We're turning our attention to successful sophomore titles that soared over the high bars set by their authors’ first books.
The Lawrence Browne Affair
Cat Sebastian‘s first romance novel, The Soldier's Scoundrel, had a pitch-perfect sense of the English Regency period and the dangers of being a gay man in that era. But in her second book, The Lawrence Browne Affair,Sebastian takes the queerness that has always lurked behind within gothic fiction and thrusts it fully into the light. Lawrence Browne, Earl of Radnor, is convinced that he’s going insane due to his difficult family history, his attraction to men and the panic attacks he experiences. When a well-meaning vicar hires him a secretary, Lawrence thinks it will be easy to scare him away with his supposedly “mad” behavior. But Georgie Turner is not a normal secretary: He’s a con man looking for a place to lie low, and the only thing that scares him about Lawrence is the horrendous state of his financial accounts. Sebastian’s wry wit is on full display, and her ability to make the thrills of initial attraction palpably real gives this romance all the wonder of an unexpected second chance.
As a book review editor, to admit that you haven’t read that novel that everyone else and their mother have raved about—well, it doesn’t feel great. For a time, Yaa Gyasi’s bestselling, universally heralded 2016 debut novel, Homegoing, was the source of one of my primary shame spirals. But then September 2020 rolled around and with it her follow-up, Transcendent Kingdom, a tremendous novel of heart, mind and soul. It’s about Gifty, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who grows up in an all-white evangelical Christian community in Alabama, and grapples with the complexities of her family alongside her own experience of moving from the mysteries of faith to the vast, limitless discourse presented by her career as a neuroscientist. As widely as these questions range, the novel is extremely tight, even tidy, and that kind of storytelling is precisely the way to my heart. It sent me hurrying to Homegoing, finally ready for anything and everything Gyasi has to offer.
Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, became a bestseller and was adapted into a television series, launching her career into the stratosphere. Her second book, Stray: A Memoir, published in May 2020, after the U.S. had gone into lockdown but before the publishing world had pivoted to remote book events, so it didn’t receive the same attention as Sweetbitter—despite being emotionally potent, beautifully written and gripping to boot. As Stray opens, Danler has moved back to California, where she grew up with parents who were beautiful, unstable addicts. The treacherous landscape of Laurel Canyon kicks up memories of her painful past while an affair dissolves in the present, and as she weaves between the two, trauma takes on a dreamy, phantasmagoric quality, as ubiquitous as the heat. As far as second books go, this one is a mature achievement. And if you have a thing for devastating dysfunctional family memoirs, Stray can hang with the best of them.
The first thing to know about I’ll Give You the Sun is that it was published four years after Jandy Nelson‘s debut, which is an eternity in YA publishing, where authors typically write a book a year. The second is that, perhaps because Nelson took that time, it's extraordinary on every level. It's full of sentences that seem as though Nelson came to an intersection while writing and instead of deciding to turn or go straight, she levitated her car and flew to the moon. And then there's its structure: two narrators, twins Noah and Jude, and two timelines, when they're 13 and when they're 16, before and after a tragedy that altered the paths of their lives. Breathtaking is a word critics like, and it comes close to describing the experience of reading this book. But it’s more like the way a roller coaster feels once your stomach is back where your stomach belongs and you're careening down the track, relieved and ecstatic to still be alive, nearly weightless, almost in flight.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
The Days of Abandonment
In the decade between Elena Ferrante’s first and second novels, her debut was made into a movie, and still no one knew her identity. During that time, certain literary circles obsessed over knowing who Ferrante really was, but perhaps if they gave The Days of Abandonment a closer reading, they would discover how irrelevant and destructive such a question is. Following a woman, Olga, in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion and infidelity, this sophomore novel shows how closely and precariously identity and reality are linked. We see Olga’s life crumble until she finally reaches a nadir from which the only way forward is up. Being confined inside a narrator’s thoughts during a time of such catastrophe and despair is a specialty of Ferrante’s, and here her powers reach a goosebump-inducing, worldview-shattering peak. While the Neapolitan novels might be considered her masterpiece, The Days of Abandonment has everything one could get from Ferrante.
—Eric, Editorial Intern
The editors of BookPage recommend successful sophomore titles that soared over the high bars set by their authors’ first books.
Lucy Parker is known for her absolutely gold-standard rom-coms, including the delightful London Celebrities series. Her latest, the first in a new series, combines two extremely popular trends—baking and royalty—in a story of rival British bakers competing for the opportunity to make a cake for a royal wedding.
