Tommy Orange’s Wandering Stars sensitively depicts Orvil Red Feather’s path to recovery after the tragedy in There, There, as well as chronicling important, overlooked moments in the history of America’s brutal treatment of its Indigenous people.
Tommy Orange’s Wandering Stars sensitively depicts Orvil Red Feather’s path to recovery after the tragedy in There, There, as well as chronicling important, overlooked moments in the history of America’s brutal treatment of its Indigenous people.
Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is an uplifting and cozy slice-of-life tale with appealing characters whose trials stay light on drama.
Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is an uplifting and cozy slice-of-life tale with appealing characters whose trials stay light on drama.

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Before March of 2018, I never intended to write a sequel to There There. When I first decided to do it, the mean voices inside immediately began judging me. Like it was lowbrow. Like it belonged in the Marvel universe of decision-making, like people would think it was a cash grab even though I made the decision before the success of There There.

The idea first came to me when I was sitting in a Penguin Random House warehouse signing an insane amount of books ahead of the publication of There There. That is not a romantic place for a novel to be conceived. I feel embarrassed to share that it came during that moment, but that is when it came. The sales reps who were helping me to sign all these books played a Spotify radio station based on the song “There There” by Radiohead. “Wandering Star” by Portishead came on and right when I heard it, I knew I wanted to write a sequel and that it would be called Wandering Stars. I didn’t at all know at first where the follow-up novel would lead based on this title, but I knew with strange certainty it would be the title. I could never have guessed all the unexpected places it would lead me.

Some of the earliest writing I did for Wandering Stars was about Maxine Loneman experiencing the death of her grandson. I was on a run in Baltimore, and I thought of Maxine and Tony in the afterlife and then of all these afterlife experiences of the characters from There There. That was the original conception—there was going to be a lot of weird afterlife stuff. And then in early 2019 I was in Sweden for the translation of There There. I almost didn’t go on this trip. I was to go to Italy, Sweden and Amsterdam. I’d traveled so much in 2018 that despite these being really cool sounding places, I didn’t actually want to go.

It was cool in the way land acknowledgments are cool. Until they aren’t. And it’s like, okay but what are we gonna do that means more? What’s the next step?

Just before I was to leave I went to a Lunar New Year festival at the Oakland Museum with my family, and we parked at the Lake Merritt BART parking lot, which is notorious for break-ins. I think I wanted something bad to happen. I even left my backpack in the car. And then it did. Someone stole all of my luggage, my passport and my backpack with my computer in it, plus even my son’s toys and some of my wife’s clothes and jewelry. I was upset but also excited because I thought it meant I wouldn’t have to go to Europe. But my agent insisted I should. And she was right. So I got an emergency rushed new passport and only missed the Italian portion of the trip.

Anyway, so then the organizers in Sweden asked if I wanted a private tour of a museum. They said there was a Cheyenne exhibit. I ended up getting this really weird meta-tour where the person leading me through the museum kept explaining that they knew the museum shouldn’t have all this stuff and that they were trying to find ways to return it but weren’t entirely sure how yet. It was cool in the way land acknowledgments are cool. Until they aren’t. And it’s like, okay but what are we gonna do that means more? What’s the next step?

When we came to the Cheyenne exhibit I looked at old regalia and felt that familiar sadness I feel at museums, wondering about why anyone thought showing stolen stuff directly related to colonialism was a good idea, when I caught sight of a newspaper article clipping that said “Southern Cheyennes in Florida, 1875.” I know enough about my tribe’s history to know we were never in Florida. Not as a people. When I came home from the trip, I ended up falling deeply down a rabbit hole researching why some of us were in St. Augustine, Florida, from 1875 to 1878, at a prison-castle called Fort Marion that was shaped like a star. St. Augustine was also the very first European settlement in the continental United States. It should be noted, and some know, but many do not, that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, not in North America. His discovery of the United States is just as false and meaningless as his legacy as some kind of hero. He went home in chains and will always be remembered by people who know the history as an awful human being.

