Linda M. Castellitto

What is it about butts, exactly, that has made them such a source of fascination throughout history? In her debut book, Butts: A Backstory, reporter Heather Radke seeks to answer that question with wit, empathy and verve. The author spoke with BookPage about what she learned when she looked at butts head-on.

Congratulations on your first book! Did you always want to be an author? What’s been the most exciting aspect so far?
Yes! I have wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl wearing bifocals, thumbing through the pages of Anne of Green Gables at Schuler Bookstore in Okemos, Michigan. It is incredibly difficult to write a book, and a true honor and thrill to have it published. For me, one of the most exciting parts was doing oral histories with different women about their bodies for the initial background research. I spoke with people who had very different bodies from mine and came from very different backgrounds, and it was always fascinating to hear how people feel about their bodies and what helped shape those feelings.

What made you decide that butts merited more than an interview or essay, but instead an entire book? Why were you moved to write about butts now?
I started this book as an essay about the connection between the bustle and the life of Sarah Baartman—a Khoe woman from rural South Africa who was taken to London in 1810 and put on exhibit so people could pay to view her butt—but I quickly realized that the questions I was asking had answers that were much larger than a single essay could contain. In order to understand the symbolic significance of womens’ butts, I would need to explore many historical moments, as well as the science of the butt and the recent explosion of interest in mainstream pop culture. It was this recent interest in the butt that made me think it might be a potent topic to write about now. One of the questions I had was about why and how mainstream beauty standards change, and the butt is such a powerful example of what that looks like.

Read our starred review of ‘Butts’ by Heather Radke.

It’s clear that you put a great deal of time, effort and care into learning about a dizzying variety of people, places, eras, fashions, cultures and more for Butts. Will you share a bit about what it was like to manage such a massive amount of information?
It was a lot of information! It felt like I was trying (and failing) to become an expert on everything, from Jane Fonda’s career to the gender politics of drag to the history of South Africa in the 18th century. I tried to read as widely and deeply as I could on each subject, talk to scholars in the various fields I was covering, and report on the people whose lives were touched by the topics in each chapter. In a lot of ways, it felt like what I used to do when I curated exhibits at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and I used some of the organizational and research tools I learned when I did that work. But there is always a bit of a feeling of drinking from a firehose when taking on such an enormous topic. I’ll never be able to learn as much as I want!

Was there anything you had to leave out of Butts that you wish you could’ve included?
The butt is a HUGE topic, because it’s as old as the human species and as varied. I wish I’d been able to research and include more about other parts of the world besides the United States and Europe, but I decided that it made sense to narrow the scope because of my own personal experience and the enormous influence the U.S. has had on beauty standards worldwide. I also did some research on art history, pornography and the midcentury pinup girl, each of which could have been its own chapter!

“The work is to try and interrogate our assumptions about bodies and ask where they came from, if they are true and why we cling to them.”

Book jacket image for Butts by Heather Radke

In your Introduction to Butts, you reflect on your childhood view that your mother’s butt was “a body part like any other, something to love because I loved the human it was part of. It was not a problem or a blessing. It was only a fact.” Of course, as your book amply illustrates, “butts are not so simple.” Do you think we will ever be able to back off of butts enough to view them as fact, to see them as a body part rather than a symbol?
Honestly, no. We use bodies and body parts as symbols constantly—whether breasts, skin, hair or butts—and that feels very unlikely to change. I think the real problem isn’t actually using bodies symbolically but doing so unconsciously, or confusing the symbolism for reality. The work is to try and interrogate our assumptions about bodies and ask where they came from, if they are true and why we cling to them. Maybe then we can find new kinds of symbolism, or new ways to make meaning that aren’t so hurtful to so many people. 

Considering race is vitally important when examining attitudes toward butts and the women they belong to. From Sarah Baartman and the racist so-called “scientific inquiry” that was used to exploit her, to the more modern-day obsession with Jennifer Lopez’s posterior—there is a seemingly endless mix of fascination, envy, desire and anger projected onto the butts of women of color. When you think about that aspect of your work in Butts, what has stayed with you the most? 
As a white woman, I was very interested in when and why white women become interested in the butts of women of color. Of course, there isn’t a single answer to that question, but something that twerk instructor Kelechi Okafor said really stuck with me. She talked about how many white women she encountered as a dance instructor were uncomfortable with their own sexuality and turned to twerk as a way to express themselves sexually. Obsession with butts is almost always adjacent to angst about sex and race. The more we can talk about that openly, the more likely it is that fewer people will be objectified and harmed by that obsession.

