Linda M. Castellitto

Have you ever seen a pregnant woman, perhaps with her arms weighed down by shopping bags, digging through her purse in front of a heavy door—and rushed forward to let her in using your own keycard? Or perhaps found a stray USB drive on the floor in your office building—and plugged it into your computer to see if you could figure out who to return it to?

If the answer to either or both questions is yes, you might have done someone a big favor . . . or you might have fallen prey to a penetration tester. Pen testers, as they’re often called, are daring and creative sorts hired by companies to identify security vulnerabilities, help repair weaknesses in their systems and recommend practices for avoiding issues in the future. That might involve attempting to access a vitally important database or evading security guards after sneaking into a presumably well-secured building.

A husband-and-wife pen tester team is at the center of Ruth Ware’s propulsive and emotionally complex new thriller, Zero Days. Gabe and Jack (short for Jacintha) revel in the complicated challenges and thrills that come with performing legally sanctioned digital and physical break-ins for their clients. 

“I wouldn’t trust myself to think, well, I can investigate this better than the police, whereas I think Jack genuinely does think that.”

Ware revels in it, too; the internationally bestselling author’s deep fascination with the subject is evident in the wealth of intriguing details and scenarios that make Zero Days, her eighth novel, a supremely suspenseful reading experience. In a call with BookPage from her home on the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband and two children, the author says that she got hooked on the idea of writing about pen testers while performing in-depth research for two of her previous books. 

“I had been researching apps and startups and tech companies for The Turn of the Key and One by One,” she explains. “I started listening to a lot of tech startup podcasts, and then from there I just gravitated toward the crime-y stabby edge. . . . I ended up on the darknet end of the internet, and that was where I first found out about pen testers and the extent of what they do.” 

She also listened to “hundreds of hours of podcasts, read blogs, memoirs, online articles and interviews and so on,” she says. “Usually my process of research is to dredge as widely as I can and absorb as much as I can, and then at the end maybe 5% of that makes it into the book.” This immersive process helps her “paint the picture of the person who would do this job, what’s their day-to-day life like, what are all the interesting little nuggets of weirdness that are going to make it into the book.”

Book jacket image for Zero Days by Ruth Ware

Jack’s keen ability to strategize and adapt under pressure is essential to her role—and, tragically, becomes necessary for her very survival. One night, while Jack is completing an assignment, Gabe is brutally murdered in their home. Not only does Jack lose her beloved life partner but the police consider her the prime suspect. Knowing that as long as they’re focusing on her they won’t search for the real killer, Jack decides to run for it: She’ll do her utmost to evade capture while figuring out who the real murderer is, and hopefully exact some vengeance along the way.

It’s a decision that makes complete sense for the character, of course, but what about the woman who created her? Ware insists with a laugh that “I wouldn’t make that decision in a million years. I would hunker down and hope to god that everything was sorted out. I wouldn’t trust myself to think, well, I can investigate this better than the police, whereas I think Jack genuinely does think that. And to an extent, she’s going to be right because of her unique skill set.”

The author also notes that Jack’s preternatural confidence in all manner of sticky situations is not something she possesses. “I am superaware of my own limitations,” she says. “I am an incredibly bad liar, which is a strange thing for a writer to say. . . . I’m very law-abiding. If I have the least consciousness of guilt, I go scarlet. That’s how I know I could never do that job. I could never walk into somewhere where I didn’t belong and act like I did.”

Jack, on the other hand, can and does, and when she takes to the streets of London—home to one of the most extensive CCTV surveillance systems in the world—that capability is crucial. But while she does fall on the more-prepared side of things, even in particularly dicey circumstances, she is also fallible, subject to misguided impulses, nagging injuries and uncertainty about what to do next.

“The temptation when you’re writing is always to go a little bit more Mission: Impossible, a little bit more Ethan Hunt, sliding down lift shafts and such, and the dramatic part of me would have loved to write some of those things,” Ware says. “But it was also really important to me to root it in the reality of what these jobs are, which is that, yes, it does take a certain type of personality, but actually you don’t have to be at the pinnacle of fitness or have a genius IQ. . . . You need to be very confident and very charming and able to push the envelope a little bit more than someone else might.”

Jack also struggles under the weight of immense shock and grief. Her deep sadness over the incomprehensible loss of Gabe comes in waves throughout Zero Days. It’s something she isn’t able to fully process, what with the police, and possibly the people who killed Gabe, close on her tail. 

“I think human beings are much lovelier and kinder than we give them credit for.”

That sorrowful refrain was crucial, Ware says, when it came to imbuing her time-is-running-out tale with a mournful yet determined heart. “Probably the biggest critique I have of Golden Age crime [fiction], and modern crime as well, is that sometimes the death of the person whose murder forms the mystery at the heart of the book can be treated like it’s just there to provide the puzzle or the impetus for the main character,” she says. 

“Thank god I’ve never really lost anyone in my life in the way that Jack loses Gabe, but I have been bereaved,” Ware adds, “and it is a seismic life event that you do not get over quickly; you’re not out there merrily detecting two weeks later. I wanted to be really careful to show the effects that grief has on a life and the ripples of consequence. . . . That’s true to how I think we are as people, we carry on putting one foot in front of the other because we have to and the world does go on . . . but every now and again you get hit by the reality of what happened.”