One of the best things about Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the bestselling author of Mexican Gothic, is that she does something new with each book. Instead of a gothic novel, this is a loose, fun noir set in turbulent 1970s Mexico City.
There’s a lot of excitement around this one, as Helen Hoang’s latest romance novel was delayed by a year and stars a fan-favorite character. Said character's name is Quan, and he is a sweet, adorable teddy bear in the body of a bad boy. We can’t wait to see who he ends up with.
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang Doubleday, September 7
Debut memoirist Qian Julie Wang shares her story of growing up in New York City as an undocumented immigrant from China, coping with fear and precarity but also discovering joy in books. The writing is sparse, stylish, sometimes harrowing and sometimes humorous as she narrates experiences that are incredibly common but rarely captured with this level of artful control. It’s shaping up to be one of the best memoirs of the year.
It’s been six years since Lauren Groff’s previous novel, Fates and Furies. In Matrix, she’s reimagined the life of 12th-century poet Marie de France, who transforms an impoverished abbey into a utopia. It’s a common misconception that medieval women were powerless, but Groff has found their power here, as she celebrates nuns as the literary feminist icons that they truly were.
Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian Park Row, September 7
We love a sociopath character, but we hate cliche sociopaths. Thankfully, debut author Vera Kurian knocks it out of the park in Never Saw Me Coming. Her sociopath narrator, Chloe, is funny and endearing without losing her edge (and Kurian gets major bonus points for portraying a college atmosphere without being cringey).
You know her, you love her: Liane Moriarty, the Australian superstar author of Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret, Truly Madly Guilty and more. We love a messy family drama, and Apples Never Fall fits the bill. It’s an exploration of marriage and sibling rivalry that follows four grown siblings who grapple with the disappearance of their mother and the likely culpability of their father.
Mary Roach wrote Stiff about cadavers, Gulp about human digestion, Bonk about the science of sex . . . and now Fuzz, about what happens when animals encroach on human civilizations and laws. She’s one of the funniest science writers working today, as well as one of the best at making mundane topics fascinating and digestible enough that anyone can pick up one of her books, regardless of their interests, and become engrossed.
A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Colson Whitehead is one of those gems who’s prolific, consistently excellent and always trying something new. The protagonist of his new novel helps criminals launder their stolen goods and finds himself involved in several heists during the 1950s and ’60s. After The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, this is a real change of pace for Whitehead, and it’s clear he had a lot of fun writing it.
Unboundby Tarana Burke Flatiron, September 14
Activist Tarana Burke had been working with Black girls in her community who were recovering from abuse and sexual assault for years when she coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006—long before it became a viral hashtag in 2017. Unbound is the story of Burke’s own survival from sexual abuse, how she pieced herself back together and how her work to cultivate empathy for herself and others has empowered survivors everywhere.
A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks Katherine Tegen, September 14
Janae Marks’ 2020 middle grade debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, received four starred reviews and became an indie bestseller. Her second novel, A Soft Place to Land, confirms Marks’ status as one of the brightest new stars of contemporary middle grade. Whereas Zoe Washington explored injustice and systemic racism, A Soft Place to Land explores class in a story-driven way that never feels heavy-handed.
The Book of Form and Emptinessby Ruth Ozeki Viking, September 21
It’s been eight years since Ruth Ozeki published A Tale for the Time Being, which was a finalist for the 2013 Booker Prize, and her latest explores themes similar to those in her earlier novel. It’s the story of a 14-year-old boy who, after his father dies, starts to hear voices emanating from objects. Eventually, he finds a Book that tells the boy the story of his life. It’s certainly a great premise, one that perfectly captures how it feels to be a child falling into a lifelong love of reading.
Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, the Carnegie Medal and the Alex Award. His latest is a novel of past, present and future that explores books as technology, delivering information and voices across generations. It follows the stories of five people in different eras who are connected by a fictional ancient Greek text. As stewards of this text, the characters are all, in a way, librarians. Fittingly, the novel is dedicated to “librarians then, now, and in the years to come.”
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman Pamela Dorman, September 28
This is the sequel to Richard Osman's hit cozy mystery, The Thursday Murder Club, which was somehow both hilarious and, by the end, rather touching. In this installment, the sleuths of Cooper’s Chase retirement village get tangled up in a diamond heist gone wrong.
