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Have you decided on your New Year’s resolutions yet? You know, the ones you follow with zeal in January, limp along with through February and abandon sheepishly sometime before the first crocuses bloom? If you’ve ever found it tough to stick with your well-intentioned efforts to change, these books will offer a fresh take on what it means to be happy and healthy and how to really transform your life—for good.

LIFE SKILLS
Growing up as a “fortunate son” in New York (his father was the storied New Yorker writer Brendan Gill), Michael Gates Gill expected the world and, for the most part, he got it: a charmed childhood, a Yale education, a high-powered career. His best-selling memoir, How Starbucks Saved My Life, detailed how in one year, Gill lost his job as an advertising executive, got divorced, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and took a job as a Starbucks barista. In this poignant follow-up, How to Save Your Own Life, Gill—who still serves coffee at a New York Starbucks—examines what exactly he learned during that year. His 15 truisms on how to savor ordinary moments are simple yet powerful reminders to respect one another, learn from those around you and really listen. One of his lessons, “Lose your watch (and cell phone and PDA),” is particularly noteworthy in our tech-obsessed world. “You can’t return a call or take a photo without seeing precisely what time it is,” writes Gill. “In many ways we have become mental and emotional slaves to the constant, finite calculations and it is hard to resist such an anxious focus on every ticking second.”

Whether or not you agree with his less-is-more premise, it’s hard not to be drawn to Gill and his message—he writes plainly and gracefully, and is filled with a grateful, almost childlike wonder at how much he loves his simpler life.
—AMY SCRIBNER

HAPPINESS
Sitting in traffic one afternoon, author Ariel Gore heard a report that the most popular class at Harvard is Positive Psychology: essentially, Happiness 101. Inspired, Gore downloaded the syllabus. Imagine her dismay when she dove into the research on women and happiness—only to find that it pointed to traditional values and marriage as keys to lasting fulfillment.

These findings didn’t match up very well with Gore herself or the women she knew. So she embarked on her own investigation into what makes women happy. In Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, she interviews 100 women about their happiness, retraces her own unusual life choices (single mom at 20, second child nearly two decades later) and calls on the words of Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among other famously strong women.

Gore posits that women try to trick themselves into “lives we don’t really want. Still, there are plenty of doctors, psychologists, acquaintances, and relatives who are more than eager to help us deny our truths and do what’s expected of us—to stay with the husband and have the baby, to take the fancy job in the cold city, to never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as we live. We are told what will make us happy as if we were all the same woman, as if we all share a single heart.”

Bold and whip-smart, Bluebird offers a striking, often defiant take on how modern women find joy.
—AMY SCRIBNER

NUTRITION
Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual offers a “choral voice of popular food wisdom.” The author of the New York Times bestsellers In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan consulted a wide range of experts—including doctors, anthropologists and “large numbers of mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers”—to arrive at this collection of 64 straightforward and simple “personal policies” for eating.

Whether it’s a practical reminder to “Eat slowly,” a common-sense adage like “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead,” or a whimsically spot-on observation such as “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk,” these guidelines are all centered around the most basic of advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

With Food Rules, Pollan hopes to make “everyday decision-making easier and swifter.” As he wryly notes, “It is entirely possible to eat healthily without knowing what an antioxidant is.”
—LACEY GALBRAITH

HEALTHY COOKING
Bethenny Frankel offers down-to-earth eating advice in The Skinnygirl Dish: Easy Recipes for Your Naturally Thin Life, telling readers, “Listen to your inner chef.” A proponent of “fast, practical and economical” recipes, Frankel (who is one of the reality stars of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City”) specializes in making meals that are both healthy and delicious.

Following on the success of her previous book, Naturally Thin, Frankel aims to ease the anxiety over “what and how to eat when you have to cook for yourself and your family.” Though she provides a range of recipes—everything from breakfast, lunch and dinner to simple snacks, cocktails and “desserts to die for”—Frankel doesn’t believe in telling her readers what to eat. For her, cooking is about improvisation and using what’s already on hand in the pantry. “I want to give you the tools to cook fearlessly for yourself,” she says, “taking risks, being creative, thinking for yourself and never stressing out again about how to make dinner.”
—LACEY GALBRAITH

MIND & BODY
The Program: The Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You explores how physical and emotional health can be improved by fooling the change-resistant brain to take one small step at a time. Starting with the usual topics of sound nutrition, fitness, de-stressing and weight loss, the book hits its stride as it presents its central thesis: that lifestyle behavior accounts for 50 percent of a person’s health, and that changing thinking is central to changing habits. Co-written by Kelly Traver, M.D., global medical director for Google, Worldwide, and Betty Kelly Sargent, the book’s 12-week program helps you to utilize brain power rather than willpower to develop the important building blocks to better health while conquering addictions, aging gracefully and avoiding the most prevalent diseases afflicting Americans. The system starts with basic nutrition and fitness information, including developing a personal eating and exercise plan, then moves into more specific advice designed to help avoid or handle heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and to solve challenges including obesity and lack of sleep. Combining fitness, food and holistic health advice in one neat package, this clear, breezy and informative book makes a terrific starter title for those looking to make global changes to their health outlook.
DEANNA LARSON
 

PERSONAL GROWTH
Got a minute? Use it to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, improve your mood and memory, be happier, help your children stay healthy and have the career you’ve always wanted. No, it’s not the latest infomercial product but the power of the “rapid change” strategies in 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Psychologist and author Richard Wiseman (The Luck Factor, Quirkology) isn’t content with spouting simplistic self-help methods for improving your life—in fact, he believes that self-improvement advice often has the opposite effect. Digging deep into psychological and scientific studies, Wiseman debunks behavioral myths and presents counterintuitive but effective methods for solving persistent problems that plague many people in areas as diverse as happiness, motivation, creativity, attraction, relationships, decision-making and parenting.

Want to forget a traumatic experience? Don’t talk about it—studies show that writing feelings down is more effective than sharing out loud in coping with negative emotional experiences. Want to feel happier? Sit up straight in your desk chair, swing your arms as you walk or force your lips into a smile for 15-20 seconds (try it). Sidebars, charts, quizzes, worksheets and tips on how to use these findings in your own life complete each section, and extensive citation notes are also included. There isn’t a person on the planet who couldn’t learn something new about themselves with this book, making it a must for any resolution list.
—DEANNA LARSON

FITNESS
Denise Austin has been helping Americans get (and stay) fit for almost 30 years, most recently on two Lifetime TV shows, “Denise Austin’s Daily Workout” and “Fit & Lite.” In Denise’s Daily Dozen, she reveals her short and sweet secrets for a more active lifestyle. What counts, she says, is “quality not quantity,” and a mere 12 minutes of exercise a day is the answer. There’s no need for pricy equipment; all that’s required are “two sets of weights . . . a pair of supportive sneakers, and a mat or towel to do floor work on.” And forget the costly gym membership: “Turn idle time into toning time,” she says. Exercise anywhere—in the kitchen, on the living room couch, even while on the phone.

Austin’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the Daily Dozen is her latest offering of simple yet well-balanced exercise plans, practical recipes and endless encouragement.
—LACEY GALBRAITH

EATING NATURALLY
In Rod Rotondi’s Raw Food for Real People, the founder of Leaf Organics—Los Angeles’ first certified organic restaurant—proves that eating healthy doesn’t have to mean carrot sticks and veggie burgers alone. “The whole idea of the raw-food movement is getting back to a simple and natural diet,” he says. It’s about “rediscovering the natural way for humans to eat.” For him, this means very berry fruit smoothies, “rawsagna” and really raw apple pie. Fans of gluten-free and vegan-friendly recipes will be especially happy with these wonderful recipes, but Rotondi hopes to show that everyone can find something to love—and learn from—in Raw Food for Real People. The best way to approach the raw-food lifestyle, he says, is to think “in terms of what you do eat, as opposed to what you don’t.” Rotondi’s best advice, however, is as simple as his delightful and delicious recipes: “Love your food, love your world, love yourself.”
—LACEY GALBRAITH

QUITTING SMOKING
After his well-received appearance on “Oprah” in 2008, Dr. Daniel Seidman decided to write Smoke-Free in 30 Days to share the wisdom he has gained from 20 years of research and work with smoking-cessation clinics. His advice is clear and easy to understand, and he is careful to discuss a wide range of smoking habits, triggers, withdrawal symptoms and coping mechanisms. Seidman is a proponent of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), and his advice tends to lean heavily on this particular tool; those who don’t want to use NRT may find this book of limited use. However, for those who decide to follow Seidman’s program, his 30-day schedule for quitting smoking—which comprises the second half of the book—will provide them with specific and manageable step-by-step tasks and strategies to help them accomplish the goal of going permanently smoke-free.
—KATE PRITCHARD

Have you decided on your New Year’s resolutions yet? You know, the ones you follow with zeal in January, limp along with through February and abandon sheepishly sometime before the first crocuses bloom? If you’ve ever found it tough to stick with your well-intentioned efforts to change, these books will offer a fresh take on […]

Remembering the sacrifices and successes of African Americans—from unexpected champions of civil rights to talented performers who dreamed big—is one of the most inspiring ways to celebrate Black History Month. If we keep teaching our children well, racism just may someday be a thing of the past.


AN OAK'S GREAT GIFT

“Hearts drumming, / eyes darting, / knees trembling.” Susan VanHecke’s reverent free verse describes the trepidation felt by Frank, James and Shepard, three slaves working in a Confederate camp in Virginia, as they risk their lives. The men secretly slip out and sail across the harbor to a Union fort on May 23, 1861. If they had attempted this just a few days earlier, they would have been returned according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But Virginia has recently seceded from the United States, and the Union general declares the men “contraband” and “keeps” them as “enemy property.”

Soon the three former slaves are joined by hundreds more. Based on actual events and accompanied by dramatic illustrations, this poetic picture book follows the runaways as they build a community, which they call Slabtown, in the ruined city of Hampton, once torched by Confederates. At the heart of this community grows a mighty oak, where missionaries illegally teach slave children to read, and a boy recites President Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation, a promise of freedom to come.

A concluding author’s note provides more information on the Emancipation Oak, now designated one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society, and the daring escape of the three slaves. With appeal for younger and older readers alike, Under the Freedom Tree is both a beautiful tribute to a lasting symbol of freedom and a powerful reminder that one brave action can change the course of history.

