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STARRED REVIEW

September 29, 2021

These five titles explore family and kinship in Native American communities

Across genres, grief and uncertainty are tempered by embracing community.

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Métis author Michelle Porter weaves a beguiling and intricate story out of sparse, interlocking poetic fragments in her fiction debut. Her expertise as a poet and writer of nonfiction is on full display in this genre-blending book, which is deeply rooted in Métis storytelling, matrilineal knowledge and spirituality. It feels more like a collection of stories told by elders gathered around a fire or in a kitchen than a traditional novel. This unique structure creates a surprising momentum, effortlessly drawing readers into many meandering plots.

The story follows several generations of Métis women as they face turning points in their lives. Geneviéve (Gee), in her 80s, has checked herself into rehab for drinking. Gee’s 20-something great-granddaughter Carter, adopted by a white family, meets her grandmother Lucie for the first time when she requests Carter’s assistance in her decision to die by suicide. Carter’s estranged birth mother Allie attempts reconciliation, often through texts. Meanwhile, Gee’s sister Velma has recently died and is trying to make peace with her life from the spirit realm.

However, these women and their complex relationships are not the novel’s sole focus. It also charts the life of a young bison, Dee, whose herd’s ancestral territory is now crisscrossed with fences that force bison to adjust to human constraints. Dee’s chapters are some of the most poignant in the book—she longs for freedom and adventure even as she learns that her survival is bound up with that of her herd.

Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, Gee’s dogs and the grassland itself add to a rich mix of human and nonhuman voices. In contrast to Carter’s wry and resigned narration, Dee’s voice bursts with unconstrained joy and heartache. Gee is constantly cracking jokes, her sister in the spirit world speaks with a melancholy longing, and the texts from Carter’s mother are clipped and full of simmering regret and pain.

A Grandmother Begins the Story is a beautiful meditation on the interconnectedness of spirit, land and family. It’s about what gets passed down from mothers to daughters and what doesn’t. It’s about the stories that persist through generations—sometimes hidden, but always present—and what happens when those stories break open into new shapes.

Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, dogs and the grassland itself add to the rich mix of human and nonhuman voices in A Grandmother Begins the Story.

Emily Dickinson famously pronounced that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” providing the enduring metaphor of a spritely little bird that dwells within each of our souls. With Swim Home to the Vanished, poet and first-time novelist Brendan Shay Basham suggests that, in contrast, grief is a thing that may be best embodied by fins and gills.

Basham’s peripatetic novel recounts the extraordinary odyssey of a Diné man named Damien after his younger brother drowns in the Pacific Northwest. Still reeling six months after Kai’s body washes ashore, Damien finds himself irresistibly called to the water, the source of his loss but also the source of all life. When gills begin to sprout behind his ears, he quits his job as a chef and makes his way south—first by truck, then by foot—to a small seaside fishing village. There he encounters village matriarch Ana Maria and her two daughters, Marta and Paola, with whom he shares a certain kinship, as they too have recently lost a family member. However, the early hospitality offered by these women may not be as it seems. Rumors of their supernatural origins swirl, and Damien soon finds himself caught up in poisonous family dynamics and power struggles that threaten to consume not only him but also the entire village.

Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands. Basham’s own brother died in 2006, and while Damien’s grief causes him to lose the ability to speak, Basham’s words course across the page, sucking readers in with their vivid imagery and raw emotions.

Basham has a particular gift for transmuting inner intangible turmoils into corporeal form; the various characters’ physical transformations from human to creature are a creative epigenetic exploration of the ways in which trauma and grief shape who we are. For readers desiring straightforward writing and an unambiguous narrative, Swim Home to the Vanished may frustrate with its dreamlike nature, but for fans of poetic storytelling, Basham’s narrative will prove a challenging yet cathartic read.

Brendan Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands.
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Mia is of two tribes: Her mom is Jewish, and her dad is Muscogee. Mia’s dad and his new family live in Oklahoma, far away from California, where Mia lives with her mom and stepdad, Roger. Since marrying Roger, Mia’s mom has begun to take participation in Judaism much more seriously.

Exhausted by her experiences at Jewish day school and frustrated with her mother’s refusal to speak about her dad, Mia works out a secret plan to visit her dad in Oklahoma and learn more about her Muscogee heritage. While Mia initially feels like an outsider there, it doesn’t take her long to bond with an older cousin and feel at home with new traditions. But Mia’s mom quickly realizes that Mia’s not on the school trip she claimed to be and comes to get her. Will this incident be the final fracture in Mia’s family, or will it create a bridge between tribes?

Inspired by author and cartoonist Emily Bowen Cohen’s real-life experiences growing up Jewish and Muscogee, graphic novel Two Tribes (Heartdrum, $15.99, 9780062983589) examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family. Cohen supports the story with a vibrant but realistic illustration style peppered with the occasional abstract image.

Where Two Tribes shines is in its portrayal of Mia as a self-possessed 12-year-old who is attuned to the importance of embracing differences rather than pretending they don’t exist. Cohen provides a nuanced picture of how Mia has in some ways come to resent her Jewish heritage because of the way it’s been placed in opposition to her dad’s Indigenous culture.

The story is somewhat unbalanced by Mia’s Jewish family and rabbi, who are portrayed more antagonistically than the other characters. For example, when Mia’s school rabbi makes a racist joke about Native Americans at dinner with Roger and Mia’s mom, it’s brushed off by all the adults as a simple mistake rather than a genuinely problematic remark. However, Mia’s family and her rabbi eventually begin to understand how they have failed Mia in certain aspects.

With its incredibly complex subject of personal identity, Two Tribes might have benefited from the additional space given by a traditional novel form to explore its themes more deeply rather than coming to a picture-perfect resolution. That said, perhaps the increased accessibility of the graphic novel format serves this book well. For children just coming into adolescence, a biracial background—especially involving two marginalized groups—can make for a tangled web of difficulties. By seeing their stories represented, things might start to make sense.

The graphic novel Two Tribes examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family.

Sixteen-year-old Winifred Blight lives in a small house near the gates of one of the oldest cemeteries in Toronto with her father, who runs the crematory. For as long as Winifred can remember, her father has been in mourning for her mother, who died giving birth to her. Winifred, too, has been shaped by this absence, as she knows her mother only through the now-vintage clothes and records left behind. 

Desperate to assuage her father’s grief and form her own deeper connection with her mother, Winifred goes to her favorite part of the cemetery one day and calls out to her mother’s spirit—but she summons the ghost of a teenage girl named Phil instead. Soon, Winifred no longer aches with loneliness, nor does she care that her best (and only) friend doesn’t reciprocate her romantic feelings. But Winifred and Phil’s intimate connection is threatened when a ghost tour company wants to exploit the cemetery and Winifred’s con-artist cousin risks exposing Phil’s existence. To protect Phil, Winifred will have to sacrifice the only home she’s ever known.

Acclaimed author Cherie Dimaline’s Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a lyrical coming-of-age ghost story that’s more interested in capturing emotion than explaining the nuts and bolts of its supernatural elements. Phil is a specter who appears when Winifred thinks of her, but her body is, at times, corporeal; in one scene, Winifred braids Phil’s long hair. The novel instead focuses on how the bond between the girls lessens the grief that roots them both in place as Phil slowly reveals to Winifred what happened in the months leading up to her death.

Dimaline is a registered member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Winifred and Phil’s Indigenous identities play crucial roles in the novel. Winifred’s mother and great aunt Roberta were Métis, and Winifred infers that Phil is Ojibwe. The stories Phil tells about her life as a queer Indigenous girl growing up in the 1980s are often harrowing, as she recounts moving from the reservation to the city to escape a miserable situation at school only to find herself in even worse circumstances that ultimately lead to tragedy.

Wrenching and poignant, Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a haunting tale about what it means to search for home—not the place, but the feeling you carry with you.

This lyrical ghost story portrays how a bond between two girls—one living, one not—transforms the grief that roots them both in place.
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A line from Jessica Johns’ haunting, atmospheric and beautiful debut novel, Bad Cree, has been tumbling around in my head since I set the book down. “That’s the thing about the [prairie]. . . . It’ll tell you exactly what it’s doing and when, you just have to listen.” Johns’ protagonist, a young Cree woman named Mackenzie, tries to hear things she’s been ignoring: grief, her family, the lands she grew up on. But there’s something else lurking just outside her perception, something more dire. Strap in for a dread-filled novel that examines the impact of grief on a small community. 

