Savanna Walker

STARRED REVIEW
January 30, 2023

The best books to read this Valentine’s Day

It can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to picking a book for the most romantic day of the year, but we promise you’ll fall in love with these 9 romances from authors like Kate Clayborn and Olivia Dade.
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georgieallalong

Georgie, All Along

Kate Clayborn’s small-town romance takes teen movie tropes and gently tweaks them into something more colorful and messy and real.
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Book jacket image for Sorry

Sorry, Bro

Taleen Voskuni’s sapphic rom-com, Sorry, Bro, is a beautifully crafted portrait of a woman and her Armenian American community.
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exesandos

Exes and O’s

Exes and O’s is equal parts tender and laugh-out-loud funny, with an earnest appreciation for the romance genre singing loudly from every page.
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Book jacket image for The Rom-Com Agenda by Jayne Denker

The Rom-Com Agenda

Jayne Denker’s The Rom-Com Agenda is an adorable friends-to-lovers romance that celebrates the life lessons rom-coms provide.
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Book jacket image for The Gentleman's Book of Vices by Jess Everlee

The Gentleman’s Book of Vices

An erotica devotee and an infamous author form an electric connection in Jess Everlee’s emotionally resonant queer Victorian romance.
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Recent Features

It can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to picking a book for the most romantic day of the year, but we promise you'll fall in love with these 9 romances from authors like Kate Clayborn and Olivia Dade.
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A self-published phenomenon and longtime fan favorite, romance author KJ Charles returned to traditional publishing this spring with The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen. The first installment in her Doomsday Books duology, Secret Lives introduced readers to the dangerous and exciting world of Romney Marsh, a stretch of Kentish coastline that’s home to a family of bold smugglers. A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel is set 13 years later, and follows Luke Doomsday, a scion of the smuggling clan who unexpectedly partners with Rufus d’Aumesty, the new local lord.

A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel will be available on shelves at libraries and bookstores everywhere on September 19, 2023. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to reveal its marvelous cover, which was illustrated by Jyotirmayee Patra. And read on for a Q&A with KJ Charles!

What input did you have on the individual details and the overall design for the covers of this series? What are your favorite aspects of the Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel‘s jacket, specifically?
The publisher was great with consultation. They produced the terrific concept and then we talked about the various elements at sketch stage (appropriate plants and creatures for book one, house details for book two) to make sure they fitted with the book and mood and era, and I sent photo references where necessary. For both books, we paid a lot of attention to the pose of the main characters: It was really important to me to have a sense of romantic interaction so it absolutely looked like a queer romance. I love the way that Scoundrel matches Country Gentlemen, and how it somehow has an indoor, claustrophobic, nighttime feel where Country Gentlemen is very clearly outside.

There is a 13-year time jump between The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen and A Nobleman’s Guide to Seducing a Scoundrel. Was that always the plan for the duology, or did you realize this was the direction the series was taking while writing Secret Lives? As a writer, what was intriguing and exciting about the time jump?
It was always the plan! I really wanted to dig into the knock-on effects of the events of book one on Luke, who is only 13 in the first book and has a pretty rough time with some substantial physical and mental trauma to handle. A lot of book two is about the consequences of book one—how those events affected not just Luke, but Gareth and the Doomsdays, the family dynamics and the resolution of the suspense plot. Also, of course, we’re going from a time of war and quite a high level of lawlessness and smuggling, to one of peace in which everything seems to be a lot more civilized. The Marsh has a different mood in book two; it’s calmed down a great deal.

Why did you pick the 1820s for the setting of A Nobleman’s Guide?
Honestly it was picked for me: I needed to place book one around 1810 for reasons to do with the plot, and I needed Luke to be mid-20s in book two to give him time to acquire the work and life experience he needed, while still being young enough to be stupid. I also wanted enough time to have passed that the economy was in a slightly better place than immediately post-war. I’ve already done a few books set around this time so the reading/research/feel were at my fingertips, and Scoundrel deliberately has quite a restricted setting as it takes place mostly within Stone Manor (it’s the classic gothic “big old house with horrendous family”), which does make things easier.

Both of the romances in the Doomsday Books feature a character that unexpectedly inherits an aristocratic title. What’s compelling about that dynamic for you? Why do you think it’s such a perennial plot in historical romance?
Well, it’s a great way of giving your character a ton of privilege without the tiresome personality side effects of them being brought up in that privilege! Which is to say, you can have a character who’s a lot more appealing to the modern reader without having to explain why he isn’t a spoiled entitled jerk.

I chose to have them both be inheritance books because I wanted to make a direct comparison of the situations. In book one, Gareth’s title is pretty meaningless: He’s a baronet, the least important and most numerous of inherited titles, his family is tiny and distant, and he’s not a big landowner or particularly well-off. Mostly, the title makes him rather more obvious to other people than he’d like to be, when he just wants to potter round the Marsh with Joss looking for beetles. Whereas in book two, Rufus inherits a very old earldom that does in fact give him a lot of power, but which also comes with a huge responsibility he can’t manage at first, and a massive burden of family pride he doesn’t share. Gareth has to make things work despite his title; Rufus has to make them work with his title.

Where do Rufus and Luke rank on the KJ Charles Character Scale, with 1 being “Cozy Cinnamon Roll Who Has Never Hurt a Fly” and 10 being “The Literal Devil—But Sexy”?
Rufus is a 3. He’s loud and shouty with a temper, and can be ruthless when he has to, but he’s got a very kind heart, he forgives quickly and he thinks hard about doing the right thing. Luke is . . . Luke is a Doomsday. He holds grudges forever, he’s manipulative and a shameless liar and frankly a git, and I don’t know how much he actually changes, rather than deciding to use his powers for good (and by “good,” I mean “Rufus”). He is also badly damaged by the events of book one, so deserves a bit more understanding than some other main characters of mine that I could mention, but I’d give him a solid 8: Natural Disaster. (I am really looking forward to seeing how people react to some of his more extreme decisions, ahaha.)

We’re thrilled to reveal the delightful cover of KJ Charles’ new historical romance—plus read a Q&A with the author!
STARRED REVIEW
July 17, 2023

The 15 most thrilling books of summer 2023

Private Eye July, our annual celebration of all things mystery, suspense and true crime, is here! Here are the books that will have us frantically flipping through pages all season long.
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Book jacket image for What the Dead Know by Barbara Butcher

What the Dead Know

Writing in a fast-paced and precise style, Barbara Butcher shares a treasure trove of stories from her 22 years as a death investigator in New ...

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Book jacket image for Little

Little, Crazy Children

In his latest true crime investigation, James Renner refuses to let the murder of Shaker Heights, Ohio, teenager Lisa Pruett be washed away by the ...

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Book jacket image for I Know Who You Are by Barbara Rae-Venter

I Know Who You Are

Some retirees quilt; others fish. And then there’s Barbara Rae-Venter, who identified the Golden State Killer using investigative genetic genealogy and sparked a forensic revolution.

