All good things must come to an end, and much to the chagrin of Aaron Falk fans worldwide, that includes Jane Harper’s mystery series starring the Australian federal investigator.
2017’s The Dry, set in a small drought-stricken town, launched Harper’s career as an internationally bestselling author. (It also spawned a hit film adaptation starring Eric Bana.) Next, Falk hiked into a wilderness retreat in 2018’s Force of Nature to solve another murder. And now, Harper is bringing back the talented investigator for his final turn. The cerebral, character-driven Exiles is set in South Australia’s verdant wine country, where natural beauty contrasts with psychological darkness.
Readers will relish joining godfather-to-be Falk in the fictional Marralee Valley for the christening of baby Henry, son of Falk’s good friends Greg (a police sergeant) and Rita Raco. The Raco family is staying at a vineyard run by Greg’s brother, Charlie, but their celebratory mood is overlaid with grief at what happened a year ago, when Kim Gillespie—Charlie’s ex-partner and mother of their teen daughter, Zara—disappeared from the Marralee Valley Annual Food and Wine Festival, abandoning her infant daughter, Zoe, in her stroller.
From Kim’s new husband to locals who had known her since childhood, no one has any insight about what befell Kim during the festival. Was she murdered? Did she kill herself by jumping into the nearby reservoir? Or did she decide to disappear? Kim’s body was never found, and Zara cannot accept that Kim chose to leave or take her own life. Falk and Greg can’t let it go either; although the official conclusion was suicide, something nudges at Falk’s subconscious, a “translucent shimmer of a thought hovering in the distance, dissolving and reappearing without warning.”
Another unresolved crime resurfaces as well, a fatal hit-and-run from six years earlier at the very spot Kim allegedly jumped from. The victim was the husband of Gemma, the festival’s director and a woman Falk finds captivating. In Harper’s hands, Gemma and Falk’s dynamic is a compelling mystery unto itself: Might the devoted detective actually be considering a different way of life?
Falk is nothing if not dogged, and as he ponders the reservoir’s unknowable depths, he closely observes the tightknit community, teasing out revelations about complicated relationships and long-held secrets, the tension ever building as he gets closer to important truths about the crimes—but also about himself. Harper’s lyrically written, immersive and slow-burning mystery serves as a powerful send-off for a beloved character.
Jane Harper’s lyrically written, immersive and slow-burning mystery Exiles is a powerful send-off for beloved character Aaron Falk.
It can be fun to speculate about nature versus nurture, to consider which of our quirks might be innate and which might have been shaped by where or with whom we grew up. While we’re at it, we can also ponder that well-known question of Shakespearean origin: What’s in a name?
But Shenanigan Swift, the clever and engaging hero of Beth Lincoln’s debut novel, The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels, has recently realized that such musings aren’t so enjoyable anymore. Although Shenanigan’s name earns her a pass when she’s feeling stubborn or has done something an eensy bit destructive (like putting the family cat in the empty coffin before the monthly rehearsal of her aunt’s funeral), it also makes her feel misunderstood when others insist on seeing her solely as an embodiment of her name instead of as an individual.
However, Shenanigan is far from the only Swift with a name that’s both prediction and label. For generations, the Swifts have used their family dictionary to randomly select names that somehow become destinies. Shenanigan’s older sisters are named Phenomena and Felicity, her uncle is Maelstrom, her ancestors include Calamitous and Godwottery (the latter meaning “overly elaborate gardening” or “old-fashioned and affected language”), and the Swift family matriarch is Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude. Hilariously, the aforementioned cat is simply “John the Cat.”
This weekend, Shenanigan will meet even more relatives with dictionary-dictated names, because the Swift family reunion is nigh. Far-flung folks will descend upon the stately yet decrepit Swift House, a 17th-century manor packed with secret doors, the occasional turret and a library that holds both books and booby traps. It’s the perfect setting for the keystone activity of every reunion: the hunt for Grand-Uncle Vile’s long-lost fortune, which Shenanigan is determined to find all by herself. Alas, Shenanigan’s plans are interrupted when someone shoves Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude down the stairs, and other murders soon follow. Amid the ensuing shock and chaos, Shenanigan and Phenomena team up to solve the crimes before anyone else is harmed.
