Stephenie Harrison

Seven years after her mordant debut novel, Dietland, amassed critical acclaim and a cult following for its no-holds-barred skewering of the diet and beauty industries, Sarai Walker second novel is finally here. With The Cherry Robbers, Walker has concocted another slyly subversive feminist fable, this time in the form of a grief-laced gothic thriller that takes on weighty topics such as marriage, women’s health and generational trauma.

In 2017, Sylvia Wren is a world-renowned, notoriously private painter living in New Mexico. She’s rarely seen in public and turns down virtually all requests for interviews. However, in a moment of errant curiosity, Sylvia reads a letter from a journalist who plans to write an exposé detailing what she has uncovered: that Sylvia Wren is in fact Iris Chapel, the sole surviving heiress of the Chapel Firearms fortune, who disappeared 60 years ago.

Suddenly the secrets that Sylvia has spent decades running from catch up to her, and with nowhere left to hide, she attempts to exorcize the ghosts of her past by chronicling the family curse that claimed the lives of her five sisters, relegated her mother to an asylum and prompted Sylvia to abandon her life as Iris.

Exquisitely tense and satisfyingly spooky,The Cherry Robbers masterfully blends psychological and supernatural horror. In sensual yet spritely prose, Walker conducts a darkly erotic exploration of female desire, duty and destiny via an ensemble of nuanced female characters, each with distinct personalities and rich inner lives. Readers know the grisly fate that awaits the Chapel girls, but Walker still manages to maintain a high degree of suspense and intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages.

For fans of Diane Setterfield and Shirley Jackson, as well as readers who relish multilayered, thought-provoking family sagas, The Cherry Robbers is not to be missed.

In The Cherry Robbers, Sarai Walker maintains a high degree of intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages in this story of a reclusive painter whose grisly family history is suddenly exposed.

It can be hard to remember just how important paper maps used to be. More than just a way of assisting travel from point A to B, a map was meant to depict the world, revealing a location’s form and significance to anyone who gazed upon it. But what if, rather than being mere reflections of what already exists, maps had the power to shape the world they represented? This intriguing idea forms the foundation of Peng Shepherd’s ingenious and exhilarating second novel, The Cartographers.

Cartographer Nell Young is called in to the New York Public Library after her estranged father is found dead in his office in the map division. While looking through his desk, she finds a secret compartment containing a tatty dime-a-dozen gas station map—the same map that sparked a fiery argument between the two of them several years previously. He dismissed the map as worthless, and their disagreement ended with Nell being branded an outcast in the world of cartography.

Nell can’t begin to understand why her father would have held onto the map he sabotaged her career over, but it soon becomes frighteningly clear that things are not quite as they seem. Despite the map’s unremarkable provenance, it’s actually incredibly rare and highly coveted. In her attempt to understand why, Nell finds herself ensnared in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, one that could turn deadly if the other party hunting for the map finds Nell before she uncovers its secrets.

As fans of Shepherd’s 2018 debut novel, The Book of M, would expect, The Cartographers is wildly imaginative and totally mind-bending in the best possible way. Shepherd has crafted a juicy mystery masquerading as a grown-up scavenger hunt filled with astonishing twists and revelations. The result is a romp that’s pure pleasure to read and will keep readers guessing—and gasping—as the map’s true power and beguiling history are brought to light.

Fans of Peng Shepherd’s 2018 debut novel, The Book of M, will love The Cartographers, a juicy mystery masquerading as a grown-up scavenger hunt.

It’s incredible that a work of speculative fiction first outlined over a decade ago would require a content warning in its review. But it must be said that the subject matter of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ambitious debut, an elegiac collection of interconnected stories centering on a global plague that decimates humanity, is particularly challenging in our current climate.

Beginning with a group of explorers who unwittingly unleash a mysterious virus that had long lain dormant beneath Siberian ice, How High We Go in the Dark chronicles humanity’s battle against the “Arctic plague” in the following decades and the ways in which society adapts and changes. Each chapter moves forward in time and features a different protagonist, giving readers the chance to inhabit multiple lives, realities and perspectives over the course of the narrative.

Among the varied cast of characters are a worker at a euthanasia theme park for terminally ill children; a scientist who, while cultivating organs for human transplant, unintentionally creates a talking pig; a physicist who gives humanity a second chance at life by opening a stable wormhole in his head, which will allow for interstellar space travel; and the eventual crew that leaves Earth to search for a new planet to colonize.

Early chapters feel self-contained, but as the novel progresses, it is satisfying to observe the ways the sections interconnect with and amplify one another. When the full scale of Nagamatsu’s vision comes into focus in the final chapter, the narrative resonance on display is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.

Still, despite the fantastical elements woven throughout, there is no real way of escaping or softening the novel’s inherently bleak and brutal reality, in which death, loss, trauma and grief are at the forefront. And while Nagamatsu explores resilience, love and our primal need for connection, there’s no denying that the process is a sad one. Any glimpses of hope are generally fleeting and bittersweet.

It’s unfair to penalize a book for being too relevant and ringing too true, but for readers who turn to fiction as a means of escaping the stress and worries of real life, How High We Go in the Dark might be best saved for a later date. However, those courageous enough to sit with the novel’s exquisite sorrows will be rewarded with gorgeous prose, memorable characters and, ultimately, catharsis.

The narrative resonance on display in Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut is thrilling in a manner reminiscent of David Mitchell’s mind-bending masterpiece, Cloud Atlas.