—Angela Leeper


A TRIBUTE TO A MEMORABLE VOICE

In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell writes with great reverence and a vigor fitting to the life of the illustrious performer Josephine Baker. This handsomely designed tribute to Josephine’s life is refreshingly uncluttered in every way: Powell’s free-verse text doesn’t waste any words, and Christian Robinson’s minimalist acrylic illustrations communicate the very essence of Josephine’s vivacious spirit. 

Powell takes readers from Josephine’s poor childhood to her death, and in between she chronicles the major events of her life—her struggles with racial discrimination, her rise to the top, her legendary performances and her efforts to spy for the Allies against the Nazis during WWII. Powell repeatedly uses the powerful metaphor of Josephine as a volcano, often using all caps to emphasize Josephine’s larger-than-life talent. “Deep-trapped steam FLASHED and WHISTLED,” she writes about her signature dance moves. “Josephine was on fire. CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT.” Other sparkling metaphors nail Josephine’s stamina and describe her body as “a prizefighter, like a kangaroo, with rhythm in her hips, like a cat ready to strike, a volcano about to burst.” 

The book plays effectively with font size and type to accentuate the major themes of her life. After Josephine gets yet another rejection early in her career, based on her skin color, Powell asks in large, cursive type, “Wasn’t there any place in the world where color didn’t matter?” Quotes from Josephine are also dramatically placed, and Powell chooses those that communicate Josephine’s inner fire: “I improvised, crazy with music. Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever.” 

With grace, simple shapes and lots of style and movement, this book perfectly captures Josephine, with a varied and vibrant color palette that complements her dynamic personality. Josephine is an extraordinary tribute to an American legend. 

—Julie Danielson


LOST LIVES

In The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor book Bomb, tells the harrowing story of the fight for the lives and rights of 50 black sailors. 

On July 17, 1944, more than 300 sailors were killed and almost 400 were injured when several thousand tons of explosives aboard two ships detonated at the Port Chicago naval base in California. When the surviving sailors went back to work, they refused to obey orders to load munitions again. They were too scared to do such a dangerous job without the proper training. It was also worrisome that no white sailors were ordered to load munitions at Port Chicago. Charged with mutiny and facing the death penalty after their continued refusal, the sailors became unsung heroes in the heated battle for racial equality.

Painstakingly researched through recorded interviews, The Port Chicago 50 vividly recounts the fear and anxiety surrounding the explosion. From 17-year-old sailors to respected, 23-year-old informal leader Joseph Smalls, Sheinkin provides powerful first-hand accounts of these events. Long, complicated court transcripts and documents are presented as edge-of-your-seat drama. 

Sheinkin does an admirable job describing for young readers the profound impact these sailors had on civil rights and the integration of the Navy. This is a fascinating read on an important event in U.S. history. 

—Sada Stipe


FINDING HER FREEDOM

In 1848, 15-year-old Willow lives on a plantation so far north in Maryland that the Mason-Dixon Line lies just beyond her mother’s grave. Although she barely remembers her mother, Willow desperately needs her advice. Papa is planning to marry Willow off to a man on the neighboring plantation, a very different place from the “gentle” plantation life she has known. The owner of Willow’s plantation has even taught her to read—but no one knows that Willow has gone on to teach herself to write. One morning, Willow catches sight of two black men riding horses into free Pennsylvania. If they are fugitive slaves, then just seeing them is dangerous. As it turns out, one of the men is 17-year-old Cato, a free man, who changes everything Willow has grown to believe about her future. 

In a highly credible fashion, Willow grapples with her choices—she is as afraid of the path of freedom as she is of the certain horrors of continued enslavement. Perhaps most important to Willow, however, are the secrets she learns about the fate of her own mother, a beautiful and educated African woman.

Author Tonya Cherie Hegamin slides period details into Willow’s simple, insightful narrative, creating a fluid reading experience only slightly interrupted by the occasional shift to Cato’s third-person narration. Willow is a well-researched historical novel that features a unique aspect of American slavery.

—Diane Colson

Remembering the sacrifices and successes of African Americans—from unexpected champions of civil rights to talented performers who dreamed big—is one of the most inspiring ways to celebrate Black History Month. If we keep teaching our children well, racism just may someday be a thing of the past.

Though the “overnight success” story tends to make headlines, debut novels are more often the result of years of hard work and dedication. This month, we’re highlighting four debuts that deserve some time in the spotlight.


It is always a treat when a talented writer chooses to write about her home, particularly when she does so with authority, clarity and imagination. Such is the case with Carrie La Seur, whose debut novel The Home Place gives readers a stunning but frank look at what it means to be from Billings, Montana.

La Seur, herself a lawyer, employs her intimate knowledge of the legal system and her familiarity with the setting to create a powerful work of fiction. The main character, Alma, has put her hometown far behind her to work at a high-end law firm in Seattle, but she is called back to Billings after her younger sister, Vicky, is found dead on the side of the road.

Upon arriving in Billings, Alma dubs herself co-investigator of Vicky’s death, quietly mulling over possible evidence, interviewing witnesses and interrogating potential killers. La Seur’s book is not just a crime novel, however. As Alma is forced to return to places she has worked to forget, she struggles with memories from her past—of first loves, of never-ending landscapes that have since been destroyed by mining, of her parents’ deaths, of Vicky’s life, of leaving Montana. With pitch-perfect prose, La Seur reminds us that home, though often a difficult word to define, is the place that pulls us no matter how hard we try to push against it.

—Stephanie Kirkland

Read an interview with Carrie La Seur.


BLENDING MYTH AND MAGIC
Marjorie, a graduate student in literature, assumed her sister Holly would always be her best friend and their grandfather’s bedtime stories were fairy tales. Then, after his death, Marjorie discovers notebooks filled with the same stories, now poetically rendered as Jewish folktales—though her grandfather never claimed to be a Jew.

Presented in full throughout the novel, these tales reveal aspects of Marjorie’s grandfather’s identity that undermine her faith in his character. As she struggles to interpret the stories, Marjorie has a series of encounters with an old man who not only knows about the notebooks, but also bitterly resents her grandfather.

While coping with these revelations, Marjorie struggles to accept Holly’s marriage to Nathan, a prickly, deeply observant member of an Orthodox Jewish sect. As Marjorie turns away from Holly and her new faith, a tragic event related to their hidden history forces Marjorie to set aside her anger and help someone she loves. As Marjorie’s investigations proceed, she discovers connections that span not just generations, but oceans, and that may even disobey the laws of time and space.

Stephanie Feldman’s first novel is a compelling mix of fable, history and mystery, but at the center, it is a very human story about how families accept one another’s choices while forgiving one another’s mistakes. The Angel of Losses is an ambitious work by a brilliant new author.

—Marianne Peters


A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR
David Leveraux just wants to fit in. He creates an easy, comfortable life with his pretty wife—but it doesn’t stay that way. His well-constructed life is artificial, and as he quickly discovers from his job in a 1970s research lab, artificial sweetness has its drawbacks.

Sweetness #9, the pretty pink artificial sweetener David examines in his lab, promises him, and the country, the good life. But it might have a dark side—since its introduction, many have become lethargic, anxious and overweight. But is that because of the pink powder, or is it just a product of the human condition?

It’s easy to think Sweetness #9 is an anti-food industry book, but it really isn’t. Artificial sweetener is used as a metaphor, and the real heart of the story is the past decades’ cultural shifts. It’s all here, from aerobics to blue ketchup, from school shootings to suburbia, from over-medication to diet fads. Chemical flavoring stands for our obsession with immediacy, our single-serving, isolationist culture and our inability to stomach anything nourishing, either culinary or emotional.

German-born author Stephan Eirik Clark’s style is understated and calm, punctuated with funny observations on the ridiculous aspects of everyday life. His writing is undeniably quirky, complete with a boy who loses his ability to use verbs, a German entrepreneur who flavored food for Hitler and a dancing monkey. But, like the sweetener, Clark’s style is masking something else: His quippy one-liners keep us entertained, so we barely notice the tale of hopelessness and loneliness that he’s creating along the way. Fans of Tom Perrotta will enjoy Clark’s pointed examination of the human condition.

—Carrie Rollwagen


EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Tom Putnam, an English professor at a small Southern college, had grown accustomed to living a simple, quiet life. His days were spent teaching, his nights at home with his unstable wife, Marjory, and her mother, the outspoken Agnes. Tom blamed himself for Marjory’s condition—a fleeting affair with a visiting poetess a decade ago had completely devastated her—and he never seemed to want more than he had. That is, until Rose Callahan arrives to run the campus bookstore and a series of unpredictable events change everything.

Rose is as lovely as her name, managing to charm almost everyone. Tom is taken with her instantly, but the very night they meet, he receives word that his affair produced a son, who will be coming to stay with him. Suddenly Tom must figure out how to navigate both his relationship with his son and his growing attraction to Rose.

Martha Woodroof’s delightful debut is a character-driven novel with a lot of heart. It’s a story of family, friendship and the unexpected ways people come in and out of our lives. Watching Tom and Rose change each other for the better is engaging and inspiring, and while some plot twists border on the unbelievable, Small Blessings is pure reading pleasure. Woodroof, an NPR contributor, clearly has a deep understanding of the human condition, and she has crafted a charming and compelling first novel that is perfect for book clubs and fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

—Abby Plesser

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Though the “overnight success” story tends to make headlines, debut novels are more often the result of years of hard work and dedication. This month, we’re highlighting four debuts that deserve some time in the spotlight.

The horror, the horror—oh, how we love the horror. Creepy children, bloodlust and white specters dominate the best novels for sending chills down your spine this Halloween.


More than a decade ago, Anne Rice walked away from the vampire mythology that helped make her a best-selling icon, and though she’s written plenty of other novels since, many fans have longed for a return. Prince Lestat, the 11th novel in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, is that comeback, but because it’s been so long since Rice has walked in this realm, she has made this more than just another installment.

Prince Lestat is an ambitious new story, yes, but it’s also an attempt to reacquaint all of us with the characters we’ve loved for years. Rice knows it’s been a while, and she crafts a tone that feels simultaneously like greeting an old friend and meeting a new one.

From the very first page, it’s clear Rice never lost touch with the exuberant, often witty and always fearless voice of irrepressible vampire Lestat de Lioncourt. When we meet Lestat this time, both he and the world of the vampires are in shambles. Nothing has been quite the same since the original vampire Akasha was struck down at the end of The Queen of the Damned, and the immortals long for a new leader. Many think Lestat should be that leader, but Lestat himself isn’t so sure.