Rife with delicious tension and charmingly dry wit, The Swifts explores and celebrates the wonders of wordplay and the complexity of identity while serving up a compelling murder mystery and a twisty treasure hunt. As Lincoln notes in her introduction, “The thing about language is that it can’t stay still. Restless and impatient, it races forward without waiting for our dictionaries to catch up.” Word nerds will emphatically agree—and they’ll be delighted to know that a sequel is in the works, too.
The Swifts celebrates the wonders of wordplay and the complexity of identity while serving up a compelling murder mystery and a twisty treasure hunt.
Although sheepshearing typically involves a bit of frustrated grunting from shearer and shearee alike, when done right, the act can resemble a ballet: two bodies bending and swooping in sync, the whirring of wickedly sharp clipper blades their only accompaniment. As readers will learn in Peggy Orenstein’s illuminating, informative and often funny Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater, doing that dance with any grace takes a lot of practice.
It all happened during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, when the journalist and bestselling author decided that, rather than baking bread or gardening, she would fill her “indefinitely empty calendar” with a dream project: making a sweater from the ground up. The lifelong knitter was taught the craft by her beloved late mother; it “bridged the generation gap, created reliably neutral ground where we could meet,” Orenstein writes.
Over the course of Orenstein’s quest, a talented group of teachers shared their expertise and passion for ranching, shearing, spinning, dyeing and knitting. Along the way, she explores how textile creation has influenced human history and culture, from language (gathering wool and counting sheep) to politics (yarn-bombing and pussy hats) to pivotal inventions. For example, the spinning wheel “has been credited with everything from establishing trade routes . . . to catalyzing the Renaissance.”
But progress had an eventual cost. Today, “the fashion industry is an ecological disaster, responsible for more greenhouse gases than all international flights and maritime shipping combined,” Orenstein writes. Indeed, concern for the Earth’s uncertain future is woven throughout Unraveling. So, too, is the inexorable passage of time, as the author considers the “amount of sand at the bottom of my personal hourglass” and the ways her personal identity has shifted and changed.
Orenstein is an impressively intrepid figure throughout this charming and candid memoir in essays—even when her goal requires her to wrestle recalcitrant sheep and pick bugs and poop out of fleece. She even fully embraces the fact that her goal requires her to do something many people avoid: allowing “ourselves, as adults, to be in a position of being absolute rank amateurs.” Perfectly imperfect like a handmade sweater, Unraveling is an entertaining chronicle of a challenging year wonderfully well spent. Creativity and craft can soothe anxiety, encourage connection and spark joy; Orenstein’s book will do the same.
Creativity and craft can soothe anxiety, encourage connection and spark joy; Peggy Orenstein’s book about learning to make a sweater from scratch will do the same.
Yoga classes, cleanses, wellness retreats: We’ve all heard these and other remedies marketed as “self-care” for life in an exhausting and distressing world. But debut author Pooja Lakshmin wants readers to know that, while these types of self-care may make us feel temporarily better, they are part of an ineffectual system that keeps people (especially women and minorities) feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. As the psychiatrist and New York Times contributor writes in her introduction to Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), “This book is my letter to every woman out there who has flirted with hopping in the car and running away from it all.”
Lakshmin wants to help readers find ways to more authentically enjoy their everyday lives, and she uses anecdotes about her patients to illustrate what this might look like. For example, there’s Shelby, who shifted from viewing breastfeeding as imperative to something that just didn’t work out (and that’s OK!), and Clara, who started her own business after realizing teaching was no longer sustainable.
How did they get there? Via Lakshmin’s four principles for real self-care: setting boundaries without guilt, practicing self-compassion, exploring your real self and asserting power. Helpful tools, exercises, scripts and a “Real Self-Care Compass” smooth the way to the gratifying final stage, which is “facing, straight-on, the toxicity and trauma that our culture brings to women . . . and it’s only when a critical mass of women do this internal work that we will come to collective change in our world.”
