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Rejoice, Bardugo fans and dark academia lovers: You’ll get much more of the spooky stuff you crave in the extraordinary Hell Bent.

After her first brush with the dark underworld of Yale University—in this world, the school’s infamous secret societies are called houses, and their members are practitioners of magic—Alex Stern deserves a sabbatical. But as firmly established in author Leigh Bardugo’s excellent Ninth House, Alex isn’t built for rest, especially when there’s still work to do. Alex is a member of Lethe, the ninth house, which monitors the other houses to make sure they don’t go too far. She’s capable and cantankerous, but in Hell Bent she’s also desperate. Darlington, the wunderkind of Lethe, Alex’s mentor and maybe something more, is gone, presumed dead after the events of Ninth House. Alex vows to bring him back to the world of the living, but things are never that simple in New Haven, Connecticut.

Without Darlington to guide her and back her up, Alex is overwhelmed and vulnerable, which makes each new challenge she faces even more riveting for the reader. She’s already investigating a series of strange murders of faculty members, and to make matters worse, Alex and her friend Dawes make a horrific discovery in Darlington’s family home: a demonic presence, restrained by magic—for now. Together, they must find a way to bring Darlington back while keeping whatever’s in his house from being unleashed on the world. Can Alex survive all that Hell and Yale throw at her?

Once again, Bardugo shows she’s one of the best world builders in the business. Her version of Yale and its people is so richly rendered, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s imagined. Not a page goes by without a line from Yeats or a fact about the architectural history of New Haven or a bit of biblical allusion. And yet, the book whizzes along, marvelously balancing these details with The Da Vinci Code-esque clue-hunting, demonic rituals and lectures from a particularly uptight school administrator.

Gut-wrenching and deeply human, this book will tug at your heartstrings even as it chills you to the bone. In spite of all of its magic, world building and shenanigans, Hell Bent stays true to its characters, never compromising them for the sake of genre thrills or expectations. Standing head and shoulders above the already impressive Ninth House, Hell Bent is one of the best fantasy novels of the year.

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

Elizabeth Everett’s praiseworthy Secret Scientists of London series returns with the third installment, A Love by Design. Engineer Margaret Gault has recently returned to London from Paris and is intent on opening her own firm, despite all the struggles that await a businesswoman in Victorian England. Maggie quickly finds a promising and exciting commission, but she cannot avoid George Willis, the Earl Grantham, who broke her heart years ago. Unfortunately, George has grown into an extraordinarily handsome man with extraordinary goals—including educating children, regardless of gender. But Maggie can’t allow her still-strong feelings for him to get in the way of her dreams. After all, an engineer can’t be a countess and a countess can’t be an engineer . . . or so she thinks. It’s easy to sympathize with brainy Maggie and her quest for independence, and George proves to be a hero worthy of her. The fight for women’s rights is front and center, giving heft to this otherwise lighthearted romance.

Lunar Love

As Lauren Kung Jessen’s Lunar Love begins, Olivia Huang Christenson has just assumed responsibility for the titular matchmaking business, which is based on the Chinese zodiac. Her grandmother built Lunar Love from the ground up, and Olivia is determined to put its success above everything else, including her heart. But both are at risk when she has a meet-cute with charming startup advisor Bennett O’Brien. Lunar Love relies on personal touches like dating coaching, and Olivia thinks Bennett’s app takes all the humanity out of romance. To prove whose method works best, they make a very public bet to find matches for each other. Along the way, they bond over their multiracial heritages (she’s Chinese, Norwegian and Scottish; he’s Chinese and Irish) while enjoying some absolutely mouthwatering dates, like Chinese baking classes and a dumpling and beer festival. Told in Olivia’s fresh first-person voice, this story will have readers rooting for her to realize that even though their signs are incompatible, everything else points to Bennett being her perfect match.

The Heretic Royal

A princess struggles to find her place in her family in G.A. Aiken’s latest entry in the Scarred Earth Saga, The Heretic Royal. Ainsley Farmerson has been overshadowed by her older sisters all her life—two are now queens (one is, unfortunately, extremely evil), and a third is a ruthless war monk—so Ainsley decides to step up. At her side is rugged centaur Gruffyn, and as they face down dragons, demons and her evil sister’s machinations, Ainsley and Gruffyn forge an unbreakable bond. This tale of magic and mayhem is told from multiple perspectives, and readers will need to keep their wits about them as the action speeds along and the dialogue pings among sarcastic dragons, earnest fathers and obnoxious siblings.

