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Welsh author Carys Davies (West) is still breaking into American readership, but it won’t take her long. Her latest historical novel, Clear, which thoughtfully explores a passionate friendship set against religious and civic changes in mid-19th century Scotland, is bound to expand her audience.

John Ferguson is a poor Presbyterian minister struggling to provide for himself and his wife, Mary. Desperate, he accepts a challenging mission to evict the remaining inhabitants of a remote Shetland island. Soon after his arrival on the island, he is injured in a fall while walking the cliffs, and his unconscious body is found by Ivar, the island’s sole occupant. Ivar brings John to his croft and nurses him back to health. Unable to understand one another (Ivar speaks a dialect of an archaic Scandinavian language called Norn) the two men form a tenuous friendship and gradually share enough words to communicate, though John postpones admitting to Ivar why he is really on the island. Long-isolated and having had only animals for company, Ivar takes pleasure in living with and caring for another person, while John, who continues to keep his mission a secret, begins to have second thoughts about the morality of his assignment. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Mary grows uneasy with the nature of her husband’s undertaking and resolves to follow him, undertaking the difficult passage north on her own.

Davies sets her novel at the crux of two historical upheavals: the 1843 break of the Free Presbyterian Church from the Church of Scotland over the issue of landowners influencing the placement of clergy, and the final years of the Scottish Clearances, in which hundreds of rural poor were evicted to create additional grazing land for livestock. Davies is attentive to these details but keeps her focus on the relationships as the narrative moves seamlessly between the three main characters. With breathtaking descriptions of the natural world and a tender exploration of an unexpected friendship, Clear challenges readers’ expectations, offering a powerful and unusual story of connection.

Carys Davies sets Clear at the crux of two historic upheavals in 1800s Scotland but keeps her focus on her characters.
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Cat Sebastian’s latest queer historical romance is a love letter to resilience and the power of bravery. Set in 1960 New York City, the same midcentury journalism milieu of Sebastian’s 2023 novel, We Could Be So Good, You Should Be So Lucky tells the story of shortstop Eddie O’Leary and journalist Mark Bailey, both of whom are in a slump.

For the last year, following the death of his longtime partner, Mark has been on sabbatical from his role as an arts and culture journalist at the Chronicle. But his break is up and his first assignment is writing a highbrow sports feature about Eddie, a struggling player on the new baseball team in town, the New York Robins.

Eddie’s dealing with the worst slump of his career and desperately misses his old team in Kansas City, Missouri, both for the friends he made and the privacy a smaller stage afforded. No professional athlete or public figure really ever has privacy, but a gay baseball player in 1960 has a reason to keep secrets. That being said, Eddie is still surprisingly open and upbeat, the sunshine to Mark’s grumpiness.

One of Sebastian’s hallmarks is excellent character development, and how she uses her characters as a window into a book’s setting. We learn about the New York Robins and the Chronicle through the actions of Mark and Eddie. It’s very enjoyable to spend time in the presence of these likable, relatable characters, but their emotions and experiences will also grab readers by the heartstrings.

Eddie needs to stay at least somewhat closeted to continue playing baseball, and Sebastian does an exceptional job of outlining the difficulties of living and loving as a gay public figure. Mark’s late partner had political aspirations that required the two of them to pretend to be platonic roommates. Mark knows how to keep the personal parts of his life private, even when the pressure of maintaining that discretion is overwhelming. As their relationship evolves, one of the central conflicts is how Mark can balance his feelings for Eddie with his desire to avoid having to hide them.

Like baseball fans throughout history, You Should Be So Lucky roots for victory—even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

A romance between a baseball player and a journalist in 1960 New York City, Cat Sebastian’s latest is as enjoyable as it is emotional.
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For over a decade, health care journalist Shefali Luthra has been reporting on reproductive rights for Kaiser Health News and The 19th. In Undue Burden: Life and Death Decisions in Post-Roe America, she details the public and private chaos that commenced when the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in its 2022 decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Immediately after the Supreme Court issued Dobbs, the right to a safe and legal abortion was no longer protected by federal laws. Even before then, however, many states had been chipping away at reproductive rights, making access to abortion care nearly impossible and Roe almost meaningless. After Dobbs, state legislatures began passing increasingly draconian statutes illegalizing abortion. With clarity and passion, Luthra describes how Dobbs put American lives, health and autonomy at risk.