Daunting? Sure. Doable? The author believes so, and she contends that the hard, ongoing work is worth it. After all, she is writing as a fellow traveler alongside her readers. “I ended up falling for Big Wellness in the worst way,” she writes. “I joined a cult!” While her time with the cult, which practiced “orgasmic meditation,” did offer some benefits (she worked with neuroscientists at the Rutgers fMRI orgasm lab, and the meditation practice “was healing for me in profound ways”), when she left the group, she was deeply depressed for quite some time.
Over time, Lakshmin realized that “real self-care is not a noun, it’s a verb—an ongoing internal process that guides us toward profound emotional wellness and reimagines how we interact with others.” In her heartfelt and empathetic Real Self-Care, she shares how she moved beyond shame and regret to a happier, more true-to-herself life, something she believes readers can do, too. Lakshmin’s first step: reclaiming the term self-care by imbuing it with self-knowledge, sustainability and joy.
Psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin wants to reclaim the term self-care by helping readers find ways to more authentically enjoy their everyday lives.
Flames flicker around the edges of Margot Douaihy’s Scorched Grace, casting light and revealing darkness, hinting at the sort of destruction that offers the possibility of a new beginning.
That’s what Sister Holiday Walsh was looking for a year ago when she joined the Sisters of the Sublime Blood after fleeing the wreckage of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Sister Holiday is not a typical nun: While she and her brother, Moose, were raised Catholic by her former-nun mom and police captain dad, being wholly reverent has never been her thing. Rather, she’s the self-described “first punk nun,” a heavily tattooed loner who hides her ink under scarf and gloves and conceals her trauma under a jauntily sarcastic demeanor.
Although she’s somewhat found her footing as a music teacher at Saint Sebastian’s, the New Orleans school the nuns oversee, Sister Holiday’s emotional armor cracks open when an arsonist strikes and Jack, a well-liked janitor and her confidante, is killed. Stunned at his loss and baffled as to why someone would commit such violent acts against the school, Sister Holiday turns to chain-smoking and recalling memories of her former lover Nina to soothe herself.
But it’s not enough: She mistrusts the police, she doesn’t feel safe, and the Raymond Chandler novels she escaped into as a kid are looming large in her mind. “Sleuthing and stubbornness were my gifts from God,” she thinks, and she’s sure as hell going to use those gifts to solve the mystery on her own.
Scorched Grace revels in its unreliable narrator and bounty of plausible suspects, from shifty authority figures to mercurial students to enigmatic women of God. Douaihy, a poet and professor who shares Sister Holiday’s punk sensibility, immerses the reader in her hyperlocal New Orleans setting and the murky depths of Sister Holiday’s tormented soul. Her prose is frequently lyrical and often lacerating, her characters layered and intriguing.
It’s not surprising in the slightest that this series starter is the first book published by Gillian Flynn’s eponymous new imprint. Scorched Grace is both entertaining and devastating, dominated by a queer sleuth with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.
Scorched Grace is an entertaining and devastating mystery that introduces Sister Holiday, a queer nun with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.
After 15 glorious years exploring the 12th-century Indian Ocean with her tightknit crew—acquiring precious jewels and artifacts, prevailing in all manner of violent encounters and reveling in the wildness of life on the sea—pirate captain Amina al-Sirafi grounded herself. Why, after all her legendary adventures, would she leave behind her beloved Marawati and abandon the great wide ocean? Because she gave birth to her daughter, Marjana, whom she wants to protect from the sorts of people she used to live among—the sort of person she used to be herself.
But as Shannon Chakraborty’s historical fantasy The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi begins, the past calls to Amina in the form of an irresistible job offer from the wealthy and imperious mother of Amina’s former crewmate Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can rescue the girl, she will receive a million dinars, a life-changing sum that could buy the security and privacy she craves. “It was tempting,” Amina thinks. “It was tantalizing. It was me. For I have always had a gambler’s soul . . .”
Desire and ambition prevail over misgivings, and Amina returns to the sea after 10 years in hiding, convincing her former crew to join her once again. They encounter people, creatures and secrets that inspire fascination right along with terror and doubt. After all, everyone is older, wiser and burdened by regrets about roads (well, sea routes) not taken. But they’re also thrilled to be together again, and Chakraborty creates a rousing and inspiring portrait of the beautiful alchemy that results when a group of people fit perfectly together, challenging and supporting one another in invaluable and often hilarious ways.