But how would I connect this piece of history with the aftermath of the powwow from There There?

It was in the research that the moment happened. This was maybe six months after Sweden and first finding out about Fort Marion. I’d been reading a book called War Dance at Fort Marion by Brad D. Lookingbill. I was immersing myself in the world of Fort Marion and beginning to write what would become the beginning of Wandering Stars. I got to the end of the book and it listed the names of the prisoners. The character I had already started writing I’d named Star. And there in the list of names was a Southern Cheyenne named Star, and not far below him, someone named Bear Shield. I immediately started crying seeing the names. That I had already written a character named Star was one thing, but to see a family name from There There was just so overwhelming. I became convinced at that moment that I would make a generational tie between one of the prisoners at Fort Marion and one of the families who survived the shooting at the powwow at the end of There There.

Writing a novel is a strange experience. Things go into it and things come out of it. It feels. It’s like this porous thing.

I have found in writing these two novels that there are things that go into the work, and also things that come out of it. For instance, the spider legs that Orvil Red Feather pulls out of his leg in There There, that was something that actually happened to me. In a West Oakland Target bathroom, just like Orvil. And then the week after I wrote the bat scene from the Thomas Frank chapter in There There, we had a bat fly into our house. The bat did what they call a flyby on my wife and niece. It felt so related to the bat I wrote into the novel and my wife definitely blamed me writing it in for what happened. And then my wife’s medical insurance had lapsed without our knowing and we ended up having to spend $10,000 to pay for rabies shots. One of the first things we did with advance money from There There was to pay that medical bill.

Writing a novel is a strange experience. Things go into it and things come out of it. It feels. It’s like this porous thing. You have to be open to what it can become, I think. You have to open yourself up to what might be possible for it to become that you might never have imagined. It can be a kind of collaboration with your unconscious, and with something else. The process, I guess. It can feel like it takes everything you have. And it does.

Read our review of Wandering Stars.

Tommy Orange author photo by Michael Lionstar.

The author shares the surprising genesis of his second book, moments from his life that became part of the story of There There, and the song that inspired his sequel’s title, Wandering Stars.

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The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse Laura Iven’s parents recently died in an accident, and her brother, Freddie, was declared missing in the trenches. But what actually happened to Freddie is far stranger, involving a mysterious […]

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It’s a special gift when a favorite poet writes a novel. Martyr! is Kaveh Akbar’s fiction debut, after poetry collections Calling a Wolf a Wolf and Pilgrim Bell. It tells the story of Cyrus Shams, a young Iranian American poet recovering from addiction who, following the deaths of his parents, has become fixated on the […]

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In 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to the forest in rural Maryland and began building their new residence, the State Hospital for the Negro Insane. During its near century of existence, the hospital (re-named Crownsville) held patients in prisonlike conditions without offering them adequate medical attention, food, space or safety. In Madness: Race and […]

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Recent Reviews

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

What if we considered our lives as marked not by romantic entanglements but by the big friendships that nourish and thwart us? The first in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend depicts the early lives of narrator Lenù and her best friend Lila, who come of age, dramatically, by the book’s end. Their impoverished Naples neighborhood is rife with violence: Early in the novel, Lila’s father throws her out a window, breaking her arm, and the girls routinely witness neighbors being beaten in the street by the local mafia. Both girls show promise in elementary school; while Lenù must study hard, Lila seems to excel without trying. Idolatrous as much as they are envious of each other, Lila and Lenù are cutthroat competitive, but they find that their friendship creates space for imagination, creativity and envisioning a future outside of their neighborhood. Until that space abruptly closes, and Lila sees that her future will be one of mere survival. Few narratives capture the euphoric, gutting fluctuations of friendship so specifically. Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Lenù’s singular voice is propulsive and urgent. You will see yourself in both characters, and you will be drawn to the darkness. 