Mackenzie hasn’t been sleeping well. To be more specific, she hasn’t been dreaming well. Every night, her subconscious shows her terrifying things, painful memories and, always, a murder of crows. Soon she notices crows outside her apartment window, following her to work and watching from power lines. Something is wrong, and she fears it has to do with the years-ago death of her sister. Mackenzie’s auntie pleads with her to come home, to be among her people, the Indigenous Cree of western Canada. There, with her mother, cousins and aunties, Mackenzie searches for what haunts her mind. Hopefully she can find it before it finds her. 

Jessica Johns on the lingering nature of loss—and what makes a great dive bar.

Bad Cree began as a short story, and it’s still tightly written, brisk and efficient as a novel. Johns does, however, slow down when it comes to themes she clearly cares about, such as female relationships. A bar scene midway through the narrative does a particularly lovely job at enriching the portrayal of the community of women who surround Mackenzie. Their camaraderie shows just how important these relationships can be to people feeling lost or alone.

This web of powerful, positive connections stands out all the more in the face of Bad Cree’s truly frightening moments. The dream sequences are both spectacle and puzzle, a mix of memory and fiction, but it’s clear that something beyond just bad dreams is happening to Mackenzie. The unanswered question of what exactly that is provokes a consistent feeling of dread, and the climax is tense, horrific and exciting.

Bad Cree examines how grief can warp someone, how it can terrorize a person by slowly turning reality into nightmare. But there is also a beautiful hope at the center of Johns’ vision: Grief can be tempered by embracing your community. Alone, Mackenzie is just one person, but by returning home, she becomes a thread in a human fabric, woven together to make something stronger.

Jessica Johns’ Bad Cree examines the impact of grief on a small community, mixing truly frightening moments with warm camaraderie.

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Across genres, grief and uncertainty are tempered by embracing community.
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October 16, 2023

The 33 best 2023 books to read with your book club

Ambitious, accessible and thought-provoking, these titles will make your entire reading group happy.
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Fall 2023 Graphics
STARRED REVIEW

October 24, 2023

The best graphic fiction and nonfiction of fall 2023

The illustrations set both the scene and the tone in these thoughtful graphic novels and memoirs, plus a fascinating graphic biography.

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Like many little boys, Darrin Bell wanted a water gun when he was 6 years old. Unlike the white boys in his neighborhood with slick black water guns, he received a bright green one, accompanied by “The Talk” from his mom. She explained that “the world is… different for you and your brother. White people won’t see you or treat you the way they do little white boys.” It’s The Talk that parents of Black children are all too familiar with in America.

Bell is a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his editorial cartoons and for being the first Black cartoonist to have his comic strips, Candorville and Ruby Park, nationally syndicated. The Talk, Bell’s striking debut graphic memoir, utilizes wit and emotional openness to chronicle the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from a police officer terrorizing a young Bell over his green water gun to protests in 2020 over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Most of the book is illustrated in shades of blue, with flashbacks that come on suddenly and disjointedly—like real memories do—in yellows reminiscent of sepia photographs. Flashes of red are often used during intense moments, and one particularly philosophical page uses a purple that only appears again during the climax. Hyperrealistic pop culture items placed throughout both unsettle the illustrations and ground the reader within the timeline of Bell’s life, from the early 1980s until present day. At the end, Bell even includes some of his most iconic editorial cartoons.

This book is heavy, both emotionally and physically. The size allows Bell to use graphic conventions unlike those he’s usually confined to in a four-panel newspaper comic strip, frequently doing full-page illustrations or removing the panels all together. But during several important conversations, including The Talk between Darrin and his mother, as well as The Talk he has with his own son, Bell returns to an even grid of panels that hearken back to his old format and emphasize how important each moment is.

The deeply honest conversation Bell is able to have with his son is especially compelling when presented in contrast with a much more limited conversation about racism he had with his father, shown through a flashback. Witnessing their generational growth filled me both with empathy for Bell’s father and with hope for what Bell’s radical truth-telling can bring.

Darrin Bell’s striking debut graphic memoir utilizes wit and emotional openness to chronicle the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from a police officer terrorizing a young Bell over a green water gun to protests in 2020 over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
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On a quiet street in postwar Naples, two young girls embark on a complex friendship that will encompass decades of strife, jealousy, bitterness and fierce devotion. Since early childhood, Lenu and Lila have been each other’s protectors and confidantes. Lenu lives in fear of her domineering mother, while Lila is expected to put work and family first, with her education being a low priority.

Lenu worships the enigmatic Lila, believing her to be smarter, more beautiful and more interesting than herself. But Lila’s shifting moods are inscrutable, giving way to unpredictable bouts of anger, irritability and depression. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Lenu sticks by Lila’s side. As Lenu and Lila age, they are pulled in opposite directions—but they remain fixed points in each other’s orbits, for better or for worse.

Chiara Lagani and Mara Cerri’s adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel, is a brief and impressionistic rendition of the original. Lagani’s spare text (through Ann Goldstein’s translation) provides broad vignettes of the novel’s pivotal moments while Cerri’s artwork brings to life the often grim setting of Lila and Lenu’s neighborhood.

Ferrante’s original is a dense book, spanning years of childhood and adolescence over more than 300 pages. Rather than cover each event in detail, the graphic novel pinpoints the most life altering events for Lenu and Lila. The artwork is the true star of this adaptation. Using pencil, charcoal and pastels on coarse, off-white paper, Cerri reflects the harsh reality of postwar Italy—its grit, its violence and its fear. The panels are large and without straight lines as Cerri alternates between aerial views and intimate, uncomfortable moments. Similarly, the color palettes range from hyper-pigmented to washed out. The materials used imbue the book with an aged appearance, as though Lenu herself had crafted it as a diary—Cerri often leaves original pencil sketches in place, and the reader can see exactly where the drawing was altered.

It’s difficult to say if My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel can stand on its own; most of its readers will likely be those who have read the original, and it’s unclear whether there are plans to adapt the rest of Ferrante’s quartet. That said, it is a unique and evocative tribute to a modern classic.

The artwork is the true star of this unique and evocative adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.
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It’s spring break in 2009. Childhood best friends Dani and Zoe are freshmen in college, and are finally spending a week in New York City like they’ve always dreamed. Accompanying Dani is her classmate Fiona, a cigarette-smoking, tragically hip art student whose uninhibited and self-possessed attitude attracts Zoe immediately.

Dani wants to do classic tourist things: eat pizza and see Coney Island, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. But Fiona, who has been to New York many times, scoffs at the mere mention of tourism, instead suggesting they see “real” neighborhoods. Zoe, caught in the middle but unable to deny Fiona’s magnetic coolness, agrees. As the trio navigates a late-aughts New York with spotty cell service and tenuous personal connections, they will each have to reckon with something—whether it’s each other or something within themselves.

Roaming, cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s first graphic novel collaboration for an adult audience, is a slice-of-life story about growing up and growing apart, being on the cusp of adulthood and exploring an unfamiliar city. The characters and their experiences hit hard because of how incredibly real they feel; despite the intrinsic brevity of the format, Dani, Fiona and Zoe are fully fleshed out.

As a duo, the Tamakis possess a talent for crafting stories of immense substance out of small, zoomed-in moments. Because of their specificity, these micro-stories speak to a much broader macro-story: Almost everyone knows a Fiona, has been a Zoe or has become frustrated with the hesitance of the Dani in their life.

Jillian’s color palettes are typically spare and minimal, relying on thick black lines and one or two pastels—for This One Summer, a light, muted indigo; for Roaming, swaths of periwinkle, peach and white. The palette places a gauzy haze over the story’s heaviness, much like the function of memory itself.

Roaming is about young adults, new to being on their own and easy to see as naive. But the magic of the book is that it will speak to the 18-year-old in every reader—whether they’re just out of college or at retirement age. Some things, no matter how much time has passed, never change.

Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have created a slice-of-life story about growing up and growing apart that will speak to the 18-year-old in every reader—whether they’re just out of college or at retirement age.
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In 2016, New Yorker cartoonist Navied Mahdavian and his wife needed a change, so they packed up their lives and fled—with their dog—from San Francisco to a cabin in rural Idaho. Despite not knowing what wood best keeps houses warm in frigid winters or how to stop a car from freezing during snowstorms, Mahdavian couldn’t help but want his version of the millennial American dream: living off the land in a house you own while building a career as an artist.

Most of Mahdavian’s debut graphic memoir This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America takes place on the six acres around his family’s cabin. There, Mahdavian wanders with his dog, tends to the garden and learns the history of the land—both the stories maintained by his white neighbors and the deeper Indigenous history. Mahdavian’s minimalist illustrations convey how large and rural Idaho can be, and they make it hard not to fall in love with that sort of hopeful landscape. Swaths of blank pages are populated by only the horizon and the plants and animals Mahdavian loves. If Idaho were simply gooseberries and black-billed magpies, it would be impossible to leave.

As Mahdavian settles into his cabin and tries to revel in the slow day to day of his life, he begins to fall in love with the natural world around him, even as his gun-toting neighbors remind him that people like Mahdavian—who is Iranian American—are considered outsiders. Beneath the big blue sky, Mahdavian struggles with their small-minded thinking and wonders if this place he loves can become home–and what choosing to make this place home really means.

It’s the surrounding people that leave Mahdavian feeling disconnected from the land whose history he seeks to understand. Mahdavian’s candid anecdotes showcase neighbors who welcome him and help during crises—even while slinging racial slurs and perpetuating stereotypes. Despite the serious and occasionally threatening nature of these exchanges, Mahdavian’s humor and thoughtfulness honors the kindness contained in these strange relationships while refusing to gloss over the harm that such insular thinking can cause.

Both poetic and personal, This Country meditates beautifully on what it means to create a home in the pockets of America where not everybody is wanted, due to their race or other aspects of identity. This Country is a must for fans of graphic memoirs like Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, and it’s not one to miss for anybody interested in insightful explorations of America’s heartland.

Both poetic and personal, This Country meditates beautifully on what it means to create a home in the pockets of America where not everybody is wanted, due to their race or other aspects of identity.
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Biographies can intrigue and educate with subject matter alone, but some of the most interesting give both the story of a life and the reason behind the author’s fascination. Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben tells the story of the titular war general, who rose from Prussian obscurity in the 1700s to become a once legendary yet now forgotten leader, and why Eisner Award-winning author Josh Trujillo found his life so interesting.

Ambitious and idealistic, Baron von Steuben quickly rose through the ranks of the Prussian Army through a combination of genius, white lies and good old flirting. However, relationships with Prussian royalty and a reputation as a leader in the army weren’t enough to keep him safe from charges of impropriety, and von Steuben found himself fleeing his home country.

After arriving in America, Benjamin Franklin recruited him to help the Americans organize their untrained rebel army. With the help of young men, some of whom were his lovers, von Steuben shared Prussian army techniques with George Washington, eventually writing the Blue Book guide that laid the foundation for training American soldiers. Yet because of his romantic partners and his immigrant status, it was always a challenge for von Steuben to form a legacy that would be remembered.

Thoughts from Trujillo (and, occasionally, illustrator Levi Hastings) stitch together the gaps in the available information on von Steuben’s life by weaving in compelling modern conversations on queer identity and queer history. They don’t shy away from darkness: The book discusses the fact that von Steuben enslaved people and highlights how his relative wealth and status protected him from what poorer, less powerful queer folk faced.

Hastings ditches the more colorful artwork found in his children’s books in favor of a classy triad color scheme of black, white and blue–quietly patriotic, much like von Steuben himself. The most beautiful piece of art comes at the very end of the book: a single-page spread of von Steuben’s beloved hound, curled up asleep in a bed made of von Steuben’s coat and hat.

Washington’s Gay General examines the same questions of ideology and legacy that permeate the Broadway show Hamilton, and fans of the production will certainly find much to enjoy. For those who are less interested in early American history and simply want to connect with their queer roots, Washington’s Gay General offers an accessible introduction to the life of Baron von Steuben and, through him, the queer people throughout history who have been hiding in plain sight.

Washington’s Gay General examines the same questions of ideology and legacy that permeate Broadway’s Hamilton, and fans of the show will find much to enjoy in this historical graphic novel.

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The illustrations set both the scene and the tone in these thoughtful graphic novels and memoirs, plus a fascinating graphic biography.
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Born of a real-world nightmare, Tananarive Due’s The Reformatory is a beautiful and bracing novel that melds historical fiction with speculative elements. Like many masterpieces, it is grounded in a fearsome experience. In late 2012, still reeling from the death of her mother, Due received an unexpected call from the Florida attorney general’s office. They told the acclaimed horror author, screenwriter and scholar that her mother’s uncle, Robert Stephens, had likely been buried on the grounds of the state’s now infamous Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that became a site of grotesque abuse. Researchers and state officials were looking for family members to approve exhumation at the site in order to document what happened.

As Due vividly remembers, “All this came as a shock.” Here was a close relative that she hadn’t even known about, and her family had already seen its share of violent trauma. In fact, she reflects, “When I first got the call, I thought it was in reference to another [boy] on my grandmother’s side who was actually put to death as a juvenile. And that was a family story we had heard about, but I had no idea about Robert Stephens.” 

Getting to the root of what happened to Stephens would require excavating a painful history and risking reviving intergenerational trauma, but it was also a way to honor her mother. Due knew she had to see it through. Within months of that call, Due traveled to the town of Marianna in the Florida Panhandle to witness the moment when her great-uncle’s remains were brought to light.

“It was really almost as if history was trapped at that site.”

Upon arrival, one of the sheriffs on site pointed her down the road and told her to “follow the mudhole. I was like, what mudhole?” For Due, who was born in Tallahassee and was raised in Miami, with its distinctly urban and Latin American flavor, “this small Panhandle town was a whole new world.”

“The whole experience was so immersive,” Due says. “It was really almost as if history was trapped at that site.” While in Marianna, Due attended a meeting of Dozier survivors. A man recounted “a beating so severe that the poor child couldn’t see his parents on visiting day because his clothes had actually been whipped into the skin of his back.” 

What Due witnessed in the swampy Florida heat transformed a strange obligation into a visceral and deeply felt mission, and cemented her desire to write about the boys at Dozier. She “couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a child at this hell house.”

Book jacket image for The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Finding the right genre and narrative for a subject this brutal, though, was a challenge. Though the former journalist had written a memoir with her mother, Civil Rights advocate Patricia Stephens Due (Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights), excellent memoirs had already been published by survivors, and Due felt too removed from the events to take a nonfiction angle on the subject. Ultimately, what Due really wanted to do was give Robert a better story than he had experienced in his short life. To do that, she needed to write a novel.

Due cares deeply about the social history she’s bringing to life, and sought to make dark realities accessible to readers. But she is also cognizant of the dangers of that quest and was loath to create anything that could be exploitative. This, Due is clear, is one of the greatest hurdles with this kind of material: “When we’re writing about difficult times in history, the line between trauma porn and honoring the past can be very thin.” That said, ignoring the violence that took place in real life was not an option. “I felt I had no choice but to have my protagonist experience at least a taste of what those survivors had talked about.” 

Getting it all right felt urgent to Due, but also posed a perilously high degree of difficulty, the literary equivalent of performing a triple axle. In a testament to her skill, The Reformatory deftly delivers on all of its author’s aims. 

Though it springs from the same grim institutional history as Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Nickel Boys, Due’s supernatural period thriller is riveting and highly original. Set in the 1950s, the novel centers a fictionalized version of Robert Stephens, a 12-year-old African American boy living in Florida whose life is changed when he tries to rescue his sister, Gloria, from being harassed by a wealthy white teenager. Thanks to the attacker’s powerful father, Robert is quickly arrested, convicted and sentenced to six months at the Dozier-esque Gracetown School for Boys. His stint at the cruel institution, euphemistically known as “the Reformatory,” comes 30 years after a fire that killed 25 boys, many of whom were buried on the grounds along with the bodies of other inmates. The ghosts of these dead boys haunt the school and Robert becomes their emissary, communicating with them and acting as an intermediary between the corrupt warden and the spirits seeking both revenge and release.