“Because they are funny, and easy not to take seriously, there is a lot of subtext that goes unexamined in butt-related cultural products.”

“Baby Got Back” is a song that everyone knows, and your deep dive into its origins offers lots of interesting context in terms of how the song and its creator, Sir Mix-A-Lot, were received in 1992—and the ways in which its lyrics and video still affect our perceptions of butts today. But while the song and video are in many ways a celebration, you also note that one professor called it “empowered misogyny.” Can you share a bit more about that dichotomy?
I think that “Baby Got Back” is a very complicated text, largely because it is so popular. I believe that Sir Mix-A-Lot meant for it to be a celebration of a beauty standard that, at the time, was not mainstream. But when I watch it now, my conversation with Kyra Gaunt, the scholar who called the song “empowered misogyny,” is the one I think about the most. She talked about how it was part of a larger trend in hip-hop of objectifying women, but that because it’s about butts and therefore seems like a joke, it’s easier to give it a pass. It is one of the things that is truly fascinating about butts: Because they are funny, and easy not to take seriously, there is a lot of subtext that goes unexamined in butt-related cultural products. 

You note that when you were around 10 or 11, suddenly exercise was “no longer a game. It was a necessity.” Aerobics were a rite of passage for women in the 1980s, especially “Buns of Steel” and Jane Fonda videos. Is there any form of exercise today that occupies the same sort of butt-obsessed space in our culture?
There were lots of classes in the mid-2010s that promised to help create butts that looked like Kim Karashian or Beyonce. Those classes, which likely used very similar exercises as “Buns of Steel,” promised to create a big butt, whereas “Buns of Steel” was much more invested in a small, tight butt. It’s in these promises that you can really see the ways that trends around body shape ebb and flow. 

“The things that we don’t take seriously, the things we laugh about or feel are too small to notice, are often things that hold tremendous meaning.”

What were you most hoping to convey or accomplish with Butts? What’s been the most surprising reaction to the book so far?
I’ve definitely gotten the sense that some people are surprised that a book like this exists. When I posted the cover on social media, there were a few retweets where people said, essentially, “Is this some kind of joke?” But in a way, I suppose that is part of the bigger point I’m trying to make with this book: The things that we don’t take seriously, the things we laugh about or feel are too small to notice, are often things that hold tremendous meaning. Butts contain multitudes, and it can be both meaningful and fun to discover just what those multitudes are. 

What’s next for you?
Great question! I just had a baby, so my hope is that a little more sleep lies in my immediate future. Beyond that, I’m working on a couple of projects that take up some of the themes of Butts—gender, identity, the importance of the small—and explore them from very different angles.

Author headshot of Heather Radke © by Andrew Semans

Butts examines our most infamous body part through the lenses of racism and sexism, science and pop culture, fitness and fashion.

In her fascinating and frank debut, Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring. 

As the author notes in her introduction, “Butts are a bellwether. The feelings we have about butts are almost always indicative of other feelings—feelings about race, gender, and sex.” Radke explores the societal forces that underlie such feelings as she guides readers on an impressively well-researched tour of butts throughout history, beginning with a functional analysis (hominids and horses take center stage) and ultimately alighting in the present (twerking, social media and celebrity butts).

Heather Radke shares why now was the perfect time for a thoughtful exploration of this cheeky topic.

In between, Radke considers the persistent, pernicious attitude toward women’s bodies as things to critique. She shares the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman of the Khoe tribe who was effectively enslaved and exhibited in England and France in the early 1800s under the guise of scientific inquiry. From there, Radke segues into eugenics and its emphasis on big butts as supposed markers of sexual deviance.

These so-called scientific endeavors have had a ripple effect, Radke explains, influencing media and pop culture, creeping into beauty standards and body image. She offers examples of butt-obsessed media with positive posterior impacts, too; a deep dive into the 1992 hip-hop sensation “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot is entertaining and edifying, and Beyoncé’s 2001 hit “Bootylicious” gets a shoutout as well.

Radke also touches on fitness sensations (“Buns of Steel”) and fashion trends (Victorian bustles), as well as her complicated feelings about her own “generous” butt. While she, like so many others, has felt shame about her body shape, Radke also believes that “a close examination of the parts of ourselves that can feel unbearable . . . can be transformative.” Certainly, Butts can usher readers onto this more positive path, thanks to its top-notch reportage, assured and respectful voice and invitation to butt-centric contemplation.

In Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring.

It’s four days before Christmas, and Atlanta is in the middle of an unprecedented blizzard. Highway traffic has slowed to a halt; flights are grounded; malls are closing. The abundant chaos as a surprise snowstorm hits a wholly unprepared Southern city serves as the perfect setting for a race against time in the delightful, suspenseful Whiteout. Can a couple reunite and reconcile before it’s too late?

Stevie and Sola’s middle school friendship transformed into high school love. Together, they’ve plotted out their future: Howard University, marriage, kids, in that order. But after a truly disastrous weekend, that future is in serious jeopardy. First, Sola was deeply hurt by the hypothesis of Stevie’s science experiment, which posited that love is nothing more than “a biological response built into human brains to ensure the survival of the population.” Then, in a spectacular explosion of arrogance and humiliation, Stevie ruined their meticulously planned coming-out dinner with Sola’s extended family. And so Sola has issued Stevie an ultimatum: provide a satisfactory explanation and apology by midnight, or they’re over—for good.

Heartsick Stevie leaps into action, asking several friends to join her elaborate plan to win back Sola. When the blizzard arrives, she cancels those requests, but in an encouraging display of loyalty, the other teens pitch in nonetheless. It’s not easy; they get stuck in locations all around their snow-besieged city while also unraveling their own entanglements. As the clock ticks down to midnight, readers will root for multiple couples to take their own leaps of faith as they assist Stevie with hers.

This unabashedly romantic effort by acclaimed and bestselling YA authors Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon will captivate readers who adored the group’s first novel, 2021’s Blackout. While both books celebrate Black and queer love, the writers took a different approach for Whiteout, blending their contributions rather than crafting alternating chapters. (For extra fun, be sure to check out their authors’ note, which offers tantalizing hints about who wrote which characters.) The result is a charming and captivating second-chance romance that pays homage to friendship, honesty and the power of swoonworthy grand gestures.

A surprise snowstorm in a wholly unprepared city serves as the perfect setting for a romantic race against time in the delightful, suspenseful Whiteout.

Susan Dennard kicks off a darkly magical, action-packed new series with The Luminaries, which introduces a mysterious world filled with monsters. It’s the story of a teen girl named Winnie Wednesday and her quest to rejoin the secret organization of monster hunters who keep her town—and the world—safe. Dennard chatted with BookPage about her novel’s unusual origin story, the unexpected ways she still uses her marine biology degree and how she continues to grow as a writer after eight books and 10 years as a published author.

Can you introduce us to Winnie and what’s going on in her life when we meet her?
The book opens on Winnie’s 16th birthday in a town called Hemlock Falls, where nightmares rise in a nearby forest each night. Seven clans within the secret Luminaries society are charged with fighting those nightmares and protecting the world at large. There’s one clan for each night of the week, and Winnie is a Wednesday.

Four years ago, Winnie’s father was revealed to be a Diana—aka a witch, the sworn enemy of the Luminaries. Her dad ran off, but Winnie, her brother and her mom remained behind, still loyal to the cause. They were given a 10-year sentence to exist as outcasts within Hemlock Falls as punishment for not seeing what their dad really was.

Ever since that moment four years ago, Winnie has been secretly training to participate in the deadly Hunter trials. She is convinced if she can pass and become a Wednesday nightmare hunter, her family will be welcomed back into the Luminaries society.

The Luminaries has a pretty unique origin story. For readers who have no idea what I’m talking about, could you give us a quick rundown?
The Luminaries was an idea I first tried to sell in 2013 without any success, so my agent and I shelved it. Fast-forward six years to 2019: I was in a dark place after a miscarriage and didn’t like being alone with my thoughts, so while sitting at LaGuardia waiting for a flight, I thought, “Let’s do something fun on Twitter.”

I hastily typed off a tweet that began the story of The Luminaries, and at the end was a poll in which readers could choose what to do next. Little did I know that story would last six months, with thousands of people voting every single day on what Winnie Wednesday would do!

“You know, emotions are messy. The heart wants what it wants, even when the brain is like, ‘That is a very bad plan.’”

How did the story change in its transformation from interactive Twitter thread to novel? What was important to you to preserve in that transformation and why?
It changed a ton, actually. For two reasons: First, I am not someone who wants to rewrite a story she’s already written—the fun is in the discovery. Second, if I had tried to replicate our online tale, it would never have lived up! Ninety-five percent of the fun came from the communal elements, like the teams that cropped up (like #TeamThirst, who always voted toward romance, or #TeamPetty, who always voted for the worst option), the chitchat between readers, the roping-in of friends so they would vote too . . . I couldn’t match that!