The story jumps through time and around the globe as Lestat searches for redemption and tries to find his place in this chaotic world of blood drinkers. We meet new characters and revisit old favorites. We see exotic locales and contemplate the darkest part of Rice’s vampire lore. In the end, though the familiar parts of this saga are here, it’s clear that Rice isn’t content to rest on past bestsellers. This is, at its heart, a book about the new vampire order, about a new status quo. Rice has offered us a tale of tremendous ambition, and she’s absolutely delivered.

—Matthew Jackson


THE SPECTER OF DOUBT
Siobhan Adcock’s creepy debut, The Barter, is a good, old-fashioned ghost story that will make you jump when your walls creak. But it’s really about motherhood—the fierce love and the plaguing ambivalence. Looking closely at the uncertainties women wade through when their roles change, Adcock plumbs marital discord and the ways fear and self-doubt manifest in families.

Bridget, a successful Texas attorney, didn’t go back to work after maternity leave. Now, as she cares for her 10-month-old daughter, she still wonders if she made the right choice. Missing her workaholic husband, Bridget is also troubled by thoughts of her loved ones’ inevitable deaths. One night, Bridget sees a strange white form enter the nursery, lurching toward her and the baby. Now Bridget’s days and nights are filled with dread and the smell of dank earth as she tries to stay a step ahead of the ghost, alone.

Alternating chapters with Bridget’s story is that of Rebecca Mueller, a German Texan who in 1902 prepares to marry a man she’s not sure she loves. A wedding night filled with hostility and dashed hopes sets the tone for their marriage. Her one bright spot is her baby boy, but shadows threaten even this. Legend has it Rebecca’s mother bartered an hour of her life to save baby Rebecca’s. Could Rebecca do the same for her son if he were in danger?

Adcock’s insights into marital guilt and anger are precise, and her descriptions of parents’ love for their children—and vice versa—are spot-on. German folklore lends a touch of magical realism, weaving in dark fairy-tale themes of children in peril, bargaining and exchange. New moms should connect with Bridget’s and Rebecca’s doubts: Have they given too much of themselves to work, their husbands, their kids? Or not enough? Some of Adcock’s plot strands come a bit loose by the end, but her thoughtful story will keep readers reflecting on its themes once the shivers have passed.

—Sheri Bodoh


WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Keith Donohue’s The Boy Who Drew Monsters has all the ingredients of a classic horror novel: an isolated town, a young boy paralyzed by agoraphobia and a home that transforms itself from a dream into a nightmare.

Donohue transports readers to a Maine seaside town, home to the Keenan family. Tim Keenan is the primary caretaker of his emotionally fragile 10-year-old son, Jip. Tim’s wife, Holly, is convinced that her out-of-control son needs to be committed. Since a near-fatal accident three years prior, Jip has never been the same and now refuses to leave the house. Recently, Jip’s behavior has turned violent, and his latest obsession is drawing monsters. One evening, as Tim drives home Jip’s only friend, Nick, Tim nearly runs over a white figure that looks to be half man and half beast. Nick denies having seen anything, but only because he is too petrified: The monstrous figure is identical to one of Jip’s drawings. Soon, Holly begins to hear noises around the house and Tim finds icy wet footprints left in their hallway. But at the end of the day, only Jip knows the true explanation behind his parents’ hauntings, and only he can save or destroy his family.

With a mind-bending final twist, The Boy Who Drew Monsters—much in the tradition of the classic The Turn of the Screw—will leave readers shaking in their boots.

—Megan Fishmann


HIGH ON LIFE

In traditional vampire tales, superhuman creatures lust for the blood of ordinary mortals. Chase Novak’s Brood reverses this formula: In 21st-century New York, affluent thrill-seekers pay big bucks to drink the blood of teenage mutants. The kids providing this elixir are the product of an experimental fertility treatment that turned their parents into monstrous beings with an unspeakable hunger for raw flesh. As the offspring reach adolescence, they too start to change: They’re abnormally fast and strong, but also prone to murderous rages.

Brood (the sequel to 2012’s Breed) takes up the story of 12-year-old Adam and Alice. Two years after their parents’ violent deaths, the twins have been adopted by their aunt Cynthia. She hopes her love can help them forget the horrors of their past, but nothing is that simple. Terrified by the changes taking place within their bodies, the pair are starving themselves to stave off puberty. Meanwhile, a ragtag collective of feral teens is making a living selling blood, and they want the twins to join the pack.

As Adam and Alice fight for their lives, age-old terrors of adolescence merge with uniquely 21st-century fears in this gruesome and grimly funny tale.

—Emily Bartlett Hines

 

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The horror, the horror—oh, how we love the horror. Creepy children, bloodlust and white specters dominate the best novels for sending chills down your spine this Halloween.

Looking at a world from an outsider’s point of view is a common theme in literature—with good reason. It supplies a powerful perspective and often enlightenment, as demonstrated in these four memorable first novels.

REACHING A BREAKING POINT
The Islamophobic phase of America’s fitful xenophobia is nothing new: The religion may change, but the fear rarely does. Rajia Hassib’s In the Language of Miracles shows its effect on an Egyptian-American family after their eldest son kills his Christian girlfriend. The novel is topical both in its take on race relations and in its depiction of a troubled young man with ready access to firearms.

Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy are model immigrants. Samir is a doctor building a family practice and aspiring to home ownership. Nagla is a supportive wife, and their kids, Hossam, Khaled and Fatima, are, in Samir’s words, “well-bred.” But something goes wrong with Hossam, even if what exactly that is isn’t clear. Is he mentally ill, or does he only suffer from the “loneliness and boredom” afflicting many newcomers? Either way, one day, in a fit of jealousy, he takes his girlfriend’s life and his own. Some reactions are predictable: threatening letters and graffiti (“Go Home”). Others are more sinister: posting photos of Samir’s house and children to Facebook. Hassib makes it clear, however, that 9/11 did change things for Muslim Americans. Khaled concludes that, as a Muslim, he is frequently seen as “a cancer that brought nothing but suffering.”

Hassib, who was born and raised in Egypt before moving to the U.S. at 23, is a capable writer, especially when dealing with the interpersonal. Her natural use of language resembles that of Khaled Hosseini. Both writers deal with a common theme: Sometimes melting pots have a propensity to boil over.

—Kenneth Champeon

MAKING THE WRONG FRIEND
If Shirley Jackson and Mary Gaitskill had a literary daughter, it might be Ottessa Moshfegh, whose unnerving debut is sure to garner attention. Part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age novel, Eileen shares a week in the life of its title character: a young woman stuck in a dead-end job in a juvenile detention center who crosses paths with a polished and privileged social worker. Looking back on her life, Eileen narrates with a precise, mesmerizing clarity. 

In her early 20s, Eileen is living in a dilapidated house in an unnamed Massachusetts town with her alcoholic father. Eileen, who also drinks too much, loathes her body and settles more deeply into her filthy home every day. She heartily despises her co-workers and harbors an unrequited crush on a guard, more out of boredom than real emotion. But when the attractive new head of education, Rebecca St. John, makes overtures of friendship, Eileen can’t resist her charm. She soon finds herself complicit in Rebecca’s atypical methods. 

Eileen takes place over a single snowy week, and the locations—from the attic bedroom and dank bars to the narrow linoleum halls of the jail—add to the feeling of claustrophobia that Moshfegh, currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, expertly builds. It’s the how and not the why that this strange and unsettling novel reveals, and readers will be holding their breath by the final pages.

—Lauren Bufferd

ODD COUPLE IN AN ODD LAND
Fans of immigrant stories—think Americanah or House of Sand and Fog—will be captivated by Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, the striking first novel from Ohio-based writer Julie Iromuanya. 

Nigerians Ifi and Job may have married sight unseen, but they’re united by their determination to present themselves as the perfect, upwardly mobile immigrant couple to their families back home. This provides something of a challenge, since Job—who has been in America for nearly two decades—is not the doctor he claimed to be during their courtship, but a college dropout. As Ifi adjusts to her new home (under Job’s dubious tutelage), they attempt to make the most of their circumstances. That is, until Job’s first wife, whom he married for a green card, resurfaces.

Iromuanya weaves this tale of a mismatched couple with dark humor and careful observation. From the first scene, where Job tries to woo Ifi with techniques learned by watching American pornography (spoiler alert: it doesn’t go over well), it’s clear that no subject is off-limits. Her insights into assimilation—its difficulties and pitfalls—are astute and at times, eye-opening.

—Trisha Ping

THE INSULATED ELITE
For centuries, New York City has been a magnet to dreamers with fantasies of catapulting themselves into the upper echelons of society. Unfortunately, as Evelyn Beegan discovers in Stephanie Clifford’s debut novel, Everybody Rise, the higher you rise, the farther you have to fall should you lose your grip on the social ladder.

Evelyn has landed a job with an up-and-coming social media site, which seeks to attract the crème de la crème. Therefore, Evelyn makes it her mission to land Camilla Rutherford—the queen bee of Manhattan’s young, beautiful and rich—as a client. Knowing that a blue blood like Camilla would never rub elbows with a new-money nobody, Evelyn sets out to reinvent herself. What begins as fudging the truth soon spirals until Evelyn barely recognizes herself. It’s only a matter of time before her carefully constructed house of cards comes tumbling down.

With Everybody Rise, Clifford has crafted a sharp and witty cautionary tale about wealth and the pursuit of the American dream in the 21st century, right before the 2008 financial crash. Her shrewd look at upper-class dynamics in modern day New York society takes up the torch of Edith Wharton. And although her story is sobering in its scope, Clifford keeps it afloat with bursts of comedy; the end result is a thoughtful yet entertaining yarn that manages to bring to mind both The Great Gatsby and The Shopaholic series. Filled with scandal and schadenfreude, Everybody Rise will keep readers flipping pages.

—Stephenie Harrison

RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Stephanie Clifford about Everybody Rise.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Looking at a world from an outsider’s point of view is a common theme in literature—with good reason. It supplies a powerful perspective and often enlightenment, as demonstrated in these four memorable first novels.

Summer days were made for getting lost in a good book. We’ve gathered a few of the season’s hottest novels—stories of romance, adventure and suspense—that are just right for whiling away a few lazy hours. Grab a cold drink, find a spot in the shade, and get ready to read.


