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A Lady’s Guide to Scandal

A young widow gets a second chance at happiness in A Lady’s Guide to Scandal by Sophie Irwin. After a miserable 10-year marriage, Eliza, Lady Somerset, is finally free—and rich, if she can keep the Somerset name scandal-free. That seems easy enough for the timid and soft-spoken Eliza, but when latent desires arise, she travels to Bath to take up a paintbrush and take in some of what society has to offer . . . including the attentions of the wicked Lord Melville. The plot thickens with the return of Eliza’s first love, who has never forgotten her. With two such attractive yet different men vying for her heart, can Eliza break old habits, be her own person and reach for what she truly wants? This kisses-only tale is a delight, and readers will be guessing just who Eliza finds her happy ever after with until the very end.

A Rulebook for Restless Rogues

Two old friends become more in Jess Everlee’s Victorian romance A Rulebook for Restless Rogues. David Forester and Noah Clarke have been friends ever since David appointed himself Noah’s protector in boarding school. David now runs The Curious Fox, a queer club in London, and he still looks after Noah, a talented tailor who spends some nights as his alter ego, Miss Penelope Primrose. David cares for all the patrons of his club and tries to keep them safe in a time when they could be jailed or worse. When The Curious Fox’s owner threatens to shut it down, David’s life is thrown off balance just as he realizes his feelings for Noah might go beyond friendship. Readers will sympathize with the difficulties David and Noah face dealing with the law, their families and the risk of changing their long-standing relationship in this sweet and satisfying romance.

Play to Win

Play to Win by Jodie Slaughter offers up a delicious premise: Stuck-in-a-rut nail tech Miriam Butler wins millions in the lottery—but for legal reasons, she has to alert her estranged husband, construction worker Leo Vaughn. Miriam offers Leo a generous lump sum to sign divorce papers. But this new opportunity gives Leo a chance to rethink his life, and he realizes his love for Miriam never died. Can they make a second chance work? Of course it’s delightful to imagine an end to financial problems, but Slaughter shows that Miriam and Leo still have to overcome the identity issues and expectations that once broke them apart. Told in their no-holds-barred voices, this romance is sexually frank, starkly intimate and often sizzling.

Sophie Irwin’s Regency-set novel boasts an impressively unpredictable love triangle, plus standouts from Jess Everlee and Jodie Slaughter in this month’s romance column.
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Chandler Cohen has reached rock bottom. Her dreams of being an author have deflated into a career as a ghostwriter. Her dreams of a relationship with her longtime crush died with a whimper when he gave her the “It’s not you (except it’s totally you)” talk after they finally hooked up. And the cute, fun guy with whom she had a spontaneous romp turned out to be the worst lay she’d ever had. The cherry on top? An interview for a new ghostwriting gig—the memoir of a former second fiddle on a hit supernatural show from 10 years back—reunites Chandler with her horizontal tango partner from her one-night snafu. He’s her new client.

Finn Walsh, better known as Oliver Huxley from “The Nocturnals,” has been working steadily since he was a nerdy Lord of the Rings-obsessed kid, desperate to lose himself in make-believe to distract him from his emotionally abusive father and his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. “The Nocturnals” was the highest his star ever rose, and he’s now settled into made-for-TV movies and paid appearances at fan conventions. Lots of fan conventions. After Chandler agrees to write Finn’s memoir, she crisscrosses the country by his side, helping him figure out how to tell his story, figuring out what she wants her own story to be—and teaching him better bedroom technique.

Why Rachel Lynn Solomon wrote a hero who needs to learn to be better in bed.

Rachel Lynn Solomon has a lot to say in Business or Pleasure, analyzing the hierarchy of celebrity culture; the way even liberal, urban, educated adults find it hard to talk about sex, especially bad sex; and the mysterious allure of monthly subscription boxes. Fortunately, she says it all very, very well. Her voice is sharp, funny and penetrating, describing her characters with warmth and affection without letting them off the hook. 