...
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Book jacket image for Evidence of Things Seen by Sarah Weinman

Evidence of Things Seen

Sarah Weinman’s second true crime anthology confronts how social media, misogyny, racism and classism shape how we perceive crime.

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Book jacket image for The Art Thief by Michael Finkel

The Art Thief

Stéphane Breitwieser stole more than 300 irreplaceable artworks. Journalist Michael Finkel now attempts to understand why this criminal aesthete hoarded those treasures in his attic.

...
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Private Eye July, our annual celebration of all things mystery, suspense and true crime, is here! Here are the books that will have us frantically flipping through pages all season long.
Interview by

Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles is one of the cornerstone series of the modern YA fantasy boom. To mark the release of her first-ever book for adults, Sword Catcher, we asked Clare about her most cherished library memories, book-browsing habits and more.

What are your bookstore rituals?
I always make a beeline for either young adult or fantasy. I want to see what’s new in both genres so I poke around the table displays. I look for shelf talkers, because I want to see what individual booksellers are recommending. After that, I like to drift and see what catches my eye. I am drawn to beautiful covers and design—who isn’t! In the end, I will always end up with an armful of totally disparate books, like a YA fantasy novel, a World War II history, some science nonfiction and a mystery.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child. 
I grew up in Los Angeles, and even though I didn’t live in Beverly Hills, my mother took me to the Beverly Hills library because it was the biggest. It had a glass facade so the books always seemed to be bathed in a magical glow. And it had an amazing mosaic mural that it took me years to realize was designed to appear as a shelf of books wrapping around the building!

While researching your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful? 
One of the things I love about going on tour is that often after the event, you can chat with booksellers about what they’re reading right now and get recommendations. Once a bookseller handed me a copy of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, even though it’s not in a genre I write in at all. I was totally absorbed by it, and it ended up being an inspiration for Sword Catcher.

Read our review of ‘Sword Catcher’ by Cassandra Clare.

Do you have a favorite bookstore or library from literature? 
I would pick the library from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. It contains all the books that writers didn’t get a chance to write, but only dreamed up. I remember “The Man Who Was December” by G.K. Chesterton being one, and a Raymond Chandler that never made it to shelves. I love the idea because I often do dream of story ideas, but they never stay with me past the few moments after waking up.

Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet? What’s on it? 
I’d love to visit Livraria Lello, in Porto, Portugal. It’s always on lists of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It has all this carved wood and a huge central staircase and a stained-glass skylight. Plus, the bookstore has vending machines around the city in case you crave a book outside of business hours!

What’s the last thing you bought at your local bookstore? 
I bought a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

How is your own personal library organized? 
By genre! Sometimes it gets complicated: Does dark fantasy go in horror or fantasy? What about futuristic mysteries? But generally I have an idea of what genre space the book occupies in my head, so I’ll shelve it there.

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs? 
Cats. I love dogs and cats but there’s something cozy about a bookstore cat.

What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack?
I might bring a coffee drink (usually a mocha) or a tea, lid firmly on, into a bookstore, but I wouldn’t bring snacks—I don’t want to mess up the books!

Photo of Cassandra Clare by Sharona Jacobs.

The YA fantasy icon reveals how she organizes her personal bookshelf and her favorite fictional library.
Interview by

When Charlotte Hilaire gets stranded in Madrid on a snowy winter night, she takes a chance and gets in touch with Adrianna Coates, a fellow art academic whom Charlotte was both intimidated by and attracted to during her grad school days. Once reunited, the connection between the two women is electric, but they’ll have to grapple with diverging career goals and all the perils of long-distance dating before finding their happily ever after in Verity Lowell’s Meet Me in Madrid. We talked to Lowell about her warts-and-all portrayal of academia and the joys of gorgeous clothes and good food. 

What makes the art world a good setting for a romance? 
The art world contains multitudes. It has very public, social sites, like museums, auction houses and galleries, but also more personal, even intimate spaces, like art studios, classrooms and offices. Romance can bloom anywhere, of course. But I like the kinds of questions around beauty and appearances and history and seduction that are sort of embedded in art whether we like it or not. In romance, I really enjoy being immersed in subcultures, so my hope is that Meet Me in Madrid gives readers an insider’s view of the art worlds particular to Charlotte and Adrianna. Strange as it might seem, museum people and academics don’t always cross paths—so Charlotte, the courier, and Adrianna, the professor, might never have reconnected if it weren’t for an unexpected storm!

“I wanted to write a bit of a love letter to my talented, driven colleagues.”

What are some of the most common misconceptions about academia? Did you set out to correct any in Meet Me in Madrid?
Would that I could! But yes, as a college professor, I do often wish people knew how much more we do besides hold forth for a few hours a day in a classroom (or on Zoom!)—which is not easy to do well. At times, there’s an almost pastoral dimension to teaching: We counsel, we listen, we support, we defend. Ideally, we grow and learn. And many of us do this until our lives are consumed by the lives of students. Meanwhile, the academy, in addition to being stubbornly elitist and homogenous, really is cutthroat. Some years there are only 20 or so available jobs in a given subfield of art history—that’s for everyone with a Ph.D. basically in the English-speaking world. So it’s rough, especially when you’ve done everything right for seven or eight years of grad school, to not get a job at the end. I guess I wanted to write a bit of a love letter to my talented, driven colleagues on the job market, especially feminists and people doing anti-racism work.

How did you decide what Charlotte’s and Adrianna’s jobs would be? Was it an opportunity for you to fictionally explore roads not taken, or would you dislike having either of their specialities?
I love this question. I’m a midcareer specialist in 17th-century Baroque art. But I’m also a closet lover of 19th-century French painting—Manet, Corot, etc. If I could go back, I might well follow Charlotte’s path exploring race and impressionism in the American South. Thinking outside the canon is still the exception in art history. But I wanted Charlotte to be someone who did that anyway.

Adrianna, frankly, has followed a path closer to mine. She’s the more conservative scholar, and she’s reaped the rewards of playing it safe. I have enjoyed curating and would like to do more. It’s pretty unusual for professors to organize shows, but I liked that access to the public, that kind of conversation. When I grow up as an academic, I want to be more like Charlotte!

How did you decide upon Madrid as a setting? Have you traveled there yourself? What appeals to you about that city in particular?
A mí me encanta Madrid! I was a Fulbright scholar in Madrid and lived and researched there for about a year and a half. It’s a wonderful, complicated, austerely gorgeous place. The Prado is, to my mind, the best European museum. And Madrid is captivating: The wine is lovely. The terrace bar culture is addictive. And it’s very queer!

“As the book and the romance itself evolved, I tried to show the ways Charlotte and Adrianna become stronger together.”