Cape May
By Chip Cheek

In Chip Cheek’s debut novel, the year is 1957. Young Henry and Effie from tiny Signal Creek, Georgia, are on a two-week honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. By the end of their first awkward week of marriage, Effie wants to go home early, and Henry, defeated, assents. But the night before they are to leave this coastal ghost town, they spot signs of life—signs of a party, no less—and decide to stop in. Cheek paints a graphic and sensuous portrait of an fragile marriage embattled well before its time. Cape May is a besotted picnic of a novel—day-drunk and languid, shadowed by ever-threatening storm clouds. —Kathryn Justice Leache


Cari Mora
By Thomas Harris
If it’s a thriller you seek for summer reading, look no further than Cari Mora by Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal Rising. Beautiful young Cari Mora is an immigrant caretaker of a house in Miami Beach with a fortune hidden beneath it: millions of dollars in cartel gold. When Hans-Peter Schneider—a psychopath who thrives on violence—comes after the treasure, he develops a sinister interest in Cari. But she’s a fighter at heart, has experienced war and knows how to look after herself. Harris explores the dark side of human passion in this pulse-pounding novel. His first book in 13 years, Cari Mora will not disappoint fans of disturbing, taut thrillers. —Julie Hale


The Flatshare
By Beth O’Leary
If the idea of flatmates sharing a bed at alternate hours without meeting sounds too far-fetched, hold your skepticism. If it sounds like a meet-cute waiting to happen, you’re in luck. Regardless of your starting point, The Flatshare is a charming love story to warm your heart. After Tiffy’s boyfriend dumps her, she’s desperate to find a new flat. Night nurse Leon needs extra cash, and he’s willing to get creative. The flatmates follow a strict schedule to ensure that they won’t overlap, but as they begin to get to know each other through notes, their curiosity about each other grows. Even skeptical readers will be surprised by the thoughtful way Beth O’Leary faces not only new love but also the traces of individual pasts. —Carla Jean Whitley


How Not to Die Alone
By Richard Roper

Filled with humor and heart, How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper’s debut novel, tells the story of Andrew, a solitary soul whose public health job entails tracking down the next of kin of people who die alone. Due to a misunderstanding, Andrew’s co-workers think he’s a happily married father of two. In truth, his only family is a distant sister, and he leads a generally isolated existence. When Peggy joins his team at work, Andrew feels an attraction that she seems to share. But coming clean about his life could mean the end of his career and his reputation. What’s a lonely guy to do? A brisk, compelling read, Roper’s book is a rom-com with substance. —Julie Hale


Into the Jungle
By Erica Ferencik
Delve into the heart of the Amazon in Erica Ferencik’s second action-packed thriller. In 2010, while living in a hostel in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Lily Bushwold, a Boston native, meets Omar, an Amazon hunter turned motorcycle mechanic. Two scrappy yet tender kindred spirits, they quickly fall in love. When Omar is summoned back to his jungle village, Ayachero, to avenge his mourning family, Lily accompanies him. Little does she know it’s not just Omar she follows, but a mystical calling to discover her ca’ah, her life’s purpose, intrinsically bound up with the fragile jungle ecosystem. A chilling journey into jungle life, Into the Jungle is also a deep probe into environmental ethics and love. —Mari Carlson


Monsieur Mediocre
By John von Sothen
Ah, Paris! There’s no city quite like it. And these days, when Americans are finding vacations as scarce as video rental stores, it’s hard not to look with longing at the six weeks’ getaway still in vogue across the pond. But American-­born columnist John von Sothen didn’t come to France for the vacations. Fifteen years ago, he fell in love with a French actress and moved to Paris. Now the father of two teens, he has penned an entertaining memoir of his life as a husband, father and constantly surprised expat. Monsieur Mediocre offers thoughtful observations about everything from politics to family life with irresistible charm. —Deborah Hopkinson


Mr. Know-It-All
By John Waters

If you’re a person who’s easily offended, take it from me: Don’t even read the reviews, much less crack open the cover of John Waters’ latest book. A whip-smart (he’d no doubt like that description), funny, multitalented and unique cultural icon, Waters is also an artist and book collector, and these essays reflect his endless assortment of interests—ranging from his movie-making memories (Patty Hearst thought he was kidding when he asked her to be in a movie) to his planning of and taking what he calls “a senior-citizen acid trip.” While it’s certainly not a book for everyone, Waters’ legion of admirers will be lining up in droves to hop aboard the Mr. Know-It-All bus. —Alice Cary


Mrs. Everything
By Jennifer Weiner
At the outset, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel pays homage to Little Women: Older sister Jo, a tomboy and athlete, wants to be a writer, while younger sister Bethie just wants to be a sweet, pretty daughter. But in Alcott terms, these two sisters are more like Jo and Amy—sometimes they just don’t get along. Mrs. Everything follows the two sisters from their Jewish girlhood in post-World War II Detroit through the present and into the near future, 71 years in all. With its long timespan and focus on cultural change, Mrs. Everything is a departure for Weiner, but she still delivers flawed but approachable female characters, well-­examined friendships and romantic relationships and often-joyful sex scenes. —Sarah McCraw Crow


Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune
By Roselle Lim
Summer beckons a reading list that is as light, fun and feel-good as the season itself. Roselle Lim’s Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune definitely fits that need. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lim’s debut is the story of 20-something Natalie, who has just returned home to the worst news possible: the unexpected passing of her mother, Miranda. Her shock and sadness are compounded by the guilt of parting ways seven years ago over a disagreement which now seems extraneous. But this is a story of luck and fortune, so it isn’t long before Natalie is given a chance to fix it all. —Chika Gujarathi


Necessary People
By Anna Pitoniak
Two complex women inhabit Necessary People, Anna Pitoniak’s second psychologically astute novel. College graduates Stella Bradley and Violet Trapp have become the closest of friends, though they’re opposites in so many ways. When their longtime friendship gives way to ambition, Pitoniak perceptively traces the fracture of their sisterlike bond, leading to a denouement the reader will not anticipate. An insightful glimpse into the competitive world of TV news and Pitoniak’s spot-on portraits of these two women come together in a gripping novel that’s sure to be a popular summer read. —Deborah Donovan


Nuking the Moon
By Vince Houghton
One category of “beach read” that’s criminally neglected is the “dad beach read.” Vince Houghton tackles this genre head-on in his curious, delightful new book, Nuking the Moon. At the height of World War II and the Cold War, national governments the world over devised missions and schemes that never came to fruition—because they were very bad. Houghton, a curator at the International Spy Museum in Washington, roasts these failed plots one by one. “Why not use a live cat to spy on the Russians?” someone at the CIA once asked without a hint of irony. “I’ll tell you exactly why,” Houghton responds, to readers’ delight. —Christy Lynch


Out East
By John Glynn
This memoir relates the travails of a group of privileged New England kids as they navigate an indulgent, raucous summer in Montauk in their late 20s. (Of course, references to The Great Gatsby abound.) When feelings for a male friend develop into something more, author John Glynn finds himself bearing the weight of a secret about his sexual identity. What follows is a charming portrait of how deeply human it is to be uncertain, to be driving a hundred miles an hour toward nowhere and longing to have a buddy in the car. Out East is a heart-wrenching reminder of the precarious emotional inner life that undulates just beneath the surface, even for people who seem as though they have it all. —Kelly Blewett


Passion on Park Avenue
By Lauren Layne

The title says it all: Passion on Park Avenue by Lauren Layne is a Big Apple romance brimming with sophisticated fun. At 29, Naomi Powell is spirited, independent and oh-so-successful. The daughter of a housekeeper, she holds the rank of CEO at a major jewelry company—a position that gives her access to the rarefied world of the Upper East Side. Yet Naomi isn’t quite accepted by the city’s well-to-do. When handsome Oliver Cunningham—the son of a family who once employed her mother—enters the picture, she has a new distraction on her hands. The first entry in Layne’s new Central Park Pact Series, Passion on Park Avenue is the perfect summer escape. —Julie Hale


Recursion
By Blake Crouch
Blake Crouch’s follow-up to his breakout bestseller, Dark Matter, has an instantly compelling premise—across the country, people have begun experiencing vivid, emotional memories of alternate lives. Solving the mystery of False Memory Syndrome would be enough to drive Recursion forward, but the second you think the book has settled into a holding pattern, it pinwheels off in an entirely unexpected direction. Early on, Crouch lets the reader in on the secret of the syndrome’s origins through frequent flashbacks to 11 years before the disease started to spread, and the two timelines play off each other in increasingly poignant ways. It’s early, but Recursion may be the smartest, most surprising thriller of the summer. —Savanna Walker


The Scent Keeper
By Erica Bauermeister

Emmeline and her scientist father live a somewhat idyllic, if Spartan, existence on a remote island off Canada’s west coast. He’s invented a mysterious machine, the Nightingale, a kind of olfactory Polaroid camera that captures scent moments on specialized paper. But paradise, like childhood, has a fixed term, and one traumatic incident whisks Emmeline off her island into a society that she finds finds both intriguing and terrifying. Reminiscent of Vianne Rocher from Joanne Harris’ beloved Chocolat, Emmeline is persistent, engaging and a savant in her chosen field. All she has to do is to take her father’s advice: follow her nose, and then get out of its way. —Thane Tierney


Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered
By Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark
Fans of the wildly popular “My Favorite Murder” podcast already know the heart, hilarity and horror embodied by hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. But even those who have been living under a rock will enjoy their new book, Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered. Kilgariff and Hardstark delve into comedy’s darker, more vulnerable underbelly in these essays, detailing adolescent escapades with drugs, creeps, eating disorders and more. Confessional, wise and more than a little obscene, this book is for anyone whose path to adulthood is littered with blunders. These authors will show you how to remember them and laugh. —Christy Lynch


Summer Hours
By Amy Mason Doan

Summer Hours is a sweet, satisfying love story. Growing up, Becc always played by the rules, getting good grades and preparing for a journalism career. But a college romance with the irresistible Cal derailed her plans and damaged an important friendship. Years later, as she travels to California for a wedding, Becc is accompanied by a special guy whom she hasn’t seen in ages (we won’t spoil the story by revealing his identity!). Memories of the time she spent with him come flooding back, but he doesn’t seem to share her enthusiasm for the past. Should Becc ignore her feelings, or follow her heart? Doan spins an unforgettable tale of old-fashioned romance in this winning novel. —Julie Hale


Time After Time
By Lisa Grunwald

Fans of historical fiction will savor Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald. In 1937, Joe, a railway man working in Grand Central Station, crosses paths with Nora, a mysterious young woman who doesn’t quite fit in with her surroundings—because she’s a ghost. The real Nora was an art student who died in a subway crash in 1925. As a spirit, she reappears in Grand Central Station every now and again, but when she and Joe fall in love, they’re determined to find a way to build a life together. An unforgettable tale of otherworldly romance, Grunwald’s book is a true page-turner. Pick up a copy and prepare to be transported. —Julie Hale

What are you reading this summer? Check out these must-reads for long, lazy days . . .