As in Chakraborty’s internationally bestselling Daevabad trilogy, magic and dark forces and bizarre beings pop up in the pages of The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, the first volume in a new trilogy. Impressively researched history underpins it all, offering fascinating context and realism that elevate this swashbuckling, adventurous tale of a fantastical heist as it explores parenthood, faith, ambition, friendship and the enduring allure of forging a legacy.
Shannon Chakraborty’s follow-up to her bestselling Daevabad trilogy is a swashbuckling high seas quest that’s rousing, profound and irresistible.
In a note included with advance copies of Gillian McDunn’s fifth novel, the middle grade author shares that When Sea Becomes Sky is her “once-in-a-lifetime-book.” It is an undeniably beautiful story made for pondering and revisiting, and a tale that readers will surely treasure.
It’s been almost a year since rain fell on Pelican Island, a lovely place amid the coastal Carolina salt marshes where 11-year-old Bex and 9-year-old Davey live with their parents. In the summertime, Mom, a biology teacher, kayaks around collecting samples and specimens; Dad pilots a ferryboat and writes poetry; and Bex, Davey, and Davey’s cat, Squish, row out to the Thumb, their favorite spot on the island. The isolated, peaceful area contains a huge old live oak tree in which Squish lounges, Davey reads and Bex valiantly tries to conquer her writer’s block.
But then, as Bex and Davey are enjoying their “just-us kind of summer,” two strange things appear. First, they find an orange X painted on their tree, a harbinger of a bridge-development project that will bring more tourism to the island while destroying so much of what the siblings hold dear. The second surprise might offer a solution: As the drought drags on, a statue slowly emerges from the marshy water at the Thumb, and Bex and Davey think they might be able to use it to stop the development project.
Bex convinces Davey to keep the statue a secret so they can figure out its origin without the interference of grown-ups, but they’ll have to hurry. The developers will break ground soon, and it’s going to be really hard for Bex and Davey to keep their investigation hidden from their parents and island neighbors for long.
McDunn creates delicious and often funny tension as Bex and Davey sneak around in search of answers and discover even more questions. Readers will be intrigued and moved as they join the inseparable pair in their musings: If something is fleeting, does that make it less meaningful? What does it mean to endure? What does moving on look like, and is it different from leaving something—or someone—behind?
Illustrations by Yaoyao Ma Van As heighten the sense of place, and readers will practically smell the island’s salty air as they’re reminded of the importance of conservation and stewardship. When Sea Becomes Sky is an emotional, realistic chronicle of a special summer that considers big questions and appreciates quiet moments with mastery, compassion and care.
Readers will practically smell the salty island air in this novel about a special summer that considers big questions and appreciates quiet moments.
Anyone embarking on a boat-based vacation should not expect to encounter Shannon Chakraborty on the lido deck. It’s not that she has anything against shuffleboard, per se; it’s more of a self-preservational instinct. “The idea of open ocean terrifies me,” the bestselling fantasy author explained in a call from her home in New Jersey. “I joke with my family that I will never go on a cruise. I love the water, but I have enough fear and respect for it that I never want to be out of sight of land.”
Fortunately for her fans—all around the world, as her work has been published in more than a dozen languages—Chakraborty’s imagination is not so landlocked. In The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, her inventive and exhilarating start to a new historical fantasy trilogy, the author enters full pirate mode. Her titular protagonist is a seasoned 12th-century sea captain who’s lured out of self-imposed retirement by an offer she can neither resist nor refuse.
Amina left home at age 16 and was at sea for 15 years, becoming one of the most notorious pirates in the Indian Ocean. But after her daughter, Marjana, was born, Amina left her criminal activities behind, choosing instead to hunker down in her family’s mountainous home in southern Arabia, surrounded by jungle that protects them from prying eyes but close enough to the coast to hear the sea.
Staying in one place for 10 years has stirred up a discomfiting swirl of emotions in Amina. The time with her daughter is precious, as is the knowledge that staying away from the ocean has kept them safe. But Amina also misses the freedom of doing whatever she desired, surrounded by her crew, a loyal and talented found family that understood and reveled in the thrill of never knowing where they’d end up next.