In terms of achieving practical verisimilitude in her story, Ware turned to a British reality TV show. “When I was researching, I spoke to a number of police officers,” she says, “and they all said the same thing: You should watch ‘Hunted.’” The action-packed goings-on in the show, which follows 14 people as they try to remain hidden for 28 days while a team of experts attempts to track them down, vividly illustrate the speed at which paranoia can build and how easily one can be found via elements of modern life such as online banking. 

Read our starred review of ‘Zero Days’ by Ruth Ware.

Another aspect of the show resonated with Ware on a deeper level. “The ones who win are usually successful because they’re likable people and they persuade people to do nice things for them,” she says. “And it just constantly amazes me how willing people are to go the extra mile for total strangers.” 

That revelation was, happily, in keeping with her own convictions. “I wanted to show both sides of that in the book. Jack’s a suspicious person; she has to be because of her job, and being on the run is only exacerbating that, “ Ware says. “But at the same time, I think human beings are much lovelier and kinder than we give them credit for.”

Even as we celebrate the good in humanity, though, Ware warns that we should not be cavalier about protecting ourselves online. After all, as Jack muses in Zero Days, there are most definitely bad actors lurking around the internet: “slippery, shadowy, forcing their way through the cracks in our online security and the doors we left open for them in our digital lives.” 

When I tell Ware that this poetically stated line is quite the chilling sentiment, she replies with a cheery “Thank you!” and adds, “I think once it comes out, if anyone takes any moral or lesson from this book, it should be to use a password manager.” That’s because, she explains, “reusing passwords is the equivalent of chaining all your door keys and car keys in the same bunch and then putting your address on it,” while a password manager generates and stores unique passwords for the myriad accounts we all juggle every day. “Literally every single person I interviewed said this,” the author says. And by the way, she laughs, “I was already using a password manager, so I felt very smug.”

” . . . every book is really a process of tricking myself into believing that nobody apart from me is going to read it.”

While she’s justifiably pleased with herself when it comes to online savvy, Ware is far from smug about her career thus far. Since her first book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was published in 2015, her books (more than 6 million in print, and counting) have been published in more than 40 languages worldwide. “I never expected to have this level of success. . . . There are moments when it’s brought home to me very forcibly; when I walk into a place full of readers who are there for me, it’s wonderful and terrifying.” But, she says, “when I’m actually at my desk writing, it’s something I try not to think about too much. . . . For me, every book is really a process of tricking myself into believing that nobody apart from me is going to read it.” 

Of course, that’s extremely unlikely to happen with Zero Days, which Ware says is a bit of a departure from her typical fare. “I don’t want to sit down and think, what would be the next Agatha Christie-ish Ruth Ware book that I could write?” she says. “It’s much more about finding something I want to say, and then hopefully at the end of that people will like it and my publishers will be able to market it. Which is exactly how this book came about, with me becoming mildly obsessed with the subject and my imagination running away with me, and then at the end of it thinking, oh gosh, I think I’ve written a thriller!” 

Indeed she has, one that will have readers rooting for Jack as they strategize survival and try to ferret out the truth right along with her. Presumably, they’ll also gather up tips that will come in handy should they one day become embroiled in a similar pickle—or even be inspired to become pen testers themselves. And all the while, Ware hopes, “I would like us to be a little bit less suspicious of each other as individuals, because I think the world has mostly good people, but a little bit more careful with our online security overall.” In other words: Get thee a password manager!

Photo of Ruth Ware by Gemma Day Photography.

The mega-popular thriller writer’s Zero Days finds the human heart within the high-stakes security industry.

Jennifer Ackerman knows birds. In fact, the award-winning science writer and bestselling author has written three books about them (The Genius of Birds, Birds by the Shore and The Bird Way). Now, with What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds, she shines a light on “the most distinctive order of birds in the world.” We asked Ackerman about her research, including her travels far and wide to meet with scientists, researchers and countless volunteers dedicated to observing and understanding these enigmatic creatures—and figuring out how we can help save them.

What an absolutely fascinating book you’ve written! What do you think is the quality that makes humans most intrigued by owls—their wide-eyed cuteness, their perceived wisdom, their air of mystery?
I would say all of the above! Owls have enchanted humans for tens of thousands of years. We see ourselves in them, with their huge heads and big forward-facing eyes (and yes, their cute faces). And yet they’re also so very different from us—strange, mysterious denizens of the dark, capable of flying silently and navigating the night, with sensory powers beyond our own that allow them to hunt in the pitch black. So it’s the whole package of mystery, cuteness, extraordinary skills and intelligence that inspires awe and wonder.

Your earlier books (e.g., Chance in the House of Fate, Ah-Choo! and Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream) were about humans. In your more recent books, you’ve turned to birds. What prompted that transition from writing about people to writing about our feathered friends?
I’ve loved birds since I was a child. My first book, Birds by the Shore, explored the nature of the mid-Atlantic coast, including ospreys and shorebirds. I took a detour into human biology because I was fascinated by the riddle of humanity’s place in the natural world. Chance in the House of Fate is about the genetic similarities between humans and other organisms, the long thread of DNA that connects us with all living things.