Beirut-born author Yara Zgheib’s skills have become even more finely honed in the years since her excellent 2019 debut, The Girls at 17 Swann Street. Her devastating second novel, No Land to Light On, is an illuminating, intimate look at the Syrian refugee crisis and the immigrant experience in America during the Trump administration.

On January 27, 2017, Executive Order 13769 banned entry of individuals—including refugees and preexisting visa holders—from seven Middle Eastern countries into the United States. No Land to Light On chronicles this directive’s cruel impact on one married couple, Sama and Hadi. Hailing from Syria, they separately immigrated to America—Sama to attend Harvard University, Hadi as a refugee—where they subsequently met and fell madly in love, marrying within months.

Sama is five months pregnant when Hadi is summoned abroad to attend to the sudden death of his father, and he promises to return to her in a few short days. Unfortunately, he returns just one day after the travel ban against majority-Muslim countries, which effectively bars him from entering the U.S. As Hadi is detained for questioning, Sama enters premature labor, giving birth to an American son whose father is in the process of being deported. Within the blink of an eye, their elusive and ever-so-precious American dream is transformed into the stuff of nightmares.

Shuttling between times, perspectives and countries, Zgheib’s novel deftly documents Sama’s and Hadi’s lives in Syria and the circumstances that prompted them to leave, as well as their ensuing experiences as American immigrants. The narrative is purposefully fragmented, an artful reflection of the ways in which the lives of immigrants and refugees are uprooted and disrupted. Within the context of a tense and bittersweet love story—one with a healthy dose of nostalgia for days when hope and possibility seemed likely to prevail—Zgheib offers nuanced insights into the complex psychology of and challenges faced by displaced people, and effectively makes the consequences of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies feel personal to all readers.

Written in soul-searing prose, No Land to Light On is an essential, compassionate story that reinstates a sense of humanity for the countless people affected by U.S. travel bans.

Through this tense and bittersweet love story, Yara Zgheib makes the consequences of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies feel personal to all readers.

Nigerian American author Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström’s debut novel is as much a liberating battle cry as it is a searing, multifaceted examination of the hearts and minds of Black women navigating white-dominated spaces. Told from multiple perspectives, In Every Mirror She’s Black follows three Black women whose lives intersect in Sweden due to one wealthy white man named Jonny von Lundin.

Kemi, a first-generation American, is offered a lucrative position as Jonny's marketing firm's new diversity and inclusion adviser after a campaign's racial insensitivity makes international headlines. Brittany-Rae is a former model now working as a first-class flight attendant, which is where she first captures Jonny’s attention and is soon swept up in a passionate romance with him that appears to be the stuff of fairy tales. Finally, there is Muna, a Muslim refugee from Somalia who is the only surviving member of her family to be granted asylum in Sweden and now carves out a living as a janitorial worker at Jonny’s company. 

Despite Kemi’s, Brittany-Rae’s and Muna’s vastly different backgrounds and circumstances, all three women initially believe that Sweden (and Jonny) could be the answer to their prayers and an opportunity for a fresh start, unburdened by their past and its traumas. Unfortunately, each woman soon learns that Sweden's “utopia” poses its own set of significant challenges and that its principles of inclusivity and tolerance only extend as far as the whitewashed homogeneity of the population. For immigrants and people of color, a hidden dark side roils just below Sweden’s glittering facade, transforming the country from refuge to prison for each of these women.

Åkerström, who moved to Sweden in 2009, has crafted an absorbing, if unsettling, narrative that dissects the realities of what it means to be a Black woman in the world today. She writes with genuine empathy for her characters and sheds light on their struggles with the understanding that there is no single Black experience. Rather than shying away from or oversimplifying difficult and complex topics, Åkerström has effectively packaged themes of racism, immigration, fetishism and otherness into an engrossing story that will enlighten its readers, regardless of their nationality or race. 

Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström’s debut novel is as much a battle cry as it is a searing examination of the hearts of Black women navigating white-dominated spaces.

Although Sara Nisha Adams makes her authorial debut with The Reading List, her connection to the world of books is not new. She has worked as a book editor and attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. Not only did this relationship cultivate a lifelong case of bibliophilia, but it also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading.

We first meet Mukesh, a widower who is grieving the passing of his beloved wife (who was a voracious reader) and finds himself increasingly alienated from the rest of his family. Desperate to form a connection with his bookish granddaughter, Mukesh heads to the local library to try to better understand her. There he meets Aleisha, a teenager who dreams of becoming a lawyer and views her summer position at the library with disdain. Following a disastrous first meeting with Mukesh, Aleisha stumbles upon a mysterious list of book titles, which she decides she will recommend to Mukesh and read alongside him as a means of making amends.

What begins as a whim soon transforms into a deeply enriching and gratifying experience. The books act as a lifeline for Mukesh and Aleisha as the two new friends navigate their personal tribulations. Reading is so often viewed as a solitary pursuit, but The Reading List turns that idea on its head, illustrating the ways one book can touch many lives and act as a shared point of empathy, uniting disparate individuals into a community.

In Adams’ gentle novel, there is no sorrow or trouble so great that a good book—and a supportive friend—cannot help, and it is never too late to become a reader. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.

Sara Nisha Adams' touching debut novel,The Reading List, illustrates the ways one book can act as a shared point of empathy, uniting individuals into a community.

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