Luthra does an excellent job explaining the complex legal and political history of the anti-abortion movement, and her analysis of the impact of Dobbs is meticulously documented. But at the heart of Undue Burden are the stories of dozens of patients who sought a safe abortion in a post-Dobbs world. She focuses particularly on four people to illustrate the major themes of her book: Tiff, a high school student whose inability to access a timely abortion in Texas changes her life indelibly; Angela, a single mom who knows that another baby will make it impossible to provide her young son with a stable future; Darlene, whose pregnancy threatens her life, but whose Texas doctors can not give her the care she needs; and Jasper, a trans man from Florida forced to make a crucial decision before the state’s 15-week deadline kicks in.

Luthra also gives voice to the providers whose stories are rarely heard. We meet nurses and doctors hopping on and off planes to provide safe abortions to pregnant people desperate for their help, and doctors whose colleagues have been harassed and even murdered. Their dedication to their patients is both remarkable and inspiring.

In her empathetic book, Luthra capably zooms in on private stories and zooms out on the laws that have irrevocably changed lives, proving the feminist adage: The personal is political. Undue Burden is a rigorous and compelling condemnation of the unnecessary pain and sorrow Dobbs left in its wake.

 

Shefali Luthra’s Undue Burden is a rigorous and compelling condemnation of the unnecessary pain and sorrow Dobbs left in its wake.
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A child heads outdoors, walking through a verdant and hilly rural landscape, as the sun rises and a shadow appears as the “last hint of night.” Thus begins an evocative exploration of shadows, both literal and metaphorical, in There Was a Shadow, written by Bruce Handy and illustrated by Lisk Feng. 

Handy examines the omnipresent, big and small shadows of the natural world, from the noontime shadow a tree casts, to the subtle shadows that land on a face or water. Feng’s delicate, fine-lined illustrations bring these depictions to brilliant life on the page: The falling light casts the faintest shadows across the protagonist’s face as she stares straight at the reader. Feng then depicts sunlight shimmering upon rippling water, creating shadows in various shades of blue, which Handy describes as being “like a dance.” 

A “thinking shadow . . . you could feel but not see” also plagues the protagonist: the feeling of worry. But it’s momentary and soon darts away. As all the children head home, the shadows of late afternoon stretch until they disappear altogether with the setting sun. Dinner is served among cozy and comforting indoor shadows. Feng gives readers a peek of the night landscape with a palette of deep, rich cobalt and sapphire blues, while Handy closes the book with a satisfying and thought-provoking question about memories and dreams.

It is with tenderness and reverence for the interior world of children that Handy tells this multilayered story. There Was a Shadow flows like poetry and sparkles with Feng’s beautifully wielded, sun-dappled colors, which impart mood and mystery. It’s easy to get lost in these shadows, and when the journey ends, readers will want to head right back to the book’s beginning.

There Was a Shadow brims with Bruce Handy’s tenderness and reverence for the interior world of children and sparkles with Lisk Feng's beautifully wielded, sun-dappled colors.
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The Safekeep, Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, is set in 1961 rural Holland. At 30, Isabel is living in the house where she was raised after the death of her father forced the family’s move from the city and into a furnished house their uncle Karel found for them. Isabel lives a circumscribed and watchful life, guarding her dead mother’s things, suspecting the maid of theft and fending off the attentions of a flirtatious neighbor. Of her brothers, Louis and Hendrik, she is closer to Hendrik, although she disapproves of his friend Sebastian, suspecting a deeper connection. Of Louis and the steady stream of girlfriends he introduces to her, she thinks even less. Until Eva.

The siblings meet Eva at a dinner out. With her clumsy manners and brassy dyed hair, she hardly impresses, and Isabel is shocked when Louis brings her to the house, telling Isabel that Eva must stay there while he goes away on business and showing Eva to their mother’s room. Even under Isabel’s watchful eye, things begin to disappear—a spoon, a bowl, a thimble. More alarming to Isabel is the overwhelming attraction she feels to Eva, an attraction that spills into an obsessive, intensely depicted sexual relationship.