Before ‘The Reformatory,’ the longest Due had spent on a single work was two years. This one took seven.

This spectral element unlocked something crucial for Due: “The ghosts can represent the violence without me having to basically write a book that is just about beating after beating after beating, murder after murder after murder.” That blending of genres, history and the fantastical, struck an important balance, enabling her to tell hard truths without inflicting maximum trauma on herself or her readers. 

Weaving history and the speculative is one of Due’s talents as a writer, but that particular mixture also has an established literary tradition as seen in works by other Black authors, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison. The rich history of how the African American experience has found expression in horror is a story Due has long worked to tell, both as executive producer on Horror Noire, a documentary on the history of Black horror, and through her groundbreaking college courses on the Black horror aesthetic. While the creative path that emerged felt like a fit to the veteran horror writer, it was still rocky. Threading the needle between truth and exploitation required skill and more time than she had ever devoted to a project. Before The Reformatory, the longest Due had spent on a single work was two years. This one took seven. 

For part of that time, Due was immersed in and, she admits, “hiding behind” the research process. In 2018, she published a short story also titled “The Reformatory” in the Boston Review that tackled the most difficult scene from her work in progress. Then came COVID-19 and a jolting sense of her own mortality.

Read our starred review of ‘The Reformatory’ by Tananarive Due.

“It was COVID that really kicked me in the pants and made me realize on a deep visceral level that I could die without finishing the book,” Due says. The memory of that time is still vivid. “This was before the vaccine. This was when we didn’t know what was going on. So it was during that time that I put myself on a very strict page quota and I kept a chart up on my wall.” The placement was meaningful. “There was a day I didn’t write, and all those zeros were right in my face. That was the kind of discipline it took to finally finish the book. It was a real push.”

That life-altering visit to Marianna was a perfect matching of subject, artist and moment: The result is a genre-crossing masterwork. Ten years after it was begun, The Reformatory has come to fruition.

Photo of Tananarive Due by Melissa Herbert.

In her masterful horror novel, Due fictionalizes her great uncle’s experiences at the notorious Dozier School for Boys—the same institution that inspired Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books of November 2023

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
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Book jacket image for Nowhere Special by Matt Wallace

Author Matt Wallace excels at depicting realistic family scenarios, complex moral dilemmas, and good-hearted, but flawed, adults.

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The Space Between Here & Now is an intriguing mix of fantasy and realism that lures readers in with the promise of magic and keeps

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Book jacket image for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Jesmyn Ward’s portrayal of slavery is the profound manifestation of

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Book jacket image for The Future by Naomi Alderman

The Future is a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.

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Book jacket image for When I'm Dead by Hannah Morrissey

Hannah Morrissey’s small-town murder mystery When I’m Dead is nigh-on impossible to put down.

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Book jacket image for I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast

Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaste’s I Must Be Dreaming is an uproarious, touching and zany ride.

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Book jacket image for The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

The Dictionary People—which chronicles the unsung heroes who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary—is sheer delight.

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Book jacket image for Flight of the WASP by Michael Gross

Michael Gross’ delightful cultural history of WASPs illuminates the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite—and American history itself.

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Book jacket image for 10 Things That Never Happened by Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall’s new rom-com might have a zany setup—a guy fakes amnesia!—but its authentic emotion will win readers’ hearts.

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Book jacket image for The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.

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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books of January 2023

These are the 10 most notable books of January, as chosen by BookPage.

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Book jacket image for A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett
Contemporary Romance

Need a great new enemies-to-lovers romance? How about one between two rival matchmakers, or a Victorian nobleman and a female engineer?

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Book jacket image for Life on Delay by John Hendrickson
Memoir

John Hendrickson’s Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter is a memoir that educates, endears, impacts and devastates, often simultaneously.

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Book jacket image for Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper
Mystery

She Rides Shotgun author Jordan Harper knocks it out of the park with his sophomore mystery. Read our starred review in this month’s Whodunit column.

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Book jacket image for Rough Sleepers by Tracy Kidder
Biography

With a straightforward scrutiny that reveals without judging, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder offers a long, hard look at the lives of homeless people.

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Book jacket image for The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer
Nonfiction

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul.

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Book jacket image for Beneath by Cori Doerrfeld
Children's

This extraordinary picture book captures what we truly need when we’re not ready to talk about what is happening underneath the surface.

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Book jacket image for Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy

Gut-wrenching and deeply human, Leigh Bardugo’s sequel to Ninth House will tug at your heartstrings even as it chills you to the bone.

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Book jacket image for Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow
Fiction

In his second novel, De’Shawn Charles Winslow invites readers on a satisfying ride that, through his keen observations of human nature, leads to deeper considerations of the glacial progress of racial equality.

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Book jacket image for Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed
Fiction

Deena Mohamed’s richly detailed drawings imbue contemporary Cairo—and its all-too-familiar atmosphere of bureaucracy, rigid laws and class-based bias—with the magic of wishes, dragons, flying cars and talking donkeys.

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Book jacket image for For Lamb by Lesa Cline-Ransome
Children's & YA

Lesa Cline-Ransome powerfully chronicles the events that lead to a fictitious lynching in For Lamb, which expertly balances brutality and sensitivity.

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Recent Features

The 10 most notable books of January 2023, as chosen by BookPage! Includes the latest from Tracy Kidder, Pico Iyer, Leigh Bardugo and more.

Is the book always better than the movie or TV show? Better read these soon-to-be adaptations ASAP so you can decide.


The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

April 14, 2024

Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel will be adapted as a miniseries by A24 (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Team Downey (Sweet Tooth), set to air April 14, 2024 on HBO. Hoa Xuande will play the Captain, a North Vietnamese spy whose allegiance grows blurry after he joins a community of South Vietnamese refugees, with other by Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr. Read our review of Nguyen’s A Man of Two Faces.


Dark Matter

By Blake Crouch

May 8, 2024

Apple TV+ is adapting Crouch’s thriller sci-fi novel about a physicist who is sent into a parallel universe. Crouch is the creator and serves as an executive producer. Joel Edgerton (The Gift, Loving) will star. The television series will air on Apple TV+ on May 8, 2024. Read our review of Dark Matter.


Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Bridgertons #4)

By Julia Quinn

May 16, 2024

After two incredibly successful seasons and one enchanting spinoff (Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story), Netflix’s hit TV series Bridgerton, which follows the romantic adventures of the seven Bridgerton siblings in Regency-era London, is back for a third season. Created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shondaland (Grey’s Anatomy), season 3 features Colin Bridgerton as he helps his friend Penelope Featherington find a husband, only to fall in love with her himself. Luke Newton and Nicola Coughlin (Derry Girls) will star. The first four episodes premiere May 16, 2024 on Netflix.


Fire and Blood

By George R.R. Martin

June 16, 2024

Fire and Blood began its journey to screens in 2022 with season one of the HBO series House of the Dragon. Set 200 years before the events of TV phenomenon Game of Thrones, this prequel traces the reign of the Targaryen family, focusing on the succession war between the children of King Viserys I. Season two of House of the Dragon will premiere June 16, 2024 on HBO. Read our interview with Martin about The World of Ice and Fire, his encyclopedic history of Westeros and beyond.


It Ends with Us (It Ends with Us #1)

By Colleen Hoover

June 21, 2024

Hoover is one of the biggest names in the romance genre. In 2022, her novel It Ends With Us topped the New York Times bestseller list and the Publishers Weekly adult list for months. Now, the fan-favorite book will be hitting theaters as a movie starring Blake Lively and Justin Baldoni. Despite some push backs in the shooting schedule due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, the film is confirmed for release on June 21, 2024. Read our interview with Colleen Hoover for her novel It Starts with Us.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1)

By Alan Bradley

TBD, but soon!