Thus, Amina is particularly primed to accept an unexpected offer from Salima, the uber-wealthy mother of Amina’s former crewman Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can figure out who captured her and bring her home, the reward money means Amina will never again have to worry about providing for her family. And, most enticingly, it’s a chance for Amina to achieve one last impossible victory, which could boost her legacy from well known and slightly infamous to unquestionably legendary.
Amina’s powerful combination of fierce maternal instinct and undeniable ambition was top of mind for Chakraborty as she embarked on her new literary adventure, which began mere months after she concluded her beloved Daevabad trilogy with 2020’s TheEmpire of Gold.
When Chakraborty began writing TheCity of Brass, the first book in the trilogy, “I never actually imagined I would be a published author,” she says. “I had slight hopes, but I was [writing] mostly to keep my sanity.” She was caring for her newborn daughter and working full time while her husband contended with a demanding medical residency. “I wrote as enjoyment so I could play in the historical worlds I loved,” she says, having always wanted to pursue a graduate degree in medieval history. And then, she says with a laugh, “when the books went to auction, I was like, okay, I guess I do this now!”
Although she was an established and acclaimed author by the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chakraborty was consumed by uncertainty when virtual schooling took over her home life. “I think we can kind of forget the doom of that first six months of the pandemic,” she says. “I just assumed I was never going to have time to write again. And it almost felt selfish; my husband was treating COVID patients and my daughter was having an incredibly difficult time.”
But then, she says, “I pushed into that, because I wanted to write about parenthood and motherhood and talk about the points where you can love your children, they are the center of your world . . . but you can still want more. And it’s not selfish to want that.”
The thought of other mothers experiencing the same feelings led to the creation of Amina, a woman who deeply loves her daughter but is also proud of her decades of experience as a ship’s captain and the accompanying wide range of skills she’s developed, from prevailing in hand-to-hand combat to diffusing crew quarrels to navigating stormy seas. “I wanted to write a story for us,” Chakraborty says of her fellow mothers, “and talk about how that [struggle] is something that has always happened.”
Chakraborty also drew on her abiding affinity for the ancient past. “My love of history has always come before my love of fantasy,” she says. “I was one of those strange kids reading up on the Titanic at 9 years old.” That zeal for research has helped Chakraborty immerse herself and her readers in fabulous and fantastical new worlds. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi’s Indian Ocean setting is rife with danger and intrigue, peopled with memorable characters, crackling magic and supernatural creatures. “I always found the idea of these littoral oceanic societies fascinating,” Chakraborty says. “We look for land-based empires and trade routes, and we don’t really look at the ways that oceans and seas connect people. . . . You see a lot of shared cultures and storytelling, and you find very similar stories in India that you then find in Yemen and in East Africa.”
One of those common elements, per her extensive research, was a pervasive belief in the supernatural. “Magic was just considered real,” she says. “It was accepted by a majority of the population.” Chakraborty knows that this concept “could be difficult for modern readers to understand, but if you’re going to write about the past you’ve got to write about where people were coming from.”
Chakraborty is constantly thinking about the disparity between historical reality and the false impressions people draw from what is taught in school or gleaned from popular culture. “Not everybody is privileged to go to college and take undergraduate and graduate courses on history, so a lot of what we understand of the past is very much determined by fictional presentations of it,” she says. “And when we have discussions of the medieval world in particular, especially in the West, we often have this very grim, dark idea that Europe was [completely] white, we talk about the Dark Ages when everything was miserable for women . . . but you have to peel back and say, well, where did those ideas come from? What work are we highlighting?”
The author provides suggestions for further reading on her website, hoping to stimulate such questions in pursuit of a more critical discourse. “By being able to show my receipts and my historical work,” Chakraborty says, “I’m [encouraging] my readers to look at the past a little differently.”
Another shift in perspective that Chakraborty is passionate about is her certainty that fantasy has room for exciting, inspiring stories about women who are no longer in their 20s. She says, “Adventure doesn’t stop when you’re 22 years old, and so much fantasy is focused on this extremely narrow age range. . . . But you still don’t know what you’re doing at 40 or 50, you still make mistakes, you’re still trying to have fun and take care of your family.”