Which of the marvelous meals that Adrianna and Charlotte share would you most like to enjoy yourself? 
Each meal in the book demonstrates care, emotional connection and delight in life’s sensual pleasures. Cooking and entertaining are definitely some of the ways I express my feelings for people. I’ve traveled to the American South fairly regularly, and I make shrimp and grits all the time! But I also do a pretty decent tortilla de patatas.

I also absolutely love a great restaurant experience. Madrid is fascinating in many ways, but to me, it’s got nothing on the other cities in the book—L.A., New York, Chicago and New Orleans—in terms of diverse and creative food culture.

As a devoted summer person, this book really made me reconsider winter as a romantic season. Is it your personal favorite, or was it more that it made sense for Adrianna and Charlotte’s love story? 
My work is done! I grew up in the Rockies and love a good blizzard. Also, the academic life is such a cyclical one. It felt important to take Adrianna and Charlotte’s relationship through several seasons. I do think cold winter nights are wonderfully conducive to getting on with the coziness though!

Clothing plays a large role in Charlotte’s and Adrianna’s lives. “They were both women who loved to dress,” as you very elegantly put it. Did you have any specific inspirations for either character’s personal style? Were there any outfits on the page that you’d love to have in real life? 
So happy that came across. Clothing is definitely a facet of identity to me. I saw both characters as worldly, sophisticated queer women who understand how fashion communicates their gender and power and sexuality. I’m a big fan of the late, great and impressively diverse shows “Suits” and “Pearson,” and I will say, Gina Torres performs clothes like nobody else—and I think Adrianna would agree. Charlotte’s wardrobe is loosely based on a lovely, stylish young woman I once knew, whose name will remain a secret. As to the outfits—who says I don’t have some of those in my closet already? 

Charlotte and Adrianna’s geographic distance from each other, individual career goals and age difference all put strain on their relationship in ways that felt incredibly believable and organic. How did you balance all of these factors? Were any present right from the beginning, and did any arise later in the writing process?
That framing captures so much of what I was aiming for: a sexy, plausible-feeling contemporary romance in which real-life circumstances—and overcoming a variety of obstacles—make the ending feel earned in a love-conquers-all kind of way. Present for me from the start was the desire to be candid about the challenges of being a lesbian of color in the professional world. I think romance as a genre has room for that kind of honesty. I also wanted to write tender but tenacious main characters who would find support and humor among their excellent friends. As the book and the romance itself evolved, I tried to show the ways Charlotte and Adrianna become stronger together, each learning from the other, each giving some things up, bridging all sorts of distances until they both land in the same happily-ever-after place.

What’s next for you?
Writing my debut romance has been a fantastic and fulfilling adventure so far! Now I’m just eager to see how it resonates with readers. Going forward, I have a few balls in the air, one of which is another contemporary romance between two very different, ambitious and complex women in a very different setting—but that’s all I can say about that!

We talked to Verity Lowell about the joys of gorgeous clothes and good food, and why the art world is a perfect setting for a romance.
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We all love books about queens and iconic artists, but historical fiction can also uncover the untold stories of history—from lady detectives to aspiring bohemians to scandalous beauty queens. Here are three novels about the stories you didn’t learn in school.

MADAME DETECTIVE
Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective, is a legend of American law enforcement. Greer Macallister’s vastly entertaining novel Girl in Disguise brings this feminist pioneer to life in all her skill and complexity. Kate is a perceptive and determined character, and being inside her head while she makes deductions and analyzes her targets is an enormous amount of fun. Even more enjoyable is the way Kate wrangles her new detective colleagues, most of whom are varying degrees of sexist and some of whom have surprising hidden depths.

Macallister wrings a great deal of tension out of the various setups and traps the Pinkerton detectives use to ferret out crime and sedition, at times simply by adhering to the restrictions of the detective work of the period. The story is episodic at first, allowing the reader and Kate to bounce from case to case while Macallister fleshes out the world of pre-Civil War America and expertly darkens the mood of the book.

Once war breaks out, Kate and her colleagues are devoted to the Union war effort and Macallister’s carefully laid groundwork pays off. The shift from hunting down criminals to facing off against Confederate spies (one of whom is a clever mirror image of Kate herself) raises the stakes of the book and forces Kate into closer quarters with her colleagues and boss, setting up the characters for a satisfying series of confrontations. Long-simmering quarrels come to a head and an unexpected romance blooms that is both touching and maturely sexy.

Steeped in the details of the period, Girl in Disguise is an entertaining ride as well as an homage to a brilliant woman who found and seized her chance at a life full of adventure and purpose.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
The inspiration for Edvard Munch’s The Scream is often said to be the artist’s own existential angst and possible mental illness. In The Girl Between, Lisa Strømme gives the painting a more personal origin story—a passionate love affair between the painter and Tullik, a vacationing admiral’s daughter, seen through the eyes of Johanne, Tullik’s young maid.

The strength of Strømme’s novel is her awareness that having Johanne serve as only narrator would be a missed opportunity. The Girl Between is nominally the story of a love affair between two people, but truly the story of an emotional affair between three people. Johanne, who has grown up in the seaside town where Edvard lives and Tullik visits, is an aspiring artist herself as well as a girl just starting to question the boundaries and mores of her conservative upbringing. Johanne’s own artistic talent and burgeoning sense of her own desires color the entire novel, bursting forth in impressionistic passages that connect her emotions and sensations to the art she creates. Her vivid senses of the world around her, brought to startling life by Strømme’s prose throughout the novel, make the passages of impressionistic fancy even more surreal. In The Girl Between, the boundary between the everyday world and the world of art and iconography is porous, with emotion, inspiration and passion constantly flowing from one character to another.

Tullik is an especially fascinating figure as she is painfully aware of the limitations imposed on her because of her wealth and gender. She regresses into a childlike state as often as she attempts to be a bohemian firebrand. Because she is only ever viewed through Johanne’s eyes, it is unclear whether the fascination she provokes in others is entirely unconscious or carefully cultivated, whether her seduction of Edvard is a genuine meeting of souls or a frantic grasp for freedom. Strømme does not hesitate to show how Tullik and Edvard use their privilege to purse their own ends—Tullik with her wealth and control over Johanne, and Edvard with his ability as a man to walk away unscathed by the repercussions of his affairs. Johanne may pity and often idealize the lovers, but Strømme allows the reader to decide for themselves whether The Girl Between is a tragedy of two lovers, or the origin story of a woman who found herself in the wreckage they left behind.

THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN
In the history of the Miss America pageant, there has in fact been one winner who rejected the position. Her name was Betty Cooper, and she disappeared for 24 hours after winning the title in 1937. Michael Callahan uses her story as a template for The Night She Won Miss America, set in 1950 and centered on reluctant Miss Delaware Betty Welch, who only enters the competition to please her mother. Once in Atlantic City for the final days of competition, Betty find herself more interested in her dashing escort Griff than vying for the crown. But Griff isn’t exactly the picture-perfect suitor Betty thinks he is.