In celebration of Memoir March, we asked the authors of eight groundbreaking memoirs what readers will love about their life stories—and which parts are even stranger than fiction.


author photo of Dolly AldertonDolly Alderton, author of Everything I Know About Love

Dolly Alderton recounts her many mishaps—including a drunken evening when she thought she was in Oxford, not London—through essays, satirical emails and recipes. Alderton isn’t afraid to share unflattering moments or to laugh at herself, and readers may find solace in realizing they aren’t alone at the party. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I am happy about how truthful it is—which makes it uncomfortable for me to read back sometimes, but it’s a really honest account of an ebullient, rocky, unpredictable period of my youth that a lot of people go through, and I wrote it truthfully.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book? 
Someone who is after riot and revelation in equal measure from an imperfect antiheroine. 

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
That I took a taxi across 100 miles at 4 a.m. Both me and my student bank account overdraft wish that was a made-up anecdote.

 


Barry Sonnenfeld, author of Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother

In this funny, wry and thoroughly entertaining memoir, the legendary cinematographer and director does more than name-drop or recall Hollywood vignettes. Barry Sonnenfeld is, above all, a storyteller, and while his own journey from a skinny, French horn-playing kid to a successful director drives the breezy narrative, he takes time to bring supporting characters irreverently to life. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
That people tell me they laughed out loud reading it.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
Readers looking for a surprisingly good time. Or a sad time. Anyone interested in films and how they ever get made.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
There are so many unbelievable but true things: Being paged at Madison Square Garden during a Jimi Hendrix performance; surviving a plane crash; surviving my mother’s cooking; being bar mitzvah’d in a Catholic church; selling M.C. Hammer my ’62 Lincoln Continental; becoming a successful director.

 


Erin Khar, author of Strung Out

Any book about addiction is actually a book about feelings and the lengths that people who are suffering will go to avoid feeling them. Erin Khar’s memoir is a compassionate account of her illness and will surely be the gold standard for women writing about heroin addiction. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
What I love most about my book is the way readers have told me they connect with the story. For people who’ve struggled with addiction, it helps them feel seen, feel less alone. For people who have not experienced addiction, it helps them understand addiction in a way they hadn’t before.

Readers have also told me how much they found they could relate to, and that surprised them. I love that! I wanted the narrative to reflect a human experience, to present addiction not as an aberration but as a human condition, one that 2 million Americans struggle with. Reframing how we view addiction will go a long way in helping people.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
Definitely memoir readers and fans of addiction and recovery narratives. But beyond that, anyone who is interested in understanding what is at the heart of the opioid crisis.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
I think it’s hard for people to believe that I was able to hide my addiction for as long as I did, but the people who were closest to me were absolutely shocked when I went to rehab. In my teenage years, I didn’t display the “warning signs” of addiction. I got straight A’s in school, participated in lots of extracurricular activities and had plenty of friends. We have ideas about what a drug addict looks like or acts like, but the truth is addiction can happen to anyone, can look like anyone.

 


Alex Halberstadt, author of Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

Beginning with childhood memories of his parents’ troubled marriage and divorce, resentment toward his absent father and embarrassment over grandparents who made no effort to conceal their foreignness, Russian American author Alex Halberstadt slowly pulls away the curtain draped over his family’s unhappiness. What he finds is startling: a grandfather who served as a bodyguard to Stalin, and who became known to Halberstadt as a fragile man who still wrestles with the truth of the atrocities he at least witnessed, if not perpetrated. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
One of the themes my book deals with is the relationship between personal lives and the larger currents of history, and what I love is the way my book braids together personal stories with episodes from Russian history while telescoping back and forth in time. For me, nonfiction is always most compelling when it’s grounded in the specifics of people’s stories.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
I think my book would particularly appeal to readers interested in family stories, 20th-century history, Russia, the Holocaust, immigration and intergenerational trauma.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
My grandfather was very likely Stalin’s last living bodyguard and for years operated as a double agent, splitting his loyalties between Stalin and the head of the Soviet secret police, Lavrenty Beria. Some days it seems unbelievable to me, too.

 


Evan James, author of I’ve Been Wrong Before

The ragged ways we fall in and out of relationships are at the center of these dazzling autobiographical essays, as Evan James ponders the complexities of love, lust, sexuality and longing against the backdrop of his world travels. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I love that I set out to write a lighthearted book of comedic personal essays and that, over the course of years spent tinkering with them, I upended many of my own assumptions about myself and my loved ones in the process. As I say in one essay, “We settle for so little knowledge of each other.”

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
A reader with an open mind and a sense of curiosity about life in all its absurdity. A reader who wants to have a laugh while reading about world travel, past lives, psychic mothers, drag queens, drugs, dating, ghosts, day jobs.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
Readers might find it incredible that I’ve had so many fascinating love affairs—or that I was, apparently, Lord Byron in a past life.

 


Philip Kennicott, author of Counterpoint

Philip Kennicott’s engrossing memoir explores his impressions of his late mother. But even more than these grief-stricken reflections, it is Kennicott’s intimate insights into the way Bach’s music speaks to all our lives as they wind their way toward our inevitable deaths that makes this book an unforgettable triumph. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I thought I was going to write a book about Johann Sebastian Bach and his magnificent keyboard work “The Goldberg Variations,” but as I started writing, it became a book about my mother and the grief I felt when she died almost 10 years earlier. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m an art critic who writes for a daily newspaper, and I try not to use the first-person voice too often. But the process of writing this memoir kept drawing me ever deeper into memory and forced me to think about what had been a complicated and difficult relationship. I kept wondering, can anyone possibly be interested in this? When I was finished and showed the manuscript to a few people, they said it was the family part they enjoyed most. That was a relief, because I struggled to weave together anecdotes about my childhood and the original idea for the book, which was a memoir about learning how to play a complex piece of music. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. If we really dig into the emotions we feel in the present, we find that they have deep roots in our past. Writing about Bach, and my struggles with his demanding music, inevitably led me back to some of my earliest memories, to a time when my mother and I used to make music together. It refreshed things that had been buried for a long time, mostly in a good way.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
If you took music lessons as a child or are studying an instrument as an adult, I think you will love this book. And I hope readers who are interested in memoir and have a general curiosity about music will find something of interest here. I tried to write about music in ways that are specific but not technical, and to explain why Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one of the enduring masterpieces of Western music. But this is also a book about something we all know or will know in life: the pain of losing someone close to us. As I write in the last chapter, grief brings us meaning, it makes life more intense, and it makes us impatient with silly, trivial things. It binds us to other human beings. I hope those things are of universal interest to readers.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
There’s a chapter in my book about a month I spent alone in an old house practicing the piano and reading. Except for a few trips to the grocery store, I saw no one during that period, and the isolation was seductive. I realized after a few weeks that I was thinking more about my mother than I had at any other point in my life, thinking about her more sympathetically and working harder to piece together who she had been and why she had been so unhappy. It was an emotionally volatile few weeks. And one day, as some of the darker clouds in my head were lifting, I went on a long walk and heard a strange flapping in the grass along the roadside. It was a bird caught up in some kind of netting or plastic. I managed to free it, and it flew away. I thought, what a cliché. And then I thought, well, it happened, and it is the sort of story my mother, who was a passionate bird-watcher, would have loved. So I included it in the book.

 


Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings 

Cathy Park Hong offers a fierce excavation of her hardships as an Asian American woman living and working as a poet and artist. Historical traumas and cultural criticism are woven through this erudite collection of personal essays on family, art history, female relationships and racial awareness. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I love it because it’s my most honest, vulnerable and bravest book to date. It’s also my personal intervention against what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story,” which is basically the same tired racial narratives that we hear over and over again that comfort us rather than makes us rethink how we perceive others.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
I’m writing directly to Asian Americans, rather than writing about Asian Americans to a white audience. But I think so many people would enjoy this book: other people of color, immigrants, women, millennials, the curious-minded, people who don’t mind being challenged.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
That I had a brief and unfortunate foray into stand-up comedy.

 


Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of Children of the Land

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s powerful, poetically infused memoir adds a soul-searing voice to the canon of contemporary immigration narratives. Undocumented as he crossed over the desert into California as a child, temporarily blind from the stress, he grows up riddled with the shame of his family’s invisibility. (read the full review)

What do you love most about your book?
I love that I was given the freedom to cordon off sections, or chapters, or even single scenes as complete units in their own right and, more so that they are all of different sizes. Something special happens when text is placed alone in a sea of blank space like a tiny island made of language.

What kind of reader do you think will most enjoy your book?
I don’t think I could say who will enjoy my book most, but perhaps I could say who might get the most out of my book, and for different reasons. I am not afraid of critics looking from the outside in (I can shut away that noise) but rather of disappointing people who share similar experiences with me.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may think you made up?
I think it might be difficult for readers to accept how little healing there is in the book, and they may think I cherry-picked only the most emotionally difficult parts of my life with the belief that it would automatically translate into empathy for the reader. I truly wish that were the case, that somewhere out there, I’m living a life where I’ve moved on and put all of this behind me. I was always keenly aware of presenting joy that is at times enmeshed with grief.

In celebration of Memoir March, we asked the authors of eight groundbreaking memoirs what readers will love about their life stories—and which parts are even stranger than fiction. Dolly Alderton, author of Everything I Know About Love Dolly Alderton recounts her many mishaps—including a drunken evening when she thought she was in Oxford, not London—through essays, […]

When the sun is high and a summer afternoon stretches out before you with zero expectations, a great book—read for inspiration, thrills or pure enjoyment—is all you need.


★ Happy and You Know It

For readers who want the fun of reality TV but the heart of a good drama

Laura Hankin’s Happy and You Know It is the sort of novel that can suck a reader in and hold them until a whole day has passed, but it’s also a multidimensional story with riches revealed through close attention. After Claire is fired from her band, she’s trying to pay her way through New York City life, and a gig as a playgroup musician will have to do. The mothers in the group are wealthy and wellness-obsessed, but they easily incorporate Claire into their lives, and she welcomes the inclusion. As the playgroup moms work out their insecurities—within themselves and within their friendships—the metaphorical masks they wear begin to slip. With a light hand and a touch of mystery, Hankin’s debut explores feminism, class and the expectations placed on mothers. This is a romp with substance, consumed as easily as a beach read but offering ample opportunities for self-reflection.

