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After sharing her life story in Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama now offers readers an exceptional follow-up—“a glimpse inside my personal toolbox”—in The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times.

Obama describes the publication of Becoming as “one of the happiest and most affirming periods of my life so far.” That said, the night before starting her international publicity tour, she lay in bed, terrified at the thought of the arena-size audiences she would soon face. As it turns out, Obama is a worrier who understands all too well that “your fearful mind is almost always trying to seize the steering wheel and change your course.” She offers a supreme example: When her husband wanted to run for president, he first asked for her blessing. “I was pretty ready to shut it down,” she writes, because she didn’t want to launch their orderly family life into inevitable chaos. “It’s strange to think that I could have altered the course of history with my fear.”

Much later, the COVID-19 pandemic knocked Obama off her feet, sending her into what felt like a “low-grade form” of depression. During lockdown, she found salvation in an unexpected place: teaching herself to knit by watching YouTube videos. That story is one of many private moments she shares in The Light We Carry. For instance, she admits to an ongoing frustration with her husband’s lack of punctuality, writing that “when feeling cornered, it turns out, I am capable of saying some stupid, hurtful things.” It’s comforting to hear that our heroes are human, and Obama’s signature openness—in addition to her encouraging, sometimes funny, always chummy voice—make her relatable and admirable throughout the book.

The Light We Carry contains a multitude of other poignant, amusing anecdotes and helpful advice for all types of readers: anyone feeling marginalized; young people finding their way in love, education and careers; parents of young children; and just about anyone trying to keep a steady course in the world. Obama writes about the importance of forming and nurturing friendship (which isn’t easy to do when the Secret Service surrounds a potential new friend’s car) and imparts a lifetime of lessons from her parents, who showed her “what it felt like to be comfortably afraid.”

In these frequently dark times, The Light We Carry feels like a hug from a trusted advisor and a good friend. As Obama writes, “The practice I’ve had in finding and appreciating the light inside other people has become perhaps my most valuable tool for overcoming uncertainty and . . . keeping my hopefulness intact.” As one of the brightest lights in America, Obama helps shine the way for others along our shared path.

Michelle Obama’s signature openness—in addition to her encouraging, funny voice—make her relatable and admirable throughout The Light We Carry.
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The prodigiously gifted Alexis Hall spins pathos, sex and humor into frothy yet sensitive paeans to love. His ambitious new novel, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble, demonstrates the magnitude of his talents. 

The second Winner Bakes All romance after 2021’s Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, Paris is a bittersweet play on the opposites-attract trope. The titular character, a baker with devastating anxiety and self-doubt in spite of his beauty, talent and privilege, falls for Tariq Hassan, a charismatic young Muslim with ambition and confidence to spare. Paris and Tariq meet as competitors on “Bake Expectations,” a famous television cooking competition show. (If you’re thinking “The Great British Baking Show,” you’re on the right track.) 

Paris’ roommate, Morag, ropes him into joining the show, hoping that becoming a contestant would break Paris out of an unhealthy pattern of isolation and doubt. Though some good does come of the experience, it turns out you can’t shock the mental illness out of someone. The reality of what Paris is going through—the result of nature (brain chemistry) complicated by nurture (or lack thereof, i.e., years of parental abandonment)—is too messy and complex. 

Hall portrays Paris’ omnipresent anxiety disorder and how it affects his relationships with intensity and an impressive attention to cognitive and emotional detail. This may make some readers uncomfortable, as peeking inside Paris’ thoughts can be pretty harrowing. But many people who have experienced this type of mental health challenge, as well as some who haven’t, will find his story deeply relatable.

Paris may crumble under the pressure of appearing on “Bake Expectations,” but he also finds a real romantic connection with a man who’s delightfully different from himself. Tariq revels in his queerness, style and religion, and he inhabits the spotlight with a confidence that sometimes borders on cockiness. Paris and Tariq’s differences add an interesting texture to their interactions, and it is meaningful to see someone go through what Paris does and be loved throughout. Hall refreshingly balances sensitivity and matter-of-factness about Paris’ challenges and how they impact his relationship with Tariq, while also exploring where Tariq needs to grow. 

Hall’s sprightly irony and clever humor significantly lighten the angst. At one moment, Tariq gets impatient with Paris, as people are wont to do with him as he works his way up to an apology. “Look . . . we’ve been here before,” Tariq says. “I know how long your apologies take. I’ve got a religious obligation. I’ll come find you later.”

A dish that’s both sweet and savory, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble is poignant and witty in equal proportion.

