortune's Fool, a landmark biography of Booth that Karen Joy Fowler has praised as a major resource for her novel, Booth. In the Houses of Their Dead explores both the Lincolns' and the Booths' enthrallment with spiritualism, the belief that living people can communicate with deceased people's spirits. Members of both families were shattered time after time by a litany of heartbreaking, often torturous illnesses and deaths, which inspired a desire to communicate with their dead loved ones. The two families even sometimes turned to the same mediums, which is just one of many historical threads that tie these two tragedy-bound families together. And yes, there were numerous White House seances, one of which was said to have levitated Abraham Lincoln in the Red Room as he sat atop a grand piano!

Alford seamlessly tells the two families' stories, starting with the major players' childhoods and continuing until their deaths—and after. He's a fair-minded narrator of these complicated historical figures, never casting judgment but rather letting the historical record speak for itself through his riveting, elegant prose. He presents, for instance, Lincoln as a young man playing a prank on a friend by persuading two other friends to dress as ghosts as they walked home one dark night. “Never have I seen another who provoked so much mirth and who entered into rollicking fun with such glee. He could make a cat laugh,” wrote one admirer. That characterization certainly contrasts with the more common portrayal of a brooding, whip-smart but sometimes awkward Lincoln.

Alford sets the historical stage well, allowing readers to understand the emotional underpinnings of Lincoln's assassination, which he memorably describes. Particularly fascinating are the details of its aftermath—how, for instance, Mary Todd Lincoln was left with restricted funds, living in boarding houses and rented rooms as she tried to deal with the deaths of her husband and, ultimately, three of her beloved sons. In 1872, a noted “spirit photographer” produced an image of her that supposedly showed Lincoln standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, with one of their lost sons nearby.

The history of Abraham Lincoln and his enthrallment with spiritualism has never been more surprising than in Terry Alford’s In the Houses of Their Dead.

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.

“I must go down to the seas again,” begins English poet John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever.” This trio of picture books is the perfect remedy for such an ailment. They capture the wonderful ways that beach days offer respite from our routines as we cool down, splash around and play.

★ Little Houses

Little Houses is a quietly marvelous book about a girl’s day at the beach with her grandparents. Frequent collaborators (and husband-and-wife team) Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek have created an ode to curiosity that urges readers to open their minds and wonder at the world.

The young narrator of Little Houses loves to visit her grandparents at a little yellow cottage “so close to the water you can hear the waves.” As they comb the beach, the girl’s grandmother reminds her to collect only empty shells, because some might be “little houses.” This prompts the girl to ponder what sorts of creatures might have lived in the shells she sees. She even muses about the possibility that vacant shells might harbor the ghosts of their previous inhabitants.

Then the girl overhears her grandmother say “ . . . things we cannot see” above the din of the waves, and what follows is a deft and strikingly realistic narrative move by Henkes. The girl imagines what her grandmother might have been talking about and starts to describe “all the things that might be under the water,” from “fish as big as cars” to “lost toys, lost coins, lots of lost things that were cried over.”

Dronzek gives form and shape to the girl’s speculations in a brightly colored full-spread scene. An enormous dark blue fish with friendly eyes swims in cerulean waters surrounded by marine life—jellyfish, an octopus, a sea turtle and more. Young readers will love spotting the many items scattered along the ocean floor, including a chain of pearls, a toy sailboat and a white toy kitten that will be familiar to longtime Henkes fans.

Every page of Little Houses reminds readers of the infinite ways that oceans, animals, plants and people are connected.

A Day for Sandcastles

As Little Houses looks out at the big world, A Day for Sandcastles keeps a tight focus on three children who spend a day in the sand. In this wordless picture book, the children work diligently together to build the sandcastle of their dreams. As the author-illustrator duo also did in Over the Shop, JonArno Lawson creates a detailed narrative that Qin Leng’s ink and watercolor artwork brings to life.

The journey starts with a bus ride out of the city, and spot illustrations show each character’s excitement as they step off the bus and catch their first glimpses of the sandy beach and ocean water that await. While always present, the two adults who accompany the children remain largely on the sidelines and allow the children to create their own fun.

Leng nimbly alternates between smaller, narrowly framed views of the children’s construction efforts and larger panels, pages and double-page spreads that depict wider scenes of the beach. These views convey the changing position of the sun throughout the day and the rising tide, which is a constant threat to the children’s castle. Leng’s images give this beach day rhythm as readers experience everything from the wrenching agony of a destructive wave to the uniquely attentive pleasure of using a twig to carve tiny windows into sandy towers.

A Day for Sandcastles is a delightful story about perseverance and the joy of seeing a work in progress to completion. It’s lovely to see the children cooperate as they defend their castle from a windblown hat, a wayward toddler and more, but there are plenty of successes too, as shown by Leng through the children’s facial expressions and energetic movements.