—Carla Jean Whitley


Safecracker

For readers who want fiery pacing

Michael Maven is a New York thief who’s very good at his job and thinks that his next gig, stealing a rare coin from a rich guy’s apartment, should be easy. Then the job is interrupted by a mysterious woman, and within a matter of days, Michael finds himself at the center of a deadly web of drug cartels, crooked cops, the FBI and the woman who very nearly killed him—twice. Tight, thrilling and charming, Safecracker is a new take on the classic “crook-in-over-his-head” crime story, unfolding through Michael’s effortlessly cool narration. In prose that calls to mind the breeziest work of crime legends like Elmore Leonard, author Ryan Wick drives his narrative forward like a freight train. It’s expertly paced, witty and surprising, while also retaining a sense of the familiar that only comes from a love of the genre.

—Matthew Jackson

Editor’s note: Safecracker was originally scheduled for publication on June 2, 2020, but it has been canceled by the publisher. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.


The Madwoman and the Roomba

For readers looking for the humor in housework

In The Madwoman and the Roomba, Sandra Tsing Loh finds comedy in the indignities and absurdities of contemporary life while chronicling her 55th year. In two earlier nonfiction books, Loh adjusted to motherhood and went through a rocky divorce. This time, Loh is happily divorced and happily post-menopausal but still recording her life with let-it-all-hang-out charm. She recalls her embarrassing, claustrophobic freakout at the March for Science and tries to unleash her inner midlife goddess while parenting two teenagers. She describes her efforts to improve her terrible front yard, hire a painter, understand her malfunctioning high-tech fridge and follow her new cookbook’s recipes. Loh’s tone is chatty and self-deprecating, like having a glass of wine or a long phone call with your favorite witty, goofy friend. Because the narrative is loosely structured, you can read straight through or just dip into an essay when the mood strikes. 

—Sarah McCraw Crow


★ The Obsidian Tower

For readers who believe that any season can be the season of the witch

In the kingdom of Morgrain, there is a castle. In that castle is a great black tower. And inside that tower, behind innumerable and impenetrable enchantments, is a door that should never be opened. Ryx, who has the power to kill anything she touches, is the Warden charged with keeping it safe. When a visiting mage ventures too close to the magic of the tower, Ryx finds herself at the heart of an international crisis. She must use all of her wits and talent to keep Morgrain, and the world, safe from unspeakable ruin. Like any good mystery, Melissa Caruso’s The Obsidian Tower slowly feeds the reader clue after clue, never fully revealing everything at once. But this book has moments of real pain and longing that have nothing to do with magic or towers. Not being able to have physical contact with anyone has changed Ryx, and the choices she makes to subvert or embrace this fact are beautiful and terrible—which makes her eventual confrontation with some very nasty magic all the more satisfying. 

—Chris Pickens


My Kind of People

For readers who find strength in community

Sky is only 10 years old, but she’s experienced as much pain and confusion as someone three times her age. Although she was abandoned at a fire station as a newborn, she found a home with her adoptive parents. Now she’s starting over again, and this time she’s old enough to be aware of the pain. Sky’s adoptive parents have died in a car crash, and their will designates that Leo, Sky’s father’s best friend from childhood, will become her guardian. Leo is torn up at the loss of his friend, and now he must create a loving home for Sky. Her presence sends Leo and his husband, Xavier, into a tailspin. In My Kind of People, novelist Lisa Duffy paints a portrait of a community of people trying to find out who they are—and with whom they can be themselves. As neighbors jump in to help raise Sky, or to weigh in on what Leo could do better, Sky and Leo wrestle with their understanding of their changing circumstances. Duffy’s story is sweet but never cloying, and she’s unafraid to depict uncomfortable circumstances as the tale unfolds.

—Carla Jean Whitley


★ Last Tang Standing

For readers who say they hate drama but actually love it

It is a truth universally acknowledged that mothers will meddle in their daughters’ love lives. For Andrea Tang, a successful 33-year-old lawyer in Singapore, that truism extends to her aunties, cousins and anyone else who can claim relation to her. What everyone wants to know is, when will she get married? After ending a long-term relationship, Andrea feels the pressure to find The One while also putting in as many billable hours as possible to secure a partnership in her law firm. Her friends offer support, but Andrea can’t stop thinking about Suresh, her officemate and competition for partner. He’s annoying, engaged to a beautiful but domineering Londoner and not at all Andrea’s type. Except that he’s exactly her type. Author Lauren Ho is a former legal adviser, and her debut novel is a blast. With a relatable, laugh-out-loud protagonist, Last Tang Standing is a near-perfect blend of Crazy Rich Asians and Bridget Jones’s Diary, yet it still feels wholly original.

—Amy Scribner


Look

For readers who miss their feminist film studies class

In Zan Romanoff’s YA novel Look, Lulu Shapiro has mastered Flash, a Snapchat-like app that shares her perfectly edited life with 10,000 followers. But a racy Flash, meant to be private, accidentally goes public, and now everyone has seen Lulu being intimate with another young woman. Her classmates think she just did it for attention, but Lulu is bisexual and fears what sharing this truth about herself could mean for her popularity. Then Lulu meets the beguiling Cass and her friend Ryan, a trust-fund kid refurbishing an old hotel. With no phones allowed at the hotel, Lulu experiences a social life less focused on carefully curated images. She feels like she can truly be herself—until an abuse of trust brings it all crashing down. Anyone who has engaged in content creation—even just photos on Instagram—will have a lot to chew on regarding the praise and scorn women experience based on how they depict themselves. The cast of characters is almost entirely teens, but older readers will take a lot from Look as well. Self-­commodification hardly started with Snapchat, after all.

—Jessica Wakeman


Rockaway

For readers ready to ride a wave of emotion

In 2010, following her divorce, Diane Cardwell finds herself shuffling listlessly through her life and work as a New York Times reporter. Casting about for an assignment, she heads out to Montauk, Long Island, and spies a group of surfers out in the shimmering surf. Transfixed by this group of men and women, she begins trekking out to Rockaway Beach from her Brooklyn apartment to take lessons and join her newfound troop. Cardwell dives into surfing, alternating between fear of failure and dogged determination. As she gains confidence and develops her own style, she moves to Rockaway Beach, buys a little cottage and a board and thrives in her new neighborhood. When Hurricane Sandy hits in 2012, she rides it out in Rockaway with some of her friends, and they emerge as an even more tightknit community. In Rockaway, Cardwell’s moving story washes over the reader with its emotionally rich portrayal of the ragged ways we can embrace our vulnerabilities in order to overcome them.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this feature incorrectly stated that Lauren Ho is a former attorney.

When the sun is high and a summer afternoon stretches out before you with zero expectations, a great book—read for inspiration, thrills or pure enjoyment—is all you need.

The phrase “summer thriller” tends to conjure up a specific sort of book, but our favorites for the season run the gamut from meditative mysteries to relentless page turners.

★ The Girl From Widow Hills

Killer line: “My head swam in a sudden rush of understanding. I moved the branches of the bushes aside to be sure: the shape of a torso; arms; the back of a head.”

Arden Maynor was sleepwalking when a flash flood swept her away. The country breathed a sigh of relief when the 6-year-old was found—and on every anniversary of that day, the media’s spotlight has returned to Arden and her mother. In Megan Miranda’s The Girl From Widow Hills, we get to know the Arden of two decades later. Now 26, she goes by Olivia Wells and lives in North Carolina. She’s beginning to feel secure in her life’s rhythms, but one horrible night, she sleepwalks and awakens with a bloodied body at her feet. Is the looming 20th anniversary stirring up tamped-down trauma? Or is someone from the past trying to torment her anew? Step by suspenseful step, Miranda lays a path for readers to follow as Olivia tries to separate dreams and reality, fear and fact, with a tenacious local detective not far behind. The Girl From Widow Hills is a creepy, compelling portrait of a life forever warped by unwanted fame—a timely theme in this era of internet celebrity and the fall from grace that often follows.

—Linda M. Castellitto


The Mountains Wild

Killer line: “When I turned around, I could no longer see the road. We were all alone in the woods.”

Sarah Stewart Taylor’s simmering The Mountains Wild is the first entry in a new series featuring homicide detective Maggie D’arcy. A divorced mother living on Long Island, New York, Maggie felt called to become a detective after her cousin, Erin, vanished in the woods of Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1990s. At the age of 23, Maggie traveled there to look for Erin, but neither she nor the Irish Guards, the national police, could locate her. After Erin’s scarf is found by investigators searching for a different woman, Maggie returns to Ireland to do some sleuthing, reentering a maze of painful memories. Taylor moves nimbly through the decades, flashing back to Maggie’s earlier trip to Ireland and providing glimpses of her friendship with Erin. Featuring a memorable cast that includes cheeky Irish Guards, sinister suspects and a not-to-be-messed-with female lead, The Mountains Wild makes for perfect summer reading. Maggie is a first-class protagonist—an ace investigator and appealing everywoman with smarts and heart. Suspense fans are sure to welcome her to the crime scene.

—Julie Hale


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Sarah Stewart Taylor reveals the haunting events that inspired her debut novel.


Out of Time

For fans of: Thrillers by David Baldacci or James Patterson and ripping through the pages of a good FBI search.

Author and screenwriter David Klass turns the serial killer mythos on its head in his new novel, Out of Time, in which the killer is intent on saving humankind through his inconceivable deeds. The Green Man, so dubbed by the media and the FBI pursuing him, doesn’t kill for the sake of some insatiable, perverse sexual desire but out of an acute calling to save the environment. His terrorist acts are meant to call attention to climate change and heighten awareness of its adverse effects. But FBI data analyst Tom Smith—not exactly a memorable name, he admits, adding, “I didn’t choose it”—and a task force of 300 FBI agents only see a killer who must be stopped. So begins a fast-paced game of cat and mouse as Smith zeros in on the Green Man’s identity and tries to stop him before more lives are lost. Klass writes with terse, straightforward prose, alternating between Smith’s and the Green Man’s points of view to allow readers a close-up perspective of each character’s motivations and desires. The fun is in the thrill of the chase, and in that respect Klass delivers.