—Erica, Associate Editor

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Growing up, I was utterly obsessed with the ocean, and I wanted to be a marine biologist. Unfortunately, I eventually learned that marine biology was more science and less dolphin whispering, but I still get excited when I come across a story that recognizes the magic of the marine world. The premise of Remarkably Bright Creatures immediately caught my eye: a giant Pacific octopus befriends an elderly woman and helps her solve the mystery of her son’s death. Tova, our protagonist, is gentle yet resilient, earning the adoration of Marcellus (the octopus) as she works the night shift cleaning his aquarium. Marcellus has an agenda of his own—yes, we get to hear the octopus’s thoughts—but he balances it with compassion for Tova and for the human race that humans, honestly, could learn from. The characters in this story are kind to each other, yet the goodness doesn’t feel contrived. Rather, Shelby Van Pelt has achieved a tale where there are no villains but the stakes are still high. Tova and Marcellus each have a heart as big as the deep blue sea, and their unique bond reminds us what we stand to gain from offering love, empathy and generosity to the remarkably bright creatures around us.

—Jessica, Editorial Intern

First Test by Tamora Pierce

In First Test, Tamora Pierce takes readers back to the enchanting and beloved realm of Tortall, which was first introduced in her acclaimed young adult fantasy series, the Song of the Lioness. Although it has been 10 years since it was decreed legal for women to become knights, Keladry of Mindelan (Kel) is the first girl brave enough to openly train for knighthood. Facing extreme scrutiny, an unfair probationary year and a training master hellbent on her failure, it seems like Kel might never achieve her dream. Enter Nealean of Queenscove (Neal), who is also considered an oddity as the oldest of the first-year pages. Neal takes Kel under his wing and becomes one of her biggest champions in her uphill battle to prove that she’s just as good as the male pages. As they bond over being set apart due to their unusual circumstances, their friendship allows them to overcome every obstacle thrown their way, from hazing taken way too far to being thrown into the middle of a very real battle. Together, best friends Kel and Neal prove that they are exactly where they are meant to be.

—Meagan, Production

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an unusual love letter—written by a son to his mother, even though she cannot read. As a child in Vietnam, her school was destroyed by American napalm. Her son, called Little Dog, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, after she immigrated there with him, and became a writer. With this letter, he is putting into words the physical language of harm and care that forms their intricate bond. He describes the impact of her PTSD from living through the Vietnam War, combined with the isolation and vulnerability of being unable to speak English in Hartford: When he tells his mother he was attacked by bullies at school, her response is to hit him, then admonish him to use his English to protect himself, because she cannot. In a way, his journey into writing is an act of love towards her, the fulfillment of her wish, even as it takes him further and further from her. Vuong tells this story with arresting beauty and intensity, following Little Dog through world-shifting experiences with love, sex and loss into his adulthood as a published writer.

—Phoebe, Associate Editor

Valentine’s Day draws our attention to romance, but these four tales of friendship, connection and the parent-child bond affirm that platonic love is just as beautiful and impactful as romantic love—if not more.
Review by

The concept of reparations has been a component of conflict resolutions since the days of ancient Carthage. In America today, the issue most often comes up in reference to offering restitution to Black citizens for the ills of slavery. That topic, and the backlash from those against monetary redress, is the animating force in Acts of Forgiveness, Maura Cheeks’ debut novel.

When Senator Elizabeth Johnson ran for president, a pillar of her campaign was her championing of the Forgiveness Act, which would provide $175,000 to every Black citizen over 18 who could prove they had an enslaved ancestor. Now, as America’s first female president, she announces her intention to carry out that promise. This is hopeful news for Black Philadelphia native Willie Revel, the 33-year-old single mother of a gifted daughter. Willie once dreamed of becoming a journalist. But after her father, who owns a construction company, had a heart attack, Willie abandoned her dreams and returned to Philly to take over the business.

Cheeks does a nice job of dramatizing Willie’s conflict and is equally adept at demonstrating not only the need for financial restitution but also its specific importance to Willie’s family. Willie could use the money for the family business, which struggles to stay afloat. One lifeline her father insists upon is a contract with Soteria, a company that hired their firm to build a recycling complex. Willie is revolted by working with Soteria because the owner, like a lot of conservatives, vehemently opposes the Forgiveness Act.

