Bestsellers
STARRED REVIEW

April 19, 2022

Best of the bestsellers

Hundreds of books have hit the bestseller lists so far this year, but which ones deserve the hype? We think these 13 titles earned their places on the list.

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Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes quartet is one of the most influential YA fantasy series of the past decade. In All My Rage, Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary realistic fiction.

All My Rage alternates between the perspectives of former best friends Salahudin and Noor. As the novel opens, both teens feel stuck in their small town of Juniper, which is surrounded by the Mojave Desert. Earlier in their senior year, Noor told Sal about the romantic feelings she’d been harboring for him, but Sal rejected her, and they haven’t spoken since.

Sal’s parents, Misbah and Toufiq, run a roadside motel that has seen better days. Misbah has been skipping treatments for her kidney disease, and Toufiq is drunk more than he’s sober. Noor’s uncle adopted her when she was 6, but he resents that raising her has meant deferring his own dream of becoming an engineer and wants her to take over running his liquor store when she graduates.

Noor’s been secretly applying to colleges and ignoring the texts from Sal’s mom asking when she’s going to visit so they can watch their favorite soap opera together again. Yet when Misbah’s health takes a turn for the worse, it’s Noor who’s in her hospital room to hear her last word: “Forgive.” Noor reconciles with Sal and the two grow closer while continuing to keep secrets from each other. As the truth comes to light, Sal and Noor must each decide what can—and should—be forgiven.

All My Rage takes the often cliched all-American trope of two young people who long to leave their small town behind and fills it with moral complexity and emotional heft. The book’s six sections each open with a stanza from “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle about grief and “the art of losing,” which Noor struggles to write a paper about for English class. Sal and Noor experience numerous losses, and Tahir excels at conveying how trauma and tragedy ripple outward, shaping even the lives of those who seem untouched by darkness.

Tahir explores weighty questions, such as how we can forgive someone for hurting us when they should have been protecting us, but she includes frequent moments of wry levity and solace, especially the comfort Noor finds in music and the Muslim faith she shared with Sal’s mother. All My Rage will likely make you cry, but it will definitely make you smile, too.

“If we are lost, God is like water, finding the unknowable path when we cannot,” Misbah tells Noor. Tahir’s invitation to join Sal and Noor on their search for such a path feels like a gift every step of the way.

In All My Rage, a novel about two teens desperate to leave their small town, Sabaa Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary fiction as she is at epic fantasy.

Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.” 

As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.

Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”

South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.

In the city of Setar, the capital of the kingdom of Ardunia, Alizeh works her fingers to the bone all day cleaning the 116-rooms of Baz House, a noble estate. At night, she works on commissions as she tries to establish herself as a seamstress. She can only survive this exhausting schedule because of her supernatural strength and endurance. Alizeh is Jinn, and while Jinn and humans have coexisted for many years, Jinn are considered untrustworthy and are not allowed to openly use their magic.

Even among Jinn, Alizeh is extraordinary, with more reason than most to put up with the abuses of life among the servant class. She has been on the run since the death of her parents, and a noble house with a large staff and plentiful security is the perfect place to hide. Yet there are parts of Alizeh’s story that are unknown even to her.

Kamran, crown prince of Ardunia, is destined to succeed his grandfather as king. On a visit home from his military duties, Kamran notices a strange interaction between a street urchin and a servant girl, and fears the servant girl may be a spy from the rival kingdom of Tulan. His suspicions set in motion a series of events he cannot control as Alizeh becomes a wanted woman who is believed to be a significant threat to the king. Kamran’s conflicting principles—loyalty to his king and conviction that Alizeh is not a danger—draw him down a path to find out the truth for himself.

A retelling of “Cinderella” complete with an aspiring seamstress on a crash course toward a fateful royal ball, This Woven Kingdom masterfully incorporates influences from Persian and Muslim history, culture and mythology. Exceedingly powerful but not invulnerable, the novel’s Jinn are an intriguing addition to the YA canon of such figures. Setar is vibrantly evoked, and its wintry climate and snowy landscape set it apart from books with similar plots and themes.

The novel’s standout feature is its language. This Woven Kingdom is a fairy-tale retelling that actually sounds like a fairy tale: Its characters speak like they’re in one, using formal tones and sophisticated vocabularies. That is not to say the novel is devoid of levity. Indeed, the grandiosity of Alizeh and Kamran’s banter adds to the intoxicating sense of wonder and flirtation that marks their interactions.

Tightly paced, with a rollicking set of twists and revelations and a chaotic climax that leads straight to a whopping cliffhanger of an ending, This Woven Kingdom is an exceptional fantasy that blends its various influences to addictive effect.

Tahereh Mafi masterfully incorporates Persian and Muslim influences into this exceptional, addictive “Cinderella” retelling.

Portico Reeves isn’t an average kid, and he doesn’t live in an average house. He lives in the biggest house in the world. In fact, it’s a castle. Well, it’s actually an apartment building, but it is pretty big. And all those people who also live in the building? They’re not neighbors. They’re characters in a television show starring Portico’s superhero alter ego: Stuntboy!

Is Stuntboy faster than a speeding bullet? No. Does he have X-ray vision or super strength? Also no. But he is brave enough to jump in front of the new kid, Zola, when she attracts the attention of Stuntboy’s archnemesis, Herbert Singletary the Worst? You bet he is.

As Stuntboy, Portico can withstand a bully’s barbed words, but when the trouble tracks closer to home, he struggles to keep up his superheroic facade. His grandmother calls it the frets. Portico’s stomach begins to twist, and he doesn’t know what to do. Lately, his parents’ separation and constant arguing have been making Portico’s frets worse than ever.

