Julie Hale

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Great Short Books

Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.  

“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.  

Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.  

Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles. 

Reading the Stars

Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot. 

This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.” 

The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings. 

Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.

Marple

Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology. 

Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.  

In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.  

Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?  

Revenge of the Librarians

Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life. 

The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.” 

Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.” 

Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.

If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.
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A good old-fashioned yarn that spans generations and eras, A Generous Pour: Tall Tales From the Backroom of Jimmy Kelly’s traces the remarkable origins of a beloved Nashville, Tennessee, establishment: Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse. Mike Kelly, the restaurant’s current owner, tells the intriguing story of how his Irish immigrant family established a thriving restaurant business after an adventuresome start in whiskey making and liquor running. Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of Kelly’s best.

Divided neatly into four parts, the narrative documents the rise of the Kelly family enterprise—an achievement made possible by the clan’s natural instinct for commerce and spirit of hardscrabble ingenuity. The author’s great-grandfather, James Michael Kelly, left Ireland in the 1840s, became a moonshiner in Tennessee at the age of 17 and lost an eye in the Civil War. His son John made clandestine liquor deliveries and, in 1934, opened a restaurant in Nashville called the 216 Club, “a respectable drinking alternative to the rowdy downtown speakeasies.” The 216 Club served a clientele that included notable politicians and musicians (Elvis Presley was a patron) with first-rate steaks and spirits.

John died in 1948. A year later, his son Jimmy opened Jimmy Kelly’s in Belle Meade, an upscale suburb within metro Nashville. Both restaurant locations flourished. Always a family enterprise, the business passed into the hands of Bill Kelly (Jimmy’s brother and the author’s father) after Jimmy retired.

Kelly handles the book’s complex chronology with wonderful assurance. He seasons the story with fascinating bits of Nashville trivia and demonstrates an undeniable gift for setting scenes. (The book’s sensational opening chapter chronicles the kidnapping of John Kelly by Al Capone’s henchmen.) Kelly himself was raised in the restaurant trade—as a boy, he bused tables with his brothers and slid down the banister of 216’s staircase—and his insider knowledge gives the book a special spark.

Mixed in with his colorful account of the ambitious Kelly clan is a fascinating survey of Music City history, from the upheaval of World War One to the payoffs and police raids of Prohibition, through economic booms and busts, to the landmark event of 1967: the legalization of liquor-by-the-drink in Davidson County, which Kelly identifies as the starting point for Nashville’s ascendance as a business center and major tourist destination. 

Today Kelly manages Jimmy Kelly’s at its current home on Louise Avenue in Midtown Nashville. His book is a charming, briskly written narrative, rich with adventure and detail, that provides a compelling look at Nashville’s past.

Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of whiskey.
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These six outstanding volumes of verse will remind readers of the magic of language and the marvels to be found in everyday moments.


A gift to celebrate growing older: Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Book jacket image for Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Without Shame is an inspiring celebration of the self. The book’s 50-plus pieces are alive with wit and wordplay, as Cisneros takes stock of the past, reflects on her Mexican American identity and ruminates on the experience of growing older. “I am Venetian, decaying splendidly. / Am magnificent beyond measure,” she writes in “At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor.”

Despite the passing years, Cisneros, now 67, displays an attitude of proud defiance. In “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto,” she bemoans the humdrum undergarments designed for older women: “Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night / wearing sensible white or beige.” Ignited by flashes of humor, the poems in this buoyant collection find Cisneros accentuating the positive, living without regret and setting an example for us all.


A gift to provide comfort and encouragement: And Yet by Kate Baer

Book jacket image for And Yet by Kate Baer

Kate Baer shares dispatches from the domestic front in her accessible, inviting collection And Yet. In poems that explore gender dynamics and the day-to-day grind of family life, Baer’s voice is that of an intimate, confiding friend.

Across the collection, she takes her own measure as a parent and a wife, toggling between self-acceptance and self-loathing, triumphs and trials. “The weeks are long, and all my son / wants is a new skateboard and a different / mother,” she writes in “Late Summer in a Global Pandemic.” Baer rounds up snippets from horrifying headlines in “Daily Planet”: “Return to school deemed not safe for / Un-vaccinated protests rise as / Hospital beds at capacity in these seven.” To flustered mothers, the internet-weary and anyone bewildered by contemporary life, Baer’s collection will be a balm.