Van der Wouden may be familiar as the author of the 2017 essay “On (Not) Reading Anne Frank,” which explored what it means to be a Dutch Jewish writer and her complicated relationship to Frank’s legacy. As Isabel and Eva’s connection unfolds, Van der Wouden’s true subject comes into view: how ordinary people were implicated in the ethnic cleansing that took place during World War II. Even in peacetime, Isabel and her peers are quick to notice people who appear different, with a fierce disgust that Isabel risks turning on herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality. A novel of redemption as much as revenge, The Safekeep has the pacing and twists of a thriller, while delving into the deeper issues laid bare by the Holocaust.

In Yael van der Wouden’s mesmerizing debut, The Safekeep, Isabel lives a circumscribed life in her dead mother’s house until her brother’s girlfriend comes to stay, alarming Isabel when an obsessive attraction develops between the two.
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If you are the sort of person who can’t bear to part with sentimental objects—“That belonged to Mamaw!”—this book is for you. Packed inside The Heirloomist: 100 Heirlooms and the Stories They Tell are photographs and stories of 100 items belonging to everyday as well as famous people, including Gloria Steinem, Rosanne Cash and Gabby Giffords. Their treasures might be a Rolex watch or a Rolleiflex camera—or simply scribbled notes, ticket stubs and even a plateful of spaghetti and meatballs. 

After becoming curator of her family’s important items, Shana Novak turned to other people’s stuff. Her photography and storytelling business, The Heirloomist, has documented over 1,500 keepsakes since 2015. No matter their financial value, she writes, “all are priceless, precisely because their stories will play your heartstrings like a symphony.” Take, for example, the daughter of a New York City firefighter who died on 9/11. Several years after that tragedy, she and her mother opened a toy chest and found an old Magna Doodle, on which her father had written: “Dear Tiana, I love you. Daddy.” 

The Heirloomist is meant to be shared with loved ones, especially those who harangue you to declutter. They may even start rummaging through basement boxes with a freshly appreciative eye. 

Shana Novak’s gorgeous, poignant The Heirloomist documents 100 treasures beloved by everyday and famous people.

Before creating her popular podcast Unf*ck Your Brain, Kara Loewentheil was already ambitious and accomplished: Her accolades include a degree from Harvard Law School, a clerkship for a federal judge and a job as a litigator for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “I had it all,” she writes, but “the problem was that my brain did not seem to share this understanding. . . . I felt like I was being held hostage by a voice that was a cross between a middle school bully and a disapproving English governess.”

Through working with a life coach, Loewentheil learned cognitive behavioral techniques to challenge her unproductive thoughts and emotions, but even after getting certified as a life coach herself and coaching other women for years, something was still missing. “What we needed to really change our lives—and therefore change the world—was feminist coaching.” Loewentheil’s literary debut, Take Back Your Brain: How a Sexist Society Gets in Your Head—and How to Get It Out, examines how sexist and patriarchal messages impact women’s thoughts and emotions and undermine our self-esteem and self-confidence. What’s more, she offers practical advice for living well despite those long-standing messages.

The book’s first section, “Reclaim Your Brain,” walks readers through the ways pervasive, sexist beliefs play into unconscious emotional and mental cycles. Loewentheil offers a written exercise called the “thought ladder” to help readers move from a negative or debilitating thought to a neutral or even positive thought. The book’s second section, “Reclaim Your Life,” covers body image, self-esteem, romantic relationships, money mindset and time. Each chapter is grounded in cultural and social history or reportage—for instance,the beauty and wellness industries—and offers practical exercises and prompts. Throughout, Loewentheil shares anecdotes and quotes from clients, as well the missteps and successes that make up her own story.

While some of the book’s cognitive-behavioral techniques may be familiar to readers who’ve seen therapists, the feminist framework is a welcome approach for our still-evolving 21st-century society. And Loewentheil is an engaging, straightforward guide.

 

Kara Loewentheil offers a feminist take on self-help in the engaging, straightforward Take Back Your Brain.
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Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) takes his first foray into children’s books with Simone, a thoughtful and emotionally intense family story set during the California fire season. Simone, a young Vietnamese American girl, is dreaming of floating in the ocean when she is awakened by her mother (whom she calls M&aacute, the only Vietnamese word she knows). A wildfire is approaching their town, and they’ve been ordered to evacuate.