“I also feel like life experiences do matter and time does matter,” Chakraborty adds. “It would be completely unfathomable to me that Amina’s crew would be able to work on this mystery if they hadn’t been at sea and sailing and learning and thieving and poisoning and researching for the past 20 or 30 years. You need those talents, and they take time.”
Having a middle-aged woman as a protagonist also allowed Chakraborty to explore complex themes of faith and growth. “I wanted to write a story about a character who deals with struggle and hardship in a way that comes back to her faith,” she says. “Amina is a devout Muslim, but she’s also someone who is very open about the ways she has failed, particularly in her early life. She’s a pirate, she’s a criminal, she was a thief and murderer, and she’s still coming back to religion and to God in ways that I felt we don’t have a lot of stories about—people who fail and then find their faith later in life.”
“As someone who is religious myself,” she adds, “it speaks to an idea of mercy and compassion about God and about faith that I don’t think we see enough or talk about enough.”
Readers curious about how this new series will diverge from Chakraborty’s previous books will be interested to know that “whereas the Daevabad trilogy was told from the point of view of magical creatures, this book is very much from the point of view of the humans who have to deal with them.” She also says that “there are lots of Easter eggs, and a character from Daevabad does show up.”
After all, Chakraborty says with the sort of enthusiasm that any bibliophile will recognize, “All of history is a story. It’s how we understand the world, how we understand the past, how we put facts together, how we describe anything. Everything is story. . . . I think it’s probably one of the most profoundly human things we engage in.”
Picture of Shannon Chakraborty by Melissa C. Beckman.
The author of the bestselling Daevabad trilogy returns with a rip-roaring fantasy adventure starring a 12th-century pirate captain.
Sixteen-year-old Samantha “Sam” Kang has long felt like the odd one out in her family. Her older brother, Julian, is a “literal genius” studying science at Yale, while Sam is a B-minus student who’s more into podcasts and movies than college application-friendly activities like clubs or sports. Her mom, Priscilla, is a lawyer, and her father is a doctor; Sam observes that together, they look “like an attractive, wealthy Asian couple in a BMW commercial. The American Dream realized.” What that dream consists of, exactly, is at the heart of Sam’s ongoing conflict with her mother in Maurene Goo’s inventive, funny and moving Throwback.
Goo (I Believe in a Thing Called Love) does an excellent job conveying the acute pain of clashing with someone you love fiercely—and who makes you feel profoundly misunderstood. When Halmoni, Sam’s beloved grandmother, has a heart attack, the differences between Sam’s relationships with her mother and grandmother are thrown into even sharper relief, culminating in an argument between Sam and her mom that Sam fears they’ll never recover from. Will Sam and her mother end up like Priscilla and Halmoni, distant and polite but with no affection in sight?
As if all that isn’t stressful enough, Sam winds up stranded at the mall, so she downloads a rideshare app called Throwback Rides and steps out of the driver’s beat-up old hatchback . . . and into 1995. The students at her high school are all wearing supremely baggy jeans; there are no cellphones to be seen; and everyone’s backpacks dangle from their shoulders by a single strap. Oh, and the gorgeous, popular, mean-girl cheerleader downplaying her Korean heritage as she campaigns for homecoming queen? Yep, that’s Priscilla at age 17.
Like Marty McFly before her, Sam quickly realizes that she’d better figure out what her goal is here, and fast, because her cellphone is the only way to hail a ride back to the present and its battery is rapidly draining. In the whirlwind week before homecoming, Sam works to befriend Priscilla and help her get elected queen; contends with racism, sexism and heteronormativity from students and teachers alike; and struggles to hide her true identity even as she gains precious insight into Priscilla’s relationship with Halmoni.
Goo’s characters are wonderfully drawn, and she explores the challenges and joys of intergenerational relationships with empathy and heart. Readers will root for Sam as she achieves new understandings of her family and herself. By story’s end, they’ll also resoundingly agree with Sam’s declaration that, no matter the decade, “Mariah [Carey] heals all wounds.”
This inventive and funny Back to the Future-esque tale explores the challenges and joys of intergenerational relationships with empathy and heart.
When Rachel Klein was born 12 years ago, Krasnia’s oceanside capital of Brava was a lively, lovely place dotted with palm trees and populated by citizens who reveled in living there. Sadly, in British screenwriter and playwright David Farr’s The Book of Stolen Dreams, lightheartedness is long gone from present-day Brava.