But in 2013, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and I decided to turn my attention back to nature and to my first love: birds. I’m an avid reader of scientific journals, and I noticed an abundance of new research about the shifting view of bird brains and bird behavior. I got interested in what makes birds tick. How do they communicate? Why do they sing so gloriously? And how do they learn their songs? What’s going on in their minds while they forage, build nests, raise their young? How do they make decisions and solve problems? This launched me into The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, and from there to owls.

Read our starred review of ‘What an Owl Knows’ by Jennifer Ackerman.

More than one of the researchers and scientists you introduce in What an Owl Knows spoke of a pivotal moment in childhood when they knew they were meant to work with owls. Did you have a similar early-in-life feeling of certainty about working with birds?
Those stories of pivotal moments really resonated with me. When I was 7 or 8, I started bird-watching with my dad along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C. My dad had been a bird-watcher himself since childhood, when he learned about birds and birdsong as a Boy Scout. He was a busy guy (with five daughters!) when I was young, but he loved to get out on weekends and look for warblers and thrushes. Bird-watching was a good way to get some time alone with him. We would rise before dawn, head down to the canal and the woods along the Potomac River, and listen in the dark for birdsong. My dad gave me my first pair of binoculars and my first bird field guide. From then on, I was hooked.

In your afterword, you note that you decided to write this book during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What about that time do you think drove you to immerse yourself in the world of owls? Did you get to know any owls near your home during lockdown?
So many of us turned to birds during the pandemic. I think we needed to feel connected with other creatures, and the birds were right there in our backyards. A friend of mine had a barred owl family living in the woods behind her, and we would take walks looking for the nest. That was how we spent time together. We heard the owls but never actually saw them. On the river near where I live, I did get to see a great horned owl, but only once. These birds are just so elusive and difficult to spot!

In deciding what birds to write about next, I realized I wanted to focus on a single family or order, one that would point to the incredible variety of birds even within a single group. Owls vary dramatically from species to species and even from individual to individual within a species, so they seemed like a great choice. I wanted to learn more about the idiosyncrasies of different species and what had been discovered about their evolution, adaptations and individual natures.

“It’s the whole package of mystery, cuteness, extraordinary skills and intelligence that inspires awe and wonder.”

Readers will likely be surprised to learn that when owls, say, swat at nighttime joggers, they might just be trying to play—not attacking. What does owls’ penchant for purely fun activities tell us about them?
The playfulness of owls signals several illuminating things about them: first, that they feel safe enough—and well fed enough—to engage in activities that take energy and may make them vulnerable. It also points to their intelligence. Birds that play (mostly parrots, corvids and owls) tend to be species with relatively bigger brains. Scientists suspect that play depends on cognition. So owls may play because they’re smart but also because it’s fun and rewarding. In most animals, play triggers the release of dopamine, which is active in the reward system of the brain, as well as endogenous opioids, which are essential for sensations of pleasure. In other words, owls may play not just to practice life skills but because it floods their brains with feel-good chemicals.

You learned that the availability of owl-centric merchandise is a good way of discerning whether owls are viewed favorably or negatively in a particular location or moment in time. Do you have any favorite owl items that you wear, use or display?
I admit that my house, my yard and my wardrobe are full of owly objects: owl photos and sculptures and ceramic pots, owl pins and earrings and necklaces, owl T-shirts and owl socks. But my favorite owly object is a piece of folk art I found in a little cafe in Iguaçu, Brazil. It’s a comical little owl bell crafted from metal with big, bright eyes and wings made of pale yellow citrine stones.

This is probably an impossible question to answer, but: You traveled to so many wonderful places to meet with scientists and observe myriad owls in the wild. Which ones—the places and the owls—were your favorite, the ones you hope to get back to as soon as you can?
That is a hard question. I’d like to get back to the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, which harbors nearly as much biological diversity as the Amazon. Given the chance, I’d return to Montana in a heartbeat to spend more time with great gray owls, one of my two favorite species. (The other is burrowing owls, which are so comical, idiosyncratic and full of character and live all over the Americas.) I’d also love to go to the Sky Islands of southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico, a place I’ve never been, to see all the little forest owls there, such as the flammulated, elf and whiskered screech owls.

“I like to imagine that I’m writing a letter to an interested friend, and that helps me sort out what’s essential and interesting and what I can leave on the cutting room floor.”

Have you developed any routines over the course of your writing career that help you balance your time in the field with reading, researching, editing, etc.? How did you decide what to keep in What an Owl Knows and what to leave out?
I usually spend a year or two reading, researching, interviewing and doing fieldwork for my books. My favorite part of the process is being out in the field at research sites, traipsing around with scientists obsessed with their species and eager to share their vast knowledge and let me observe their fieldwork. They’re all unfailingly generous with their time, and I depend on their expertise. Then it’s another year or two of writing and editing, draft after draft after draft. Sometimes the amount of material I gather is overwhelming and chapters balloon. But the editing of the extraneous, the sculpting and crafting of narrative, is a joyful experience. I like to imagine that I’m writing a letter to an interested friend, and that helps me sort out what’s essential and interesting and what I can leave on the cutting room floor.