Bradley’s charming Flavia de Luce mystery series has sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Susan Coyne (Daisy Jones and the Six) is adapting the first novel into a feature film, which will debut at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival. Isla Gie (The Sandman) will play the titular character, an 11-year-old amateur detective and master poisoner who gets caught up in a murder investigation, alongside Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit). Read our review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is the latest addition to a slate of upcoming book-to-screen adaptations you won’t want to miss.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

I read the entirety of award-winning poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ masterwork, all 816 pages of it, on the tiny screen of my phone during a trip throughout Washington. I can’t think of any other epic book that would be worth that kind of reading experience, but The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is special. While driving across the state, I regularly came across attempts to recognize and honor the Indigenous peoples who once populated that land, gestures that I don’t often see in the South where I live. For this reason, the long gaze of Jeffers’ novel felt like the answer to a prayer. It tells the full history of an American family—whose heritage is African, Creek and Scottish—and their centurieslong connection to a bit of Georgia land, as revealed by the research of one descendant, Ailey. It made me wish that all American lands could have their chance to tell their full stories, all the way back to the beginning.

—Cat, Deputy Editor


Empire of Pain

It is rare that a book simultaneously checks the boxes of timely, important, in-depth and narratively gripping. But the 640 pages of journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain walk the line between an impressively researched tome and a page-turning, propulsive story. Keefe’s 2021 tour de force recounts the full, damning tale of the Sackler family, spanning three generations of this American dynasty and their dealings at Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that produces the opioid pain pill OxyContin. The Sacklers worked hard to keep their name from being associated with OxyContin, and Empire of Pain makes it clear why—from their invention of the concept of marketing prescription drugs, to their tactic of offering regional sales reps monetary incentives for getting more doctors to prescribe more of their drugs, to their outright lies about how their product would not lead to addiction. It is a harrowing story of one family’s catastrophic contributions to the opioid crisis, masterfully told by a top-notch writer.

—Christy, Associate Editor


The Priory of the Orange Tree

“You have fished in the waters of history and arranged some fractured pieces into a picture . . . but your determination to make it truth does not mean it is so,” declares Ead, one of the heroines of The Priory of the Orange Tree. Reading Samantha Shannon’s 848-page novel can feel like arranging fractured pieces into a complete picture, as it depicts the intersecting journeys of four narrators from different corners of an exquisitely detailed fantasy world. Ead, Tané, Niclays and Loth each have deeply held beliefs about the nature of good and evil, and a crisis that could annihilate humanity is bringing those beliefs into conflict. I will admit that I picked up the book for its Sapphic love story, and that’s a good reason to read it. The romance was tender and gorgeous, unfolding slowly enough to surprise me even though I was looking for it. However, when the casualties become devastating, what keeps you going is the thrill of connecting fragments of history and mythology from each storyline, knowing you will “see soon enough whose truth is correct.”

—Phoebe, Subscriptions


The Vanity Fair Diaries

There are many reasons that British journalist, writer and editor Tina Brown could land on one’s radar. She’s the founding editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, the first female editor of The New Yorker and the author of two bestselling books on the royal family. But the achievement that cemented Brown’s reputation was her miraculous turnaround of Vanity Fair. Resurrected by Condé Nast in 1983, the new VF was floundering, so the 30-year-old Brown quickly engaged talent like Dominick Dunne, Gail Sheehy and Helmut Newton, and wooed advertisers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Controversial stories grabbed headlines; so did provocative covers (who can forget the shot of a nude, pregnant Demi Moore?). Brown loves gossip and has a sharp wit, which means her behind-the-scenes stories of the 1980s NYC glitterati alone could carry 500 pages of memoir. But she’s also honest about the mistakes she’s made and the challenge of balancing a family and career. The Vanity Fair Diaries will leave you hoping Brown chronicled her time at the New Yorker too.

—Trisha, Publisher


The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal is awarded each year to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” In 2008, it was won by this love letter to French inventor and film director George Mélies. To make a 544-page story short, it’s extraordinary, with 158 pencil drawings that will make you rethink everything you think you know about what picture books can be. The Invention of Hugo Cabret begins by inviting you to “picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie” and then captures your imagination via 21 wordless spreads. In many ways, Brian Selznick’s story is about small things that combine to form a creation greater than the sum of its parts, from a boy who lives in a train station and steals toys from the cantankerous owner of a toy booth to paragraphs filled with exquisitely yet economically observed details. Few picture books can be described as perfect, but this is one of them.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Correction, February 15, 2023: This article previously misspelled the name of Dominick Dunne.

February is the shortest month, but if you're looking for a long book to keep you company until March begins to roar, our editors have a few suggestions.
STARRED REVIEW

February 2023

Top 10 books of February 2023

The 10 most notable books of February 2023, as chosen by BookPage! Includes a new mystery from Jane Harper, a posthumous memoir from beloved children’s author Jerry Pinkney, and more.

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It’s no accident that Mark Twain scholar Mark Dawidziak begins A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe with Poe’s mysterious death in 1849 at the age of 40. As Dawidziak reminds us throughout his ambitious, well-researched book, the circumstances of Poe’s death remain a topic of debate and conjecture, as much a part of the Poe mystique as his short, stormy life. “It is,” Dawidziak notes, “one of the great literary stage exits of all time,” and its notoriety has done much to keep Poe’s reputation alive, making him one of the most famous American authors of all time, with a pop culture following as well as a solid place in middle school and high school literary curricula.

Dawidziak adopts a clever—and appropriate—organizational approach, alternating chapters set in the last months of Poe’s life with chapters exploring his early family life, career and influences. Readers who know little of Poe’s origins may be surprised to learn that this quintessential American author spent part of his formative years abroad. Poe’s mother was a talented actor who died at the age of 24, leaving three children behind. Poe became the foster child of John and Fanny Allan (thus his middle name), who, during the War of 1812, moved to England, where Poe spent five years soaking up impressions of old houses and graveyards that fed his literary imagination.

Throughout the book, Dawidziak draws readers into the mystery of Poe’s death, which occurred shortly after he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, delirious and disheveled. Dawidziak, of course, has a favorite theory about the likely cause, gleaned from the various opinions of medical experts, Poe scholars, historians, horror specialists and others—but it would spoil the mystery to reveal it here. Nonetheless, his argument demonstrates one of the pleasures of Dawidziak’s excellent book: his ability to weave quotations from Poe together with first-person observations from Poe’s 19th-century contemporaries and commentary by modern experts. In this way, Dawidziak’s biography reaches beyond the myth of Poe to reveal the actual man and writer, all while painting a vivid picture of the era in which he lived. A Mystery of Mysteries makes possible a deeper appreciation of a complicated, often troubled author whose success after death surpassed anything he knew in life.

Mark Dawidziak’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe reaches beyond the myth of his troubled life and mysterious death to reveal the actual man and writer.
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In many romance novels, love requires exposure: of one’s true desires and inner secrets, often of one’s most vulnerable self. In this month’s best romances, characters can only find happiness after first finding themselves—and sharing that truth with their partner.

Behind the Scenes

Karelia Stetz-Waters pens a tender love story in Behind the Scenes. Director Ash Stewart is preparing to pitch a movie near and dear to her heart—a rom-com about two lonely women who fall in love—so she turns to successful business consultant Rose Josten for help polishing the proposal she’ll present to movie executives. While the entertainment industry is not Rose’s forte, she’s intrigued by the idea of the film as well as by the cool yet vulnerable Ash. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace that suits the cautious main characters; while Rose and Ash fall fast, they don’t trust that their attraction will result in anything real. Readers will cheer for these capable, talented and mature women, both of whom have fascinating careers and interesting hobbies. They just need to find the right person to help them fill the empty spaces and heal their wounds. Rose and Ash’s feelings for each other are never in doubt thanks to Stetz-Waters’ expertly written longing and lush love scenes. And a fairy tale-perfect happy ending guarantees smiles as the last page is turned.

Also in BookPage: Read our review of the Behind the Scenes audiobook.

Not Your Ex’s Hexes

After Rose Maxwell’s sister took over her role as witch leader-in-waiting, Rose is in need of some new life goals. An ill-advised horse-napping at the beginning of April Asher’s dashing and delightful paranormal romance Not Your Ex’s Hexes results in Rose sentenced to community service at an animal sanctuary under the close supervision of half-demon vet Damian Adams. All kinds of sparks fly between them, but he’s grumpy and she’s not interested in relationships. But a friends-with-benefits arrangement seems possible and maybe even sensible until they must face danger—and all the emerging emotions they’ve vowed not to feel. In fact, Damian is sure he can’t actually be feeling them, having been hexed as a teen, but all signs are pointing to the opposite. Asher’s second installment in the Supernatural Singles series is full of action and well-constructed characters. Heart-tugging animals and steamy love scenes make this otherworldly romance a charmer.