That’s just one of many issues Willie contends with as she researches her family history to prove their eligibility for reparations. Others include her lack of career fulfillment and her daughter’s difficulties at school and attempts to write a play—an ambition that resembles the one Willie had to give up.

Cheeks doesn’t fully demonstrate the skill of distinguishing necessary information from superfluous detail, but Acts of Forgiveness movingly highlights a litany of injustices, from casual racism to the pressure on women to sacrifice their ambitions. Willie’s mother tells her that “sometimes you have to go where you’re not wanted in order to change people’s minds.” This novel highlights the soundness of that advice, as well as the perils of being brave enough to follow it.

Maura Cheeks’ debut novel follows the impact of a reparations bill on Black Philly native Willie Revel, as she struggles to keep her family’s construction business afloat.
Review by

Foxes, trains, elaborate outfits, witty sayings, luck and chance, the last days of an empire. Told in two voices, Yangsze Choo’s The Fox Wife is a fitting follow up to Choo’s previous novels, The Ghost Bride and The Night Tiger.

Set in Manchuria in 1908, The Fox Wife plays with Chinese myths about the fox gods: foxes with the ability to transform themselves into beguiling, beautiful and tormented men and women. Legend has it that these fox gods sometimes live among people, causing trouble through their trickery and slippery relationship to the truth.

Equipped with an extreme sensitivity to the presence of truth, Bao is a detective on a mission to figure out what happened to a woman found frozen to death on the doorstep of a restaurant. His chapters—told from a third-person perspective—enthrall with keen observations about the gods, his own past and the people around him.

Snow is on her own quest to understand the death of her only child. She begins working for a family who has been cursed: Their sons die young. Her first-person chapters are particularly intriguing, with a strong voice and sharp turns of phrase. Who is Snow? And what will her journey allow her to discover?

As the story alternates between Snow’s and Bao’s perspectives, the pull to solve these mysteries builds momentum. The voices are compelling; the secrets are rich. When the two tales begin to overlap and the gaps fill in, the surprise is worth the wait. Layers of meaning accrue, bringing together the past and the present, mythology and personal ambition, actions and reactions, control and fate, into a fascinating tale of foxes, foes and friends.

Set in Manchuria in 1908, The Fox Wife combines Chinese myths about fox gods who live among people and the story of a detective determined to uncover the truth behind a woman’s mysterious death.
Review by

“Cartoonish” is typically a pejorative label. Overexaggerated, outlandish, silly—when a piece of art provokes these descriptions, we expect to be met with sticks of dynamite and eye roll-worthy puns. But the recent elevation of cartoons, from the existentialism of “BoJack Horseman” to the tender lessons of “Adventure Time,” should make us reconsider how we view cartoonishness. Isabel Waidner’s new novella, Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, is cartoonish on every conceivable level: The story of Corey Fah is a comedic romp through a queer, absurdist world. Fit with an adorably passive-aggressive deer-spider hybrid, a wormhole-hunting playwright turned talk show host, and biting social commentary about social commentary, Waidner’s novel is a thoroughly enjoyable, envelope-pushing head-scratcher.

Corey lives with their partner Drew Szumski in a capital city loosely resembling London. After winning the Award for the Fictionalization of Social Evils, Corey is tasked with retrieving their trophy, but it’s not so simple as picking it up from the prize committee. The trophy is a neon-beige flying saucer that has a mind of its own, teleporting away from Corey and Drew as they repeatedly try to claim it. On this wild goose chase, the pair meet Bambi Pavok, the aforementioned fawn-spider creature who teleported from an alternate dimension. Still sans trophy and under pressure from the prize committee to do publicity, Corey takes Bambi Pavok onto a cultish talk show where the dimensional layers of this strange world start to fold in on themselves and the story takes a turn from weird to utterly bizarre.