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

In many religious traditions, paradise names an otherworldly realm overflowing with lush greenery, luscious fruits, honeyed scents and cascading waterfalls. In others, paradise can be attained in this world, even in the midst of the clattering cacophony surrounding us. Bestselling travel writer Pico Iyer shares his own search for paradise in The Half Known Life, traversing the world’s vibrant religious traditions to uncover paradise’s contours, its purported locations and the role it plays in earthly conflicts. 

With vivid imagery and sterling prose, Iyer documents his wanderings from town to temple. In Tehran, Iran, for example, he learned that Rumi counseled readers to find a heaven within themselves because paradise is not some idyllic place that transcends this world. Rumi’s poetry created a “paradise of words,” Iyer found, amid the unceasing strife of the country’s various Islamic branches. In the Kashmir region of India, which some claim was the location of the Garden of Eden, Iyer embraced a paradisiacal moment as he floated in a houseboat in the middle of a lake. In Sri Lanka, he visited Adam’s Peak, a forest outcropping that Buddhists, Christians and Hindus all claim as sacred ground. In Jerusalem, Israel, he wondered where a “nonaffiliated soul” could find sanctuary and “make peace among all the competing chants.” He tried his luck at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “a riot of views of paradise overlapping at crooked angles till one was left with the sorrow of six different Christian orders sharing the same space, and lashing out at one another with brooms.” At the end of his quest, Iyer woke to a “thick pall of mist” in Varanasi, India. It was so difficult to see through that it “made every figure look even more like a visitor from another world.” Observing them, he writes, “it was easy to believe we were all caught up in the same spell, creatures in some celestial dream, ferried silently across the river and back again.”

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul and the world’s urban and rural, secular and religious, landscapes.

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul.
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John Hendrickson’s Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter is the kind of memoir that educates, endears, impacts and devastates, often simultaneously. A journalist and senior editor at The Atlantic, Hendrickson is best known for his 2019 interview with then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. The resulting piece had little to do with politics. Rather, Hendrickson’s article centered on Biden’s lifelong stutter and its influence on everything from his childhood to public speaking. The perceptible beating heart of the piece is Hendrickson himself, who tackled the subject of Biden’s stutter in a way only someone on the inside could. Hendrickson also speaks with a stutter, one that he deems severe. Life on Delay picks up after Hendrickson’s article went viral, when he was left to tackle media attention focused on the disability he had spent most of his life trying not to think about.

John Hendrickson shares what happened when he stopped regarding his stutter as an obstacle and started viewing it as a fact.

Although the book is predominantly a memoir, covering everything from adolescent bullying to teenage angst, it also includes a wide selection of interviews with other people who stutter. These conversations highlight Hendrickson’s journey from reluctant stuttering icon to a person at peace with himself and his stutter. His writing is unflinching as he depicts the daily life of someone with a disability only 1% of the U.S. population has. Personal yet informative, Life on Delay delves into the internal poeticism of someone who feels perpetually on the fringe while offering tangible advice regarding what to say or not say to someone with a stutter. By combining his own personal narrative with others’ life stories, Hendrickson provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of stutterers’ lived experiences, including creating music and art, facing childhood trauma, having their own “coming out” experiences and accepting disability as a part of their identity.

Life on Delay is not a disability memoir that focuses on trying to find a cure for stuttering, nor does it fall into the category of sentimental, inspirational stories of overcoming impossible odds. Instead, the book promotes a simple message: Obtaining true peace comes from accepting every part of yourself, including the things that bring you shame. It’s a universal message from a voice that has been misunderstood at best, demeaned and diminished at worst, making its impact on the reader all the more profound.

John Hendrickson’s Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter is a memoir that educates, endears, impacts and devastates, often simultaneously.
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“Rough sleepers” are homeless people who mostly choose to sleep on the streets rather than in indoor shelters. Their death rates are staggering, their health needs endless, their fates often in the hands of people who struggle to know what to do with them. However, there are some people whose mission is to care for rough sleepers, doing work that is both lifesaving and extremely frustrating. With a straightforward scrutiny that somehow sees, describes and reveals without flinching or judging, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder offers a long, hard look at the lives of people without housing in Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People.