You asked many owl experts what individuals can do when it comes to advocating for and helping to preserve owl populations and habitats. What are a few things that readers can do right now to get started?
Most importantly, do whatever you can to help preserve owl habitat. If you own any piece of land, however large or small, think about the owls that might be living there and what they need. Don’t mow your lawn if you can avoid it. (Or better yet, do away with your lawn altogether and plant native grasses.) This will draw in more prey for owls. Leave dead trees and snags standing if they don’t pose a danger. If you own a large piece of land, consider a conservation easement to protect it after you’re gone. And finally, support organizations and legislation that promote habitat conservation.

Among the other immediate actions readers can take:

  • Keep cats indoors. (Cats kill owls and compete for their prey.)
  • Protect owls from accidents by not throwing apple cores and other garbage into roadside ditches, covering your chimney with a mesh lid, taking down soccer nets when they’re not in use, limiting your Halloween fake cobwebs to indoors and removing any unused barbed wire from your property.
  • Don’t use rodenticides to control rodents; use traps instead.
  • Use 100% recycled paper to help reduce the loss of trees.
  • Support owl research, education and rehabilitation centers.

“Owls are even stranger, more intriguing, more powerful and more appealing than I imagined.”

Owls are beautiful, majestic and adorable—as can be seen in every wonderful photo in your book—so it’s not surprising that people wish to have them as pets. It is, however, a terrible idea. Will you give readers a sum-up as to why?
Yes, a terrible idea. For one thing, in most countries, including the U.S., it’s illegal to keep owls without a special permit and licensing. Moreover, owls are high maintenance and hard to care for. They eat rodents or other animals that must be fresh, and their droppings are stinky and messy. Their talons are sharp and can damage furniture, shred blankets and pillows and puncture skin. In the breeding season, they hoot all night long, which makes for patchy sleep. They can live for up to 30 years, so it’s a massive commitment, a way of life. But most important in my mind: Owls are wild birds, and they’re meant to live life in the wild. As one licensed owl care provider told me, “In cages they simply cannot do all the things their bodies were designed for, and their spirits require.”

When you think about your time among the owls, what made the biggest impression on you? What are you most hoping readers take away from What an Owl Knows?
Exploring owls for this book just blew away all my assumptions about these birds. Owls are even stranger, more intriguing, more powerful and more appealing than I imagined. They’ve also changed the way I experience the world. Owls see what we don’t see. They hear what we don’t hear. So they invite you to notice things that you might otherwise miss. Also, they’re so quiet and subtle, so well camouflaged, and they point to the value of not standing out in the world but fitting into it.

But I think what impressed me most is how complex these magnificent birds are, how highly skilled, distinctive and idiosyncratic, with unique voices and personalities all their own, and with a full range of feelings and emotions. I hope readers will come away from the book with the same new thrill, wonder and awe, and with a new appreciation for how critical owls are to the well-being of the planet.

What’s next for you? Is there anything you want to share, owly or otherwise?
This summer, I’m going on the road to share a presentation about owls and what I learned writing this book. Like the book, the presentation is illustrated with gorgeous photos. It also includes some amazing videos of secret moments with owls, as well as audio recordings of the range of owl vocalizations, from a great gray owl’s deep, throaty hoot to the “devil’s cackle” of a Eurasian eagle owl. I hope people can make it to these talks—I’ll be signing books there—or perhaps catch one virtually. There’s a schedule of upcoming events at my website.

I do have another book in the works, but I’m going to be owly about that and keep it a secret!

Author headshot of Jennifer Ackerman by Sofia Runarsdotter.

The bestselling author of bird books turns her attention to one of the most alluring avians in What an Owl Knows.

Kendall Kulper’s A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife opens in 1934 Chicago, in an America damaged and wearied by the Great Depression. Only trips to the movies keep 18-year-old Henny going, because “I wasn’t Henrietta Newhouse who scrubbed the washrooms and clutched at every saved penny. . . . I was just a pair of eyes and a pair of ears, taking it all in.” 

Fans of the author’s Murder for the Modern Girl (2022) will recognize the Newhouse name; that book’s protagonist, Ruby, is Henny’s older sister. Ruby prowled Chicago solving mysteries, but Henny is set on California. “I wanted to be a literal star, something huge and bright and fierce and burning,” Henny says, “that turned everyone who came close to it warm and glowing.” 

Declan Collins is far less passionate about being a stuntman, but as his best friend and manager, Pep, reasons, it’s a good gig for a man who cannot be injured. It’s getting harder for Declan to hide his invincibility, so Pep arranges a screen test with Henny. To her delight, she’s signed by Silver Wing Studios as the next big starlet while, to his chagrin, Declan is enlisted as her faux boyfriend. 

Their chemistry sparks steamy sidelong glances and hot-tempered spats, making for an entertaining will-they-won’t-they energy. Eventually, the two share secrets: Declan is helping a PI search for a missing actor named Irma, and Henny has been seeing ghosts. The first was her friend Midge, who supposedly quit Hollywood and moved home; she’s soon joined by a heartbreakingly large group of young women who also disappeared after being signed by Silver Wing. Can the duo find out what happened without getting harmed themselves?