The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer MIRA, September 28
Jean Meltzer’s romance is about a Jewish woman who has a secret life as a Christmas romance novelist, and who must rediscover the magic of Hanukkah when her publisher asks her to write a Hanukkah-themed romance. We’re hoping this will be a trendsetter in holiday romances, a subgenre that sometimes feels like a collection of stale Christmas cookies.
Brandy Colbert is a critically acclaimed and beloved YA and middle grade author whose novel Little & Lion won a Stonewall Book Award in 2018. It’s exciting to see writers challenge themselves by working in new genres and categories, so Colbert’s shift to YA narrative nonfiction is noteworthy. Black Birds in the Sky is expansive, well-researched and, at times, deeply personal as it brings vital history about the Tulsa Race Massacre to a teen readership.
Our 2016 interview with Amor Towles about his novel A Gentleman in Moscow is one of our all-time most popular features, and in The Lincoln Highway, he once again brings his signature blend of freshness and old-fashioned charm to a cast of unforgettable characters. This novel is set in 1954, when two brothers plan to make a new life for themselves, with nudges from some tricksters along the way.
Taste by Stanley Tucci Gallery, October 5
In addition to being everyone’s favorite character in every movie he’s ever been in, Stanley Tucci is the author of two cookbooks and now, with Taste, one memoir. From growing up in an Italian American family, to starring in food-centric films like Big Night and Julie & Julia, to cooking for his own family, Taste explores the ways that food has been an important presence during the high and low points of Tucci’s life. There’s plenty to savor here for any and all lovers of witty, heartfelt food writing.
Everybody in the Red Brick Building by Anne Wynter, illustrated by Oge Mora Balzer + Bray, October 12
Oge Mora is one of the most exciting new picture book talents of the past five years. Her debut picture book as an author and illustrator, Thank You, Omu!, received a Caldecott Honor in 2019. Here she partners with debut author Anne Wynter for a cumulative story about one night in a very noisy apartment building. Together, they create the stuff that storytime dreams are made of.
The Heartbreak Bakeryby A.R. Capetta Candlewick, October 12
In previous novels, A.R. Capetta has transported readers backstage at a prestigious New York theater, thousands of years into the future and light-years away from Earth and to a fantastical kingdom inspired by Renaissance Italy. Their latest YA novel, The Heartbreak Bakery, is an irresistible story of love and found family set against the backdrop of a quirky independent bakery in Austin, Texas. We don’t recommend reading it if you are even the slightest bit hungry.
Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan HarperTeen, October 12
This debut fantasy will be catnip for YA readers who love expansive, immersive world building, slow burns, reluctant allies and character-driven fantasy. June CL Tan grew up in Singapore, and the novel is informed by Chinese mythology as well as martial arts folklore. It’s not a short book, clocking in at almost 500 pages, but readers who love losing themselves in a fantastical adventure will see that as a positive.
The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu October 12, Walden Pond
Anne Ursu is one of the most thoughtful and acclaimed middle grade fantasists working today. Her 2013 novel, The Real Boy, was long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Readers love Ursu because of her empowering fantasy stories, and The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy employs a perennially well-loved trope among middle grade readers: the boarding school story.
Caitlin Starling is the author of The Luminous Dead, which was a perfectly crafted sci-fi horror thriller that proved she’s pretty much a perfect choice to write this creepy, historical gothic novel, which was inspired by the inarguably fantastic film Crimson Peak.
Our First Civil War by H.W. Brands Doubleday, November 9
H.W. Brands is known for histories that are timely, fascinating and beautifully written. His latest tackles the Revolutionary War, but rather than focusing on the conflict between the United States and Britain, Brands focuses on the conflicts between those in the U.S. who were loyal to England and those who supported independence. This slice of American history will especially resonate at a time when the United States is locked in another ideological struggle over which is the best path forward.
These Precious Days is named for Ann Patchett’s longform essay that was published in Harper’s at the end of 2020, about her friendship with Tom Hanks’ assistant, Sooki Raphael, who stayed with the author while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. The title essay is included in this collection, along with 21 other essays about Kate DiCamillo, Eudora Welty, knitting, dogs and so much more. This will certainly be a worthwhile read for lovers of poignant and masterfully crafted essays about life, love, death and everything in between.
When the weather cools down, autumn’s big releases start to heat up. Here are the titles BookPage's editors are most anticipating this fall.