As a writer, Kidder is intensely immersive. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, he traveled with Dr. Paul Farmer to observe groundbreaking health care work around the world. In Rough Sleepers, Kidder documents the three years he spent with the team that cares for Boston’s homeless population, making rounds with Dr. Jim O’Connell in his van late into the night. They treated people on the street or got them into hospitals and clinics to receive care. They offered blankets and food. They listened. Kidder was given deep access to their world—to the shelters, clinics, emergency rooms, hidden hangouts—and to the life of the man leading these efforts, fondly known by his many patients as Dr. Jim.

Readers also meet some of the people who live without homes in Boston in Rough Sleepers. There’s Tony Colombo, who spends his days at a respite house helping residents and staff and his nights on the street getting into trouble. Tony’s friend BJ, having lost both legs, needs constant help keeping upright in his wheelchair. Joanne Guarino is maintaining her sobriety after 30 years on the street and remains a regular guest speaker at Harvard Medical School, where she compels students to treat homeless people with compassion.

Dr. Jim and his team are the inspiring center of Kidder’s book. Now in his 70s, the Harvard-trained physician is still the city’s “street doctor,” sustaining and nurturing relationships with society’s most marginalized and vulnerable people. He realizes his work has come at the cost of his own family life and wryly compares himself to Sisyphus. His colleagues also grapple with the personal toll such vigilant care takes. Still, they see themselves as merely necessary, not heroic. In Rough Sleepers, Kidder begs to differ.

With a straightforward scrutiny that reveals without judging, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder offers a long, hard look at the lives of homeless people.
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Shubeik lubeik translates from the Arabic to “your wish is my command,” an iconic fairy-tale phrase that’s also the title of a brilliantly original graphic novel from Egyptian comics creator Deena Mohamed. Her richly detailed drawings imbue contemporary Cairo—and its all-too-familiar atmosphere of bureaucracy, rigid laws and class-based bias—with the magic of wishes, dragons, flying cars and talking donkeys. 

Originally self-published, Shubeik Lubeik won the grand prize at the Cairo Comix Festival in 2017; by the end of the year, Mohamed had signed on with the agent who discovered Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. For the book’s highly anticipated American publication, Mohamed translated Shubeik Lubeik into English herself and requested that the book be printed like Arabic books, to be read from right to left.

Mohamed’s novel introduces a world where wishes are real and sold in three tiers. First-class wishes are the most expensive and last the longest, while third-class wishes are the budget option, carrying a higher risk of things going wrong. The story begins at a modest kiosk where three first-class wishes are for sale. The first is purchased by Aziza, a struggling widow whose economic status makes it difficult for her to own—let alone use—her wish. The second wish goes to Nour, a privileged college student who is conflicted about wishing away their severe depression. Finally, Shokry, owner of the kiosk and thus the remaining wish, struggles with the morality of using his wish to improve the health of a dear friend. 

Mohamed’s bold, expressive illustrations split the difference between cartoon and realism, with brightly colored details contrasting against the monochromatic tedium of government documents. Records of wish laws, facts and trivia are as dense as any legal text, but they also offer a sly nod to such real-life social issues as mental health, poverty and sexism. The rendering of Nour’s depression via graphs, charts and maps is particularly effective. 

These characters’ struggles and successes are equally heartbreaking and uplifting, creating a wholly satisfying reading experience. Our wish is Mohamed’s command.

This article was updated to correct the description of Nour.

Deena Mohamed’s richly detailed drawings imbue contemporary Cairo—and its all-too-familiar atmosphere of bureaucracy, rigid laws and class-based bias—with the magic of wishes, dragons, flying cars and talking donkeys.
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Coretta Scott King Honor author Lesa Cline-Ransome has earned a reputation as an excellent chronicler of American history in more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction. In For Lamb, she powerfully captures the events that lead to a fictitious lynching in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1940. 

Cline-Ransome was inspired to write For Lamb after visiting the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, where she became interested in the untold stories of Black women who were victims of lynching. Within the novel, Cline-Ransome names a number of characters after these women, including the titular protagonist, whose namesake, Lamb Whittle, was lynched in Louisiana in 1907. 

As the novel opens, 16-year-old Lamb Clark (who was “quiet as a lamb” when she was born) is a naive girl, sheltered by her protective mother, Marion, and older brother, Simeon, an enterprising student determined to attend college and leave the South behind. After an encounter between Simeon and a bigoted white optometrist, the doctor’s daughter decides to befriend Lamb. Their friendship sets off a series of developments and leads to a horrifying, expertly plotted climax with unimaginable consequences. 