Callahan masterfully creates the sparkling world of Atlantic City in the 50s, draped in the post-war glamour of the Miss America pageant. From the lingo to the elaborate wardrobes of the contestants to the nightclubs and cocktails they frequent, his infectious enthusiasm for the period enlivens every page. Thankfully, he doesn’t rely solely on the delicious window dressing and provides the reader with two well-drawn main narrators—the innocent but self-possessed and intelligent Betty, and her more world-wise roommate Ciji.

Betty is a keen, dubious observer of the pageant, whose increasing success in the competition mainly comes from her refusal to play the part of ambitious beauty queen. But when she meets and falls madly in love with Griffin McAllister, her good sense wars with her powerful attraction to her escort. Callahan does a superb job at evoking the sweep and rush of first love, while at the same time undercutting the fantasy as Betty’s skeptical nature refuses to allow her to fully relax into Griff’s affections.

Ciji, who only entered the pageant because she sees it as a stepping-stone to Hollywood, takes over sections of the narrative once the pageant is over and the strain of the real world sets in. A beauty queen with the cynicism of Humphrey Bogart, Ciji moves through the world with the ever-present knowledge that her good looks are a useful tool (up to a point). As Betty and Griff’s relationship darkens, Ciji finds herself torn between helping her friend and acting in her own best interests.

The drama that unfolds is like one of the movies Ciji hopes to star in. Callahan nimbly guides the reader from the rounds of the Miss America competition to Times Square to a climax on a seaside cliff during a masquerade ball. The Night She Won Miss America is a delightfully dramatic and fast-paced summer read, with just the right amount of darkness to balance out the fluff.

We all love books about queens and iconic artists, but historical fiction can also uncover the untold stories of history—from lady detectives to aspiring bohemians to scandalous beauty queens. Here are three novels about the stories you didn’t learn in school.
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A woman returning to her childhood home is a perennial plot we never get tired of. Whether it’s a small Southern town or a California vineyard, the mix of old memories and new revelations always leads to satisfying drama. These three novels offer a particularly enticing take.

BREAKING NEW GROUND
Catherine West’s latest inspirational novel, The Memory of You, is an affecting portrait of two families struggling with trauma and forgiveness, set in a sun-drenched Sonoma vineyard.

Natalie Mitchell hasn’t set foot in her family’s winery, Maoilios, since her twin sister died there when they were both 13. But as the majority shareholder, it’s up to her to decide whether to support her father’s wishes and close the vineyard down, or to support her grandfather, who still lives on the property and runs the business.

Natalie has been burdened by her parents’ expectations and the trauma of her sister’s death for years, and returning to Maoilios fills her with warring emotions. She basks in the familiarity of the vineyard and the renewal of her relationship with her grandfather, but under it all is the fear that being back at the site of her sister’s death will catastrophically escalate the PTSD she’s fought so hard to control. West uses the wide-open landscape of Northern California to excellent effect. Natalie’s environment is beautiful and warm, but also agoraphobia-inducing—a sprawling space under constant sun where she feels on guard against her recurring symptoms.

The Memory of You nails the way mental illness can glacially advance through a person’s mind or suddenly strike in full force, depicting both Natalie’s panic attacks and fluctuating anxiety with unvarnished realism. West also sensitively captures Natalie’s constant desire to hide her PTSD from those around her, and the ways in which throwing herself into studying possible improvements to the vineyard both soothes and exacerbates her symptoms.

A major source of stress is her childhood friend and former crush Tanner Collins, who now works as the winemaker for Maoilios. Tanner assumes that Natalie intends to shut the vineyard down, and he finds himself clashing with her despite his better instincts. While West makes clear that Tanner is going through struggles of his own, she refreshingly doesn’t let him off the hook and neither does Natalie. The terse, volatile interactions between the pair are compelling and complex, moving uneasily between irritation and attraction.

As Tanner and Natalie work through their respective problems, West weaves in both of their family histories, making clear that if the vineyard is going to be saved, both families will have to confront the lingering pain from their past.

FAMILY TIES
Three sisters descend on their mother’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, at the beginning of Kristy Woodson Harvey’s Slightly South of Simple. The oldest, Caroline, is in crisis. Her husband has left her for a supermodel and she’s several months pregnant. With Caroline’s failed marriage, youngest sister Emerson’s budding acting career and the usual family squabbles, it’s not surprising that Murphy family matriarch Ansley tries to keep her own personal life under wraps.

Right before her daughters arrive, Ansley’s life is rocked by the reappearance of Jack, her first love. Harvey makes Ansley’s confidence and maturity work as a dramatic device—every interaction between Ansley and Jack is weighed against Ansley’s love for her daughters, lingering grief for her late husband and security in the life she’s built for herself.

Harvey’s knack for realistic tension extends to the Murphy sisters. They frequently squabble but the brief blowups never upend their deep emotional bonds. They appreciate each other’s differences but still reach for the easy insult more out of habit than any real malice. Meddling, snobby older sister Caroline could have been the villain of the book, the big city woman who has to come home to her family to be knocked down from her self-made pedestal. But her sisters understand that Caroline often shows her devotion to her family in slightly unhealthy, but good-intentioned ways—like sending her aging mother arm workouts and expensive skin cream. But her boundless enthusiasm for bettering her family members’ lives also leads her to devotedly cheerlead Emerson’s acting career and encourage Jack to keep up his pursuit of Ansley.

Harvey’s devotion to realistic character development pays off by the end of the novel, which provides clear resolutions to some plots and leaves other hanging in a way that practically begs for a sequel. The lack of complete closure only works because Harvey is meticulous about closing out each character’s arc in a satisfying way. While this occasionally tips over into an overreliance on life lesson-style narration, Slightly South of Simple is so warm, inviting and real, that the reader forgives its flaws in favor of spending time with the Murphys.

AN UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE
When Sara Jenkins’ larger-than-life grandmother dies in Lauren K. Denton’s The Hideaway, she unexpectedly leaves her the titular dilapidated bed and breakfast. Margaret “Mags” Van Buren and a collection of her best friends have been living there since before Sara can remember. To make matters worse, her grandmother’s dying wish was that she renovate the crumbling Victorian house, so Sara has to go back to live in her hometown of Sweet Bay, Alabama, until the job is done.

The Hideaway jumps back and forth between Sara’s return and her grandmother’s very first visit in 1960, when it functioned as a sanctuary for artists and beatniks due to its functionally nonexistent rent. Having lost her patience with her cheating husband, small-town housewife Margaret is drawn to the freedom of the proto-hippie residents of the house. Denton nicely evokes their sense of hope and rebellion, as well as the shock such characters, as mild as they seem to us now, would evoke in someone like Margaret.

In the present day, Denton avoids easy answers for Sara’s dilemma. She begins Sara’s story in the midst of her bustling business in the French Quarter, and throughout the book makes it clear how much passion and satisfaction she derives from her work. The only reason Sara is able to take on the job of renovating The Hideaway in the first place is because of the skills and knowledge she’s accumulated over the years running her store. Ultimately, the slower pace of Sweet Bay gives Sara the space to survey her life for the first time.