The first installment in R.F. Kuang’s epic military fantasy trilogy is essentially one book that transforms into another. It begins as an iteration of the well-loved “story set in a magical school,” as the orphaned Rin escapes her abusive, impoverished life in southern Nikan by winning a scholarship to the famous military academy of Sinegard. Sure, it’s a bit more blunt and brutal than you’d expect—Rin burns herself with candle wax to stay awake while studying, and schoolyard brawls between students with martial arts training turn bloody fast—but Kuang’s earthy sense of humor lightens the mood. And then Nikan is invaded, and The Poppy War morphs into a grimdark meditation on whether it’s possible to retain your humanity if you can wield the powers of a god. Neither half would work without the other, and Kuang’s mastery of both proves that her career will be endlessly fascinating.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
The Story of Owen
Canadian author E.K. Johnston’s debut asks an irresistible though not previously unasked question—what if dragons were real?—and its answer is the best I’ve ever read. When Canada’s highest paid dragon slayer retires to Siobhan’s small town of Trondheim, Ontario, to train her teenage nephew, Owen, Siobhan never expects to become part of their story, let alone be invited to become the bard who will tell it. Johnston takes world building to new heights, offering explanations of everything from the rise of corporate-contracted dragon slayers to why postmodernists incorrectly blame “the decline of the dracono-bardic tradition on the sudden and soaring popularity of the Beatles.” The dragons are attracted to carbon emissions, so teens take driver’s education to learn “the more banal aspects of safe driving: four-way stops, three-point turns, small dragon evasion, and the like,” and Michigan’s factories attracted so many of the beasts that humans abandoned the state completely. To read this book is to understand why Johnston has become one of the most consistently surprising YA writers working today.
This book came out when I was 10 days old, right at the start of the new millennium. Zadie Smith herself was 25 when her debut landed—young enough to be the voice of a new generation but still old enough to know how silly such a title is. Soon after its release she would become one of the most important authors around. Though I didn’t read it until 20 years after its release, this book still feels as impactful and fresh as it must have felt in 2000. Family dramas were big in literary fiction at the time (e.g., The Corrections, Infinite Jest), but White Teeth, with its ethnic, ideological and thematic diversity, stands out among the pack. From the iconic opening line through each intertwined storyline, Smith tells a story that captures the anxiety and hope of both an older generation entering a new world and young people conquering an old one.
Sometimes it feels like a debut novelist purges all their best ideas for that first book, using up every resource for their big entrance. After coming out of the gate so hot, they can’t be blamed for not writing another, or for experiencing what we in the book reviewing biz call the “sophomore slump.” I’ll admit that when I read Hanya Yanagihara’s debut back in 2013, I believed that this was the kind of writer she had to be. A novel this complex, profound and imaginative, with writing so visceral and poised—surely this was everything she had, dumped out in the exuberant, chaotic flurry of the new artist. But as proven by her virtuosic follow-up, A Little Life, that was hardly the case. In writing this column, I wondered how well my memory of her first book would hold up, and a return to The People in the Trees has once again left me in awe at her overwhelming descriptions of the Micronesian jungle, her nuanced portrayal of a predatory genius and the fact that this book still, after all these years, has no equal.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
Serial memoirist (and occasional novelist) Alexandra Fuller has lived quite a life—expansive enough to fill five books, and counting. But her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is the one that has haunted me the most. Growing up with her white family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the Rhodesian Bush War, Fuller experienced things that were thrilling, beautiful and dangerous. In the bush of southern Africa, she and her sister learned to shoot guns, kill snakes and avoid landmines and guerrilla fighters. She survived hazards closer to home, as well, such as her mother’s alcoholism and the loss of their family farm to land redistribution after the war. Danger is barely kept at bay throughout this book, and not everyone survives. But the telling is so moving, and the writing so beautiful, you’ll savor even the bitterest parts of this chronicle of a remarkable childhood.
—Christy, Associate Editor
It was love at first sight for the BookPage editors and these five debuts.
BookPage readers look forward to Private Eye July all year long, and this year we’re getting swept away in the spirit of the (somewhat grisly) celebration, too. Here are the mysteries, thrillers and good old-fashioned whodunits on our reading lists this July.