A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife is an engrossing supernatural murder mystery, a fierce ode to feminism and a potent reminder of the dark underside of glamour and fame. Indeed, Kulper writes in her acknowledgments, “So much of this book was inspired by the real activists, whistleblowers, truth-tellers, and courageous survivors who spoke up about the injustices of the Hollywood system. . . . Your bravery, hope for change, and dedication to equality, fairness, and justice push us all to work harder and do better.”

A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife is an engrossing supernatural murder mystery and a fierce ode to feminism.

Marlow Briggs is a 17-year-old cursebreaker for hire, the most in-demand badass in Caraza City, a metropolis in the gritty region known as the Marshes. It’s an always interesting, occasionally life-threatening existence of evading gangs and sneaking around speak-easies. Her curse-sensing cat, Toad, keeps her company, and she works with her best friend, Swift, at the Bowery Spellshop.

A year ago, she was living an entirely different life in fancy Evergarden with her mother. One terrible day, Mom went missing and Marlow fled to the Marshes, an area lacking the beauty and amenities of Evergarden but rife with clients who need her magical know-how and investigative savvy.

As Katy Rose Pool’s inventive and engaging Garden of the Cursed opens, a potential client turns up in the form of Adrius Falcrest, Marlow’s former friend and scion of one of the wealthy and powerful Five Families. Despite their now-frosty relationship, Adrius implores her to break a curse that threatens the lives and fortune of his family.

Marlow agrees to a fake-dating situation in order to explain her and Adrius’ unlikely reunion. His habitual snideness and family’s snobbery ensure the couple’s antagonism persists as Marlow’s investigation proceeds, making a difficult job even tougher. Pool, best known for her Age of Darkness trilogy, adeptly explores the ways miscommunication and mistrust can warp relationships of all sorts. But with help from Swift and the new friends Marlow makes along the way, Pool also shows how strong friendships can provide sustenance and joy.

As Marlow picks her way through a minefield of class conflict, criminality and frustrating uncertainty, she realizes her mother’s fate may be tied to Adrius’ curse. Mom’s disappearance is “the great unsolved mystery of her life. The question that lived under her skin, that prodded at her when her thoughts were otherwise quiet.”

Pool keeps Garden of the Cursed moving right along, punctuating the story with suspenseful conflict and emotional reckonings, then revving up to a cliff-hanger ending that will leave readers eager for the next installment in this exciting duology.

Garden of the Cursed is an exciting start to a duology starring a teenage cursebreaker.

Imagine: You’re minding your own business, serenely enjoying your Star Popz cereal, when suddenly . . . an onslaught of aunts! That’s what happens to the expressive little girl at the heart of bestselling author Adam Rex’s Oh No, the Aunts Are Here, an openhearted and uproarious ode to the mayhem that ensues when effusive relatives tumble into town.

And tumble they do in Lian Cho’s vivid and kinetic illustrations, which perfectly capture what it’s like to experience a ruckus that’s delightful but kind of overwhelming. Readers who need time to warm up to visitors will identify with the beleaguered niece’s array of facial expressions, from a clenched-teeth grimace (“The aunts hug you and fix your hair and tell you how big you’ve gotten and fix your hair”) to open-mouthed horror (“They’re here, they’re here, on every floor; the aunts don’t lock the bathroom door”). Readers will also appreciate detail-packed spreads that depict a range of aunt-filled scenes, from a car’s back seat awash with stuffed animals (“They were just telling their girlfriend how much you like horses”) to a busy getting-ready-for-bed tableau (“your room is going to smell like lotion now”).

Clever rhyming and repetition make for a fun read-aloud (“Fanny packs. / A snack. / Pack that snack back in the fanny pack”), and a bounty of hilarious Easter eggs will ensure increased cackling with every reread. Rex also incorporates fantasy into his story as the aunts’ intensity is used for heroic good, encouraging readers to consider the upsides of a more intense personality type.

Oh No, the Aunts Are Here is a spirited gem of a book that courses with energy and enthusiasm as it explores what it’s like to have a quiet life temporarily transformed into a very different sort of existence. And as a bonus, there’s a funny surprise ending. If hyperbole were a person, it would be every one of these memorable aunts—inimitable relatives who are, as the little girl ultimately concedes and one aunt’s T-shirt proclaims, truly “Aunt-tastic.” 

Oh No, the Aunts Are Here is a spirited gem of a book that courses with energy and enthusiasm as it explores what it’s like to have a quiet life temporarily transformed into a very different sort of existence.

Swimming and mini golf and reading and hiking and piling all together at one table to eat or solve jigsaw puzzles . . . phew! When the school year ends for a little boy named Ravi, a boisterous family vacation filled with fun activities, delicious food and lots of bonding time begins. 

As Ravi explains in Newbery Honor winner Rajani LaRocca’s sweetly nostalgic Summer Is for Cousins, he and his parents, sister Anita, aunties, uncles, grandparents and five cousins all stay in “a house that’s not any of ours, / near the ocean / and a lake.” 