A dish that’s both sweet and savory, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble is poignant and witty in equal proportion.
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In their first book on racism, late-night talk show host Amber Ruffin and her sister Lacey Lamar primarily wrote to each other, exchanging stories in a comedy-infused back-and-forth. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey emerged from the phone calls, texts and stories they shared from their respective positions in New York and Nebraska. (Let’s just say that Lamar’s experiences in the predominantly white city of Omaha were quite different from Ruffin’s in New York City.) They weren’t trying to persuade resistant readers about the ills of racism with their first book. They merely offered their own perceptions of people and incidents, whether it was an overzealous security officer from J.C. Penney or a rude doughnut maker—and the book was a huge success.

Now Ruffin and Lamar are back, and they’ve broadened their scope. “People honestly thought we didn’t have more stories,” Ruffin writes in the introduction. “So, it’s kinda like a dare.” In The World Record Book of Racist Stories, the other members of the Ruffin family—mom, dad, brother and two more Ruffin sisters—are brought into the fray. Their stories range from lighthearted misunderstandings with racist undertones to frightening instances of unchecked bias, and everything in between.

What’s super valuable here is reading how Ruffin and Lamar perceive these instances: how they frame them, connect them, share them with each other and, when they’re able, laugh about them. Each of these new stories is “the best” (or worst) of something—”Most Racist Bus Driver,” “Worst Reaction to a Nice Car,” “Worst Celebrity Look-Alike”—and as you’d imagine, it’s not an award you’d want to win. Readers do win something, though: They get unvarnished straight talk about racism from a Black family that has lived in predominantly white communities for decades. To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by some very funny and generous writers, check out The World Record Book of Racist Stories.

To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar, check out the very funny The World Record Book of Racist Stories.

In her fascinating and frank debut, Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring. 

As the author notes in her introduction, “Butts are a bellwether. The feelings we have about butts are almost always indicative of other feelings—feelings about race, gender, and sex.” Radke explores the societal forces that underlie such feelings as she guides readers on an impressively well-researched tour of butts throughout history, beginning with a functional analysis (hominids and horses take center stage) and ultimately alighting in the present (twerking, social media and celebrity butts).

Heather Radke shares why now was the perfect time for a thoughtful exploration of this cheeky topic.

In between, Radke considers the persistent, pernicious attitude toward women’s bodies as things to critique. She shares the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman of the Khoe tribe who was effectively enslaved and exhibited in England and France in the early 1800s under the guise of scientific inquiry. From there, Radke segues into eugenics and its emphasis on big butts as supposed markers of sexual deviance.

These so-called scientific endeavors have had a ripple effect, Radke explains, influencing media and pop culture, creeping into beauty standards and body image. She offers examples of butt-obsessed media with positive posterior impacts, too; a deep dive into the 1992 hip-hop sensation “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot is entertaining and edifying, and Beyoncé’s 2001 hit “Bootylicious” gets a shoutout as well.

Radke also touches on fitness sensations (“Buns of Steel”) and fashion trends (Victorian bustles), as well as her complicated feelings about her own “generous” butt. While she, like so many others, has felt shame about her body shape, Radke also believes that “a close examination of the parts of ourselves that can feel unbearable . . . can be transformative.” Certainly, Butts can usher readers onto this more positive path, thanks to its top-notch reportage, assured and respectful voice and invitation to butt-centric contemplation.

In Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring.

Lauren Graham is perhaps best known for her acting, particularly her role as the young, headstrong single mom Lorelai in the television show “Gilmore Girls.” But Graham, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College and master’s of fine arts in acting performance from Southern Methodist University, is also the accomplished author of a novel (Someday, Someday, Maybe), a collection of personal essays (Talking as Fast as I Can) and a book of advice for graduates (In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It). 

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Graham’s second book of personal essays, Have I Told You This Already?: Stories I Don’t Want to Forget to Remember, is composed of 15 insightful pieces relaying impactful moments and life lessons that have shaped who she is. She explains how her creative outlook was molded by people and experiences from her youth. For example, although her mother was largely absent from her upbringing, Graham sees a positive side to this fact: “I think not growing up with my mom means I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what a mom is supposed to be!” 

Graham takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour of Hollywood, sharing acting jargon such as “pumpkin” (the term for when child actors have to be done working for the day) and “sold it in the room” (getting backing from someone with clout). She’s candid about the demands of show business, too, and the acrobatics that actors have to perform to fit into the Hollywood mold. In a chapter aptly named “Forever 32,” Graham reflects on aging, comparing her recollections of being a 20-something to when, at the age of 32, she realized “I had a sense of myself I’d never had before.” She also muses about her days as a young actor, hustling to various jobs while trying to make it. These stories and anecdotes are especially raw, real and humorous.