Rather than force a big-city conformity vs. small-town individuality conflict, The Hideaway is more interested in how two women in different time periods learn to invest in their own lives and listen to their own needs. Mags’ journey is especially rewarding. She is such a delightful character, and her growth so fascinating to watch, one wishes the entire book was about her and Denton let us see more of her in her full mature glory, rather that relegate most of those details to stories told by her friends and Sara’s memories. But the inclusion of Sara leads to some poignant final reveals and reunions that make The Hideaway sweet and satisfying.

A woman returning to her childhood home is a perennial plot we never get tired of. Whether it’s a small Southern town or a California vineyard, the mix of old memories and new revelations always leads to satisfying drama. These three novels offer a particularly enticing take.

BREAKING NEW GROUND
Catherine West’s latest inspirational novel, The Memory [...]

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Whether your toes are buried in the sand or you’re looking for a story to transport you to sunny climes, these lighthearted novels of family secrets and life-changing summers are the best beach reads of the season.

Summer in New England means blue skies and charming villages dotted along an endless coastline. Jamie Brenner’s The Forever Summer takes readers to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for an exceptionally expansive, warmhearted take on familiar beach-read tropes: a long-awaited family reunion and surprising revelations about parentage.

Nick Cabral fathered not one, but two daughters before his untimely death, a secret that isn’t uncovered until half-­sisters Rachel and Marin are adults. The Forever Summer’s secret weapon is the older generation of women: Nick’s mother, Amelia; Amelia’s wife, Kelly; and Marin’s mother, Blythe. A former ballerina who gave up her artistic dreams when she married a powerful lawyer, Blythe is haunted by her own demons but utterly devoted to her daughter’s well-being. And Amelia and Kelly’s idyllic marriage is overshadowed by the sacrifices they’ve made to be with one another. Brenner provides a poignant look at the gay community of Provincetown by fleshing out Amelia and Kelly’s circle of friends—many of whom are in their twilight years, endeavoring to spend their last days experiencing all the happiness they were robbed of by oppression and disease.

Brenner’s willingness to engage with grief and loss and her ability to braid them with the hesitant joy of a new family coming together make The Forever Summer a satisfying read.

ISLANDS APART
Elin Hilderbrand is one of the queens of beach reads, and she continues her reign with The ­Identicals. Identical twins Tabitha and Harper Frost are separated by the 11 miles of water between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. When circumstances require them to switch islands and take over each other’s responsibilities, the twins, who haven’t spoken in more than a decade, find themselves embroiled in romantic entanglements and long-delayed confrontations.

The setup is a bit contrived, and a narration from the voice of the islands’ collective population can be distracting. But it’s impossible to resist Hilderbrand’s gift for characterization and building satisfying drama. Tabitha’s daughter, Ainsley, who originally seems like an exaggerated nightmare of a teenage girl, is a standout character. Tenderly portrayed, she’s privileged and lonely—old enough to act out, but still young enough to crave her mother’s affection.

Hilderbrand deftly lays the groundwork for the reveal of what drove the twins apart. She paces the novel’s revelations just right, balancing them against careful character development so that when all is revealed, the reader may not agree with Tabitha’s and Harper’s decisions, but they can’t help but deeply empathize.

CHILDREN OF CELEBRITY
Another set of estranged sisters take tentative steps toward each other in Jane Green’s The Sunshine Sisters, set in Westport, Connecticut. The three daughters of Hollywood starlet Ronni Sunshine have all adapted to their mother’s cruel behavior in different ways, growing away from each other as a result. But when Ronni announces that she has a terminal illness, the daughters must return home to her, and to each other.

The novel opens with scenes from the sisters’ childhoods, giving the reader each character’s perspective and making the clashes between the sisters much more affecting. All three are impressively well drawn, and Green isn’t afraid to give them some ugly traits. Lizzy’s single-minded pursuit of her own ambitions could have been monstrous if Green didn’t make her such an effervescent presence. And while her sister Nell’s aloof nature has given her admirable restraint when dealing with their mother, Green also shows how Nell’s withdrawal from life has robbed her sisters of a protector—and may stand in the way of a suprising, affecting romance.

TREADING WATER
Maeve Donnelly’s life revolves around sharks, and her frequent trips to study her beloved predators have allowed long-simmering conflicts to fall by the wayside. In Ann Kidd Taylor’s The Shark Club, those conflicts come to a head when Maeve visits her grandmother’s beachside hotel in Palermo, Florida.

While there’s no shortage of interesting characters in Maeve’s orbit, Taylor zeroes in on Maeve’s development almost exclusively. It’s a decision that enriches the book to a great extent: With Maeve as the clear protagonist, the beachside locale isn’t glamorous window dressing but a constant reminder of the core purpose of Maeve’s life. Ultimately, all of Maeve’s choices relate back to the sea and her history with it, from her complicated relationships with two love interests to her reaction to her brother’s novel.

The Shark Club stays true to the logical, calm nature of its protagonist, but still evokes the subtle pain and thrill of being unmoored.

GIRL GONE WILD
We’re off to Taormina, Italy, for an utterly deranged mélange of The Bling Ring and The Parent Trap. Chloé Esposito’s debut, Mad, is escapist fare that not only leaves behind the boundaries of the United States but also any semblance of morality. It’s awash in gorgeous Italian men and designer clothes, and both get more than a little bloodstained.

Esposito’s protagonist, the recently unemployed Alvina Knightly, accepts an invitation from her twin sister, Beth, to visit her Sicilian beachside mansion. Enraptured with and jealous of Beth’s lavish lifestyle, not to mention her extremely handsome husband, Alvina allows herself to be talked into impersonating her sister for one afternoon, kicking off a wild ride of murder and mayhem. Alvina runs headlong into her sister’s shadowy and dangerous world, getting increasingly in over her head as her outrageously misplaced self-confidence grows.

The first in a trilogy, Mad is deliciously over-the-top, with a protagonist you’ll never forget and an ending that promises more chaos to come.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Whether your toes are buried in the sand or you’re looking for a story to transport you to sunny climes, these lighthearted novels of family secrets and life-changing summers are the best beach reads of the season.

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With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.

A SURPRISINGLY TIMELY FAIRY TALE
Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is, on the surface, a lyrical modern-day fairy tale. In the opening chapters, Apollo Kagwa meets, marries and has a baby with librarian Emma Valentine. Apollo, who is haunted by his absentee father, throws himself into raising baby Brian with gusto. But Emma becomes more and more withdrawn, and what initially looks like post-partum depression turns out to be a growing suspicion that Brian is not a real baby. When Emma goes to terrible lengths to prove herself right and then disappears, Apollo decides to hunt her down and take revenge on behalf of their son.