It’s always wonderful to see his family again, but Ravi is feeling a little uncertain this year. His older cousin Dhruv has grown up so much; his voice is deeper, he’s gotten even taller, and what if he doesn’t remember that he and Ravi have the same favorite ice cream flavor? (It’s banana—delicious but hard to find.) Fortunately, as the pages turn and the days pass, Ravi is able to put aside his worries and remember how kind and supportive his cousin is. With Dhruv’s encouragement, he even goes on the rope swing he was too afraid to try last year! “Dhruv is my big cousin,” Ravi thinks, “but now I’m bigger, too.”

Abhi Alwar’s colorful and emotive illustrations enhance the warmth of LaRocca’s appealing tale, empathetically conveying Ravi’s initial hesitancy and burgeoning confidence. All 15 family members have charming visual cues, too, so readers can spot their favorites on every page. For example, shutterbug Anita is never without her instant camera, while Puja’s barrette keeps her hair in place whether she’s building sandcastles or barreling along on a bicycle. Animals get in on the fun too: An energetic dog frolics across the pages, and inquisitive ducks avidly supervise the family’s water-based activities.

Summer Is for Cousins nicely hits all the emotional beats of a superfun family-filled vacation and reassures readers that people may grow and change, but affection endures.

Summer Is for Cousins nicely hits all the emotional beats of a superfun family-filled vacation and reassures readers that people may grow and change, but affection endures.

Wannabe detectives and aspiring magicians alike will delight in The Grimoire of Grave Fates, an anthology of 18 interlinked stories penned by such beloved YA authors as Kat Cho, Marieke Nijkamp, Mason Deaver, Darcie Little Badger and Kwame Mbalia.

The compelling Agatha Christie-esque whodunit is set at the Galileo Academy for the Extraordinary, a prestigious school founded by famous “astronomy sorcerer” Galileo Galilei that educates future sorcerers. In recent eras, the academy has adopted a “more global view of magic,” resulting in updated classes, travel to different countries and policies meant to ensure greater diversity and inclusivity.

Unfortunately, this has had no effect on the employment of Septimius Dropwort, a professor of magical history—and a proud, vocal, abusive bigot. It’s not surprising, then, that when he’s found murdered on school grounds, nary a tear is shed. But accusations aplenty arise: Since he has mistreated and alienated pretty much everyone, everyone is therefore a viable suspect.

The book’s writers have created an appealing cast of characters with a range of backgrounds, abilities and personalities, all of whom are preoccupied with fulfilling their magical destinies while attempting to excel in a place that can feel inhospitable. 

As The Grimoire of Grave Fates editors Hanna Alkaf (Hamra and the Jungle of Memories) and Margaret Owen (Little Thieves) write in their note to readers, “Some readers may have felt painfully excluded from stories about witches, wizards, and magic schools that could not imagine people like them; some have been deliberately shut out. Above all, we hope that everyone can see themselves somewhere in these pages.” 

As the story progresses and the students join forces to find the killer before one of them is blamed, they gradually realize they’re not as alone as they first thought. Delightful details abound: Taya, in the art-based magic program, has a lioness familiar named Ketesl; Maxwell blends math and magic; and Jamie sneezes ice crystals after walking through a ghost. Together, the students home in on the elusive culprit, attempt to evade harm and collectively remind the school that its extraordinary attendees deserve more support—a resonant message of hope for a better future, magical or otherwise.

This YA anthology set at a magical academy offers a resonant message of hope for a better future.

Owls are adorable, alluring and enduringly fascinating. They’ve been featured in everything from ancient cave paintings to the works of Picasso, iconic Tootsie Pop commercials, the Harry Potter series, mythology and poetry.

“What is it about owls that so enthralls us?” asks bestselling author, prolific science writer and passionate bird advocate Jennifer Ackerman (The Genius of Birds, The Bird Way) in the very first line of her wide-ranging and wonderful new book, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. She explores this question with her trademark thoroughness and care, leading readers on an in-depth tour through the extraordinary world of owls. Scientists, field researchers, academics and volunteers (aka “citizen scientists”) serve as dedicated guides, as eager as the author to share knowledge and admiration in hopes of inspiring others to protect these special birds.

Jennifer Ackerman shares which owly items in her home and closet are her favorite.

Ackerman chronicles her travels to places such as the Mission Mountains in Montana; Norfolk Island in Australia; southeastern Brazil; and Waynesboro, Virginia, in chapters covering owls’ evolution, communication, breeding, migration and—of course—wisdom. She visits wildlife centers, peers up at countless trees and tromps through nighttime landscapes with fellow owl lovers to hear about the astonishing things they’ve discovered. There are funny tidbits, too; as one Montana field researcher quipped, “This is not the first time we’ve found a nest when someone had to pee.”

Less quotidian revelations include the thrill of first hearing great horned owlets vocalizing in their eggs and the gratifying achievements of education in Kikinda, Serbia, where hundreds of long-eared owls roost in the town square. (A public awareness campaign transformed superstitious fear into immense hometown pride.) During her reporting, Ackerman also learned about new research indicating that owls are more clever and intentional than previously realized: They have emotions, engage in altruism and play. “We think we know something about them, and then, poof! they dispel our theories, offering up bent or broken rules and unexpected qualities,” she writes.

Ackerman also reminds readers that owls are at risk of extinction, thanks to “human-induced climate change” via deforestation and development, rodenticides, wildfires, et al. What should we do? “Everything in our power,” she writes, to learn about and preserve owl populations around the world. Reading the edifying and immersive What an Owl Knows is an excellent place to start.