Cline-Ransome skillfully conveys Lamb’s transformation into a young woman determined to chart her own course in life despite the obstacles and horrors of the Jim Crow South, including a sexual assault and the lynching of a member of her family. Lamb comes to a new understanding of Marion’s romantic relationship with a woman and forms a new connection with her father, who has been largely absent for many years.

Cline-Ransome depicts injustice and violence with a perfect balance of brutality and sensitivity. She particularly excels at portraying the nuances of relationships and character motivations, which are often at odds among the members of Lamb’s family. Simeon, for instance, longs to be free from the need to act submissive around white people, while Marion believes this behavior can be key to survival, and readers gain deep understandings of both characters’ perspectives.  

For Lamb is a heartbreaking novel that will leave readers with a visceral understanding of history.

Lesa Cline-Ransome powerfully chronicles the events that lead to a fictitious lynching in For Lamb, which expertly balances brutality and sensitivity.
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Readers of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s award-winning debut novel, In West Mills, a multigenerational saga spanning the 1940s through the ’80s, will be thrilled to return to the titular small town in Decent People. It’s 1976, and the town’s only Black physician, Dr. Marian Harmon, has been found dead from a gunshot in her West Mills home, along with her brother and sister.

The Harmons’ half brother, Lymp Seymore, had a strained relationship with the victims, and he is immediately questioned by police, who show little interest in actually solving the shocking crime. Lymp’s fiancée, Jo Wright, begins sleuthing on her own, and her investigation leads her to believe that more than one person had a motive for the crime.

As the story unspools, Winslow shifts point of view from character to character, successfully developing a large cast that’s connected by multiple intermingling plotlines, including a particularly poignant one involving a boy facing homophobia. Revelations about the cast’s relationships not only move the mystery forward but also contain pitch-perfect zingers and crushing truths about race, privilege, pride and shame. For example, Savannah Russet, the white daughter of the Harmons’ landlord, was disowned by her family when she married a Black man. Savannah was also best friends with Marian, and they had a very public argument not long before her murder. But when a police officer telephones Savannah during the investigation, he reassures her that there’s no need to come in for questioning because “You don’t exactly fit the profile, if you know what I mean.” 

Anyone who adored Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake and Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand, take note. Winslow invites readers on a satisfying ride that, through his keen observations of human nature, leads to deeper considerations of the glacial progress of racial equality. “It’s 1976. There’s no Klan anymore,” Savannah’s father proclaims at one point, but then he quickly admits to himself that “it still existed, and that it always would.” To reveal such underlying truths, Decent People twists the light this way and that, showing the simmering tensions that can indeed turn deadly.

In his second novel, De’Shawn Charles Winslow invites readers on a satisfying ride that, through his keen observations of human nature, leads to deeper considerations of the glacial progress of racial equality.
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“Finn was in a horrible mood. Grandpa wanted to talk about it. Finn did not.” So begins author-illustrator Cori Doerrfeld’s picture book that captures what we truly need when we’re not ready to talk about what is happening underneath the surface. 

When we first see Finn, the child is little more than a lump, sitting on a bed and covered by a patchwork quilt. To the left of the bed is a sewing machine, and hanging on the wall above is a wedding portrait of Grandpa and Grandma. Instead of pushing his grandchild into a conversation, Grandpa suggests a walk, and Finn reluctantly agrees. The two set off with Finn still wrapped tightly in the quilt, their nose peeking out from its folds.

As the pair walk into a dense forest that teems with life, Grandpa notes the many things happening that can’t be seen: root systems of trees growing underground, fish swimming under the surface of the water, eggs staying warm in a nest beneath a bird and more. In each spread, Finn emerges a little bit more from beneath the quilt. First we see Finn’s face, then a puff of reddish hair, then the sleeves of a blue sweater. 

Doerrfeld’s digital paint illustrations are richly colored and detailed, featuring the soft, crayonlike textures that have become her signature. Scenes that reveal secrets hidden within hollow trees and underground burrows feel cozy and safe, evoking the way Finn must feel under the quilt. Especially moving is a scene in which Grandpa and Finn come across several other groups of walkers: an older person with a dog, an adult and a crying child, and a person using a wheelchair sharing headphones with a companion. Doerrfeld’s X-ray vision artwork shows readers the different thoughts and emotions of each person, a testimony to how varying our experiences can be even amid a shared moment.

Beneath is a rare picture book that truly meets both young readers and adults where they are. Its tenderness and sense of wonder will appeal to children. They’ll relate to Finn’s initial conviction that some things feel too hard for anyone else to understand, as well as the deeper longing to have such feelings validated. Meanwhile, Grandpa’s desire to offer Finn comfort and validation will resonate with adults. 