So I ended up taking the world and characters and crafting a wholly new tale. But of course, I made sure to include the most iconic moments and some Easter eggs for the original LumiNerds.

Winnie’s family’s motto is “The cause above all else. Loyalty through and through.” What did you enjoy about creating her character?
It’s fun to write a character who very rarely questions the why of something and simply does because they believe so deeply in a cause. It makes knowing what Winnie will do in a scene easy: She will always work toward a singular goal. But then it’s especially fun to introduce cracks into that character’s loyalty, to have them start noticing and questioning and wondering if maybe they’ve got it all wrong.

You write so empathetically about Winnie’s emotions: She feels hurt by her family’s ostracism, but she also yearns to be included. She’s justifiably angry but uncertain about when and how to express it. What drew you to a protagonist who occupies this emotional landscape? 
You know, emotions are messy. The heart wants what it wants, even when the brain is like, “That is a very bad plan.” And I think every person out there has been caught in a conflict like that. Then you throw some external pressure onto the situation—particularly from relationships that matter to you—and there’s really no way to avoid a lot of feelings. I find that it’s in those messy emotional moments that we make the most difficult decisions and come out stronger for them.

There’s a scene in which Winnie collects corpses; later, she attends a fancy event. How do you get yourself in the right headspace to write such contrasting scenes—one so dark and gory, the other so glittery and celebratory?
Ha! I had no trouble moving from one end of the spectrum to the other. It’s the way the whole Luminaries world operates, and I think it’s how a lot of humans operate. There are so many truly tough jobs out there, but then we go home to our families and celebrate birthdays, and our brains toggle between the two lives pretty fluidly.

“Teens have all the smarts and ingenuity of adults but without the baggage or prejudices. They have a clarity of thought that lets them see ways forward that we adults just can’t seem to find.”

Of course, it’s not always easy—for the world at large or for Winnie—and we’ll really see that come into play in the sequel.

Scientific curiosity plays a big role in The Luminaries. How did your own background in marine biology influence this aspect of the novel?
Speaking of toggling between gore and fun, I have had the experience of cutting apart sharks on Arctic ice, then tucking into a cozy tent and playing cards all night. You can’t fully enjoy the latter without the first.

I love studying the creatures of the world and how evolution leads to such incredible adaptations. It’s what got me into marine ecology—so many amazing adaptations in our oceans! It was really fun to give Winnie the same fascination I have and to use my understanding of evolution and ecosystems to create the forest’s various nightmares.

Speaking of that forest, you write about it so vividly—the look and feel of the trees, the density of the mist, the sounds and smells of the landscape. Forests often hold a kind of archetypal power in fantasy stories. How did you go about crafting this particular forest? Was it influenced by any real forests you’ve encountered?
I was definitely influenced by nights out camping. If you’ve ever been in a dense forest when there is no moon or other light, then you know it is a feeling. You really cannot see, no matter how much your eyes adjust. And then the sounds! There are so many sounds, and each one easily takes on a sinister meaning (at least if you’re like me and have an overactive imagination). It wasn’t hard at all for me to tap into that feeling and turn it into an entire world.

There’s a moment when Winnie is talking about her family, and she says, “We deserve to dream again.” That’s such a heavy weight for anyone to bear. What would you say to a teenager who is feeling a pressure like that?
One of the main reasons I write YA is because I think teens have all the smarts and ingenuity of adults but without the baggage or prejudices. They have a clarity of thought that lets them see ways forward that we adults just can’t seem to find—or that we adults are convinced will never work.

I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to dream, but I do think hoping and finding solutions is something teens are uniquely adept at. So while Winnie’s mom would never want her daughter to be doing what she’s doing (secretly entering these deadly Hunter trials), Winnie also has that clarity of vision her mom lacks. She sees how this could save her family, and she’s willing to take that risk.

This year marks a decade since you published your first book, 2012’s Something Strange and Deadly. What are some ways you’ve changed as a writer? What makes you feel excited about the next decade of writing?
I’d like to think I’m a much better writer now than I was a decade ago—both on a prose level and on a more macro story level. And I certainly have a much more innate ability to write now than when I first began. It’s that difference between “unconscious competence” and “conscious competence.”

Of course, I’m also still learning—which is so exciting to consider. I can still get better. I love to study craft, and I hope my books only get stronger with each new title.