—G. Robert Frazier


★ The Mist

Killer line: “ ‘Oh, the nights here are something else,’ Erla said quietly. . . . ‘I hope you’re not afraid of the dark.’ ”

The Mist is the third and final book in Ragnar Jónasson’s electrifying Hidden Iceland series. These labyrinthine murder mysteries, set against the bleak backdrop of Iceland, feature Hulda Hermannsdóttir, detective inspector with the Reykjavík Police Department. It’s Christmas in 1987, and Erla and Einar Einarsson are preparing for the holiday. In their region of Iceland, winter days don’t begin to brighten until 11 a.m., brutal blizzards are a regular occurrence, and skiing is easier than walking or driving. In the midst of a pummeling snowstorm, a stranger named Leó shows up at the farm looking for shelter. Leó claims to have gotten lost during a hunting trip with friends, but Erla doesn’t believe his story. She’s frightened of him from the start, and her fears worsen after the electricity goes out, leaving the farmhouse in darkness. Two months later, Hulda is asked to look into a pair of murders that occurred at the farm. Jónasson turns up the tension to a nearly unendurable degree as the novel unfolds. His complete design isn’t revealed until late in the book, when the story’s multiple threads coalesce in a surprising conclusion. Masterfully plotted and paced, The Mist is atmospheric, haunting and not for the faint of heart.

—Julie Hale


 A Royal Affair

For fans of: Keeping calm and carrying on, drinking tea with a bit of fortification and maintaining a stiff upper lip until such time as a therapist can be seen.

In their second adventure, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge would like nothing more than to get back to running their business, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But in Allison Montclair’s A Royal Affair, their reputation as crime fighters precedes them, so in addition to pairing off various lonely hearts, they’re also working for Lady Matheson, who herself works for the queen. Discretion is required as Gwen and Iris search for a cache of letters that could derail Princess Elizabeth’s engagement, and they quickly realize this is information that people will kill for. The balance Montclair strikes between humor and hard truths is arresting. Postwar England has raucous parties and a lot of can-do spirit, but the entire nation is still reeling—and rationing, for that matter. (Can a birthday party be any fun if the cake has “tooth powder frosting”?) Have faith, though: There’s not much that can stop this pair, and the climactic scene laying out the whodunit (and why) is like a maraschino cherry in a complex cocktail. Here’s to the return of these formidable women, and to many more chances to enjoy their company.

—Heather Seggel


★ The Distant Dead

Killer line: “It takes longer than you might think, for a man to burn.”

The small town of Lovelock, Nevada, is nestled in brush-dotted hills that crouch under unending blue sky—an eerie desert landscape that sets a tone of creeping dread in Heather Young’s The Distant Dead. Sixth grader Sal Prentiss goes to the fire station to report that he’s found a burned body while, in another part of town, social studies teacher Nora Wheaton is wondering why her colleague Adam Merkel hasn’t shown up to work. He’s a math teacher, and it’s Pi Day; surely he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to have math-­centric fun with his class? No one else seems very concerned, as the enigmatic Adam has always kept to himself and doesn’t engage in gossip, but Nora can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. Alas, her instincts are validated when she learns that Adam is the victim Sal found. Young takes the reader back and forth in time as she unfurls the characters’ relationships and life paths, with all their secrets and hopes and disappointments. The suspense is slow and steady in this meditative, artistic take on the murder mystery. Young’s language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient in this unusual, compelling portrait of a people and a place.

—Linda M. Castellitto


Blacktop Wasteland

For fans of: Bullitt, The Fast and the Furious and gritty Elmore Leonard-style noir.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage thought he was out—out of the rackets and the crimes that dominated his early life. He opened his own garage, settled down with a loving wife and had several children. But the past and the demands of the present have a way of catching up with people. In Bug’s case, mounting expenses leave him with nowhere else to turn. So, when an old associate, Ronnie, approaches him about a job that could set everything right, Bug reluctantly agrees. Author S.A. Cosby quickly establishes Bug’s financial burdens and emotional dilemma in his new novel, Blacktop Wasteland and never lets up on the gas. The result is a high-­octane, white-­knuckle thriller that will have readers whipping through the pages at breakneck speed. Needless to say, not everything goes to plan. Bug and Ronnie’s “simple” heist of a jewelry store goes horribly awry in more ways than one. Bug’s skills as a wheelman—and the Plymouth Duster he inherited from his father—enable him and his crew to get away with their lives, but it’s not enough to keep greed, betrayal and vengeance from closing in at every turn. Cosby’s tightfisted prose fuels this story with heart-pumping (and often brutal) action that begs to be adapted for the big screen but never loses its compassionate edge.

—G. Robert Frazier

 

The phrase “summer thriller” tends to conjure up a specific sort of book, but our favorites for the season run the gamut from meditative mysteries to relentless page turners. ★ The Girl From Widow Hills Killer line: “My head swam in a sudden rush of understanding. I moved the branches of the bushes aside to be […]

We asked eight YA authors, first-timers and seasoned veterans alike, to talk about their new releases and reflect on their creative journeys.


THE FRESHMEN


Roseanne A. Brown

A refugee and a princess find themselves on a romantic, dangerous collision course in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, a West Africa-inspired fantasy. Brown raises the stakes by exploring how we all have a responsibility to right the wrongs of injustice. (Click here to read the full review.)

What do you hope readers will love about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin?
The protagonists represent characters I wish I’d gotten to read when I was growing up. Their struggles are informed by the emotional roller coaster of my teen years, so I hope readers see themselves in these characters’ lows and triumphs.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be published?
I got the call when I was living in Japan; my agent called me at 5 a.m. to break the news, and I was so delirious with sleep that I was half-convinced I was dreaming. As a black immigrant, the thought that I could actually get anything traditionally published had always felt about as likely as me becoming the first person on Mars. Some days, I wake up and it still doesn’t feel real.

A year from now, what impact do you hope A Song of Wraiths and Ruin will have made on readers?
It’s difficult to even imagine what the world might look like a year from now, but I hope that A Song of Wraiths and Ruin will help readers learn that they can draw their greatest strength from the parts of their identities the world has taught them to hate. I also hope the book helps them to know that healing from trauma is often a messy, painful process with no clear finish line, but it’s a journey that is always worth it.


Lora Beth Johnson

Andra wakes up after a long journey to a new planet and slowly puts together a horrifying truth: She’s been asleep for hundreds of years longer than she should have been. Goddess in the Machine offers a vision of how society, technology and language will be transformed over time that’s thoughtful and inventive but never weighs down the emotional urgency of Andra’s plight. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Goddess in the Machine?
The dialect of some of the characters is my own rendition of a futuristic English, based on trends in linguistic evolution. It was difficult to develop and a challenge to write in, but it’s been amazing to experience early readers using it to communicate with me.

A year from now, what impact do you hope your novel will have made on readers?
It would be cool if readers were using my futuristic dialect in casual conversation! I also hope the book helps readers realize the power of their words—the way that language literally creates and re-creates the world around us.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be published?
Honestly, I still don’t think it’s hit me. Probably one day, I’ll be perusing the shelves at my local bookstore and see my book and just start weeping.


Laura Wood

In the summer of 1929, Lou Trevelyan feels hemmed in by her small Cornwall town, under pressure to grow up and settle down, until she is swept into the intoxicating, glamorous world of the wealthy Cardew siblings. Wood creates an atmosphere in A Sky Painted Gold that readers can dive into headfirst. Lou’s whole world is tinted with an undercurrent of magic. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in A Sky Painted Gold?
I’m proud of how personal it is. I love Cornwall so much, and A Sky Painted Gold is a very heartfelt expression of that. I worked hard to try to capture the beauty and magic of the place, and the way it makes me feel. My family are Cornish and I included stories that my Nan told me. For example, my great-grandmother was called Midge, just like like Lou’s mother, and anecdotes from her life are woven through the story. It’s another way in which I feel close to it, a way that the story is a part of myself. It makes you very vulnerable as a writer, but I’m proud of that—it’s really the book of my heart.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
Setting the book in the 1920s meant that I could go all out on the clothes and the music and the parties. It’s decadent, not just in the Gatsby–esque sense of the word, but in the pleasure it takes in small things, in warm seas and moonlit swims and the whisper of a silk dress.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be published?
Stunned. I’d had the idea for such a long time, and it really is an amalgamation of all of my favorite things. I knew I would want to read it, but it’s a quiet book in a lot of ways—delicate, maybe a little old-fashioned—so I wasn’t sure anyone would want to publish it.


THE SOPHOMORES


Rory Power

In the small town where her mom grew up, Margot uncovers darkness lurking in the poisonous roots of her family tree. Whip-smart and suspenseful, Burn Our Bodies Down builds to a fantastically unsettling resolution. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Burn Your Bodies Down?
I’m most proud of Margot, the main character. She’s grown up in an emotionally abusive household, so she has a particular mindset that is often at odds with what we expect and want from a thriller protagonist. Rather than always pushing for more answers, Margot often defaults to ignoring what’s going on around her, because she’s afraid of finding out something that will hurt her. Balancing that mindset with the needs of the story was tricky, and of everything in the book, I’m most proud of how that turned out.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I hope they’ll love getting to hang out in the town of Phalene. It was a joy to create this run-down farming town in the middle of nowhere, full of secrets and creepy cornfields.

How was writing your second book different than your first book?
Burn
Our Bodies Down was a more difficult book to construct. With Wilder Girls, I took great care to cut my characters off from the world, which meant I could bring in speculative elements without having to consider any response from law enforcement or the media, but Burn operates on a larger scale and interacts with the world around it, which was entirely new to me.

What’s one of your favorite things you’ve heard from readers since your first book, Wilder Girls, was published?
I’ve been so lucky to receive a lot of really wonderful messages from readers, but I’m particularly fond of readers responding to the queer representation in the book. I know how much it’s meant to me to be able to see myself reflected in literature, so to be able to give that to a reader is an incredible feeling.


Liara Tamani

Carli and Rex have promising basketball careers ahead of them, but their whirlwind romance is challenged by loss, grief and the pressure to succeed. All the Things We Never Knew offers a raw, honest portrait of the bond between two teens on and off the court. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in All the Things We Never Knew?
I’m most proud that Carli and Rex’s love feels real. Experiencing love for the first time is such an overwhelming sensation. I remember feeling like every ounce of my teenage body was buzzing with it. But knowing the feeling and putting it into words are different. I had to dive deep into their psyches and find language to articulate the very specific love between Rex and Carli.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I hope readers will fall in love with Rex and Carli. The book alternates between their perspectives, so readers will get to know them both and see both sides of their first love. Carli is fiery; Rex is sensitive. They’re both deep thinkers who are dealing with family drama and pain. Their love journey is a messy, complicated one, but there’s lots of talking and ruminations along the way. In those shared exchanges and private reflections, I hope readers will come to know and care about Carli and Rex deeply.