Simone and her mother are prepared with go bags and an evacuation route—but even then Simone has to make tough choices: “I’ll be back for you,” she reluctantly says to the books and toys she can’t take. The pain of leaving things behind and the panic of vacating her home in an emergency remind Simone’s m&aacute of when floods forced her to evacuate her childhood home in Vietnam and abandon everything but her precious crayons. Despite the disorientation and chaos at the evacuation shelter, Simone’s m&aacute helps Simone find a path forward: “You don’t fight fire with fire, / You fight fire with water,” she says.

Minnie Phan’s hand-lettered text reinforces Simone’s first-person perspective, and Phan’s colored pencil and watercolor palette gorgeously interprets the book’s themes. Simone dreams in color, but when she awakens, the world is black and white, with the only remaining colors the red and orange of the flames. Likewise, her mother’s memories of Vietnam are blue, like the floodwaters that engulfed her home. Toward the end, as Simone and her new friends use artwork to remember their homes and to re-imagine their future, color returns to the pages. The illustrations combine with Nguyen’s words—“It’s up to us”—to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

In Simone, Minnie Phan’s illustrations combine with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s prose to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

Adventure, anyone? While Ikumi Nakamura is best known as a Japanese video game artist and developer with an interest in horror and mystery, she has another fascinating side. As Project UrbEx: Adventures in Ghost Towns, Wastelands and Other Forgotten Worlds reveals, she’s also a fearless, adventurous photographer who has long traveled the world to explore and capture unusual and hidden locations. (For the uninitiated, UrbEx is short for urban exploration, a sometimes-dangerous pastime exploring structures and abandoned ruins in the human-made environment.)

This volume includes images from Nakamura’s explorations in North America, Europe and Asia accompanied by short, evocative essays and captions by Cam Winstanley, written based on interviews with Nakamura. The photos range from an old Italian garment factory, a decaying theme park in Bali nearly overgrown with lush vegetation, and the ruins of military planes baking in the Mojave Desert sun. A few depict Nakamura herself in precarious positions as she attempts to capture a shot.

It is unfortunate that the text is printed in neon orange, which readers may find difficult to read. Otherwise, this beautifully designed book is an intriguing conversation starter that may inspire photographers to undertake their own explorations.

 

In Project UrbEx, photographer Ikumi Nakamura explores and captures unusual and hidden locations throughout the world.
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Summer vacation has arrived, and with it the euphoric urge to pack a bag and hit the road (or skies. Or sea). But what is a well-traveled LGBTQIA+ person (or ally!) to do when the same old vacation spots have gotten a bit too-well trodden? Let Out in the World: An LGBTQIA+ (and Friends!) Travel Guide to More Than 120 Destinations Around the World guide the way!

Card-carrying, globe-trotting gays Amy B. Scher and Mark Jason Williams have assembled an impressive guide on where to go when and what to do when you get there, whether you’re a rugged hiker, a small town sightseer or are simply looking to relax at as many vineyards as possible before returning to real life. Even better, they’ve done it with an eye especially for the queer traveler, compiling lists of LGBTQIA+ owned eateries, tour companies, shops and bed and breakfasts. (They even note which hotels are dog-friendly, in the event of a furry plus one). Divided into chapters with headings such as “Where No One Gets Hangry,” “Nature and Nurture” and “Our Favorite Small Towns With Big Pride,” Out in the World is packed with unexpected and delightful new places to explore while unabashedly being exactly who you are.

Out in the World is an LGBTQ+ travel guide packed with unexpected and delightful new places to explore while unabashedly being exactly who you are.

Almost 60 years ago, herpetologist and conservationist Archie Carr introduced the beauty and splendor of sea turtles to the world in his now classic So Excellent a Fishe. It was 1967, and Carr was already warning readers of the dangers these magnificent creatures faced due to fishing nets, ocean pollution and human encroachment on breeding grounds. The plight of sea turtles hasn’t improved much since Carr’s time, but thanks to marine biologist and ecologist Christine Figgener’s captivating My Life With Sea Turtles: A Marine Biologist’s Quest to Protect One of the Most Ancient Animals on Earth, readers can understand the life cycle of sea turtles, the forces that endanger them and the steps we must take to save them from extinction.

Figgener was in an undergraduate research program in Egypt when she encountered her first sea turtle and, mesmerized, watched it swim through the waters of the Red Sea. She moved to Costa Rica to work as a research assistant in an organization devoted to saving endangered leatherback turtles from extinction. Figgener recounts this early research with urgency that brings you right into the moment with her, peering at a sea turtle as she lays her eggs in the sand. 