Finn is an appealing and charming hero who is open to improving himself, especially when it comes to his performance in bed. His experience with OCD isn’t a gimmick but an important aspect of his life that Solomon explores through thoughtful details such as Finn’s day-to-day fixations on cleanliness in restaurants and living quarters, and the microaggressions he hears from the more toxic people in his life.

Chandler, meanwhile, is also supremely relatable: a former “gifted kid” who was constantly told she’d be a big success. Over the years, she whittled her dreams down to size, but it’s still uncomfortable for her to realize this is where she’s landed. She may be the leader when it comes to Finn’s sexual education, but she’s still the follower in other situations, as Solomon avoids making her either a waif needing to be saved or an angel come down from heaven. She’s real and flawed and likable and fun.

Solomon dives wholeheartedly into the messiness of life and emerges with a beautiful, moving, truly romantic story about characters readers will appreciate and understand on a deep level.

Rachel Lynn Solomon’s sharp, funny and penetrating Business or Pleasure dives into the messiness of life and emerges with a truly romantic love story.

If you haven’t heard of Dickey Chapelle, you’re not alone. But Lorissa Rinehart’s authoritative biography, First to the Front: The Untold Story of Dickey Chapelle, Trailblazing Female War Correspondent, makes it clear that this courageous photojournalist, who was the first female war correspondent to be killed in combat, deserves wider recognition.

Born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1918 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chapelle had an early love of aviation and even studied for a time at MIT. After she flunked out of school, Chapelle’s parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida, where she got a job publicizing a Miami airshow. After being sent to Havana to cover another airshow, the ambitious Chapelle pitched a story to the New York Times. When the ace pilot crashed before her eyes, she raced to a phone booth to dictate the story. A chance encounter with a fellow journalist on the scene led to a job offer in New York City, where she took photography classes from an older photojournalist named Tony Chapelle. The two eventually married—and then divorced, after his violent behavior escalated in tandem with her growing success as a journalist.

Rinehart’s account follows Chapelle’s wide-ranging international career from Panama to the Pacific, to 1950s postwar Europe, to Laos, Vietnam and a host of other locations. Chapelle covered conflicts as well as humanitarian crises, and Rinehart details her exceptional courage, her understanding of Cold War politics and her unflinching commitment to telling the stories of people oppressed by harsh regimes or fighting for independence. 

Rinehart also explores the reasons why Chapelle is not well known despite her extraordinary career. Saying she was “ahead of her time” may sound like a platitude, but Rinehart demonstrates that Chapelle’s storytelling truly was different from many of her fellow journalists, who accused Chapelle of being obsessed with her career and not being objective. While some journalists relied heavily on government sources, Chapelle took an intense, immersive approach to stories, prioritizing “the voices, the lives, and the experiences of those she reported on,” Rinehart writes.

Chapelle died in 1965 while embedded with U.S. Marines in Vietnam. With her trademark black-rimmed glasses and pearl earrings, Chapelle was unforgettable, fearless and compassionate. At the time of her death at age 47, she had been reporting in conflict zones across the world for 25 years.

First to the Front is a valuable, long-overdue tribute to an American woman whose work and commitment to human rights is more relevant than ever.

Lorissa Rinehart’s authoritative biography makes it clear why Dickey Chapelle, a courageous photojournalist and the first female war correspondent to be killed in combat, deserves wider recognition.
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There is a distinct feeling one gets while reading Tania James’ third novel: Someone needs to make this book into a movie. Steeped in the rich history of three nations and infused with a young man’s unshakable desire to do something grand, Loot is transportive storytelling at its best.

We begin in 1794, when India is still a nation of tiny kingdoms ruled by big egos, right on the cusp of British colonialism and the East India Company. India’s foremost king, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, is in his summer palace, conjuring yet another grand plan to impress his citizenry. His current fixation is to build a larger-than-life automaton of a growling tiger pouncing on a British soldier. To achieve this technological feat, Tipu calls on the expertise of 57-year-old Lucien du Leze, a homesick clockmaker and inventor who escaped the French Revolution only to find himself on the brink of another. Lucien in turn hires 17-year-old Abbas, the youngest son of a local woodworker and the heart of this story. 