I can say with certainty that Corey Fah Does Social Mobility is the wildest book I have ever reviewed for BookPage. The plot toes the line of ridiculousness in a truly masterful way, never ceasing to surprise, and Waidner’s ultramodern language, a mix of the Queen’s English and Tumblr-speak, results in some strangely beautiful sentences. All the while, the characters are developed in subtle, touching ways. For example, in a socially awkward, quintessentially millennial moment of tenderness, Corey expresses that they would be utterly lost without Drew, who has stood by them throughout their flailing career as a writer.

Corey Fah Does Social Mobility is a flashy, punchy whirlwind: Waidner has caught lightning in a bottle.

Isabel Waidner has caught lightning in a bottle with this comedic romp through a queer, absurdist world.
Review by

In Karen Outen’s adroit first novel, Dixon, Descending, Dixon Bryant carries a lot of baggage up Mount Everest. And even more coming down.

Part of that baggage involves his relationship with his brother, Nate. Sixteen months older than Dixon and now approaching 50, Nate, the long-awaited first son, has always been the “gift” to their parents. Charismatic, irrepressible and sometimes irresponsible, Nate is a bright balloon floating high in the air. Dixon, the wise, soulful, solid brother, holds the string. It is Nate who proposes that the brothers become the first Black American men to summit Everest.

Everest and the people who climb it form a world all their own. Outen, whose endnotes describe her passion for the mountain, writes breathtaking passages about the brothers’ experiences there: the competitive companionability of other climbers; the smell and sounds of the ever-shifting mountain; and, of course, the gut-wrenching dangers of the ascent. Nate and Dixon and their climbing team have lighter moments in camp, but as the brothers climb higher, things get deadly serious. In the rarefied air near the summit, slowed by the long line of climbers and barely able to breathe, the brothers have to make impossible choices about their ambitions, responsibilities and love for one another.

Back near sea level in Maryland, Dixon has more to contend with. Family and friends, for one. But more pressing is a matter at the middle school where he works as a beloved school psychologist. He has taken a bullied boy, Marcus, under his wing. When Marcus is viciously beaten, in an uncharacteristic moment, Dixon violently confronts the tormentor, an irreparably damaged soul named Shiloh. As a result, Dixon goes on leave and follows an unexpected path to self-discovery and expatiation.

That Outen can rather seamlessly meld these two fraught strands of story is a marker of her flowering skill as a writer. An additional gift of the novel is how much it has to reveal about love and friendship among Black men. That alone makes Dixon, Descending a worthy read.

In the rarefied air near the summit, two brothers must make impossible choices about their ambitions, responsibilities and love for one another as they attempt to become the first Black American men to climb Everest.
Review by

One of the first things I assumed when I started reading Rebecca K Reilly’s sad, hilarious novel Greta & Valdin was that the titular Maori and Russian New Zealander siblings must be teenagers. They are certainly adolescently self-absorbed and lovelorn, Valdin overcome with heartache over his ex-boyfriend and Greta harboring a puppy-dog crush on her tutor. It’s a mild shock to learn that Valdin is about 30 years old and a former physicist turned comedian, while Greta is five years younger, working on a useless master’s thesis and perpetually broke.

Greta and Valdin live together, and though they won’t acknowledge it, depend on one another. She’s hurt when he flies off to Buenos Aires and neglects to stay in touch with her. When Valdin comes back, he wonders what sort of flowers to buy along with a bag of limes to soothe Greta’s feelings. Their family members—Russian father Linsh, Maori mother Beatrice and older brother Casper (not his real name, but a name bestowed at birth because he was so pale)—take the siblings’ loopiness in stride. After all, they’re a fairly loopy bunch themselves.

Reilly writes with a dry, sly humor and great love for her characters. She brilliantly builds the world of the siblings bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle. Here’s a mention of a popular drink, a song, a snippet of another language or dialect, the names of local shops and bars, the specific clothing people wear: All combine not just to make the world feel real and lived in, but also to explain why Greta and Valdin are the way they are. Everyone in their circle acts like they’re 16. Why shouldn’t Greta and Valdin follow suit?