When No One Is Watching
I’ve finally finished putting myself back together after reading Zakiya Dalila Harris’ next-level debut novel, The Other Black Girl, and it feels vital that I finally check out Alyssa Cole’s first thriller, which emerged—kicked in the door, more like—as the literary answer to the seminal Black horror film Get Out, by way of Rear Window. Cole uses the premise upon which countless domestic thrillers are built: A woman who questions her own sanity starts to wonder if something is very, very wrong in her neighborhood. Mortgage and rental rates are skyrocketing, and then strange stuff—bad stuff—starts happening to longtime Black residents who don’t want to sell their homes to predatory realtors. Because Cole has a background in writing historical romance, she also illuminates how the gentrification of predominantly Black neighborhoods is preceded by a long racist history of displacement, redlining and social control. Horror and reality are definitely shacking up in this tale, and I’m ready for the whole ride.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
One of my favorite films of 2020 was Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a weird, wild movie that gets stranger and bolder with each passing minute and that provided one of the absolute best “What on earth did I just watch?” viewing experiences I’ve had in a long while. I had always planned to read the book, but I bumped up Iain Reid’s wintry 2016 thriller to the top spot on my reading list once I learned its ending reportedly goes in a different direction than the film’s. I usually prefer my Private Eye July picks to be on the fluffier end of the spectrum, as I do my best summer reading poolside, but I think I’ll have to make an exception to see where Reid takes me. There’s a perverse pleasure to be found in reading books set in frigid environments while enjoying the summer heat, but hopefully I’ll get goosebumps all the same.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
15 Minutes of Flame
I wanted to read this book before I even knew what it was about. I took one look at the cover, said aloud, “I would like to live inside this picture of a New England candle store steeped in autumnal frivolity,” and added it to my TBR. Other books have since buried it on my bedside table, but I’m digging it out for Private Eye July. 15 Minutes of Flame is the third in Christin Brecher’s Nantucket Candle Maker Mystery series, about Stella Wright’s idyllic life as a candle store owner and, of course, the murders she solves along the way. In true cozy mystery fashion, Brecher’s series keeps the pages turning without raising the stakes high enough that your pulse quickens, which is the exact right speed for my anxiety. And since it takes place in October, I’m hoping the fictional nip in the air will help get me through the rest of summer.
—Christy, Associate Editor
I wasn't reading many mysteries in 2018 when bestselling YA author Maureen Johnson published Truly Devious, her first book about teen detective Stevie Bell. So when I picked up The Box in the Woods, Johnson’s fourth book featuring Stevie, to consider it for this issue of BookPage (check the YA review section for more), it wasn't as a committed fan but as a novice. Needless to say, I'm a fan now. Johnson's sparkling prose and Stevie’s droll humor had me cackling and eager to read aloud especially delightful passages to my very patient partner. This July, I can’t wait to bury myself in the story of Stevie’s first great triumph against a decades-old cold case at the exclusive Ellingham Academy. Best of all, I know the story of the investigation unfolds across three whole books, and for a reader who's always a little sad that great books have to end, there's nothing better.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Big Little Lies
Typically, if you’re a hardcore bibliophile, you’re supposed to read the book before you watch the adaptation. In this case, I came to the TV series first—and with career-defining performances from Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman, how could I resist? From what I’ve heard, the show and the book are actually very different. Several characters in the book, including Madeline and Renata, had roles that were too small for such powerful actors, so the adaptation expanded their involvement—and their flaws—to make them more dynamic on the screen. Even if this is true, the book had to run in order for the show to fly. I’m interested in seeing whether the book provides a clearer motive for the main murder and if the story’s concern with domestic abuse is more pronounced. I may even try reading the book and watching the show at the same time to spot the differences. Only then will I decide which I think is better.
—Eric, Editorial Intern
BookPage readers look forward to Private Eye July all year long, and this year we’re getting swept away in the spirit of the (somewhat grisly) celebration, too. Here are the mysteries, thrillers and good old-fashioned whodunits on our reading lists this July. When No One Is Watching I’ve finally finished putting myself back together after […]
In the monumental audiobook of Four Hundred Souls (14 hours), edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, essays and poems chronicling 400 years of Black American history are read by a vast chorus of 87 narrators. Editors Kendi and Blain discuss the transformation of their groundbreaking book into audio, and they’re joined by Penguin Random House Audio producers Sarah Jaffe, Amber Beard and Molly Lo Re, who offer a peek into the production process.