Abbas is kind, gentle and a bit rebellious. His woodcarving skills are unmatched, even though he doesn’t know that yet. Under Lucien’s tutelage, Abbas comes to terms with his gift and unearths his desire to use his craft to leave an unforgettable mark on the world. In that, he is much like his dreamy and determined king, but without the burden of defending the crown.

Tipu’s tiger automaton turns out to be a crowd-pleasing sensation, but not long after its unveiling, Tipu loses first his kingdom and then his life to the British. Lucien finds a way to escape to Rouen, France, leaving Abbas with an invitation to be his apprentice should he ever find a way to leave Mysore. The wooden tiger meets its own dreary fate as well, ending up in a musty, forgotten room in an old lady’s English castle. It’s the end of an era, but for Abbas, it’s just the beginning of an epic quest.

James’ plot is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration. Her supporting characters are woven with the same care and detail as her protagonist. All of this combines for a stimulating and informative novel, a must-read for adventurers, dreamers and lovers of history.

Tania James’ third novel is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration.

Imagine: You’re minding your own business, serenely enjoying your Star Popz cereal, when suddenly . . . an onslaught of aunts! That’s what happens to the expressive little girl at the heart of bestselling author Adam Rex’s Oh No, the Aunts Are Here, an openhearted and uproarious ode to the mayhem that ensues when effusive relatives tumble into town.

And tumble they do in Lian Cho’s vivid and kinetic illustrations, which perfectly capture what it’s like to experience a ruckus that’s delightful but kind of overwhelming. Readers who need time to warm up to visitors will identify with the beleaguered niece’s array of facial expressions, from a clenched-teeth grimace (“The aunts hug you and fix your hair and tell you how big you’ve gotten and fix your hair”) to open-mouthed horror (“They’re here, they’re here, on every floor; the aunts don’t lock the bathroom door”). Readers will also appreciate detail-packed spreads that depict a range of aunt-filled scenes, from a car’s back seat awash with stuffed animals (“They were just telling their girlfriend how much you like horses”) to a busy getting-ready-for-bed tableau (“your room is going to smell like lotion now”).

Clever rhyming and repetition make for a fun read-aloud (“Fanny packs. / A snack. / Pack that snack back in the fanny pack”), and a bounty of hilarious Easter eggs will ensure increased cackling with every reread. Rex also incorporates fantasy into his story as the aunts’ intensity is used for heroic good, encouraging readers to consider the upsides of a more intense personality type.

Oh No, the Aunts Are Here is a spirited gem of a book that courses with energy and enthusiasm as it explores what it’s like to have a quiet life temporarily transformed into a very different sort of existence. And as a bonus, there’s a funny surprise ending. If hyperbole were a person, it would be every one of these memorable aunts—inimitable relatives who are, as the little girl ultimately concedes and one aunt’s T-shirt proclaims, truly “Aunt-tastic.” 

Oh No, the Aunts Are Here is a spirited gem of a book that courses with energy and enthusiasm as it explores what it’s like to have a quiet life temporarily transformed into a very different sort of existence.
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Louisa Hall’s fourth book, Reproduction, brings together many threads—the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, friendship, pregnancy, miscarriage and birthing trauma—within a novel about trying to create a novel, about literary and scientific discovery and, most importantly, about a woman trying to write her way back to herself. 

Hall’s unnamed narrator sets out to write a novel about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein with the intention of engaging with the book’s literary history. During the research process, she discovers how miscarriage and pregnancy haunted Shelley and her novel. As our narrator navigates her own crises surrounding pregnancy—her experiences with it as well as her feelings about it amid the political, societal, health and climate challenges of our day—she realizes that perhaps this is not the novel she needs to write. Instead, she borrows the frame structure of Frankenstein to launch and linger in a tale of herself and her newly reappeared friend Anna, a scientist who works in a lab, wants to have a child and is willing to explore genetic modification and all the questions, ethics, opportunities and challenges that come with it. 

Amid these large and lofty questions, Hall’s prose is taut, each word impactful, each short chapter a meditation on what could be. Throughout this slim novel, she continually returns to the evolving conversation between art and science, and to the enduring truth that no action or reaction exists in a vacuum. 