How was writing this book different from writing your first book?
The process for writing my first book, Calling My Name, was meandering and exploratory. That novel begins when Taja, the main character, is 12 years old and ends when she’s 17, so it spans several years. It’s structured in vignettes and short stories that I wrote out of order. I didn’t outline at all and allowed the book to come together piece by piece. Writing All the Things We Never Knew was more straightforward. Its events only span a couple of months of Carli’s and Rex’s junior year, so the plot is much tighter. I started with an outline (which was super short, because I still like to give the characters space to make their own decisions), and I wrote it chronologically.

What’s one of your favorite things you’ve heard from readers since your first book was published?
Many teens have written me to say Calling My Name inspired them to be themselves, and every time, I’m filled with so much gratitude. There’s so much pressure for young people to fit in⎯really, for all of us to fit in. So many people sacrifice so much of themselves to feel like they belong. It’s hard to be completely free and face whatever judgement comes with it. It takes bravery, which is something that I’m constantly working on and trying to inspire with my words.


THE UPPERCLASSMEN


Tanaz Bhathena

After her parents are murdered by the king’s army, Gul’s desire for vengeance could destroy the kingdom—and with it, everyone she has come to care about. Hunted by the Sky is a medieval India-inspired fantasy that’s beautiful, brutal, fresh and feminist. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Hunted by the Sky?
It’s in a completely different genre! I spent 10 years focusing on contemporary fiction. I’d dabble in fantasy, but I never had the courage to write a whole novel—until now.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I’m biased, but I love the book’s medieval India-inspired setting and I hope readers will love it too! I want them to be able to escape to a world of magic, romance and fierce women warriors.

How has your readership impacted your writing over the course of your career?
My readership definitely keeps me on track about ensuring accurate representation in my books—especially about communities I don’t belong to. But other than that, I find readers very open to the stories I want to tell. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I am my first reader and if I don’t like the story, no one else will.

What themes have you carried forward from your previous books into this new novel?
Love and courage are common themes in all my novels, and they’re usually explored through flawed main characters. Gul is a fierce girl who loves deeply, but her mission of avenging her parents’ murders sets off a chain of events with disastrous consequences. There are warrior women with strong bonds of sisterhood, but they are also thieves who  engage in vigilante justice. Love and courage bring out the best and the worst in us, even when we are aiming for great things.


Lori M. Lee

When Sirscha’s best friend, Saengo, is killed in battle and Sirscha unexpectedly resurrects her, the awakening of Sirscha’s magical powers forces the two to undertake a dangerous journey to the Dead Wood and its ruler, the ancient and mysterious Spider King. The horrors faced by the heroines of Forest of Souls echo their inner conflicts as they confront terrifying spirits and bloody battles as well as fear, prejudice and loss. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Forest of Souls?
I’m super proud of the journey my main character Sirscha takes in Forest of Souls. Many of her insecurities were modeled after my own at a young age, and her path towards self-acceptance and self-worth is one I hope resonates with others as well.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I want the story to linger inside readers. I hope they will love the friendship between Sirscha and Saengo. It was really important to me to portray a friendship between girls that was unconditional and sweet but also real and complex. I hope that Sirscha’s path toward self-acceptance resonates as well.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to be a writer from a very early age. I’ve always loved stories because they hold a very specific escapist kind of magic. Writing was my way of claiming that magic for myself.

Editor’s note: In the print issue of BookPage, we placed Lori M. Lee under the ‘Freshmen’ header, incorrectly suggesting that Forest of Souls is Lee’s first YA book. Lee is the author of two previous YA novels, Gates of Thread and Stone and The Infinite.


Rachel Lynn Solomon

On the last day of high school, Rowan is determined to beat her nemesis, Neil, in the annual senior class scavenger hunt. Today Tonight Tomorrow is a puzzle, a nostalgic reflection on a rite of passage and a delicious romance. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Today Tonight Tomorrow?
When I started writing Today Tonight Tomorrow, I knew the book would take place over 24 hours on the last day of senior year. I also knew I didn’t want to include lengthy flashback scenes, because I wanted it to feel like a snapshot of this one day that changes everything. I decided to scatter ephemera throughout the book—emails, lists, receipts and other tidbits—to enhance the relationship. I’m proud that I was able to tell a full story, a full romance, with this short timeline. My publisher did an incredible job with the design of the book, and the final version feels like a scrapbook of Rowan’s high school journey.

What do you hope readers will love about Today Tonight Tomorrow?
The slow burn of the rivals-to-lovers relationship! Rowan begins the book despising Neil—though readers will probably pick up on some hidden attraction—and gradually discovers the person she’s spending the last day of high school with is completely different from the nemesis whose demise she spent four years plotting. Over the course of 24 hours that take them all over the city, they share secrets and fears and a slow dance in an empty library. “Just kiss already” is what I hope readers will think as they turn the pages.

How has your readership impacted your writing over the course of your career?
It’s made me so wildly grateful. When I saw the reaction my first book received from Jewish readers, I made a vow to myself that I’d only write Jewish protagonists moving forward. Some of my characters are religious and some aren’t, but they are all Jewish, and that is a vital piece of their identity, as well as mine. There are still so few Jewish characters in contemporary YA novels, and I feel very proud to contribute to this small but important category.

What themes have you carried forward from your previous books into this new novel?
Every female protagonist I write is ambitious and full of yearning, with all the messiness that comes with wanting something that may be just out of reach. I think that sense of yearning appears in all my books in slightly different ways—yearning for another person, a dream school, a future career. In Today Tonight Tomorrow, Rowan wants to write romance novels, a passion she hides because she’s been judged in the past. Alongside her real-life romance, her story is about gaining the confidence to embrace what she loves without shame.


 

Photo credits: Roseanne A. Brown photo by Ashley Hirasuna; Lora Beth Johnson photo by Kailan Sindelar; Rory Power photo by Henriette Lazaridis; Liara Tamani photo by Seneca Shahara Brand; Tanaz Bhathena photo by Nettie Photography; Lori M. Lee photo by PrettyGeeky Photography; Rachel Lynn Solomon photo by Sabreen Lakhani.

We asked eight YA authors, first-timers and seasoned veterans alike, to talk about their new releases and reflect on their creative journeys. THE FRESHMEN Roseanne A. Brown A refugee and a princess find themselves on a romantic, dangerous collision course in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, a West Africa-inspired fantasy. Brown raises the stakes by […]

Short fiction can be as emotionally complex as songs and as precise as poetry. The writers who do it well leave us in awe. Three new short story collections from masters of the form offer all the power and surprise of great novels.

If I Had Two WingsIf I Had Two Wings

A good short story requires focus. A novel can expand and digress and reckon with its form anew with each passing chapter, but short stories must be tighter, more concentrated, like an espresso shot. In his new collection, If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan proves once again that he belongs to an elite group of short fiction writers who can master plot and character to create perfectly balanced little miracles of focus and style. Returning to his fictional locale of Tims Creek, North Carolina, Kenan takes us on 10 captivating journeys of change, loss, redemption, salvation and even a little magic. And while the stories share a geographic connection in some way or another, each feels like it exists in its own rich, fully realized space.

What reaches out and grabs the reader right away, though, is not the place but the power of voice infused into every story, from that of a young girl who encounters a magical man in a creek, to a man reconnecting with an old flame after the death of his lover from AIDS, to an old woman who’s put in front of TV cameras as a miracle worker, to a working-class man who runs into a rock star during a trip to New York City. The characters’ voices will leave you wanting to reach out to them again, to read on even after their stories have ended. Kenan’s collection is a treasure.

—Matthew Jackson

In the ValleyIn the Valley

Ron Rash is a poet, novelist and author of award-winning short stories whose work is steeped in the history and culture of Appalachia. His latest collection, In the Valley, features nine haunting stories set in rural North Carolina from the Civil War to the present, followed by a novella continuing the saga of Serena Pemberton, the maniacal wife of logger George Pemberton from Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena

Each of the stories encapsulates a scene from the backwoods of Appalachia, often portraying a character struggling to do the right thing when given the opportunity to stand up to evil. In “The Baptism,” a small-town pastor faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to baptize a man he knows is a child molester. “Neighbors” explores the senselessness of the Civil War, which pitted friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor. Most memorably, “Ransom” paints an indelible portrait of a young woman kidnapped and forced into opioid addiction, all to satisfy a man’s revenge against those who caused his daughter’s death.

Serena, on the other hand, is the epitome of evil itself. In this sequel, Serena returns from Brazil to North Carolina, where she plans to harvest mahogany. She’s at risk of losing a large sum if she doesn’t meet a seemingly impossible deadline for clear-cutting the last ridge in a vast forest, so she pushes her crew relentlessly, leading to several deaths and amputations—inconsequential, in her mind, as long as she meets her deadline.

Serena’s greed and its long-term effect on the environment find echoes in the present, as environmental activists fight to preserve migration routes, ancient dwellings and petroglyphs from mining and drilling.

Rash profoundly immerses readers in the Appalachia he calls home. His latest collection is highly recommended not only for readers who value protecting our environment but also for anyone who enjoys well-told stories of justice and revenge.

—Deborah Donovan

Animal SpiritAnimal Spirit

When a short story is operating at its peak, it’s able to convey a novel’s worth of emotional depth and allure. Francesca Marciano possesses this gift, a special magic that allows her to say so much in just a few thousand words, as demonstrated by her new collection, Animal Spirit.

The six stories all feature a character at some kind of crossroads, often having arrived suddenly and with loads of emotional baggage. And in each story, animals arrive to shift the balance, from a small white dog on a road at night to a flock of troublesome seagulls that represent much more than a nuisance on a Roman terrace.

Marciano displays a spellbinding sense of control over her characters, and she does so with surprising brevity and well-composed pacing. In some tales, the narrative perspective shifts so quickly that another writer might have lost the emotional thread that knits it all together, but for Marciano, these shifts feel like an essential part of her deft, intense style. There’s a sense of confidence in each sentence that allows the reader to be as vulnerable as her characters.

Animal Spirit is a passionate, compelling exercise in the fine art of short fiction. It’s proof that the most intimate narratives are often the most powerful. 

—Matthew Jackson

Three new short story collections from masters of the form offer all the power and surprise of great novels.

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