In his first original graphic novel, award-winning author Jason Reynolds, whose tenure as National Ambassador for Young People’s literature was recently extended for a third year, gives readers a comic book superhero whose adventures feel both timely and classic. Stuntboy, in the Meantime is an imaginative tale of creative resilience and friendship.

The book’s illustrations by Pura Belpré Illustrator Award-winning artist Raúl the Third are stylish and energetic. When Zola relates Portico’s troubles to her favorite sci-fi TV show, “Super Space Warriors,” scenes appear straight out of a midcentury comic book, complete with Benday dots and bold, psychedelic colors by Elaine Bay.

Beneath its superheroic trappings, Stuntboy, in the Meantime is an appealing story about a young boy struggling to bolster himself against the mundane uncertainties in his life. Portico finds winning allies in this quest, including Zola, who shows him strategies for settling his anxiety. Underpinning it all is the notion that to overcome our fears, we must turn our attention outward. To save ourselves, we must serve others.

Is Stuntboy faster than a speeding bullet? Er, no. Can he defeat the frets, those feelings he gets when his life feels out of control? Find out in Stuntboy, in the Meantime!

Animals do the darndest things—just ask bestselling author Mary Roach. After writing about the science behind human cadavers (Stiff), space travel (Packing for Mars) and life as a soldier (Grunt), she turns her attention to criminals in the wild in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

This book is such a rich stew of anecdotes and lore that it’s best savored slowly, bit by bit. Roach doles out surprising true tales from her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations, such as the story of a woman who returned home to find a leopard in her bed watching TV, or one about bear bandits in Pitkin County, Colorado, who tend to prefer premium brands of ice cream like Häagen-Dazs over brands like Western Family, which they apparently won’t touch. Her exploits are accompanied by numerous, sometimes lengthy footnotes, such as a particularly intriguing one about the scientific difficulties of studying monkey ejaculate.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Mary Roach shares some highlights from her worldwide travels to collect stories of fuzzy fugitives.


Roach also tackles deeply serious topics in Fuzz, such as the death and destruction caused by certain wandering elephants, or bears whose DNA needs to be traced in order to track down one who killed a person. But no matter the situation, Roach approaches it with contagious enthusiasm, gifting readers with sentences like this one about a tourist lodge in India: “I love this kind of place, love the surreal decay of it, love the clerk who does not know where breakfast is served or even if breakfast is served, love everything, really, except the rat turds on my balcony.” 

As Roach marvels at this wild world, she brings home the fact that, as one expert put it, “When it comes to wildlife issues, seems like we’ve created a lot of our own problems.” Roach is never one to proselytize, however, jokingly calling herself “Little Miss Coexistence” as she challenges herself not to set a trap for that roof rat pattering on her deck. Nonetheless, Fuzz will open readers’ eyes to a myriad of animal rights issues, and possibly change their attitudes about how to approach them. When it comes to handling pesky rodents and birds, for instance, Roach concludes, “Perhaps the model should be shoplifting. Supermarkets and chain stores don’t poison shoplifters; they come up with better ways to outsmart them.”

Bestselling author Mary Roach’s enthusiasm is contagious as she doles out surprising true tales from her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations.

Five decades into an almost singularly successful career, Stephen King goes in an intriguing new direction with Billy Summers. Though this novel includes many classic King touchstones—revenge, a writer hero, unlikely friendships, trauma, justice—its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works.

As the novel opens, 44-year-old military sniper-turned-assassin Billy Summers is reluctantly agreeing to take on one last job. Though he only kills bad people (he considers himself “a garbageman with a gun”), Billy is tired of the isolation and violence his chosen career entails, as well as of the dull, incurious persona he puts on to deflect the attention of the dangerous people who hire him. The payday for this final assignment is astronomical, and the target undeniably deserves his fate, but what really convinces Billy to take on the job is the cover: He’ll have to pose as a writer who’s renting space in an office building to complete his first novel.

The criminals who hired Billy find this cover story to be ironic due to Billy’s “dumb self” mask, but Billy, who secretly reveres Émile Zola and Tim O’Brien, is attracted to the idea of putting his own story on paper. As Billy begins to write about his traumatic childhood, his cover becomes increasingly real to him. But even as he sinks into his identity as “Dave,” the guileless would-be great American novelist who beats the pants off his neighbors at Monopoly and grabs drinks with a woman who works in his office building, he begins to sense that there’s more to this job than he’s being told. And of course, the hit is only the beginning of the action.

The poignant beats in this early portion of Billy Summers will be familiar to readers of 11/23/63, which also features a main character with a hidden mission who becomes a part of a community even as he deceives the people around him. But given that this novel is about a hit man, the violence kicks in quickly and continues through most of the book. King’s trademark skill with suspense and action is on display in several thrilling set pieces, including the breathlessly paced original hit, but this novel also stretches his literary ambitions. Much of Billy’s autofiction appears on the page in a book within a book that gives readers a deeper understanding of its main character. And while Billy shifts between personas and dons physical disguises with aplomb, his internal self comes more clearly into focus as he writes about his experiences and interrogates the stories he’s been telling himself about his past—and about himself. Billy might kill only bad people, but he’s still a killer. Can a person who ends the lives of others ever be considered good? 

Misery, The Dark Half, Lisey’s Story and The Shining all feature writers as characters, but their craft was either incidental or corrosive. In Billy Summers, the art of creating fiction is portrayed as an empowering force. By taking control of our stories, King suggests, we can begin to heal, find hope and even discover a truth that is more profound than reality. These resonant ideas provide a somber counterpoint to the action in this contemplative thriller.

 

In Stephen King's contemplative thriller, Billy Summers, the art of creating fiction is portrayed as an empowering force.

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