Read our review of ‘The Luminaries.’

Author photo of Susan Dennard courtesy of Susan Dennard.

The bestselling author reflects on how she continues to evolve creatively and why teens can see things adults can’t.

There comes a time in every hit man or woman’s life to hang up the garrotte and stow away the guns. The assassin protagonists of these books are understandably world- and work-weary, but old habits die hard when you’re a killer for hire.

It’s impossible not to like Billie, Mary Alice, Natalie and Helen, even if Deanna Raybourn’s Killers of a Certain Age makes it abundantly clear that the quartet could easily kill someone and get away with it if they so desired. After all, they’ve done just that many, many times during their 40-year careers as elite assassins for an international organization called the Museum.

The women are smart and funny, each with a specialty (poison, bombs, weapons) and all with extensive training in planning and carrying out assassinations. As Billie quips, “Our job is to eliminate people who need killing.” So it’s quite a shock when, before they’ve even had a chance to enjoy the all-expenses-paid retirement cruise arranged by the Museum, the women realize someone has decided that they need killing—someone who just might be on the board of their former employer. The women take a moment to indulge their anger like any longtime employee would (“We’ve given forty years to those assholes and this is how they repay us.”) and then surge into action, joining forces to figure out who’s after them and why.

Raybourn, an Edgar finalist and bestselling author of the Veronica Speedwell historical mystery series, has created a group of protagonists who are as reliably charming as they are impressively badass. It’s fascinating to follow along as they map out routes, create disguises, work their connections and improvise weapons. They handle it all with practiced aplomb, even if they occasionally groan with aggravation after battles to the death leave them feeling achier than they used to. But the four “avenging goddesses” are also able to use sexism and ageism to their strategic advantage, given that the combo renders them virtually invisible.

Ingenuity and instinct combine with deadly determination in this memorable thriller that celebrates friendship, ponders the meaning of loyalty, and offers plenty of action-packed entertainment among all the, well, killing.

In contrast to the ladies’ collaborative approach, there can only be one top-notch killer in the world of Seventeen. Screenwriter John Brownlow’s debut novel gives that number one spot to his brashly confident narrator, a man known only as Seventeen.

To achieve assassin supremacy, you must kill your predecessor—but Sixteen suddenly disappeared eight years ago. He’s the first assassin in 100 years to have done so, making Seventeen the only one who hasn’t truly earned his spot, according to his handler (who, of course, goes by “Handler”). Seventeen’s a consummate professional nonetheless, with a practical approach to his work: “I’m not saying what I do is a public service exactly, but actions have consequences.”

Now, though, it seems Seventeen himself may have begun to suffer the consequences of his chosen career path. After a multitarget assignment gets a bit messy, and he completes two subsequent jobs in Berlin without his usual finesse, he worries he might be losing his touch, and it seems like Handler might agree. When he informs Seventeen his next job is to find Sixteen and take him out, Seventeen’s hunch intensifies. Can he find and finish Sixteen before Handler sends someone else to finish him, too?

Brownlow’s snappy prose and brief chapters will have readers eagerly flipping the pages. Sixteen may be off the grid, but he’s not going to be off his game: He’s too smart to let his guard down, and he’s got 20 years of experience on Seventeen. As the ultimate showdown nears, compelling secondary characters add to the darkly humorous fun, intense action scenes amp up the suspense, and Seventeen reflects on the tragic childhood events that set him on his ruthless career path. That exploration of the far-ranging effects of trauma, as well as forays into geopolitics and governmental corruption, bolster the cleverly constructed, propulsive thrill ride that is Seventeen.

Can an assassin ever truly retire? The characters in these two thrillers are about to find out.

Just as immersion in nature inspires a mix of profound awe and renewed curiosity about this Earth we call home, so, too, does filmmaker and novelist Priyanka Kumar’s mesmerizing essay collection, Conversations With Birds—rendered in finely wrought prose, steeped in memory and thrumming with endless curiosity.

Kumar reflects on her childhood in northern India, formative years during which she enjoyed lush nature every day. As a young adult studying film at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she realized that she had become alienated from the natural realm that once brought her such joy. An impromptu bird walk and fortuitous encounter with a long-billed curlew reshaped the way Kumar has experienced the world ever since: “My hunger to know more about the bird was like a bridge that would one day lead me back to nature’s elusive womb.”

In the years since, Kumar has embarked on journeys far and near to commune with birds (cranes, owls, tanagers, eagles) and other creatures that inhabit the American Southwest. She chronicles her encounters thoughtfully and with passion, dotting her work with references to Orpheus, Henry David Thoreau, Ravi Shankar and more.