A gift to illuminate the poetry-writing process: Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light by Joy Harjo

Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years is a splendid survey of the career of three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo draws from a rich well of family stories and myths in poems that explore the Native American experience and emphasize the importance of place.

In many of her poems, the landscape emits a kind of language, such as in “Are You Still There?”: “hello / is a gentle motion of a western wind / cradling tiny purple flowers.” In “Somewhere,” she writes, “Our roads aren’t nice lines with numbers; they wind like bloodlines / through gossip and stories of the holy in the winds.” Notes on the genesis of each poem can be found at the end of the book.

For Harjo, “history is / everywhere,” and the past is always present. Her vision and versatility are on full display in this majestic retrospective.


A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts: Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

The poems in Rio Cortez’s bold new book, Golden Ax, center on a foundational concept—what the author calls “Afropioneerism” or “Afrofrontierism,” in reference to her ancestral connections to Utah and the ways in which Black people have shaped and were shaped by the region.

Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the otherworldly landscape of the American West. In “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” she wonders “whether it’s aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons . . . how do you come / to be where there are no others, except / science fiction?”

Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.


A gift to stoke a fire: The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi

Book cover for The World Keeps Ending, the World Goes On

A marked attentiveness to craftsmanship and the niceties of language enlivens the poems in Franny Choi’s urgent, stirring The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. A fearless shifter of form, Choi switches moods and modes to tackle such topics as social unrest, climate change and her Korean heritage. In “Toward Grace,” she laments the digital landscape: “Online, blondes chirp tips, spin fidgets, get follows. / Old story: unequal distribution of grace.” Formidable themes like the nature of tragedy and the human capacity for renewal lend a timelessness to her work.

Choi’s collection will awaken and inspire readers. “I want a storm I can dance in. / I want an excuse to change my life,” she writes, and her attitude is contagious.


A gift to transform darkness into light: Balladz by Sharon Olds

Book jacket image for Balladz by Sharon Olds

“Who says the forms of art require joy?” Sharon Olds asks in Balladz. While joy does feature prominently in these poems, Olds’ mood is one of unease and ire as she explores national upheaval, life during quarantine and the need for intimacy. As the collection’s title implies, the ballad is her favored form, a vessel for contemplating the past and celebrating everyday pleasures.

“Amherst Ballad 6” shows the precision of her poetic vision: “The Sill Imbued with Dust – Gave Up / A Maple Wing – of Brussels Lace.” In “Grandmother, with Parakeet,” elderly women have hair “fixed in / small breaking combers, battleship / curls like works of art.” Again and again, Olds surveys the world and, through the filter of her poems, renews it for the reader. Filled with sustaining moments of recognition, Balladz is revelatory.


For a fresh way to spread glad tidings this holiday season, we suggest a collection of poetry.
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Kliph Nesteroff’s We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy is an intriguing look at how Native Americans have influenced the world of comedy. Starting with the Wild West shows of the 1800s, Nesteroff chronicles the presence and impact of Native comedic performers through the decades. His lively narrative draws on in-depth research and interviews with today’s up-and-coming comedians. Entertainment stereotypes and representation in media are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

Set in Nashville in the 1920s, Margaret Verble’s novel When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky tells the story of a Cherokee woman named Two Feathers who performs as a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. After an accident occurs while Two is performing, strange events take place at the zoo, including sightings of ghosts. Two finds a friend in Clive the zookeeper, and together they try to make sense of the odd goings-on at Glendale Park. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Verble paints an extraordinary portrait of connection in defiance of racism in this moving novel.

In Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace builds a fascinating narrative around a historical incident: the killing of a Seneca hunter by white fur traders in 1722 Pennsylvania. The murder occurred right before a summit between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the English colonists, and it heightened tensions between the two sides at a fragile moment. Eustace brings the era and its seminal events to vivid life as she examines Native attitudes toward retribution and reparation. 

Cree Canadian author Michelle Good’s novel Five Little Indians follows a group of First Nation youngsters who must find their way in the world after growing up during the 1960s in a Canadian residential school, a boarding school for First Nation children designed to isolate them from their culture. As adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lucy, Howie, Clara, Maisie and Kenny struggle to make lives for themselves and escape painful memories of the past. Clara joins the American Indian Movement, while Lucy dreams of building a future with Kenny. Good explores the repercussions of Canada’s horrific residential school system through the divergent yet unified stories of her characters, crafting a multilayered novel filled with yearning and hope.