Bestselling author and passionate bird advocate Jennifer Ackerman goes around the world to find out why owls so intrigue humans in her wide-ranging and wonderful new book.

The old saying “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” was seemingly coined for Jacintha “Jack” Cross and Gabe Medway, both of whom are even more enamored with their jobs because they get to work with the person they love most. The married couple runs a London penetration testing firm that does extensive security assessments for a range of well-paying clients. Gabe handles the digital aspects and Jack the physical; as she sneaks around supposedly secure buildings in search of vulnerabilities, her husband is the flirtatious and supportive voice in her earpiece.

Alas, not long into bestselling author Ruth Ware’s action-packed thriller Zero Days, everything comes crashing down: After a late-night job, Jack arrives home to discover Gabe has been murdered. Even worse, she is the prime suspect.

Reeling from shock, contending with horror and confusion and highly skeptical of law enforcement, Jack goes on the run. She puts her prodigious skills and hard-won confidence to use as she attempts to solve the crime and identify the real killer. “Solve the next problem,” she tells herself. “And then the next one after that. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Until you can’t walk any further.”

Ruth Ware thinks you need a password manager.

Ware humanizes the badass Jack by rendering her vulnerable to injury, self-doubt and exhaustion. There’s London’s vast CCTV system to consider, too, plus the impossibility of knowing who she can trust to help her find shelter, money and information. She’s got her sister, Helena, and Gabe’s oldest friend, Cole, in her corner, but Jack can’t shake her fear and wariness as she moves through the city and plumbs the dark web in search of answers. 

In Zero Days, Ware creates escalating tension while immersing readers in Jack’s tumultuous emotions and instinctive decision-making. She layers her story with fascinating details about Jack’s unusual profession while offering an implicit (and clearly well-researched) warning about the vagaries of technology. The book’s focus on the impact of intense grief is balanced by glimmers of hope among the devastation. As Jack reflects, “Gabe’s death had brought me close to the worst of humankind—but there were still good people out there.”

Ruth Ware’s action-packed thriller Zero Days is as much an exploration of grief as it is a warning about the vagaries of technology.

After 18-year-old Roy Matthews was executed for murdering high school seniors Eliza Dunning and Travis Pratt, the small town of Ludlow heaved a massive sigh of relief that evil had been banished from their Kansas community.

But Eliza’s younger sister, Greer, isn’t so sure. She’s long been convinced the case was not as open-and-shut as it seemed, leaving her with a “nagging feeling I’d carried for fourteen years, like a claw in my gut, telling me this wouldn’t be over until every dark secret had been dragged out into daylight.” 

As Amy Engel’s multilayered and engrossing I Did It For You opens 14 years later, those feelings surge to the surface when Greer’s father calls to tell her another teenage couple has been killed—in the same way, in the same location, with the same type of weapon. 

The police consider it a copycat crime but Greer doesn’t, and she rushes from her Chicago home to Ludlow, eager to assuage her guilt at not pushing harder that awful summer. Could she have prevented this new crime? Will the truth help repair her broken family? Can she unearth the truth before the killer strikes again?

Engel imbues her protagonist with an authentic, contemplative voice. Greer grew up loving Ludlow because of its beauty, “the sound of wind whispering through wheat, the metallic smell of a thunderstorm rolling in fast from the north,” and reveling in the way she felt free to be herself among people she’d known forever. But since Eliza died she’s been adrift, unable to enjoy her life because her sister’s was cut short.

Back in Ludlow, Greer slips into familiar patterns but also makes a surprising new friend: Roy’s older brother, Dean, who joins her quest for truth. This allows Engel, a former criminal defense attorney, to sensitively explore what it’s like to be left behind from the perspective of not only the victim’s family but that of the perpetrator’s, a choice that makes I Did It For You stand out from other hometown mysteries. It’s a tense and immersive novel that considers the delight and darkness of living in a close-knit small town, as well as the ways in which unresolved anger and shame can eat away at a life.

I Did It For You is a tense and immersive mystery that considers the delight and darkness of living in a close-knit small town.

In the five far-ranging, multipart essays that make up her profound, often piercing new book Thin Skin: Essays, Jenn Shapland moves between numerous weighty topics—turning a curious eye upon everything from capitalism to nuclear power to climate change to personal identity—and draws connections only to tear them apart in her exploration of “the idea of our utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet.”

“To dig in the earth disturbs and destroys, but it also unearths, aerates,” Shapland writes. “To what extent is my own research a form of extractivism, a digging and unearthing that is painful to me, to the people I interview, to the people I tell about what I learn, to you?”

Despite this pain, Shapland dons a tall stack of writerly hats—historian, memoirist, naturist, harbinger—and sets what she discovers against the backdrop of her own life, as in her critically acclaimed My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Sometimes there is affirmation of her lived experiences; more often, such personal application raises additional questions about what she and we have been taught to be correct, true, acceptable.