Ultimately joyous and life-affirming, Greta & Valdin is Reilly’s first novel. This reviewer is eager to see what she does next.

Rebecca K Reilly writes with a dry, sly humor and great love for her characters, building the world of siblings Greta and Valdin bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle.
Review by

“Some women had worn love beads in the sixties; others had worn dog tags,” Kristin Hannah writes in The Women, her salute to American women who were nurses in the Vietnam War. It’s a book she has long wanted to write—since 1997—but didn’t feel ready to tackle until now. As she’s done before in runaway bestsellers like The Nightingale, The Great Alone and The Four Winds, Hannah demonstrates her knack for blending broad sweeps of history with page-turning plots to immediately engross legions of readers in even the most difficult of subjects.

The story covers more than 20 years, beginning in 1966 when 21-year-old Frankie McGrath impetuously joins the Army Nurse Corps, hoping to follow her beloved brother, Finley, to Vietnam. Her well-to-do parents live on Coronado Island in California and are very much concerned with keeping up appearances. Frankie’s father keeps a “Wall of Heroes” in his office filled with portraits of their family’s military veterans, even though he, to his shame, was declared ineligible to serve. Frankie’s life changes when one of her brother’s friends tells her, “Women can be heroes.”

Frankie arrives in Vietnam as a clueless, newly minted nurse, but she rises to the horrific circumstances and ends up finding her calling in life, as well as a turbulent romance. She slowly grows into a highly skilled surgical combat nurse, and the scenes of her working are particularly immersive, showing readers the traumatic experiences that soldiers, nurses and doctors experienced on a daily basis.

Over 265,000 women served during the Vietnam era, including about 10,000 American military women stationed in Vietnam during the war, most of them nurses. And yet, after the war, these women were met with remarks like “There were no women in Vietnam.” That’s the reaction Frankie gets when she returns home, and the last half of the book deals with her struggle with Americans who have little idea of or respect for what she’s been through. Her parents compound her feelings of shame and confusion when they reveal that they explained her absence to their friends by pretending Frankie had been studying abroad. Amidst so much misunderstanding, she relies on the support of two lifelong nursing friends as she deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and depression.

In true Hannah fashion, The Women delivers a compelling read as well as a new understanding of the Vietnam era.

Kristin Hannah demonstrates her knack for blending broad sweeps of history with page-turning plots in this salute to military and civilian women who served during the Vietnam era.
Review by

For author Leo Vardiashvili, home was Tbilisi, Georgia, until post-Soviet civil unrest forced him and his family to flee to England in the 1990s. Almost two decades would pass before Vardiashvili returned to Tbilisi, finding a pulsing city filled with mere remnants of his childhood memories, places and faces.

Born of this loss and transformation, Vardiashvili’s debut novel Hard by a Great Forest tells the story of Saba Sulidze-Donauri, who has returned to his native city from London under difficult circumstances. Months ago, first his father, Irakli, and then his older brother, Sandro, had been drawn to Tbilisi by the pull of the past, then suddenly dropped out of contact and disappeared. It is now up to Saba to decipher the cryptic clues they left behind and locate his father and brother without arousing suspicion from the Georgian authorities.

Along with the shock of this awful situation, Saba faces the anxiety of returning “home” to find everything unfamiliar and overwhelming. Helping him navigate the streets as well as his emotions is a gregarious taxi driver named Nodar who drives an ancient Volga. Nodar has his own stories of loss camouflaged within this city that has moved on without him. Like young children possessed by an adventurous spirit, Nodar and Saba soldier on, determined to unravel the mystery of the disappearances. Although some brutal moments are hard to bear, Vardiashvili keeps readers invested with the grit and generous spirit of his characters, including Nodar, his resourceful wife Keti, and many long-dead relatives that live on as voices in Saba’s head.