How early in your conception of the book did you begin to plan for the specific challenges and opportunities of the audiobook? Ibram X. Kendi: The plans for the audiobook came much later in the process, after the book was finished. We really wanted to actualize what I wrote about in the introduction, that this community of writers was like a choir.
Keisha N. Blain: Like Ibram, I thought the diversity of thought in the book would be best represented with a large cast of narrators. Using a full cast really captures the different voices at play in collecting the experiences of 90 contributors.
“There are few powers more important than the power to tell your own story.”
What’s one benefit of listening to the audiobook of Four Hundred Souls that you don’t get from reading the print book? Blain: The contributors we gathered for Four Hundred Souls are all outstanding writers. And while that talent is apparent on the page, hearing those same passages read out loud and performed is a revelatory and moving experience.
Considering how much language has been used to control Black lives for hundreds of years, how does a choral audiobook like this one reclaim Black power? Kendi: There are few powers more important than the power to tell your own story. Black people have been fighting for this power for centuries, and we claimed this power for Four Hundred Souls.
Blain: The attempts to silence Black people—and especially Black women—are a defining feature of American history. The audiobook of Four Hundred Souls aims a direct challenge to those efforts by giving voice to a communal history written and narrated by Black people.
Some of the book’s essays are read by their authors, others by actors. Tell us about the process of matching essays with narrators. Sarah Jaffe, Executive Producer: We wanted to assemble a cast that felt true to the project of the book, and to do that we knew we needed a plurality and a diversity of narrators. A combination of authors and actors, with a few celebrities among them, felt like the best way to do that, blending familiar and famous voices with fresher ones, and even some who had never done this before, juxtaposing different vocal textures.
We identified a few authors who would be particularly good fits to read their own work: those renowned for their work in the audio world; poets who are skilled performers; an array of legendary activists and public speakers; and professors who perform at the front of a classroom every day and know how to make their words sink in and sing in a different way.
When it came time to pair actors with the rest of the pieces, we wanted to be really thoughtful about how we did that. I’m a firm believer that while actors can do anything, everyone (actor or not) does their best work when they’re working on something they’re passionate about. And since this book is largely about how Black America is not a monolith, we wanted to give our cast the chance to choose the pieces that resonated most with them. So instead of just assigning pieces, we gave actors the option to choose what they wanted to read.
Amber Beard, Associate Producer: If they felt a personal connection to a particular essay or story, then that would only make the reading that more poignant.
Molly Lo Re, Associate Producer: It meant a lot of puzzle-piecing behind the scenes, but I think you can tell with each narrator that they have a strong connection to the subject matter. That extra investment is key in making this audiobook really special.
“I’m a firm believer that while actors can do anything, everyone (actor or not) does their best work when they’re working on something they’re passionate about.”
Was there any essay or piece that was particularly difficult to pair with a narrator, or perhaps one that stuck out in your mind as especially important to get right? Jaffe: They were all important to get right! Honestly, one of the best parts about handling casting the way we did is that it allowed us to learn a lot more about the actors we worked with. We paired actors with pieces that they chose because they were about their hometowns or mirrored their personal histories, or were by or about people they had a connection to, or as at least one actor told me, spoke to their souls. I’m so grateful. The more I know about each actor and what interests them, the more it helps me to be a better producer and pair them with future projects that I know they’ll be excited about.
Beard: I’m a longtime admirer of Phylicia Rashad’s work, so I can’t help but get excited to hear her eloquent voice. In general, we wanted to try to stay true to each piece’s point of view, so we did try to pair each with a narrator who reflected an aspect of what was being written about. But as this is a shared community experience, we didn’t make that a hard and fast rule.
Lo Re: What I personally love about the finished product is that the performances are simultaneously intertwined yet separate strands. The audiobook is undoubtedly a collective endeavor, with voices coming together to share 400 years of the African American experience. But at the same time, each essay is given voice by a different reader with their own perspective, performance style, vocal tone. For me, it was less about getting individual pairings “right” and more about making sure we got the overall experience of listening to the book right. This meant casting as wide a net as possible when looking for readers.
Are there any other audiobooks with a big cast that you drew inspiration from for this production? Jaffe: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo has a famously large cast and is one of the most ambitious audiobooks I’ve ever listened to, and that’s probably the book that came up most often in thinking about how to approach Four Hundred Souls. I don’t think it’s an accident that both books are about a reckoning with American history, the unreliability of conventional historical narratives and the ways in which both remarkable and everyday people make and are enmeshed in history. Both books try to make the human details that shape a nation’s character visible, and both make it clear that in order to truly reckon with our past and present, we need to hear a plurality of voices telling their stories. Dr. Kendi and Dr. Blain’s idea for a community history is genius and groundbreaking in this way.