A tyrannical man named Charles Malstain and his army invaded the city shortly after Rachel was born. The emperor of Krasnia was executed in the town square, and Brava was systematically destroyed. Under Malstain’s rule, public spaces are only for adults, posters declaring that “a seen child is a bad child” are plastered everywhere, and children are only permitted to leave home to go to school, where they must study government-issued materials and muddle through dreary days.
But Rachel’s parents, Judith and Felix, create a warm, supportive home for Rachel and her older brother, Robert, where laughter is allowed and creativity is encouraged. On Rachel’s birthday, Felix offers the kids a treat in the form of a visit to the library where he works. What begins as an illicit jaunt soon becomes something the kids never could’ve expected: an urgent, terrifying mission to protect The Book of Stolen Dreams, an ancient magical tome long treasured by good people yet zealously coveted by Malstain, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book and use it for evil.
From an opulent hotel to a mysterious old bookshop, from tenement housing to a massive silver airship, the siblings’ exhilarating and dangerous journey swoops from thrilling to terrifying to heartwarming and back again. Suspenseful action scenes and gasp-worthy surprises abound as Rachel and Robert strive to evade capture while attempting to find the Book’s vitally important but missing last page, which unlocks life-altering magic, before Malstain can.
Farr’s beautifully crafted, thought-provoking story isn’t an easy-breezy read, but Farr is intimately acquainted with its stakes: The Book of Stolen Dreams was inspired by his own German Jewish family’s escape from Nazi Germany between 1935 and 1938. The novel grapples with tough, weighty questions: Is happiness possible under government oppression? When is a risk worthwhile? What do we owe our fellow citizens?
Farr’s characters experience fear and grief right alongside delight and wonder. As his omniscient narrator observes with the mix of hard-won acceptance, hope and love for humanity that echoes throughout The Book of Stolen Dreams, “Such is life, my friend. There is no joy without accompanying sorrow. There is no despair so dark that a sliver of light cannot abate it.”
Two siblings must protect a magical book from the tyrannical ruler of their country in this novel inspired by the author’s family’s experiences during WWII.
In her first memoir, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town, Kelly McMasters chronicled her happy childhood in a small blue-collar seaside community—and her horrified realization that nearby nuclear reactor leaks were causing cancer in numerous residents.
McMasters again explores the notion of something dark and poisonous lurking beneath a bright, beautiful surface in The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays. This time, she’s writing as a woman emerging from a long relationship, feeling both sorrowful and sanguine. “Marriage, after all,” she writes, “is just one long exercise in controlled burning.”
With poetry and profundity, the author reflects on her path from 20-something optimistic wife and mother-to-be to 30-something reluctant yet relieved divorcee and single mom. Her ex-husband is referred to as R., a painter she began dating just prior to 9/11. On that day, they stared out his studio window in New York City, and McMasters “had the strange sense that, like Lot’s wife, I might disintegrate into salt if I turned away from this body left standing next to me as the others collapsed impossibly in front of my eyes.”
The experience “grafted us to one another,” McMasters writes, and afterward the couple embarked on a tale as old as time: Artsy city-dwellers purchase land in a rural area, anticipating a slower pace, stronger connection and lots of room to grow. McMasters and R. did experience many of those things; her descriptions of their new surroundings are compelling and beautiful, her efforts to befriend taciturn farmers humorous, her determination impressive. (Whiskey helped.) But while sunlight dappled the grass and their young children created joyful chaos, R. grew distant and McMasters “felt like a broken compass needle, spinning and searching for purchase.”
The author’s candor and hard-won perspective will offer solidarity and support to those who are longing to feel seen, and perhaps contemplating shaking up their own lives. In reading The Leaving Season, an old saying came to mind: Wherever you go, there you are. But what if you aren’t sure who you are? McMasters’ masterful, moving memoir of her journey from the city to the country to the suburbs makes an excellent case for taking the time to figure that out, no matter how frightening it seems.
With poetry and profundity, Kelly McMasters reflects on her path from optimistic wife and mother-to-be to reluctant yet relieved divorcee and single mom.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.