These Indigenous stories are perfect for your book club, from a history of Native comedians to the true story of a murder in colonial Pennsylvania.
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True crime writer Gage Chandler, the protagonist of John Darnielle’s Devil House, jumps at the opportunity to live at the “Devil House,” a building where two gruesome, possibly satanic murders took place in 1986. Blamed on some rebellious teenagers, the case remains unsolved. Once Gage moves in and starts researching the murders, he’s drawn into a deeper examination of the significance of his own work. At once a magnetic thriller and an intriguing look at the true crime genre, Darnielle’s novel is filled with rich themes for discussion, including the slippery nature of crime reporting and the demands of the artistic process.

In Gilly Macmillan’s I Know You Know, Cody Swift seeks closure regarding his two childhood friends’ murders, which occurred 20 years ago in Bristol, England. Undertaking his own investigation, Cody returns to Bristol in search of new information and launches a podcast to share his story. But then a body is discovered in the same place Cody’s friends were found, and soon a new homicide investigation is underway. Macmillan incorporates flashbacks to Cody’s childhood and episodes of his podcast in this sophisticated, multilayered mystery.

Denise Mina’s Conviction tells the story of Anna McDonald, who loses herself in true crime podcasts as she struggles to put her painful past behind her. After Anna’s husband leaves her for her best friend, Estelle, Anna connects with Estelle’s husband, singer Fin Cohen. Together they delve into the murder case that’s the subject of Anna’s favorite podcast and start a podcast of their own. When Anna realizes that she is linked to the case, a tragic chapter from her life is reopened. Mina’s skillful development of multiple plot lines and crack comic timing will give reading groups plenty to talk about.

In Megan Goldin’s The Night Swim, Rachel Krall, host of the popular true crime podcast “Guilty or Not Guilty,” travels to a small North Carolina town to report on the trial of swimming champion Scott Blair. Accused of raping the teenage granddaughter of the local police chief, Scott and his case have attracted national attention. While in North Carolina, Rachel is also drawn to a cold case involving the drowning of a 16-year-old that took place more than two decades before. As she works to unravel the two cases, she realizes that they share disturbing parallels. Goldin builds a mood of intense suspense in this searing look at how crime can impact a small community.

Go meta with one of these mysteries starring true crime podcasters and writers.
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Mary Roach investigates the uneasy relationship that exists between humans and wildlife in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. Traveling to India, Vatican City and other locales, she meets with a wide cast of characters that includes predator attack investigators, a bear manager and a human-elephant conflict specialist, all in an effort to understand how humankind is striving to coexist with the animal kingdom. Roach mixes expert reporting with moving insights into the natural world while unearthing pertinent questions about wildlife and habitat preservation.

In Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives, Mark Miodownik examines the prominence of liquids (drinking water, bottled soap, the list goes on) and the critical roles they play in the modern world. The narrative is framed by a transatlantic flight during which Miodownik notes the ubiquity of liquid matter, from the fuel that powers the plane to the offerings on the airline’s refreshment cart. Illustrations and photos add an appealing visual dimension to the book, and topics like climate change and conservation will inspire lively dialogue among readers.

Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an engaging survey of the human physique. Bryson delves into the history of anatomy, examines the nature of disease and pain, and generally explores the ways in which our bodies function. He blends scientific fact and input from experts with humanizing anecdotes, and his trademark wit is on display throughout the proceedings. An illuminating look at the systems, organs and processes that define the human organism, The Body is filled with fascinating facts. From start to finish, it’s vintage Bryson.

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski is a reader-friendly overview of the ways in which physics shapes our lives. Making connections between commonplace activities (popping popcorn, for instance) and larger phenomena, from weather patterns to medical technology, Czerski demonstrates that scientific processes large and small take place all around us. Over the course of nine chapters, she covers a range of fundamental physics concepts, writing in an accessible, offbeat style. With a gift for intriguing anecdotes, Czerski makes physics fun.

You don't need scientific training to enjoy these entertaining, offbeat books.
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Winner of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book is a searing portrayal of the Black authorial experience. At the center of the novel is an unnamed Black author on his first book tour struggling to navigate the publishing industry and make sense of the modern world. His narrative is offset by chapters recounting the story of Soot, a young Black boy in the South. Poignant and often funny, Mott’s novel draws readers in as it scrutinizes race in American society and the power of storytelling.