Do I Know You?

Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka have written an intriguing twist on the second-chance romance in Do I Know You? In honor of their fifth anniversary, Eliza and Graham Cutler head to a luxury resort in Northern California, hoping a vacation might revive their stalled marriage. Upon learning that there’s been a hotel mix-up and they have two rooms booked instead of one, Eliza impulsively proposes that they sleep separately. Moreover, she suggests they take on new personas so they can meet as strangers and possibly rediscover a spark between them. While hiking, eating and exercising together as their alter egos, Graham and Eliza each come to value new things about the other and recall what led to their original commitment. Readers will root for both characters in this mature and intimate examination of a relationship.

The Duke Gets Even

A happy ending seems impossible in Joanna Shupe’s The Duke Gets Even. Andrew Talbot, the Duke of Lockwood, is desperate to wed an heiress and fill his family’s coffers. But then his antagonistic relationship with free-spirited American Nellie Young transforms into a burning passion. The duke lost out on love in the previous installments of Shupe’s Fifth Avenue Rebels series, and it doesn’t seem like his luck will change: He needs to marry for money, and Nellie can’t imagine life as an English duchess. An affair with Andrew as he seeks the right bride will have to be enough, except, of course, it quickly isn’t. The appealing Nellie wants more for herself and other women of her time, and she’s not at all ashamed of her sexual appetites. Honorable Andrew feels the weight of his responsibilities, yet the fiery ardor he shares with Nellie—featured in feverish love scenes—turns his world upside down. Sensuous and sophisticated, The Duke Gets Even is a satisfying climax to a wonderful and romantic series.

Make a Wish

Romances between a single father and a nanny are a beloved genre staple, but author Helena Hunting explores the trope sans rose-colored glasses in Make a Wish. When she was 20 years old, Harley Spark worked as a nanny for newly widowed Gavin Rhodes. She fell in love with his baby daughter, Peyton, and perhaps with him, before Gavin and Peyton moved away. Seven years later, Gavin and Harley reconnect—and there is an obvious attraction between them. Their happily ever after appears inevitable, until grief, guilt and in-laws step in. Make a Wish chronicles Gavin and Harley’s authentic doubts and fears, with sizzling love scenes and sweet moments creating a sigh-worthy love story.

In this month’s best romances, characters can only find true love after first finding themselves.
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The Bullet Garden

After writing a trio of books about ex-Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, author Stephen Hunter launched a second series featuring Bob Lee’s father, Earl Swagger, who is also a Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient to boot. It’s been 20 years since Hunter’s last installment in the senior Swagger series, but it comes roaring back this month with The Bullet Garden. The book serves as a prequel to the three Earl Swagger books that preceded it (Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming and Havana), chronicling his adventures in France during the days immediately following D-Day. Swagger spearheads a secret mission to track down and kill German snipers who are systematically picking off Allied soldiers crossing the Normandy meadowlands (which the troops have nicknamed “bullet gardens”). A sniper himself, Swagger is a natural fit for the job at hand, but even his legendary skills will be sorely tested in this milieu. Fans of firearms history will find lots to like in The Bullet Garden, as will military strategy buffs, but there is truly something for everyone: a budding romance; layers of duplicity and intrigue; and an omnipresent sense of the importance of working together for a greater cause. 

Encore in Death

J.D. Robb’s Encore in Death is the (are you ready for this?) 56th entry in the wildly popular series featuring Eve Dallas, a police detective in 2060s New York City who, by my calculations, should be celebrating her first birthday just about now. Despite being set in a Blade Runner-esque future of androids, airboards (think hoverboards) and the much-appreciated automated chefs, Robb’s mysteries don’t need to rely on sci-fi trappings to engage the reader. They are straight-up classically constructed whodunits. And this case features a time-honored murder weapon: cyanide. Just as A-list actor Eliza Lane takes the stage for an impromptu song at her latest high society Manhattan party, there is a crash of glass, and Eliza’s husband, equally famous actor Brant Fitzhugh, collapses to the floor—dead, with the smell of bitter almonds emanating from his lips. The initial thinking is that Eliza was the intended victim, as Brant sipped from a poisoned cocktail he was holding for her, but as the investigation wears on, alternative possibilities present themselves. As all of the suspects have connections to the stage, there is no shortage of drama as the case unfolds. Robb is the pen name of legendary romance author Nora Roberts, and while that’s certainly evident in her descriptions of her male leads (“Those sea-green eyes still made her heart sigh, even after a decade . . .”), the suspense is also there in spades.

The Sanctuary

Of all the awful ways to die, being vertically bisected by an industrial saw like the murder victim in Katrine Engberg’s final Kørner and Werner mystery, The Sanctuary, must rank right up there at the top. The unidentified man’s left half turns up in a partially buried leather suitcase in a public park, and Copenhagen police detective Annette Werner is on the hunt for the killer. Clues lead to the remote island of Bornholm, an insular enclave where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, but nobody seems disposed toward sharing any of that knowledge with the police. Subplots abound: a missing young man, possibly on the lam from the law, possibly the victim in the suitcase; a zealous preacher who roundly rejects the biblical teaching of turning the other cheek; a biographer whose scholarly visit to Bornholm to examine a deceased anthropologist’s letters is stirring up some old, long-quiet ghosts; a garbage bag full of money that nobody seems to be able (or willing) to account for. The identity of the culprit is an enormous surprise, but more surprising still is the emotional closure Engberg brings to long-running storylines, resulting in a very poignant moment for fans of the series in addition to a satisfying solution to the central mystery. 

The Twyford Code

Narrative conventions are cast to the four winds in Janice Hallett’s impressive second novel, The Twyford Code. The story consists of 200 fragmented voice transcriptions made by Steven “Smithy” Smith, a none-too-savvy mobile phone user who has only recently been released from prison in England. At loose ends, he decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his secondary school English teacher some 40 years back. Miss Iles (who often humorously appears in the transcriptions as “missiles”) had something of an obsession with the children’s books of one Edith Twyford, a character loosely based on real-life bestselling children’s author Enid Blyton. On a class field trip to Bournemouth to visit Twyford’s wartime home, “missiles” dropped off the map, never to be heard from again. As Smith’s belated investigation proceeds, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Twyford’s books as well, uncovering what may be hidden messages therein. State secrets, buried treasure, buried bodies? The clues are all there, but it will take a cannier puzzle-solving mind than mine to decipher them before Hallett is ready for the big reveal. The Twyford Code is easily one of the cleverest and most original mystery novels in recent memory, with an engaging main character, dialogue that grabs (and requires) your attention and more head-scratching suspense than any other three books combined.

A mystery told through voice transcriptions shouldn’t work, but The Twyford Code isn’t just this month’s best mystery—it’s one of the cleverest whodunits in recent memory.
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When you gaze at the quilted cover of A Flag for Juneteenth, you will want to reach out and touch it. The artwork depicts a girl wearing a fuchsia dress and kerchief standing proudly in front of a flag, the bright colors of her outfit vibrant against the flag’s soft yellows and greens. The girl’s brown face has no features—nor do the faces of any of the book’s characters—because author-illustrator Kim Taylor wants readers to be able to imagine themselves in this story. 

Then you open A Flag for Juneteenth and discover that Taylor quilted all of the illustrations in her debut picture book, and you realize that her textile art perfectly complements her evocative prose, creating an excellent portrayal of Huldah, a Black girl living with her enslaved family on a Texas plantation in 1865.

As the book opens, it’s the morning of Huldah’s 10th birthday. Taylor’s embroidering transforms mottled brown fabrics into textured tea cakes, a special treat baked by Huldah’s mother for her daughter’s birthday. “The scent of nutmeg and vanilla floated through our cabin,” Taylor writes, and her stitched text forms a winding ribbon of words that waft up from the plate as Huldah breathes in the sweet smell. 