But travel isn’t necessary for engaging with nature; just looking up at a tree that you walk by daily could reveal new wonders. Kumar and her family have only to sit by the large round window that looks out on their Santa Fe backyard, where they might observe a passing bobcat or the beheaded remains of flowers that were eaten by deer.

However, birds remain Kumar’s truest loves. “How is it that we can love birds . . . and not be attentive to how bird habitats all around us are being fragmented or overgrazed or paved over with concrete?” she writes. It’s a question that circles through Conversations With Birds from beginning to end as Kumar celebrates the creatures that live among us and urges us to consider our role in protecting our collective future. After all, she knows from experience that “the seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”

The essays in Conversations With Birds are rendered in finely wrought prose, steeped in memory and thrumming with endless curiosity about nature.

When the sun sets in the forests of Hemlock Falls, a heavy mist rises, bringing with it a host of horrifying creatures. From banshees to were-beasts, these living nightmares exist to wreak terror and destruction and must be killed or contained within the boundaries of the forest. If they were to escape, they would destroy the world.

Winnie Wednesday desperately wants to become a Hunter for the Luminaries, the international order whose seven clans keep humanity safe. Each clan is named for a day of the week, and each has its own motto. The Wednesday clan’s motto is “loyalty through and through,” which Winnie’s family happily embodied until her dad was revealed to be a traitor and disappeared from their lives. Winnie and her family have been shunned and scorned by the other Luminaries in the four years since.

But as her 16th birthday approaches, Winnie is ready to restore her family to its rightful place by passing the grueling Hunter trials. It won’t be easy, since she hasn’t spent the past four years training with the other Wednesdays. She reluctantly realizes that there is one person she could ask for help: her ex-best friend, Jay Friday, who is now one of the best—and most handsome—Hunters in Hemlock Falls.

‘The Luminaries’ author Susan Dennard explains how a layover at LaGuardia led to her new novel.

In The Luminaries, bestselling author Susan Dennard kicks off a darkly magical, action-packed new series and introduces a mysterious world filled with monsters. Readers will urge Winnie on as she gains confidence, strength and lots of bruises while training with the capable yet secretive Jay. Dennard builds tension as what seemed impossible comes tantalizingly within Winnie’s reach. But Winnie’s doubts grow, too. Does she really want to become part of a group that shunned her and her family?

Plenty of gasp-inducing thrills, monstrous gore and empathetic soul-searching—plus a little tentative flirting—bring The Luminaries to a satisfying conclusion. Dennard resolves important questions and tees up some well-placed cliffhangers for the next installment. In the meantime, readers should check out the author’s acknowledgments, in which she thanks the fans who helped get the book started via a wonderful 2019 choose-your-own-story Twitter thread that still lives online. LumiNerds, arise!

Read our Q&A with ‘The Luminaries’ author Susan Dennard.

Susan Dennard kicks off a darkly magical, action-packed new series in The Luminaries, set in a mysterious world filled with monsters.

Katherine St. John is a pro at crafting escapist thrillers: Her often gorgeous protagonists find themselves in remote settings, surrounded by people they’re not sure they can trust. It all makes for loads of nail-biting suspense as said protagonists realize they’d better figure out how to, well, escape before something truly terrible happens. 

Fans of her previous books, The Lion’s Den and The Siren, will devour St. John’s latest, The Vicious Circle, which conjures up that same life-or-death urgency amid opulence. This time, the setting is a wellness center named Xanadu, deep in the Mexican jungle. The luxurious compound offers much fodder for suspicion. (The bedrooms have no doors? What’s with all the chanting?) It also serves as the locus for St. John’s exploration of shared beliefs-turned-toxic groupthink and the fuzzy line between enigmatic mysticism and subtle manipulation. 

Former model Sveta Bentzen is shocked to learn that her estranged uncle, the famous self-help guru and Xanadu founder Paul Sayres, left his entire estate to her instead of his wife, Kali. All her life, Sveta has felt that she’s not enough, either for her loving but distant mother or her wealthy fiancé’s influential and scornful family. When she learns of her uncle’s death, she grieves the relationship they didn’t have and is determined to make the long, treacherous journey to Xanadu for the memorial service Kali will host there. Sveta’s confidence falters when lawyer (and handsome former flame) Lucas joins the trip, but she perseveres, hoping to reach an understanding with Kali while Lucas handles the finances. The Xanadu residents welcome them, but Sveta suspects that hostility may lurk beneath Kali’s serenity—and that the circumstances of her uncle’s death may have been misrepresented, too.