Beard: This was my first time casting an audiobook with a cast this large. I think it was a great opportunity to work with narrators that we’ve always wanted to and also discover new ones that we’ll definitely want to continue to work with in the future.
Lo Re: Honestly, because of the added complications of the coronavirus, this one felt like a completely different beast. We recorded in December 2020 and January 2021, under the looming shadow of rising COVID-19 cases. The vast majority of people read from home studio setups, and we approached every aspect of the production with the question, How can we do this in the safest way possible?
Is there any particular performance from this collection that stuck with you after you heard it? Kendi: I loved Danai Gurira’s performance [of Martha S. Jones’ “1774–1779 The American Revolution”], and Professor Blain’s closing oration was powerful.
Blain: I loved Phylicia Rashad’s performance of Bernice McFadden’s essay on Zora Neale Hurston.
Jaffe: All of the poetry gave me goosebumps, especially J.D. Jackson reading Jericho Brown’s “Upon Arrival,” and Patricia Smith reading her poem “Coiled and Unleashed.” But the choral transitions between pieces might be my favorite part of this production. We wanted to underscore the community nature of this book, and so throughout the program, our editor mixed a variety of voices announcing the title of each piece and each five-year range. As you’re listening, it really does feel like a cohesive history told to you by a community, with each member taking their turn to speak.
Beard: I am a longtime poetry nerd, so I’m always thrilled to get a chance to bring poems to life via audio. I was particularly drawn to Mahogany L. Browne’s poem, “Morse: John Wayne Niles . __. . Ermias Joseph Asghedom.” The opening lines, “Gunshot wound / is a violent way to say gone missing,” are so potent and resonant with what happens in our world today. Also the use of Morse code added a unique element.
Lo Re: One thing that we did with this audiobook that I’d like to bring to other audiobooks is having everyone say their own name for the credits. I absolutely loved the way it gave contributors a tad more ownership over the final product, like a curtain-call moment.
“It becomes intimate and multifaceted and overtly personal in a way history often isn’t. That’s powerful. This is a powerful book.”
Is there anything that surprised you once you heard the final audiobook? Kendi: I framed the 90 contributors to Four Hundred Souls as a choir in the introduction, but hearing the choir through the audiobook surprised me, pleasantly.
Blain: Hearing the different performances amazed me. I knew Four Hundred Souls was an ambitious project, and co-editing it further revealed how unique it was to have so many contributors across so many fields and genres. However, the audiobook revealed how truly impressive the book is—and I am proud to be a part of this wonderful project.
Jaffe: We always say this about audiobooks, but it really does bring the text to life—maybe more so in this book than almost any other I’ve listened to. You hear these layers of history and experience speaking to you in chorus, filtered through this powerful writing and these beautiful performances, and occasionally as you’re immersed in what you’re listening to, you recognize a voice, which gives you that feeling of, “Hey, I know this person!” Maybe they’re telling you something you never knew before or never thought about that way before, or just something you really needed to hear someone say out loud and name as true. It becomes intimate and multifaceted and overtly personal in a way history often isn’t. That’s powerful. This is a powerful book.
Beard: So many of these stories are unknown. To put real, human voices to them helps give them life and power. These are stories that need to be heard and shared. I thought it was such a beautiful thing to have this literal chorus of voices speaking the truth of the African American experience.
Lo Re: The thing that probably most surprised me was how effective the layered voices sounded throughout. While we had planned on incorporating collective lines in the audiobook from very early in the process, I didn’t really know what the final version would sound like. I imagined the lines would be read as one voice—but the way that the final version pulls out individual voices and the voices appear to be coming from different physical spaces is so much richer and completely bowled me over. The brilliant editors at Tim Bader Audio deserve so much credit for how delicately they mixed together these sections.
Kendi photo by Stephen Voss. Blain photo by Chioke l’Anson.
Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain are joined by Penguin Random House Audio producers to discuss the monumental cast recording of Four Hundred Souls.
No matter how hot it is outside, that first jump into the pool is always a shock. These five books are like that early summer plunge, each having transformed a well-loved genre into something totally surprising, gasp-worthy and deeply refreshing.