At its simplest, Hard by a Great Forest appeals as a thrilling story of good guys trying to beat the bad ones. It is a great read full of history, mystery and chance reunions that asks the reader to examine how we can move forward when we’re followed by the ghosts of the past.

Hard by a Great Forest is full of history, mystery and chance reunions, following a Georgian refugee who has returned to Tbilisi to find his missing father and brother.

As with her first novel, Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead, Emily Austin’s Interesting Facts About Space features a quirky main character in Enid, who loves listening to true-crime podcasts to calm down. “I hate being startled,” she notes. “I like my podcasts, horror movies, and ghost stories that I can pause and rewind. I handle fear sort of like a workhorse. I could charge bravely into a planned battle, take in the sights of bombs and corpses, but I would still be spooked by an unanticipated barn rat.” When we first meet her, Enid is listening to a particularly grisly podcast while baking a gender reveal cake for her pregnant half sister Edna. Into this moment comes a stranger who’s furious at Enid, and the exchange unfolds in such an unexpected way that I laughed out loud more than once.

Enid is half-deaf, neurodivergent and gay. She’s also pretty sure that she’s a terrible person. In short vignettes, Enid narrates her attempts to navigate an uncomfortable new relationship with her half sisters and keep tabs on her depressed mom. With the help of her best friend Vin, Enid’s also trying to figure out what’s causing her panic attacks, and why someone seems to be stalking her. Enid and Vin work at the Space Agency, managing information, from which Enid’s gathered a vast array of random facts about outer space, which she shares with her mother in attempts at connection.

The novel’s comic scenes of misunderstandings and non sequiturs are interspersed with Enid’s musings about herself, her high-school years and her parents. Enid may be in her 20s, but Interesting Facts About Space is a coming-of-age story. Balancing the comic and the dark, the novel slowly reveals the essential sadness in Enid’s past that she can’t let herself see, and though occasionally the novel’s first-person, present-tense voice can feel a little claustrophobic, that’s a small quibble. In a lesser writer’s hands, Enid’s quirky traits could feel constructed, but Austin makes Enid’s vulnerable voice and deep thoughts feel brave, heartbreaking and true.

Emily Austin’s quirky main character, Enid, is trying to figure out what’s causing her panic attacks, and why someone seems to be stalking her. She’s also pretty sure that she’s a terrible person.
Review by

With his debut novel, Essex Dogs, popular historian Dan Jones proved that he could take his expertise in medieval history and translate it into compelling, immensely readable fiction. Now, with Wolves of Winter Jones manages to do it again—and then some.

A direct sequel to Essex Dogs, Wolves of Winter picks up on the adventures of a band of soldiers and friends serving in the army of King Edward III in the midst of the Hundred Years War. In the wake of the English victory at the battle of Crecy, the Essex Dogs are convinced they’re going home soon, with pockets full of whatever plunder they’ve managed to scrape together. But the King and his noble allies have other plans. For reasons no one in the army’s rank and file can quite grasp, the English are preparing to lay siege to Calais, a small French port town surrounded by treacherous marshes. So, instead of going home, the Dogs continue on to Calais, even as a man they thought they left in the past creeps up behind them.

Throughout the action, Jones maintains a clear, confident grasp on the historical details, from the weapons the Dogs use to the surprising way that pirates factor into the Calais story. And just as in Essex Dogs, none of that detail ever distracts from the narrative, character development or emotional stakes. Jones’ themes have also matured and deepened, as the mysteries of the siege of Calais offer plenty of new opportunities to explore the futility of war from the Dogs’ perspective. Crecy was such a triumph that to keep fighting feels like an exercise in foolish bravado. As the Essex Dogs descend into the literal quagmire around Calais, they begin pondering the steps that led them to this point, considering whether control over their destinies is possible in a world ruled by those richer and more influential. It’s a study in maturation for an author who was already working at a high level; the added depth never gets in the way of the swashbuckling, epic action of the battles.