Fans of “The White Lotus’ and Nine Perfect Strangers will relish Sveta’s race to find a way to escape Xanadu before it’s too late. Her hard-won journey to realizing her self-worth is as compelling as it is deliciously ironic: Who knew all you had to do to win confidence, love and inner peace is escape a creepy wellness center?

Fans of “The White Lotus” and Nine Perfect Strangers will relish Katherine St. John’s latest escapist thriller.

Cassie Blake, the girl at the heart of Jodi Lynn Anderson’s powerful and timely Each Night Was Illuminated, was raised as a believer in the religious town of Green Valley. She even wanted to grow up to become a nun. But when Cassie was 11 years old, everything changed. 

First, Cassie’s mother abandoned her family. Then, one lovely summer day, Cassie hiked up Cub Mountain with Elias Jones, a gregarious Australian boy visiting his American relatives for the summer. What they saw from the top of the mountain left their lives forever altered: The bridge that spanned Green Valley’s reservoir collapsed, sending a train plummeting into the water. Elias saw the spirits of the dead rising up into the sky, but Cassie lost her belief in God. “How could we have seen the same thing and come away with something so different?” she wonders. “Mine being the loss of magic, his being the beginning of it.”

Afraid to admit that she has lost her faith, Cassie becomes circumspect and cautious. For years, she ignores the letters that Elias sends her from Australia—and then he returns during her senior year of high school. Handsomer than ever, he wants to reconnect and to ask Cassie two questions: Did she see the ghosts? And will she help him find them?

Cassie has been experiencing insomnia (“I had a habit at night of thinking of things going wrong in the world: floods, hurricanes, tornados, big oil, wind power, infighting among my favorite reality TV stars.”), so she reasons that late-night ghost hunting shouldn’t disrupt her life too much. Falling for Elias certainly does, though, since love entails risk and vulnerability, which Cassie avoids at all costs. They grow closer nonetheless, finding ports in a storm in each other as climate-change disasters dominate the news and a bombastic preacher spreads poisonous rhetoric through their town. But can Cassie and Elias’ connection remain strong in the face of crises both personal and global?

Anderson (Midnight at the Electric) has a gift for creating anticipation—whether sweetly romantic, supernaturally spooky or truly scary—when her characters face genuine peril. In Each Night Was Illuminated, she has crafted a thought-provoking and resonant read laced with magic, humor and love for both humanity and a planet that is struggling to endure, despite what humanity has wrought.

This resonant read is laced with magic, humor and love as it portrays two teens reconnecting after witnessing a shocking tragedy when they were children.

Since the early 1990s, Jeremiah Moss has lived in—and fiercely loved—New York City. In 2007, the poet and psychoanalyst launched the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which became the foundation for 2017’s well-received Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. In blog and book, Moss bemoaned the damaging outcomes of hypergentrification.

Five years on, Moss is back in the fray with the passionate and probing Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York, in which he rails against the results of New York’s tectonic shifts in population and personality during what he calls the “profound accidental experiment” of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Moss expertly and often hilariously indulges his inner curmudgeon when describing the recent influx of moneyed and inconsiderate “New People” and rhapsodizing about the city that emerged once they fled the virus’ epicenter. Along the way, he considers what’s left when the dominant class is skimmed off the top of a city. After all, the New People have other places to go, but what happens to those who have no other options—or a complete inability to imagine living anywhere else?

As Moss walks and bicycles around the city every day, he joins protests and rallies and wee-hours dance parties in search of answers (while avoiding police intent on tamping down rebellion and revelry). He also reflects on his newfound feelings of confidence and freedom as a transgender man who reveled in the joyful queer energy that infused the streets of New York in its feral state.

When officials began declaring that New York should “get back to normal,” Moss felt sad that he (and the city as a whole) seemed to be reverting to pre-lockdown habits. Who and what, he wonders, is normal anyway? Who decides, and why? Is this newly rediscovered rebellious spirit gone for good?

In Feral City, Moss has created an indelible portrait of a city in transition; it vibrates with eat-the-rich energy and time-marches-on poignancy. “One day,” he writes, “the tide will shift and New York will change, as it always does. That, as people like to say, is the one thing you can count on in this town.” Perhaps he’ll be back to write about it when it does.