As Grandpa seeks to care for Finn, he also creates an opportunity for Finn to care for him, and it’s this depiction of mutual care that makes Beneath so extraordinary. Witnessing the love between these two characters gives readers of all ages a beautiful model of how we can truly support one another when we need it most.

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

Maori screenwriter and director Michael Bennett’s first novel, Better the Blood begins with a flashback to a daguerreotype, an early type of photograph, being taken in 1863. The picture has a chilling subject: a small group of British soldiers posed alongside the hanged body of a Maori leader in the early days of New Zealand’s colonization. When the descendants of the soldiers in the daguerreotype begin to die violently, the case is assigned to Auckland police investigator Hana Westerman. Few investigators are better suited to the job than Hana, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of her Maori culture and history. As she gets closer and closer to identifying the perpetrator, she begins to see that the crimes are not so much a type of revenge as they are a flawed attempt to restore balance to a world gone awry. She is able to identify a couple of the potential targets, but the killer is always one step ahead. Then the unthinkable happens: Hana’s family is targeted. With plenty of suspense, sympathetically drawn characters and crisp dialogue, Better the Blood promises to be the start of a long and rewarding literary career for Bennett.

Blaze Me a Sun

On the same February night that Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme is assassinated in Stockholm in 1986, a woman is raped and murdered in the small town of Halland. Police receive an ominous phone call in which the anonymous killer says, “I’m going to do it again.” The investigation goes largely unnoticed by the media, as the attention of the nation is on the Palme assassination. For the rest of his career, and indeed for the rest of his life, police officer Sven Jörgensson is plagued by his failure to solve the crimes. In a parallel plot in the present day, a recently divorced writer whom the book refers to only by his nickname, “Moth,” has moved back to Halland, his childhood home. Somewhat at loose ends, he decides to interview some of the people who were central to the unsolved crime and possibly reanimate his muse in the process. Blaze Me a Sun, the American debut of author Christoffer Carlsson, is part police procedural, part modern inquiry into a very cold case and part sociological study of the evolution of Swedish society in the post-Palme years. The latest in a long streak of Swedish-language bestsellers for Carlsson, Blaze Me a Sun is further proof that he is a worthy heir to titans such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Hakan Nesser.

★ The Motion Picture Teller

In 1996 Bangkok, Supot Yongjaiyut is a mail carrier who is “somewhat economical when it [comes] to facial expressions. . . . He had feelings as deep as any, but they rarely inconvenienced his face.” His best friend, Ali, runs a video store, which allows the two to fully pursue their obsession with cinema, a love so profound that they happily watch movies without subtitles and guess at plot and dialogue. When Ali buys a new box of VHS tapes, neither suspects that one of the films will turn out to be an obscure masterpiece, Bangkok 2010. Colin Cotterill’s The Motion Picture Teller follows Supot and Ali’s efforts to unearth the film’s history, creators and especially the identity and current whereabouts of its lissome female lead. There is no real crime to be solved, per se, but that doesn’t stop the pair of intrepid investigators from pursuing leads, interviewing persons of interest and trying to answer the burning question of why Bangkok 2010 was never released publicly. Supot ventures to Thailand’s far north, the mountainous region outside Chiang Rai, and when he is relieved of his only remaining copy of the film, he is nudged into the role of reluctant raconteur, capturing the essence of the film in narrative. A motion picture teller, if you will. By turns witty, warm, charming and poignant, The Motion Picture Teller is perhaps Cotterill’s finest novel thus far.

★ Everybody Knows

Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows bounces between two protagonists. The first is Mae Pruett, known in Los Angeles as a “black bag publicist.” She keeps people out of public view, especially when they are in hot water of some sort. The second is ex-cop Chris Tamburro, whose current job title is “fist.” It could scarcely be more apropos: He roughs up whomever the rich deem deserving. When Mae’s boss is killed, ostensibly by a gangbanger, she suspects something much more complex, but the reality will be even worse. As she investigates, she uncovers a network of powerful Southern California elites pulling all the strings and pushing all the buttons in their pursuit of power. A missing pregnant teen holds the key to a conspiracy with tentacles reaching into the entertainment industry, the political arena and pretty much every law enforcement agency working the greater Los Angeles area. Fans of neo-noir will find a lot to like here, as Harper displays an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and Hollywood history as he spins a tale that isn’t just ripped from the headlines—it’s probably predicting them.

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

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