Graham’s writing is fresh, sharp and very funny, with fast, staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her. Her voice invites the reader in, emanating a refreshing openness that will make them want to be her best friend. Have I Told You This Already? is an enjoyable, amusing revelation.

Actor Lauren Graham’s second collection of essays is fresh, sharp and very funny, with staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her.
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Louise Kennedy, chef of nearly 30 years and author of the short story collection The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, emerges with a debut novel that will fill every historical fiction fan with gratitude. Trespasses exposes the crushing realities of Northern Ireland during the “troubles” while paying respect to the people who found their way through the destruction. 

The novel centers on Cushla Lavery, a Catholic teacher living near Belfast who also works part time in her family’s pub. The sectarian violence between Republicans (largely Catholics) and loyalists (largely Protestants) has become overwhelmingly ingrained in society. The school’s headmaster even insists that Cushla’s 7- and 8-year-old students devote time each morning to reporting and commenting on the day’s most horrific news, from bombings to internments.

Quicker than she can make sense of, Cushla forms new relationships that drive her personal life into the public eye. There’s Michael Agnew, an older, married Protestant barrister with whom Cushla begins a surreptitious affair. There’s also Davy McGeown, a child in Cushla’s class whose father is brutally beaten. Disaster soon becomes inevitable, but no matter how close Cushla’s life comes to collapse, Kennedy’s unyielding narrative voice exhibits heart-wrenching impassivity, forcing readers to grapple with their own prejudices and morals.

The novel’s brilliance lies in Kennedy’s commitment to nuance. Simple definitions of “right” and “wrong” are nonexistent in Cushla’s world, as Kennedy is more concerned with contextual authenticity: How do our choices affect our environments, and conversely, how do those environments shape the choices we make? Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity. 

Impeccably written, Trespasses is a story that every reader will internalize differently. In only 304 pages, it achieves the complexity of a multigenerational saga without sacrificing the striking intricacies of its central protagonist’s story.

Reading Trespasses is an exercise in trust, in letting oneself accept the transient failures of an individual while holding fast to their implicit humanity.
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“Get in. Get out, No drama. Focus forward.” That’s the motto guiding Avery Anderson at the beginning of her senior year of high school, when she and her parents move from Washington, D.C., to Bardell, Georgia, in order to care for Avery’s estranged, dying grandmother. Yet Avery soon finds herself surrounded by drama in Jas Hammonds’ superb debut novel, We Deserve Monuments.

Avery’s life isn’t just in limbo from the move; she’s also fresh off a breakup with her girlfriend back home. Avery’s relationship with her grandmother, Mama Letty, isn’t all smooth sailing either. The first time they meet, Mama Letty tells Avery that her lip piercing makes her look “like a fish caught on a hook.” Avery’s mother, a renowned astrophysicist, grapples with her own relationship with Letty, who was often drunk and abusive during Zora’s childhood, while Avery and Letty eventually form a close bond.

Meanwhile, Avery gets to know the town of Bardell, where “every corner [holds] a story,” with the help of two new friends: next-door neighbor Simone, who is Black, and Jade, whose wealthy white family lives on a former plantation and owns a posh hotel in town. Yet her new knowledge only inspires more questions for Avery, including what happened to her late grandfather, Ray, whom neither Zora nor Letty will discuss. 

In We Deserve Monuments, Hammonds takes on two challenges—exploring the ugly legacy of racism in a small town and telling a moving love story—and succeeds at both. The author blends these two plot strands in a wonderfully organic fashion, and their prose is sure-footed every step of the way, with snappy dialogue so fresh that readers will feel as though they’re eavesdropping on real conversations.

Avery is an engaging, appealing narrator whose story is occasionally supplemented by short chapters of omniscient narration that efficiently fill in gaps from the past. As Avery navigates a seemingly forbidden new romance and drifts from her intention of following in her mother’s professional footsteps, readers are rewarded with a number of startling plot twists and a host of tender moments between Avery and her love interest. Just as rich are the relationships among the members of Avery’s family, especially the magnificently complex Letty.

Life, identity, love, death—it’s all here. We Deserve Monuments marks a noteworthy debut from a writer paving her own literary future. 

In We Deserve Monuments, author Jas Hammonds takes on two challenges—exploring the legacy of racism and telling a moving love story—and succeeds at both.
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How important are individuals in the shaping of history? Twentieth-century Europeans knew leaders whose decisions, good or ill, transformed their countries, the continent and, in some cases, the world. Ian Kershaw, one of our leading historians of the period, focuses on 12 of them in his enlightening and stimulating Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. They range from the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. We learn of the personality traits and historical preconditions that brought each person to power, and Kershaw provides examples of how that power was used and an assessment of each leader’s legacy.