For most of the novel, LaValle sits at a distance, intruding into Apollo’s mind only in moments of great feeling or to take stock, and otherwise letting the tale play out. His remove prevents the whimsy inherent to such a tale from overshadowing the darkness at its heart, and stylistically ties his novel to the Grimms’ fairy tales that inspired it. Like those stories, The Changeling can be read as literal, symbolic or both, with moments that function better the more one accepts the dream logic of the novel.

Just when the novel begins to look like a disappointingly shallow update—a modern setting with retrograde themes bubbling beneath it—LaValle uses the reader’s assumptions against them, laying the foundation for a more complex take on the changeling myth. As Apollo travels further into the underworld of New York and the novel moves ever deeper into outright fantasy, LaValle’s true concerns slowly unfurl.

At its core, The Changeling is a story about colonization and oppression, with a clear awareness of racial and gender dynamics that reveals the ugliness of assuming Western European superiority over immigrants like Apollo’s Ugandan mother, or male superiority over women. And it does it all in a gritty, chilly New York City where monsters and warrior women lurk in dark corners—an alternate city that for all its fairy-tale wonder feels startlingly immediate.

Careful and deliberate in its setup, LaValle’s novel is a magic trick that earns every bit of wonder. It’s so compelling that you won’t be able to look away, even at its darkest moments.

BACK TO THE FUTURE (WITH WITCHES)
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
, a 700-page collaboration between master of sci-fi Neal Stephenson and historical fiction writer Nicole Galland, is about a secret government organization that sets out to use magic and time travel against America’s enemies. It’s a setup that absolutely should not work. And yet somehow, D.O.D.O. is entertaining and sprightly, gleefully skipping through its fast-paced plot, scattering character grace notes and barbed critiques of government overreach with aplomb.

Historian Melisande Stokes is approached by military intelligence operative Tristan Lyons to help the U.S. government in a seemingly insane quest—to bring back magic. Galland and Stephenson ground the premise of the novel in realistic science, which leads to a few fairly dry passages but may be necessary given how very silly the concept could have been in lesser hands. In the world of D.O.D.O., magic was real until the 19th century, when witches’ power rapidly decreased until it completely sputtered out. In the present day, the United States government wants to build a machine that allows witches to practice magic—specifically time travel so that operatives can make changes in the past that affect the future.

Stephenson and Galland construct a web of fascinating personalities, all with divergent motivations and moralities. Due to a framing device in the beginning of the novel, it is clear that at some point one or multiple characters will betray Mel and Tristan, stranding them in different eras. However, the reader may be so distracted by the sheer fun of D.O.D.O.’s time-traveling exploits—which include jaunts to Elizabethan England, Constantinople on the eve of the Fourth Crusade and, in one instance, a spectacular joke that’s quite literally hundreds of pages in the making—that they could forget that it’s coming.

Stephenson and Galland seed character development and lay the groundwork for the novel’s many twists within these trips through time, using their immersive renderings and deepening character development to direct their readers’ attention away from the growing danger that Tristan and Mel invite into their own organization. And when the villain is eventually revealed, it’s a character so deliciously entertaining and engaging that readers may very well find themselves sympathetic to their cause.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson for The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.

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The mainstreaming of science fiction and fantasy has given writers the freedom to experiment, to change how these stories are told and who gets to stand at the forefront of them.

James Bradley’s Clade marries narrative devices more commonly found in literary fiction to one of the newest subgenres of sci-fi—climate change fiction or “cli-fi.” Beginning with scientist Adam and his artist wife, Ellie, Clade follows the pair and their descendants through the changing ecological and political climate. Each chapter jumps forward in time and switches perspectives, stitching together a narrative of small, lyrical stories that only rarely intersect with the cataclysmic events erupting the world over.

Bradley captures how lives can be tinged with a sense of change happening too slowly for one individual to track—his characters are left with only a low whine of anxiety, a sense of things slipping away in their peripheral vision. The jumps in time between chapters make the increasingly dire situation on Earth even more alarming; the reader begins each section not knowing how much time has passed or which characters are missing due to catastrophe or disease or without any explanation at all.

Bleak and hopeful in equal measure, Clade is a striking paradox of a book—a soothing tale of the coming apocalypse.

As opposed to Clade’s ever-expanding family tree, The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera concerns itself with only two main characters. But while Bradley’s novel feels like a collection of impeccably constructed haiku, Rivera’s sweeping fantasy debut is like an epic poem from a bygone age.

Rivera wisely takes her time in the initial pages of The Tiger’s Daughter, sparing the reader tedious passages of exposition. Shizuka is the heir to the Hokkaran Empire, whereas Shefali grew up among her mother’s nomadic Qorin people. As Shefali and Shizuka move from initial distrust to hesitant acceptance, each learns about the other’s respective culture. Through references to the histories of their mothers, who fought against the same dangers that now threaten their daughters, Rivera implies an entire universe teeming with stories.

The Tiger’s Daughter is the rare introduction to a series that tells a complete story within the first installment, largely due to the complexity of its two leads. Both glory in their abilities and struggle with the resulting sense of isolation. Arrogant, ferociously loyal Shizuka is a dueling prodigy, but she worries she’ll never equal her mother’s legacy. And some of the novel’s most breathtaking passages spring from Shefali’s increasingly frantic attempts to cling to her humanity beneath her quiet, stoic exterior.

In a genre saturated with deconstructionist takes on epic fantasy, it is immensely satisfying to read Rivera’s debut, which wholeheartedly embraces its epic scale while effortlessly showcasing the diversity the genre has so often lacked. An adventure that aches with romance, written with easy, lyrical confidence, The Tiger’s Daughter gives the reader the incontrovertible sense that it will be a new fantasy classic.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The mainstreaming of science fiction and fantasy has given writers the freedom to experiment, to change how these stories are told and who gets to stand at the forefront of them.

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The gas-lit glamour of the Victorian age is a frequent backdrop for stories of women struggling against oppression. But what if a woman had supernatural abilities, or the chance to acquire them? Two new works of historical fantasy answer that question, weaving compelling tales of empowerment—literal and otherwise. 

Set in the fictional country of Levrene, which resembles belle epoque France save for a small portion of the population has telekinetic abilities, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones is an elegantly paced novel that moves its characters into place with ease, with careful attention paid to ways a word or a moment can change an entire life.

Drenched in beautiful imagery that brings to mind the dreamy aesthetic of art nouveau, The Beautiful Ones begins as Antonina Beaulieu arrives in the capital city of Loisail for her first debutante season. She’d much rather be back home in the country, where she can pursue her interests in the natural world and use her telekinetic powers without fear of judgment. But Nina is dutiful and dreams of romance, so she submits to her cousin’s glamorous wife Valérie and tries to transform herself into a lady. When the successful telekinetic entertainer Hector Auvray begins to court her, his wealth and good breeding is enough to overwhelm her family’s reservations about his common birth, and Nina is quickly enamored of him. But unbeknownst to Nina or anyone else, Hector and Valérie were once engaged.