Jeremiah Moss’ Feral City is an indelible portrait of New York City in transition, vibrating with eat-the-rich energy and time-marches-on poignancy.

★ Invisible

A fresh and cleverly conceived take on the beloved 1985 film The Breakfast Club, Invisible is a colorful and engaging tale written by first-time graphic novel author Christina Diaz Gonzalez and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein (Claudia and the New Girl). 

Diaz writes in both English and Spanish, the languages spoken by her archetypal characters. There’s George Rivera, the brain; Sara Domínguez, the loner; Miguel Soto, the athlete; Dayara Gómez, the tough one; and Nico Piñeda, the rich kid. Their heritage is linked to different places, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but since they all speak Spanish, the kids keep getting lumped together at Conrad Middle School by fellow students and school administrators alike. 

As Invisible opens, it’s happened again: Principal Powell won’t earn a community service initiative trophy unless 100% of students participate, so he informs George that he’ll be spending mornings with “students like you” helping grouchy Mrs. Grouser in the school cafeteria. The five kids greet each other with wariness that soon becomes bickering as they resist the idea they could actually have anything in common. Sure, they’re all varying degrees of bilingual, and yes, they’ve all been stereotyped because of it. But otherwise? Pfft! But when an opportunity to really help someone arises—one that will require creative thinking plus significant subterfuge—the kids have to make a decision. Can they work together to achieve a meaningful goal? 

Diaz Gonzalez’s previous novel, Concealed, won the 2022 Edgar Award for best juvenile title, and she builds wonderful suspense here as the students strive to find common ground. Meanwhile, Epstein’s art conveys the group’s swirling emotions, from Dayara’s frustration (ugh, homework!) to George’s embarrassment (oh, crushes!) to everyone’s wide-eyed worry that they’ll be caught breaking Mrs. Grouser’s rules. 

In an author’s note, Diaz Gonzalez explains that she knows what it’s like to be a student learning English as a second language “who may feel a little lost . . . when surrounded by words that they don’t yet understand.” Her own experiences fueled her desire to create “a single book that could be read and enjoyed no matter which language you [speak].” 

With Invisible, she and Epstein have done just that. The book’s visual context clues and helpful dialogue bubbles (with solid outlines to indicate speech and dashed outlines for translations) bolster an already meaningful coming-of-age tale. Invisible celebrates individuality and community while transcending language barriers. 

★ Twin Cities

Must a border also be a barrier? In their first graphic novel for middle grade readers, Jose Pimienta compassionately explores this question through the eyes of 12-year-old twins Teresa and Fernando.

The twins live with their parents in Mexicali, Mexico, just over the border that runs between the U.S. and Mexico. For years, they’ve happily been classmates at school and BFFs at home. They spend the summer after sixth grade in a bonanza of togetherness, filling their days with basketball and movies and tree-climbing, all portrayed by Pimienta in a kinetic, wordless double-page spread that hums with the joy of a strong sibling bond.

But the twins’ paths diverge when seventh grade begins. Teresa goes to school in Calexico, California, while Fernando stays in Mexicali. Fernando has noticed that Teresa has begun to rebuff their joint nickname, but it’s not until the first day of class that he realizes she is also eager to put space between them, to try new things alone. 

Pimienta uses evocative, parallel-panel sequences to illustrate the twins’ vastly different experiences, in different countries, just several miles apart. Fernando’s friends, Tony and Victor, join his sister at school in Calexico, leaving Fernando lonely and adrift—and excited to see Teresa when she gets home each day. Teresa, however, feels stifled by her brother’s attention. She has so much homework, and she wants to do well so that she can go to college and perhaps even work in America someday. Tension builds between the twins as they contend with new friends and chores-obsessed parents.

Middle school is never easy, but it’s even harder when you think you might lose your best friend for reasons you don’t quite understand. In Twin Cities, Pimienta addresses this possibility from a place of sensitivity, sympathy and personal curiosity: In an author’s note, they reveal that they also grew up in Mexicali and were offered—but declined—the option to study in the U.S. “I still wonder what would have happened had I made a different choice,” they write. 

That’s just one revelation among many to be found in Twin Cities’ notably substantive back matter, which also includes Pimienta’s musings on siblinghood and identity, character sketches, a map of both border towns and more. From start to finish, Twin Cities is a superbly crafted work of art and emotion that marks Pimienta as a creator to watch.

Will grumpy teachers, evolving friendships and mountains of homework spell disaster and doom for these heroes, or will lunchroom hijinks, video game extravaganzas and amazing discoveries prevail?

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