Marlon James’ epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf is narrated by Tracker, a hunter with an acute sense of smell. Accompanied by a shape-shifter named Leopard and a band of misfit mercenaries, Tracker travels through a landscape inspired by African mythology and ancient history on a dangerous quest to find a lost boy. Hallucinatory and violent yet marvelously poetic, this first entry in James’ Dark Star trilogy won the 2019 L.A. Times Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. There are an abundance of potential topics for discussion, such as James’ folkloric inspirations and Tracker’s unreliable narration.

Following the death of her aunt from an uncommon ailment called Chagas, or the kissing bug disease, Daisy Hernández decided to research the illness. She shares her findings in The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease. Hernández talked to physicians and disease experts throughout the United States, and her interviews with patients reveal the human cost of the American healthcare system’s inadequacies. Hernández displays impressive storytelling skills in this masterfully researched volume, which won the 2022 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.

In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado’s powerful chronicle of a toxic love affair, won the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ nonfiction. In the book, Machado reveals that she fell hard for a magnetic, emotionally unpredictable woman who became abusive. In structuring her memoir, she draws upon various narrative devices and traditions (coming-of-age, choose your own adventure and more), and the result is a multifaceted, daring and creative portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional relationship.

Pick a guaranteed winner for your reading group.
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The orphan son of Chinese immigrants, Ming Tsu is brought up to be an assassin by a California bandit in Tom Lin’s one-of-a-kind Western, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu. Ming hopes for a better future after he elopes with Ada, the daughter of a railroad mogul. But when Ada is abducted and Ming is forced to go to work for the Central Pacific Railroad, he’s determined to seek retribution. Supernatural elements blend seamlessly with the epic plot, which makes room to note the prejudices of the 19th century. 

Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse looks at the life of an orphaned Ojibway boy in 1960s Ontario, Canada. Saul Indian Horse attends a bleak Catholic boarding school. A professional sports career becomes a possibility for Saul after he joins an Ojibway hockey team, yet he faces prejudice and hostility due to his heritage. As he comes of age, he must also come to terms with his past—and prepare for an uncertain future. Wagamese draws upon Ojibway language and lore as he traces Saul’s remarkable personal journey, and the result is a starkly beautiful neo-Western novel.

Set in the American West during the gold rush, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold tells the epic story of a Chinese American family. When their father, a hardworking miner, dies, orphans Sam and Lucy decide to give him a traditional Chinese burial. After being forced to leave their home, they embark on a quest to find the right place to lay their father to rest, traveling through harsh terrain with his corpse carried on horseback. Zhang plumbs myths about the American West as she dissects themes of nature, home and immigration in this rewarding book club pick.

Anna North reimagines the traditional Western with Outlawed. In an alternate 1890s, happily married Ada finds that she’s unable to bear children. Afraid that she’ll be charged with witchcraft—a typical occurrence for childless women—Ada flees her home and eventually joins the Hole in the Wall Gang. A collective of female and nonbinary fugitives, the gang hopes to establish a town where marginalized people can flourish. Ada’s adventures with the gun-toting band make for great reading, with gender, community and identity being but a few of the novel’s rich discussion topics.

These innovative takes on the Western breathe new life into the genre and will spark enthralling group discussions.
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Following a breakup with his fiancée, “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Conor Knighton sought distraction in travel. He spent a year touring the nation’s 63 national parks, and in Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, he provides a funny, fascinating account of his trip. Knighton, who started his trek at Acadia National Park in Maine, shares hilarious anecdotes from the road and provides insights into the history of the park system. Reading groups will enjoy digging into themes of nature, conservation and the allure of travel.

In The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America, Elizabeth Letts chronicles the extraordinary travels of Annie Wilkins. In 1954, Wilkins learned that she had only a few years to live. Determined to see the Pacific Ocean, a lifelong dream of hers, the 63-year-old set out on her horse, Tarzan, riding from Maine to California and attracting national attention along the way. Letts brings Wilkins’ adventures to vivid life in this unforgettable book.

Mark Adams’ Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier is a spirited tribute to one of America’s most idiosyncratic states. Inspired by Edward H. Harriman’s famous 1899 exploration of the Alaskan coastline, Adams (Turn Right at Machu Picchu) traveled the same route as Harriman and his crew. He documents the ways in which Alaska has changed in the intervening years and crosses paths with an array of colorful characters, providing astute observations about environmentalism, Alaskan history and the oil industry in the process.