The journey home—packing up beach chairs and umbrellas, trudging up a grassy dune, yawning and boarding (or being carried onto) the bus and, finally, gazing out at waters that glimmer against a blazing sunset as the bus drives back to the city—neatly concludes this summer story. A Day for Sandcastles will leave readers longing for a beach trip of their own.

Hot Dog

A lively, lovable city-dwelling dachshund is the star of Doug Salati’s joyful author-illustrator debut, Hot Dog.

With spare text, the book opens as its canine protagonist overheats while out for a walk on a summer day in a crowded city. Eventually, the poor pup lies down in the middle of the street and refuses to go any farther. Fortunately, the dog’s human companion knows just the remedy.

Salati’s illustrations are full of whimsy and soul. He is a master of detail in these bustling city scenes, capturing everything from the displays of eyeglasses in an optician’s shop to construction workers so hard at work that readers will practically hear their jackhammers. These pages radiate heat via shades of orange and yellow, and a particularly effective illustration shows the sun blazing down on our furry hero right before the dog melts down.

What makes Hot Dog so memorable and fun are all the interactions between the pup and his person, a tall, determined redhead who wears round blue glasses, a turquoise fanny pack and a floppy yellow hat. It’s heartwarming when she kneels down in the crosswalk, ignoring the cacophony of honking cars to gaze into her exhausted dog’s eyes, one hand under her pup’s chin, the other grasping a paw. She immediately hails a taxi, which drops the pair off at a subway station.

After a quick train ride, the woman and her four-legged friend board a ferry. The sweltering glow lifts and Salati’s palette fills with sky blues, verdant greens and clean, creamy sands. Readers will feel relief from the heat as the sea breezes billow, providing “a welcome whiff of someplace new.” A series of playful action scenes show the dog relishing every moment on the shore. The pup chases waves and seagulls, rolls around and digs in the sand and collects rocks for his owner. Splendid touches of humor pop up, such as a large rock that turns out to be a seal and a dachshund silhouette that the woman creates out of stones, shells, driftwood and seaweed.

Canine and human return home on a crowded subway to a beautiful summer night in their neighborhood. The day’s heat has faded and a fresh wind blows as families relax around a plaza with a big fountain. Back in their apartment (a clever visual homage to Vincent van Gogh’s well-known painting of his bedroom), Salati offers the perfect summation: “What a day for a dog!”

Hot Dog captures a much-needed summer excursion that readers will enjoy taking again and again.

This trio of picture books capture the wonderful ways that beach days offer respite from our routines as we cool down, splash around and play.

If you’re not familiar with Jon Mooallem’s writing, his new book of essays, Serious Face, is calling your name. Mooallem (This Is Chance!) has been writing for The New York Times Magazine for more than 15 years, and his latest book rounds up 11 of his best pieces from those years, plus one more written in 2022, into a transporting series of deep dives into surprising characters and situations.

Mooallem excels at writing about everything from climate change-fueled natural disasters to eccentric individuals. In “The Precise Center of a Dream,” for example, readers meet a man named Jacques-André Istel, who happens to be the father of modern skydiving and who created his own town (Felicity, California) in the middle of the desert. Mooallem’s observations can be beautifully delicate; about Felicity, he writes, “It was as if the entire town had sprouted from some preverbal place in his imagination—some need for beauty and meaning.” From that quirky end of the spectrum, Mooallem’s range as a writer stretches all the way across to quieter, more poignant essays like “A House at the End of the World,” his portrait of noted hospice worker B.J. Miller of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and of a 27-year-old man who died from mesothelioma under Miller’s care.

Mooallem can also be deeply personal. The title essay describes his uncanny resemblance to the Spanish bullfighter Manolete, who was hugely famous not only for his bullfighting skills but also for being ugly. “Why These Instead of Others?” is his completely captivating, edge-of-your-seat account of a remote kayaking trip he took with two friends at age 23 to Glacier Bay, Alaska—and the life-and-death rescue that ensued. His writing is equally riveting in “We Have Fire Everywhere,” about a group of people’s narrow escape from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, in 2018. Mooallem typically lets his subjects speak for themselves and isn’t one to make many pronouncements, but here he writes, “It was all more evidence that the natural world was warping, outpacing our capacity to prepare for, or even conceive of, the magnitude of disaster that such a disordered earth can produce.”

Like the very best essay collections, Serious Face takes readers to unexpected places, exploring a meaningful mix of joy, tragedy and downright absurdity. The subjects vary widely, but Mooallem is such a gifted storyteller that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about; readers like myself will be ready to follow.

The subjects in Serious Face vary widely, but Mooallem is such a gifted storyteller that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about. All of it is gripping.

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