Relentless and ferociously intelligent, Valérie is sympathetic even as her actions grow monstrous. Groomed from birth to marry for money in order to restore her family’s faded status, Valérie has rejected every part of her self that cannot be used in service to that goal. Moreno-Garcia takes care to illustrate the ways in which Nina is only free to do as she pleases due to her money and her indulgent relatives, leaving the reader with no choice but to acknowledge that Valérie’s hatred of the younger woman stems from both a legitimate grievance and psychological self-preservation. She loathes Nina and often Hector as well, because acknowledging that she carved any trace of innocence and hope out of herself is just too daunting, and damning, to contemplate.

As a foil to Valérie, Nina initially seems more concept than character, a naïve and good-hearted girl doomed to serve as a pawn between Hector and Valérie. But as her youthful passion and curiosity bloom into hard-won wisdom and self-possession, Moreno-Garcia’s narration from her perspective grows more complex, more layered with memory and forethought. The Beautiful Ones captures a young woman in the process of self-creation, looking down on herself from above for the first time, deciding which aspects of her society she will accept, and which she will quietly refuse. Nina’s embrace of and increasing skill with her telekinetic abilities, despite the censure of upper-class society, is a perfect encapsulation of her growth as a character. She’s literally becoming empowered. Moreno-Garcia carefully tracks each participant in the love triangle with this same attention to detail. As the three step toward and away from each other, she roots each movement in individual character development. For each of them, the choice of who they will love is a question of who they will allow themselves to love—whether they will be what society believes they should be, or who they, desperately, hope to be.

Questions of identity and the price of conformity also haunt Creatures of Will and Temper, Molly Tanzer’s urban fantasy set in Victorian London. Tanzer takes the iconic characters of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, gender swaps a few of them and then throws in a fencing school and demonology for good measure. The execution isn’t as pulpy as one would immediately assume, which does lead to a few unanswered questions about the exact nature of the supernatural elements at play. However, Tanzer draws her characters so precisely, and has such fun playing with the themes of Dorian Gray and other novels of the era, that any quibbles are easily waved away.

The decadent Lord Henry becomes Lady Henry (short for Henrietta), a glamorous aesthete in perfectly tailored men’s suits. When introduced to Dorina Gray on the young girl’s first trip to London, Henry is charmed by her enthusiasm and intelligence but resolves not to act on their mutual attraction, or tell Dorina anything about her more unorthodox pursuits—namely that she and a number of her friends host a demon in their bodies. Demon is a bit of a misnomer, as the beings in Tanzer’s novel are from an alternate world, rather than a Judeo-Christian hell. The specific demon that resides within Henry is devoted to sensory experiences above all else, making it the perfect match for Wilde’s decadent philosophy, represented here (as in Dorian Gray) by Henry. By creating and appreciating beauty in all its forms, Henry and her cadre are actually and truly communing with the eternal, literalizing the aim of aestheticism in a canny bit of genre translation.

A swaggering lady demonologist, who is rightfully viewed with utter adoration by her decades-younger love interest, is obviously a delight to come across. But Tanzer’s most intriguing character may be the determinedly conventional Evadne Gray, Dorina’s older sister. Evadne insists on proper behavior despite her very improper devotion to fencing, and immediately disapproves of Henry and Dorina’s friendship.

Tanzer sketches the complicated relationship between the Gray sisters with remarkable empathy and equanimity. Evadne is shy and not conventionally beautiful, unlike the gregarious Dorina, and Tanzer establishes in deft strokes how Evadne’s insecurity has calcified into snobbery and standoffishness. Dorina reacts with scorn whenever Evadne tries to control her behavior, as she cannot help but see it as judgment and rejection. Yet for all her snobbery, Evadne has a forthright, charming Victorian nobility to her, and protects Dorina with all the fervor of a medieval knight. Tanzer wisely ensures that the love between the two sister is never in doubt—rather, they’re unable to honestly communicate with each other due to years of unintended and imagined slights. This central bond between sisters is the backbone of Creatures of Will and Temper, and woven all throughout are poignant observations on love, art and the cost of freedom. With an attention to descriptive detail and an emphasis on seizing the pleasures of life, Creatures of Will and Temper is a twist on a classic tale that would have made Wilde proud.

The gas-lit glamour of the Victorian age is a frequent backdrop for stories of women struggling against oppression. But what if a woman had supernatural abilities, or the chance to acquire them? Two new works of historical fantasy answer that question, weaving compelling tales of empowerment—literal and otherwise. 

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Cheating death is most frequently a quest for conquistadors or comic book villains. And most characters that have attained immortality, or something close to it, are already fantastical beings of some sort. Two new works of literary fiction, however, investigate what a drastically elongated lifespan can do to a soul and mind intended for mortality.

A good portion of Eternal Life by Dara Horn takes place in the present day, as the approximately 2,000-year-old Rachel wishes for some way to break the cycle of marriage, motherhood and faking her death to ensure that no one discovers her immortality. When she gave up her death in order to save her young son’s life, she didn’t truly believe she would live forever. It wasn’t until the biblical Temple of Jerusalem burned down with the elderly Rachel inside and she woke up outside the city, young once more, that she realized what she had done.

Rachel loves her children and descendants deeply, but time has taken its toll on motherhood. Horn uses flashes of memory to show how, to Rachel, each child is reminiscent of another one, and at times another before that. Rachel’s living family will always remind her of those who are dead, dooming her to continually acknowledge her own separation from the rest of humanity. Horn never answers whether Rachel’s embrace of perpetual motherhood, despite the pain, is true conviction, self-punishment or both. Her heroine does not stop to consider it, unless forced to by the one person who understands her plight—the father of the child she gave up her death to save.

Her lover, Elazar, made the same bargain she did and has been following Rachel ever since, convinced that their immortality is a gift from God and a sign that they were meant to spend eternity together. In expertly executed flashbacks, Horn methodically uncovers a connection between two souls that never quite fit in with their surroundings. Rachel’s guilt and persistent love for Elazar are among the many parts of herself she has attempted to bury via unceasing motherhood, causing damage to herself and her children. In unflinching emotional detail, Horn explores how Rachel has allowed herself to calcify into a cycle, and by the end of Eternal Life, she faces a choice between jettisoning it altogether or embracing it fully, pain and all.

Rachel may refuse to contemplate the enormity of her lifespan, but Tom Hazard is drowning in it. The protagonist of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time is only 439 years old in comparison to Rachel’s millennia, but the majority of those years have been spent alone. Haig’s greatest accomplishment in this book is his at-times unbearably poignant exploration of how such a life could warp a mind.