Kate Harris was a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford and MIT when she set out to travel the Silk Road by bike, an excursion she recounts in Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Harris, who had long dreamed of exploration, was accompanied by her best friend, Mel. Together, they cycled their way into Turkey, India, Nepal and China, traveling for nearly a year. Harris mixes history, geography, travel writing and personal reflection to create a richly detailed narrative that’s a testament to the transformative power of travel.

These true stories of national park-hopping and continent-traversing will inspire reading groups.
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In Love in Color: Mythical Tales From Around the World, Retold, British Nigerian author Bolu Babalola re-envisions traditional love stories from West Africa, the Middle East and Greece with a focus on empowered female characters. In “Nefertiti,” Babalola casts the famed Egyptian ruler as a defender of women, while in “Osun,” she draws upon a Yoruba folktale to tell the story of a love triangle. Babalola displays wonderful range throughout this inventive collection, and reading groups will enjoy discussing topics like the nature of desire and traditional notions of love and romance.

Yoon Choi explores the Korean American experience and the complexities of human connection in her beautifully crafted story collection, Skinship. “First Language” is the story of Sae-ri, who struggles to make her arranged marriage a success while dealing with a difficult son. In “The Art of Losing,” Mo-sae grapples with old age and the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. In every piece, Choi investigates what it means to be an immigrant, writing with compassion and wisdom throughout this uniquely assured debut.

In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders digs into seven classic stories—all included in the book—by Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and other greats, integrating insights from his graduate course on Russian literature along the way. As he unpacks the meaning of each story, Saunders examines the mechanics of narrative and considers what makes a work of fiction succeed. His discerning study of the short story form will appeal to readers and writers alike.

The stories in The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans’ powerful second collection, explore racial dynamics, isolation and the difficulty of connection in contemporary culture through deeply human character moments. “Alcatraz” is a poignant depiction of a family devastated by the wrongful conviction of a relative. In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Claire, a white college student, faces fallout when she’s photographed in a Confederate flag bikini and the picture is shared online. Again and again in these stories, Evans lays bare the loneliness and displacement that so often define modern existence, setting up book clubs for meaningful conversations surrounding identity and loss.

Ready for some deep conversations? These collections offer fresh perspectives on relationships, race and the human condition.
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In an introductory note to her mischievous new work of fiction, Helping Howard, Sally Schloss writes, “This is a novel in which the main character, Howard, helps The Author write a book, and The Author in turn helps Howard understand his marriage.”

That’s the distilled storyline of Schloss’ multilayered work, a book that’s at once a funny, fizzy rom-com; a tense, discomfiting family drama; and an act of full-on narrative experimentation. Helping Howard is a novel about novel-writing that explores the strange partnership that can arise between author and character over the course of composition.

Throughout the book, Schloss’ avatar, the Author, banters with her lead creation, Howard, about plot options, the introduction of new characters and other decisions that go into the building of a book, and their often comic, surprisingly poignant exchanges (italicized in the narrative) lay bare the creative process. A 53-year-old drummer from Brooklyn, Howard is, for the most part, handsome and appealing: “Women liked him. For awhile.” (“Why for awhile? What’s wrong with me?” Howard asks The Author. “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she replies.) Howard’s younger wife, T.J.—a lesbian who, in the midst of their marriage, seeks out other lovers—works as a professional photographer. Caught in the middle of this uncomfortable arrangement is the couple’s distant teenage daughter, Sinclair.

As she chronicles the stages of Howard’s marriage, Schloss skillfully shifts points of view, writing from the perspectives of T.J. and Sinclair. She supplies well-developed backstories for the main protagonists and in richly realized domestic episodes captures the intimacies and estrangements, ruptures and reconciliations that can make or break a marriage.

The dialogue between Howard and the Author complements the book’s larger storyline without feeling heavy-handed or precious. The result is a deeply human exploration of how decisions and desires can impact a life. With Helping Howard, Schloss has crafted a novel of narrative daring and creative risk. Thanks to her many gifts as a writer, the risk pays off.

Helping Howard is at once a funny, fizzy rom-com; a tense, discomfiting family drama; and an act of full-on narrative experimentation.

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