Wolves of Winter is another rollicking success for Dan Jones, cementing him as a master of historical fiction and leaving us counting the days until we can read what the Essex Dogs do next.

Wolves of Winter is another rollicking success for Dan Jones, leaving us counting the days until we can read what the Essex Dogs do next.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

As the days become shorter, there’s nothing more comforting than immersing myself in a sweeping historical novel—the bigger, the better! When my book club recently voted to read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow (Penguin, $18, 9780143110439), I welcomed the opportunity to escape nightly into the grand halls of the Metropol hotel where aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, deemed a threat by the Bolsheviks in 1922, is sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Hotel employees, guests and other visitors round out the vibrant cast of characters in the Count’s orbit as he adjusts to his new circumstances and tries to pursue a meaningful life in confinement. His friendship with precocious 9-year-old Nina is particularly endearing; the pair’s quest to explore every nook and cranny of the hotel is a delight. All the while, outside the Count’s window, political turmoil and inevitable social change are transforming Russian society. Written with wit and warmth, Towles’ tale is one you’ll want to curl up with and return to night after night.

—Katherine, Subscriptions 

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I spent a few sublime weeks last winter in the company of Umberto Eco’s magisterial debut novel, The Name of the Rose (HarperVia, $19.99, 9780063279636). This medieval whodunit is intellectually absorbing and slyly hilarious as it tracks Brother William of Baskerville and Brother Adso of Melk’s quest to solve a spree of bizarre murders at a monastery in Italy. A historian, philosopher and literary theorist, Eco transports readers into the 14th-century mind, and while things get heady (at one point, Adso contemplates a door for more than a page), Eco never lets his own erudition run away with him. There are impressively gruesome deaths to describe, tangled little dramas of monastery life to tease out and one of the most unforgettable libraries in literature to explore. I read long into the night, wrapped in blankets with a mug of tea at hand, happily looking up Latin phrases and medieval heretics until arriving at Eco’s grand finale, a satisfying conclusion with a few icy notes of existential dread to balance things out.

—Savanna, Managing Editor

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

To me, coziness is a cat dozing on my lap, but a book that captures the magic of our purring friends will also do. A sublime, delicate meditation on the passage of time within everyday life, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (New Directions, $14.95, 9780811221504) washes over you like a dream, making it an ideal read for a long winter night. A male narrator and his wife fall in love with their neighbor’s cat, naming her Chibi as she begins visiting them at their rented house. The wife tells the man how a philosopher once said that “observation is at its core an expression of love,” and indeed, Hiraide’s ruminations on the quotidian—dragonflies flying towards water sprayed from a garden hose, Chibi climbing a tree—carry tremendous emotion despite the unembellished prose. With equal parts joy and melancholy, the couple’s relationships with the cat and each other shift, along with the course of their lives and Japan, as the late ’80s economic bubble bursts. Hiraide slips in and out of reflection and memory with precise, feline grace.

—Yi, Associate Editor

The New Life by Tom Crewe

There is something so pleasurable about spending a chilly day absorbed in the concerns of another time and identifying resonances with our own. Tom Crewe’s debut novel, The New Life (Scribner, $18, 9781668000847), provides just such a pleasure, placing vivid characters and thorny moral dilemmas against a finely textured historical backdrop. Based on two real life freethinkers in late Victorian Britain, Crewe’s John Addington and Henry Ellis are documenting the lives of gay men for a book that they hope will shift cultural perceptions of homosexuality. It’s risky, but they believe in the cause—and that their status as married men will protect them. However, ideological differences emerge, and Addington begins to wonder if ideals can be legitimate if they are not lived openly. Crewe excels when depicting the nuances of conflict and the question of balancing personal risk against the ability to effect change, drawing readers in with polished old-fashioned storytelling that also speaks to a modern sensibility—A.S. Byatt meets Alan Hollinghurst.

—Trisha, Publisher

Ready the fireplace, put the kettle on and get out some thick woolen socks. These four titles are worthy companions for long winter nights.

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