I have no idea why zombie movies and novels were such a thing in the 2010s, but it felt like everyone had an opinion about fast versus slow zombies, and nearly any stranger could tell you when and why they stopped watching “The Walking Dead.” Ling Ma’s spectacular 2018 debut novel, Severance, took the familiar zombie thriller and fused it with the fledgling millennial office novel to create something wholly original, using an apocalyptic framework to explore our daily routines and nostalgic obsessions. The story of a young woman who survives the plague and now finds herself homesick in civilization’s afterlife, Severance is a mashup, a sendup, a takedown. And the book continues to feel fresh in new ways nearly three years later: It’s about a global virus, but it’s also about continuing to work at your semifulfilling job while the unfathomable draws ever closer.
I remember gasping aloud and then laughing with delight at the opening paragraph of Jenny Lee’s relentlessly effervescent re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which, confession, I have never read). It begins with a magnificent revision of Tolstoy’s famous epigraph, contains an unrepeatable expletive, name-drops Hermès, Apple, Madison Avenue and SoulCycle, and then ends with a parenthetical explanation that its subject’s “new gluten-free diet” prevents her from attending a “double sesh” workout. The whole thing serves to signal: Reader, you’re not in 19th-century St. Petersburg anymore. You’re in contemporary Manhattan amid a group of uber-wealthy Korean American teens whose social and romantic entanglements Lee chronicles with wit and style aplenty, not to mention a blunt frankness that would make even Gossip Girl blush. I can’t imagine anything more delicious than setting up poolside or stretching out on a park blanket under a tree and letting Lee’s sparkling prose and Anna and Vronsky’s life-changing love take me away. XOXO, indeed.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Mona in the Promised Land
Coming-of-age novels are far from rare, but acclaimed writer Gish Jen crafted one that rises above its genre in her beloved 1997 novel, Mona in the Promised Land. In the late 1960s, Chinese American teenager Mona Chang is growing up in the suburbs of Scarshill, New York, and struggling to find peace in her identity and to settle into her place in the world. Throughout Mona’s engaging exploration of Chinese, American and Jewish traditions, she finds love in a tepee, employment in a pancake restaurant and adherence to a new religion. It’s astoundingly refreshing to see a book effortlessly balance complex topics like race and identity with lighthearted moments and adolescent rites of passage. Through it all, Mona’s sharp wit and penchant for drama are her constant companions, making this lively book as entertaining as it is pensive. Jen takes a dynamic look at how important identity is for all of us while keeping the laughs coming. I loved every page of it.
Even if you’re not a romance reader, you’ve probably heard of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel. (If you’ve been living under a rock, our interview with the author will catch you up.) But this love story between Alex Claremont-Diaz, first son of the United States, and Prince Henry of the U.K. deserves recognition for more than its stunning crossover success. When the novel achieved bestseller status, McQuistonproved that leaving LGBTQ representation in romance to the online-only and/or independent publishing realm meant leaving dollars on the table. She also gave the oft-gloomy, oft-toxic subcategory of New Adult (which features college-age protagonists), a much needed zap of positive, giddy energy. There are plenty of serious issues at stake—only a trusted few know that Henry is gay, and Alex must explore his bisexuality under a media microscope made even more intense by his Latinx heritage—but there are also karaoke extravaganzas, one of the rowdiest New Year’s Eve parties in fiction and a fan-favorite scene involving Thanksgiving turkeys.
I love family memoirs—the messier, the better. If the author has been disowned, neglected or mistreated, I’m there with bells on and bookmarks in hand. However, even someone whose literary appetite for drama is as bottomless as mine can appreciate the refreshing sweetness of Bess Kalb’s memoir about her late grandmother, Bobby. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me digs into generations of difficult family history—fleeing the pogroms in Belarus, immigrating to New York City, building a business and a home one scheme at a time—but the twist is that Kalb writes from a place of deep love and appreciation for her grandmother, in defiance of those trauma-informed books that tease apart years of hurt. As an added bonus, comedy and TV writer Kalb narrates this story in Bobby’s frank, anxious, singularly funny voice, like an adoring impression. This bold, fresh approach is a welcome deviation from the first-person introspection common to the genre. Kalb’s buoyant memoir floats splendidly alone on a sea of fraught familial tales.
—Christy, Associate Editor
These five books are like an early summer plunge, each having transformed a well-loved genre into something totally surprising, gasp-worthy and deeply refreshing.
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