Tom is haunted by the impermanence of the world around him and paralyzed by the knowledge that everyone he encounters will one day be dead. Having come of age in the 16th century, he knows all too well the horrors that can await those like him, and refuses to believe that humanity has changed in the ensuing centuries. Yet the memories of his relationship with his wife, and the few close friendships he has enjoyed, have not faded with time, which leads to a sense of jumbled memories that Haig skillfully communicates by skipping backward and forward between Tom’s early life, his experiences in the present day and other moments throughout his centuries. Haig structures these moments like a slow-motion epiphany, following Tom as he attempts to process his worst experiences and possibly seize a chance at community and love in the present.

Haig begins with the losses so devastating that they cast a shadow over Tom’s psyche for centuries, reverberating louder than any of his other memories. But then Haig pulls back, showing the happiness and friendships that have also marked his protagonist’s life, disrupting the isolationist narrative that Tom and others like him have forced themselves to adhere to in order to survive. Along the way, Haig allows for plenty of wistful and witty commentary on eras past, pit stops in the Wild West and 1920s Paris, and perhaps the best fictional depiction of Shakespeare in recent memory.

Like Rachel in Eternal Life, Tom arrives at a point in which he must break or solidify the rhythm of his life, and the final chapters of How to Stop Time arrive with breathtaking catharsis. For all his skill at evoking the passage of centuries, Haig also lavishes his attention on singular moments, mere minutes in the enormity of time that gently nudge his protagonist towards enlightenment.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Matt Haig for How to Stop Time.

Cheating death is most frequently a quest for conquistadors or comic book villains. And most characters that have attained immortality, or something close to it, are already fantastical beings of some sort. Two new works of literary fiction, however, investigate what a drastically elongated lifespan can do to a soul and mind intended for mortality.

Sweeping fantasies are this year’s biggest trend in children’s and teen literature—think breathtaking action, complex world building, magical abilities and bands of young heroes who must save the day.

Like any great high fantasy should, Jaleigh Johnson’s The Door to the Lost opens with a series of maps depicting the land of Talhaven and the grand city of Regara, where “magic is dying,” only to be found in the abilities of 327 seemingly orphaned children who have been mysteriously jettisoned from their magic-filled homeland known as Vora.

A young girl known as Rook happens to be one of these magical refugees, and she and her friend Drift survive in Regara by offering their magical skills on a sort of black market. Rook’s particular talent is creating doors—she simply draws a rectangle with a piece of chalk and channels thoughts of her destination in order to open a portal. But one client’s door goes horribly wrong, and Rook lets in a giant Fox, whom she discovers is actually a shape-shifting boy from a snow-filled world. Can Rook and Drift get Fox back home again when they’re not even sure how to get there?

Johnson’s spell-casting cast of young heroes will entertain and endear, and their sweet adventure will help young readers grasp some key details of the refugee crisis in a way that never feels ham-fisted.

MAGIC OF FRIENDSHIP
The latest middle grade novel from Printz Honor-winning author Garret Weyr, The Language of Spells, is an extraordinary tale that meshes real historical events with a winning cast of magical creatures.

As this magic-filled journey begins in 1803, we meet a young dragon known as Grisha in the Black Forest. He’s young and carefree and enjoys eating acorns and playing by the stream—until one day, a heartless sorcerer imprisons him in a teapot. Grisha’s teapot is sold to the highest bidder, and for hundreds of years, he silently observes the world as it changes around him. When his enchantment is finally broken, he’s reunited with a group of dragons in Vienna during World War II. But the lives of the once mighty dragons are now controlled by the Department of Extinct Exotics, an organization that refuses to allow them to return to the forest and instead assigns them strict jobs and curfews. On a night off in a hotel bar, Grisha meets a human girl named Maggie, and the two forge a sweet and powerful friendship built on empathy and honesty. Soon, the two join forces to face their fears and investigate what happened to the city’s missing dragons.

Katie Harnett’s black-and-white illustrations kick off each chapter and add to the classic European fairy-tale atmosphere, and Weyr’s allegorical tale never glosses over a heart-rending detail or passes up a chance for a gorgeous turn of phrase, making this an ideal read-aloud that fantasy lovers of all ages can enjoy.

EPIC TRAGEDY
Puccini’s opera Turandot is based on a Persian fairy tale about a princess who challenges her suitors to solve three riddles in order to win her hand. If they fail, they will be executed. As one would expect from an opera written in 1924 set in the “mystical East,” there isn’t much historical accuracy to be found—but the original fairy tale was inspired by a Mongol warrior woman named Khutulun, who declared she would only marry a man who could beat her in a wrestling match. It is within this Mongol Empire that author Megan Bannen sets her retelling of Turandot, The Bird and the Blade (Balzer + Bray, $17.99, 432 pages, ISBN 9780062674159, ages 13 and up).

Slave girl Jinghua is on the run with deposed Mongol Khan Timur and his kindhearted son Khalaf. Timur wants to raise an army to take back his lands. Khalaf wants to marry the princess Turandokht by solving her riddles and, as her husband, restore his father to power. Jinghua, who thinks both plans are idiotic, is hilariously blunt about her chances of surviving either of them, but less open about her growing feelings for Khalaf.

Bannen plays with time in her YA debut, beginning with the trio’s arrival at Turandokht’s palace and then flashing back to their dangerous journey there. The awkward attraction between Jinghua and Khalaf, plus Timur’s caustic sarcasm, makes this novel surprisingly funny. But after Bannen reveals the utter devastation behind one character’s self-deprecating facade, it’s a relentless rush to the finale as Jinghua tries to save Khalaf.

Bannen’s prose grows ever more lyrical, soaring to match her ambition as The Bird and the Blade arrives at an unforgettable climax.

LOST GIRLS
For some reason, there are an awful lot of new YA novels in which women are endangered or oppressed. Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart is one of the most compelling of the bunch.

Serina Tessaro and her sister, Nomi, travel to the capital city of Bellaqua where Serina will compete for a chance to become one of the Heir’s Graces. Banghart doesn’t spell it out all at once, but Graces are essentially glorified concubines who represent the ideal subservient woman. The sisters are shocked when rebellious Nomi is chosen, and soon Serina takes the fall for one of Nomi’s crimes and is sent to Mount Ruin, a prison island.

Nomi’s storyline has the romantic entanglements and sparkling settings common to YA fantasy, but Banghart presents both with queasy suspicion. The beautiful rooms and pretty gowns of the Graces are mere decoration for another type of prison, and it is impossible to fall in love with a man who might see you as a possession or a tool.

Meanwhile, the all-female prisoners of Mount Ruin are forced to fight for rations, and Serina’s lifelong training to become a Grace surprisingly helps her excel in her new environment. As she begins to enjoy the camaraderie and mentorship of other women for the first time in her life, Serina’s feminine ideal quickly transforms from elegant consort to ferocious warrior. After all, in a society that constrains women at every turn, both roles offer a way to survive.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Sweeping fantasies are this year’s biggest trend in children’s and teen literature—think breathtaking action, complex world building, magical abilities and bands of young heroes who must save the day.

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