War was the most important enabler of power in the 20th century. Without World War I, the chances of Lenin, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler becoming leaders would have been virtually zero. Without World War II, it is unlikely that Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Josip Broz Tito would have led their countries. Of the 12 figures in Personality and Power, only Konrad Adenauer, Mikhail Gorbachev and Kohl were never war leaders. (Francisco Franco had the Spanish Civil War, and Margaret Thatcher the war in the Falklands.)

Each leader profiled here had a strong sense of self, a relentless will to succeed and the ability to get complete loyalty from followers. Some have dark legacies, such as Hitler with the Holocaust and Lenin with communism, that still endure. Other legacies are more mixed. Between 1940 and 1945, probably no European democracy had a leader with more power than Winston Churchill. He was somewhat of a political failure before that, and his later return as prime minister from 1951 to 1955 was not a great success. But his example during the war continues to inspire people today. Similarly, although Gorbachev’s years in power were few, it is unlikely that anyone else could have instigated and pursued the policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Leadership changed, however, and his policies were reversed.

These excellent in-depth profiles of major figures and their influence on millions of people help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

Ian Kershaw’s excellent in-depth profiles of 12 major leaders from 20th-century Europe help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

Actor Constance Wu (known for her lauded roles in “Fresh Off the Boat,” Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers) narrates her thoughtful and revealing memoir in essays with an endearing blend of passion and playfulness. 

Throughout her career, Wu has learned that life is a series of scenes that shape us; we don’t shape the scenes. She shares memories of people and events that have influenced who she is, including humorous and heartwarming tales of her parents’ assimilation into American culture, humbling mistakes she’s made in love and work, an unexpectedly touching goodbye to her black Toyota Prius and insightful commentary on technology, American culture and Asian diaspora.

Evocative, provocative and always heartfelt, Making a Scene (8 hours) is worthy of an encore. It’s a great match for fans of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart.

Evocative, provocative and always heartfelt, Constance Wu’s Making a Scene is worthy of an encore.
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Evette Dionne’s anticipated second release after her celebrated children’s nonfiction book, Lifting as We Climb, is a bracing essay collection on the dangers of fatphobia and her personal resistance to its claims. The former editor-in-chief of Bitch magazine braids the personal with the political in Weightless: Making Space for My Resilient Body and Soul, breaking down society’s deep-seated beliefs about fat people and setting new standards that allow her to thrive as she is.

Dionne takes up a variety of interconnected themes, such as the meaningful representation of fat women in media and equitable access to spaces that are meant for all of us. She writes about her first experiences of ostracization as she struggled with agoraphobia as an adolescent—which was also one of the first moments her decision-making agency was challenged in a medical setting. Despite her parents’ support, Dionne was met by doctors with indifference and even hostility, a pattern that reached its nadir when a doctor failed to promptly diagnose her heart failure, pointing instead to her size as the issue. These personal encounters with fatphobia are part of a continuum of discrimination that Dionne locates in pop culture, as well—from people’s obsession with celebrities’ weight to the preoccupation with policing fat bodies in shows like “My 600-Lb. Life.”

Dionne incorporates extensive research into Weightless, from the economic underpinnings of Reagan-era reductions to well-balanced free lunch programs and medical professionals’ widely held biases. All of these topics point to one sobering fact: Profound disgust toward fat people in American society circumscribes their lives in potentially lethal ways. However, despite these grave threats, Dionne is not hopeless. In fact, Weightless is a testament to resilience and an offering of realistic optimism. In the essay “I Want a Love Like Khadijah James,” Dionne remembers the first time she saw a woman whose body looked like hers on television: Queen Latifah as Khadijah James on “Living Single.” This feeling of being recognized lit Dionne’s world with the bright glow of possibility, and it has continued to transform her understanding of what her life could look like if she settles for nothing less than what she deserves, whether in terms of medical care, romantic relationships or professional endeavors.

Dionne writes, “I never thought I could do better because I rarely saw a fat Black woman modeling that reality for me.” With Weightless, Dionne is the model she so desperately needed, and one that other fat girls and women deserve. Her assertion of liberation for fat people brings us one important step closer to achieving it.

Evette Dionne braids the personal with the political in Weightless, breaking down society’s beliefs about fat people and advocating for new standards that allow them to thrive.

In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.

Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.

In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.

Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.

Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.

Though Emma Smith’s lively and engaging history of the book reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight general readers and bibliophiles everywhere.

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