With zeal and passion, Figgener shares a wealth of information about these creatures. For example, sea turtles migrate back and forth between their nesting beaches and their feeding grounds, some species covering as many as 7,450 miles from site to site. Nesting female sea turtles lay hundreds of eggs each year, but only 50-60% hatch, and once the hatchlings leave the nest, only a small percentage survive the arduous journey back to the ocean, sneaking or scuttling by predatory birds and crabs. Once in the ocean, the newborns face marine predators and must navigate polluted waters filled with plastics and fishing nets that can ensnare, maim or kill them. 

Part memoir, part science reporting and part conservationist tract, Figgener’s illuminating My Life With Sea Turtles sheds light not only on the beauty and mystery of sea turtles, but also on the urgent need to save them.

The illuminating My Life With Sea Turtles sheds light not only on the beauty and mystery of sea turtles, but also on the urgent need to save them.

Myth and folklore intertwine seamlessly with the tumultuous lives of Asian women in this mesmerizing collection of stories.

Each story in Ninetails: Nine Tales reveals the poignant struggles of young Asian women marginalized and scorned, struggling to eke out their identity, follow their heart and break free from political oppression and social expectations. At the heart of these tales of strength and transformation is Ninetails, a fox spirit known by many names—hulijing, huxian, fox demon or fox fairy—who helps women of diverse backgrounds and ages transcend the violence and turbulence of their lives.

The central story, divided into several parts, is called “The Haunting of Angel Island.” Set in the 1900s, against the backdrop of the Angel Island immigration station located in San Francisco Bay, it features Tye, a Chinese interpreter who witnesses the harrowing experiences of women detainees. Other stories include the tale of a silicone love doll who yearns to be human, the plight of a Korean girl bullied in a land foreign to her, and the story of two friends connected by being cheated on by the same man. Unfolding with gripping intensity through author Sally Wen Mao’s vivid depictions of the gritty settings and sobering situations that confront her characters, each premise is made even more powerful by the magical element introduced when a fox spirit manifests to liberate the women from their misery, or inflict retribution for wrongdoings.

Some of the stories in Ninetails end abruptly and can feel a little disjointed; nevertheless, Mao’s compelling depiction of Asian women’s experiences is powerfully unsettling in its authenticity. Through themes of revenge and redemption, these stories illuminate our enduring capacity for resilience.

In Sally Wen Mao’s Ninetails, a fox spirit helps Asian women of diverse backgrounds and ages transcend the violence and turbulence of their lives.
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After sharing a year with Mouse in Mouse’s Wood, young readers can now enjoy a day on the river with Mouse on the River: A Journey Through Nature, a quiet picture book full of charm. As the titular hero spends the day rowing down a river that eventually meets the sea, the most dramatic event is a passing rainstorm—making this a good choice for a soothing bedtime tale.

William Snow’s rhyming text moves the story along as Mouse begins his solo journey early in the morning, while fellow anthropomorphic friends wave goodbye from the dock. This is very much an experiential book, with a multitude of details to scour, beginning with the full-spread map showing Mouse’s planned route. Numerous die-cut flaps encourage keen observation as they reveal cozy, detailed interiors of buildings along the way, including a floating house, a café and a treehouse. Additional fold-out flaps appearing as trees enhance the sense of Mouse’s ongoing progress, enlarging several scenes beyond the book’s borders. Once the journey is complete, an illustrated list of Mouse’s equipment—as well as depictions of flora and fauna encountered along the way—will encourage enthusiastic readers to go back and find these items. 

The star of this show is Alice Melvin’s rich illustrations, which are chock-full of details: squirrels having tea inside a bright cafe; a fox waiting on a customer in a well-stocked bakery; Mouse camping snugly in the rowboat underneath the stars. The book brings to mind another one that quickly became a favorite in our house when my girls were young: Welcome to Mouse Village, written by Gyles Brandreth and illustrated by Mary Hall.

Mouse on the River is a well-planned, enchanting adventure worthy of repeat enjoyment.

Mouse on the River is a well-planned, enchanting adventure in which the most dramatic event is a passing rainstorm—making this richly illustrated picture book a good choice for a soothing bedtime tale.

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