Soon, Huldah hears the “loud clip-clippity-clop of heavy horses’ hooves” as soldiers ride onto the plantation. She witnesses their historic announcement: President Abraham Lincoln has freed all enslaved people! Taylor emphasizes the importance of this declaration by placing a lone soldier onto a white quilted background. She embroiders the proclamation that he reads “in a booming voice,” forming four lines of text that radiate from his figure.

Elation follows, and Huldah hears shouting and singing. Images of celebration feature the outlines of surprised, ecstatic people jumping and raising their hands in the air for joy. Taylor sets their multicolor silhouettes against gentle yellow-orange ombre fabric that’s quilted with sunburst lines, as though the people have been caught up in rays of light. 

Huldah watches as a group of women begins to sew freedom flags. Children gather branches to use as flagpoles, but Huldah goes one step further. She climbs her favorite tree and captures a sunbeam in a glass jar, preserving this extraordinary moment in time forever.

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, and A Flag for Juneteenth exquisitely conveys the day’s spirit of jubilation and freedom.

Read our Q&A with ‘A Flag for Juneteenth’ author-illustrator Kim Taylor.

Kim Taylor’s portrayal of a girl witnessing the first Juneteenth, accompanied by exquisite quilted artwork, is filled with a spirit of jubilation and freedom.
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You may have learned in high school that the post-Civil War Reconstruction was an inevitable failure. In her latest book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, historian Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that, far from dying a natural death, Reconstruction was destroyed in a not-so-secret war waged against Black citizens.

Williams argues that the end of Reconstruction was the explicit goal of Confederates who refused to accept their military defeat. Abetted by war-weary white Northerners who wanted to put the Civil War behind them, a president who had no interest in securing civil rights for Black people and authorities who didn’t care to enforce the law, armed militias and Klansmen engaged in a concerted battle to destroy Black citizens who voted, ran for office or merely owned and farmed their own land. These white aggressors invaded homes and subjected Black Americans to a host of crimes, from arson and torture to rape and murder. The destruction of property alone amounted to millions of dollars in today’s currency, while the damage to victims, their families and their communities remains incalculable.

Williams, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, lays out her case with forensic precision. She writes with authority about the political and social circumstances that enabled these attacks, as well as the impact that these acts of terror had on Black people’s health and financial security, for both the injured parties and the generations following them. But her most compelling evidence comes from the victims themselves: witness testimonies from the Congressional hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 and transcripts of Works Progress Administration interviews with the last survivors of slavery in the 1930s. 

These testimonies make for harrowing reading, but that is no reason not to read them. Previously enslaved people recounted the horrors of these “visits”—the deaths of loved ones, the rapes, the lingering physical and psychic wounds, the loss of hard-earned wealth—with dignity and courage, knowing full well the risks they ran by testifying. Williams honors their suffering by placing them at the center of this important, overdue correction to the historical record.

Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that the progress of the post-Civil War Reconstruction was hampered by a not-so-secret war against Black citizens.

Essayist, novelist and Seattle University professor Sonora Jha follows up her acclaimed memoir, How to Raise a Feminist Son (2021), with her second novel, The Laughter, a masterfully told, thrilling investigation of privilege, heritage and exoticisation set against the backdrop of the American college campus. 

The novel centers on Dr. Oliver Harding, a middle-aged white male professor at a liberal arts university in Seattle. Oliver is an accomplished academic, best known for his research into the early 20th-century English writer G.K. Chesterton. Oliver’s personal life, however, is solitary and unfulfilling. His strained relationship with his daughter is his only meaningful one. 

Oliver becomes fixated on Ruhaba Khan, a Muslim professor in the university’s law school and a political firestarter on campus. Ruhaba has recently taken in Adil Alam, her teenage nephew from France who is seeking to distance himself from some trouble back home. Oliver begins mentoring Adil in an effort to impress Ruhaba, through privately Oliver exhibits contempt for and mistrust of their Muslim heritage. 

In addition to their personal entanglement, Oliver and Ruhaba find themselves on opposite sides of a political upheaval on campus, where an energized and diverse collective of students is attempting to seize power from privileged white faculty members who fear their own irrelevancy. These personal and political matters lead to a heartbreaking conclusion, one which readers have been warned is coming but is made no less shocking by its inevitability.

Deeply complex and meaningful yet still an enthralling read, The Laughter is an ambitious novel that explores American social dynamics while never being preachy or overbearing. Jha’s characters represent vastly disparate political ideas, but she handles each of them with great precision and care. With this novel, she offers us a creative window into the sociopolitical dynamics that continue to reinforce cultural divisions in this country. It’s a must-read for those seeking to understand today and dream of a better tomorrow.

Sonora Jha’s characters represent vastly disparate political ideas, but she handles each of them with great precision and care. With this novel, she offers us a creative window into the sociopolitical dynamics that continue to reinforce cultural divisions in this country.

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Recent Features

The 10 most notable books of February 2023, as chosen by BookPage! Includes a new mystery from Jane Harper, a posthumous memoir from beloved children's author Jerry Pinkney, and more.
Book jackets for four nonfiction books about Black history
STARRED REVIEW

February 4, 2023

Black history, well told

Four sweeping, novelistic nonfiction books illuminate important moments in American history.

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Journalist Mark Whitaker’s (Smoketown) riveting Saying It Loud: 1966—The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement chronicles a key moment in the movement for racial justice in the United States: the shift in 1966 from the nonviolent organizational tactics associated with Martin Luther King Jr. to an emergent focus on Black Power as a “state of mind and a badge of identity” whose adherents used whatever means necessary to achieve justice.

On January 3, 1966, Black civil rights worker Sammy Younge was murdered by a white gas station owner in Tuskegee, Alabama, for asking to use the restroom. As Whitaker points out, Younge’s death “reverberated through a generation of young people who were reaching a breaking point of frustration with the gospel of nonviolence and racial integration preached by Dr. King.” Whitaker tracks many such seismic events and the ways they shifted the leadership within core civil rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), leading to the development of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. Through meticulous research, he draws revealing portraits of figures such as Stokely Carmichael, who replaced John Lewis as SNCC’s chairman; Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, who formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California; and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, who became the executive secretary of SNCC and thus the highest-ranking woman in the civil rights movement. In stunning detail, Whitaker records all the ways that 1966 became such a pivotal year in the quest for civil rights that, before it was over, “a cast of young men and women, almost all under the age of thirty . . . [had changed] the course of Black—and American—history.” He concludes by demonstrating that the defiant rhetoric of the Black Power movement in 1966 planted the seeds for the Black Lives Matter movement and other responses to police violence against Black Americans over the last 50 years.

Saying It Loud provides an essential history of events that deserve more attention and consideration. Whitaker’s striking insights offer a memorable glimpse of a key period in American history and the struggle for racial justice in the U.S.

Saying It Loud chronicles the shift in the civil rights movement from the nonviolent tactics associated with Martin Luther King Jr. to Black Power.
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You may have learned in high school that the post-Civil War Reconstruction was an inevitable failure. In her latest book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, historian Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that, far from dying a natural death, Reconstruction was destroyed in a not-so-secret war waged against Black citizens.

Williams argues that the end of Reconstruction was the explicit goal of Confederates who refused to accept their military defeat. Abetted by war-weary white Northerners who wanted to put the Civil War behind them, a president who had no interest in securing civil rights for Black people and authorities who didn’t care to enforce the law, armed militias and Klansmen engaged in a concerted battle to destroy Black citizens who voted, ran for office or merely owned and farmed their own land. These white aggressors invaded homes and subjected Black Americans to a host of crimes, from arson and torture to rape and murder. The destruction of property alone amounted to millions of dollars in today’s currency, while the damage to victims, their families and their communities remains incalculable.

Williams, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, lays out her case with forensic precision. She writes with authority about the political and social circumstances that enabled these attacks, as well as the impact that these acts of terror had on Black people’s health and financial security, for both the injured parties and the generations following them. But her most compelling evidence comes from the victims themselves: witness testimonies from the Congressional hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 and transcripts of Works Progress Administration interviews with the last survivors of slavery in the 1930s. 

These testimonies make for harrowing reading, but that is no reason not to read them. Previously enslaved people recounted the horrors of these “visits”—the deaths of loved ones, the rapes, the lingering physical and psychic wounds, the loss of hard-earned wealth—with dignity and courage, knowing full well the risks they ran by testifying. Williams honors their suffering by placing them at the center of this important, overdue correction to the historical record.

Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that the progress of the post-Civil War Reconstruction was hampered by a not-so-secret war against Black citizens.
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Everyone should know the story of Ellen and William Craft, the subjects of Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom. In 1848, Ellen, a light-skinned Black woman, disguised herself as a wealthy, young white man in a wheelchair. William, her husband, accompanied Ellen as an enslaved man, tending to his “master’s” needs. Together they traveled in disguise from the mansion in Georgia where they were enslaved to freedom in the North. Every step of their journey depended on them keeping their wits about them, especially for Ellen. Ship captains, train conductors and even a friend of her enslaver were fooled by Ellen’s ability to perform a role that transformed her demeanor in every conceivable way—from woman to man, Black to white, slave to master. Their self-emancipation was a triumph of courage, love and intelligence.

Yet the Crafts’ story is more than a romantic adventure, and Woo does an excellent job of providing historical context for the dangers they faced without losing the thread of a terrific story. The Crafts’ lives were not magically transformed merely by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Woo explains. The North, while free, was still hostile territory for self-emancipated Black people, with rampant bigotry and racism even among abolitionists. However, the greatest danger to Ellen and William was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required everyone to return formerly enslaved people to their enslavers and forced the Crafts into exile in England until after the Civil War.

The real strength of Master Slave Husband Wife comes from Woo’s exploration of how Ellen was perceived and treated after her spectacular escape catapulted her into celebrity. Woo, whose earlier book, The Great Divorce, explored another convention-defying 19th-century woman, makes the excellent point that Ellen’s method of escape was not only brilliant but transgressive, defying conventions of gender and race. Even the fair skin tone that allowed her to pass as white was the product of generations of rape, giving the lie to myths of the “happy slave.” With empathy and admiration, Woo details Ellen’s quiet refusal to conform to the racist, classist and sexist expectations of her enemies, benefactors, supporters and even her husband. Thanks to Woo, Ellen is finally at the center of her own story as someone who heroically challenged America’s myths of equality and freedom.

Ilyon Woo tells the remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who came up with an ingenious and daring plan to emancipate themselves from slavery.
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Sixty-seven years after the savage murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, his cousin still seeks some kind of justice. Haunted by the 1955 hate crime that ignited the civil rights movement, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. brings everything and everyone back to life in A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till. The title comes from the Bible—“Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1, NIV)—and is aptly applied to the short life and violent death of 14-year-old Till, while also ironically relating to the decades of delayed and denied justice that followed.

Till’s murder became international news when his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket at the boy’s funeral, inviting the world to see her mutilated son. People fainted, the press raged—and yet the two white men accused of his murder were soon acquitted by an all-white jury. Not that the men worried about their fate; during their trial, they were allowed to leave their jail cells for supper with their families, carrying guns. Four months later, Look magazine published “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” by William Bradford Huie, which featured an exclusive interview with Till’s acquitted killers, Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam. Milam admitted that they shot Till, tied a gin fan around his neck and rolled him into the river. Their confession earned them $4,000 and had no significant consequences.

Several investigations by the FBI and Department of Justice ensued, hindered by possibly racist politics and questionable sources. In 2017, Timothy Tyson published a bestselling book that contained a quotation from Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who claimed that Till had accosted her at the grocery store, motivating her husband and brother-in-law to pursue and eventually murder Till. In the quote, Donham recanted part of her original story. Or did she? As the Mississippi district attorney worked to confirm the quote in Tyson’s book, evidence of the author’s conversation with Donham vanished—if it ever existed.

Parker, with the help of his co-author, Christopher Benson, takes a hard look at everything that has transpired since 1955, including Parker’s own feelings of guilt. He was there the night Bryant and Milam came for Till, but he survived and went on to become a barber, minister and major force behind the family’s effort to achieve justice and right the record. His is a vivid chronicle of racism in America, an intense read that may make some readers uncomfortable. Perhaps that is the point. 

Anti-lynching bills struggled through Congress for years after Till’s murder. Finally, in March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. As Benson writes in an afterword, “the work to achieve justice has just begun.”

The story of Emmett Till’s violent death in 1955 is retold by his cousin Wheeler Parker Jr., the force behind decades of attempts to achieve justice and right the record.

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Four sweeping, novelistic nonfiction books illuminate important moments in American history.
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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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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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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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.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books of March 2023

The BookPage Top 10 for March include the latest from Samantha Shannon as well as the first novel from Gillian Flynn’s new imprint.

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Book jacket image for Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Fiction

While sleuthing maids make for an engaging plot, the nuances of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s characters and their relationships are even more complex and intriguing.

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Book jacket image for Once Upon a Tome by Oliver Darkshire
Literature

In his memoir, Oliver Darkshire invites readers into one of the oldest antique bookstores in the world and acts as their hilarious, bookish guide.

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Book jacket image for Kunstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine
Family Drama

Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history.

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Book jacket image for Saving Time by Jenny Odell
Nonfiction

Many writers have imitated Jenny Odell’s unique style since the publication of How to Do Nothing, but Saving Time proves that no one can do Odell like Odell.

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Contemporary Romance

Anita Kelly’s Something Wild & Wonderful follows two men who fall in love as they hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and it’s so sweet and satisfying that you’ll never want it to end.

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Enchantment by Katherine May
Body, Mind & Spirit

Wintering author Katherine May returns with Enchantment, a lovely, meditative ode to finding connection in a disconnected age.

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Book jacket image for Rainbow Shopping by Qing Zhuang
Children's

A grocery-shopping trip and a shared meal provide moments of comfort and connection in this touching portrait of a family’s love for one another.

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Book jacket image for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty
Fantasy

Shannon Chakraborty’s follow-up to her bestselling Daevabad trilogy is a swashbuckling high seas quest that’s rousing, profound and irresistible.

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Book jacket image for A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon
Fantasy

Samantha Shannon’s prequel to The Priory of the Orange Tree is just as sumptuous and explosive, immersing readers in a world on the brink of destruction.

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Book jacket image for Scorched Grace by Margot Douaihy
Mystery

Scorched Grace is an entertaining and devastating mystery that introduces Sister Holiday, a queer nun with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.

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Nan McNamara, Pamela Prickett, Stefan Timmermans

This impeccably researched audiobook, compellingly narrated by Nan McNamara, traces the American epidemic of loneliness to its tragic and perhaps inevitable conclusion in the stories of four individuals whose bodies are unclaimed after their death.
Our Top 10 books for March include the latest from Samantha Shannon as well as the first novel from Gillian Flynn’s new imprint.
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The Lives We Actually Have

Book jacket image for The Lives We Actually Have by Kate Bowler

Like the psalmists, authors Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Good Enough) examine and affirm the multifaceted human experience in The Lives We Actually Have. In 100 entries written in verse, Bowler and Richie celebrate the beautiful, lament the ugly and recognize the mundane alongside the blindsiding. This book is not the shallow expression of prayer most of us are used to. Instead, these pages hold blessings that make every human experience, even a “garbage day,” worthy of noting and appreciating.

The authors include blessings for every kind of day, including ordinary life, tired life, lovely life, grief-stricken life, overwhelming life, painful life and holy life. Along the way, they do an incredible job of reclaiming blessings from social media’s “#blessed” culture, speaking truthfully about the range of experiences inherent to being human instead of offering blessings for the pristine, uncomplicated lives we wish we had.

Bowler and Richie go where most Christian authors won’t: right to all the messy truths of being alive. Their willingness to meet us where we are makes life feel a little more manageable and a little more worthy of love. Through their words of blessing, readers will find courage, rest, hope to carry on—and maybe even a laugh.

The Book of Nature

Book jacket image for The Book of Nature by Barbara Mahany

Born out of author Barbara Mahany’s curiosity, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text weaves together theology, nature, science, liturgy and poetry. Instead of losing readers in so many captivating details, she brings all these seemingly different mediums together to create a compelling argument that the natural world is the key to understanding God. To Mahany, and the countless theologians, authors and scientists she references, nature is what makes sense of scripture.

Mahany opens her book by sharing how she came to write about the Book of Nature, which is an ancient name for the practice of “reading” nature like a sacred text, “the text of all of creation, inscribed and unfurled by