In the titular “Thin Skin,” Shapland shares that a dermatological condition requires her to “build up my skin each day to face the world,” but New Mexico, where she lives with her partner, Chelsea, and their cats, has caused her sensitivities to flare. No wonder: Multiple fascinating, devastating interviews discuss Los Alamos National Laboratory and the poisonous radioactive waste that now lurks within the state’s beautiful landscape. And in “The Toomuchness,” she examines her own culpability in perpetuating capitalism, gazing at her jampacked closet and its resident moths as she considers, “Why is private property, accumulation, the only way to see our relationship with the world?”

Shapland interrogates other aspects of the personal and the political throughout, such as in “The Meaning of Life,” where she asks why having children is still a societal default, pointing out that “children are part of the system that entrenches us in capitalist striving and labor production and endless competition.” As in all of her Thin Skin essays, Shapland challenges readers to broaden their perspective and perhaps even join her in being thin-skinned, in order “to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice.”

In her profound, often piercing new book Thin Skin, Jenn Shapland challenges readers to broaden their perspective and perhaps even join her in being just a little bit more sensitive.

It’s been several years since Guinevere “Nev” Tallow’s mother disappeared, and their life has since been dominated by their father’s destructive habits—trying numerous get-rich-quick schemes and imploring Nev to pay off the loan sharks that storm into their apartment and fill the air with anger and threats.

By the start of bestselling graphic novelist Ethan M. Aldridge’s first prose novel Deephaven, Nev has decided they’ll no longer be dragged down by a selfish and uninterested parent. Instead, they’ll plunge into the unknown, thanks to a full scholarship offered by the prestigious Deephaven Academy. For Nev, their first day going to Deephaven provides a deeply meaningful opportunity to “be the person they needed to be . . . to finally feel comfortable in their own skin, a chance to start over.”

That’s no small feat: Nev tends to be shy, more an observer than a joiner (“They really, really, weren’t good at conversations”). But they’re determined to find a home in this gothic manse.

As befits an eerie dark academia tale, the academy is rife with dark hallways, rooftop gargoyles and a sense of foreboding that overlays the hustle and bustle of a new school year. The principal and prefects are polite but seem to be hiding something. For example, Nev wonders, why is the east wing closed for repairs when there’s no structural damage to be seen? And if the wing is indeed empty, why is a scratching sound coming from behind its walls?

Nev likes to wear a big green coat, its many pockets filled with components they use to make intricate mechanical toys. Solving puzzles is second nature, and they resolve to use their “mechanical mind and magpie instincts” to figure out—with the help of new friend Danny—what’s really going on at the school. It’s a scary proposition, and Aldridge’s twisty narrative and spine-chilling illustrations heighten the suspense of Nev’s daring mission in this engaging page-turner of a series kickoff. Spooky yet heartfelt, Deephaven is sure to delight fans of Netflix’s “Wednesday” and anyone who likes a cleverly conceived gothic tale featuring creepy creatures and found family.

Ethan M. Aldridge’s twisty narrative and spine-chilling illustrations heighten the suspense of Nev’s daring mission in this engaging page-turner of a series kickoff.

Julia Kelly has written numerous international bestsellers in the realms of contemporary and historical romance as well as historical fiction (The Last Dance of the Debutante). Now, she’s setting her writerly sights on historical mystery with the new Parisian Orphan series, set in London during the Blitz.

In the meticulously researched, murder-and-intrigue-laden A Traitor in Whitehall, Kelly turns the locked-room trope up a notch by beckoning readers deep underground to the Churchill War Rooms (CWR), a command center established by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was constructed to be safe from bombs and prying enemy eyes, cloaked in concrete and characterized by tight security measures—but although every employee is extensively vetted, the CWR is not immune to the darkest human impulses.

Why Julia Kelly decided to set a murder mystery within Churchill’s secret headquarters.

Evelyne Redfern learns this the hard way in the most horrifying first week at work ever. After a patriotic-yet-unchallenging stint at a munitions factory, she is hired for the CWR typing pool by an old family friend, Mr. Fletcher, who knew Evelyne’s parents, French society page regular Genevieve and louche British adventurer (as well as neglectful parent) Sir Reginal Redfern. Their bitter and highly publicized divorce when Evelyne was a child earned her the media nickname “The Parisian Orphan.” 

Now in her 20s, Evelyne has been enjoying the relative anonymity of London but, after months of boredom at her factory job, is ready to make a more meaningful contribution to the war effort. She’s keeping an eye out for anything unusual at the CWR, per Mr. Fletcher’s instructions. Certainly, stumbling across the body of a recently murdered co-worker fits the bill. It’s a shocking yet fortuitous discovery: Since age 16, Evelyne has been a constant reader of mystery novels, and she thinks, “having adjusted to the reality of there being a dead body in my presence, I had been drawn to investigate.”

A minister’s aide named David Poole joins Evelyne’s crime-solving efforts; he’s been on the hunt for a mole, and it’s likely the murder is linked with treason. Kelly emphasizes the duo’s relentless search for the killer via tense, realistic interrogations and nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse sequences through underground hallways and the streets of London. A cast of opinionated side characters and a wealth of fascinating historical details add to the fun in this engaging, atmospheric series kickoff.

A murder takes place in Winston Churchill’s secret war rooms in Julia Kelly’s engaging, atmospheric A Traitor in Whitehall.

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