Hall doesn’t always provide reasons for what happens in Reproduction. Instead, the novel is a series of what-ifs, possibilities, surprises and moments of wonder. These short chapters build a complex web of interconnectivity, showing the ways that our actions are shaped by the threats of pandemic and climate change as well as the politics, bounds and potential of scientific inquiry.

Throughout her slim fourth novel, Louisa Hall continually returns to the conversation between art and science, and to the enduring truth that no action or reaction exists in a vacuum.

Sometimes you can’t help but root for the bad guys. 

Such is the case with housekeeper-turned-criminal mastermind Mrs. Dinah King and her eclectic gang of co-conspirators in Alex Hay’s debut novel, The Housekeepers. The novel is set in London’s wealthy Park Lane in 1905 during the height of the Edwardian era, which Hay describes in his introduction as a time of “opulence, scrappy characters, remarkable flashes of modernity, and layers of corruption that exist just underneath all that glamour.” 

The sprawling de Vries mansion, where Mrs. King works, is “seven floors high from cellars to attics. Newly built, all diamond money, glinting white” with treasures in every room: “stupendous Van Dycks, giant crystal bowls stuffed with carnations. Objets d’art in gold and silver and jade, cherubs with rubies for eyes and emeralds for toenails.” When we first meet Mrs. King, she is already on her way out the door, fired for certain indiscretions and making a mental list of everything of value as she goes. Unlike many disgruntled employees dismayed by the sudden loss of a steady paycheck, she is already plotting to turn her misfortune into opportunity. After recruiting a ragtag team of women, Mrs. King reveals her plot to take her former employers for everything they have.

From the outset, Hay makes it clear that Mrs. King is calling the shots. She tells her team in no uncertain terms that “we will have one object, one single plan. There will be no grumbling, no discord. If you’re given an order, you follow it.” And they do it with panache and style, right under the noses of the de Vries and their guests during a lavish costume ball.

Hay is equally in control, weaving a quick-fire, almost whimsical story of class and privilege, of low and high society. Half the fun is watching as the team stealthily smuggles in various burglary tools and smuggles out their pilfered treasures. But, as with most criminal endeavors, the slightest miscue or misstatement threatens to upend everything midheist. 

Already an award-winning book in its native U.K., The Housekeepers is mischievous, suspenseful and just plain fun from start to finish.

Alex Hay’s The Housekeepers is mischievous, suspenseful and just plain fun as it follows a gang of female thieves in Edwardian England.

Owls are adorable, alluring and enduringly fascinating. They’ve been featured in everything from ancient cave paintings to the works of Picasso, iconic Tootsie Pop commercials, the Harry Potter series, mythology and poetry.

“What is it about owls that so enthralls us?” asks bestselling author, prolific science writer and passionate bird advocate Jennifer Ackerman (The Genius of Birds, The Bird Way) in the very first line of her wide-ranging and wonderful new book, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. She explores this question with her trademark thoroughness and care, leading readers on an in-depth tour through the extraordinary world of owls. Scientists, field researchers, academics and volunteers (aka “citizen scientists”) serve as dedicated guides, as eager as the author to share knowledge and admiration in hopes of inspiring others to protect these special birds.

Jennifer Ackerman shares which owly items in her home and closet are her favorite.

Ackerman chronicles her travels to places such as the Mission Mountains in Montana; Norfolk Island in Australia; southeastern Brazil; and Waynesboro, Virginia, in chapters covering owls’ evolution, communication, breeding, migration and—of course—wisdom. She visits wildlife centers, peers up at countless trees and tromps through nighttime landscapes with fellow owl lovers to hear about the astonishing things they’ve discovered. There are funny tidbits, too; as one Montana field researcher quipped, “This is not the first time we’ve found a nest when someone had to pee.”

Less quotidian revelations include the thrill of first hearing great horned owlets vocalizing in their eggs and the gratifying achievements of education in Kikinda, Serbia, where hundreds of long-eared owls roost in the town square. (A public awareness campaign transformed superstitious fear into immense hometown pride.) During her reporting, Ackerman also learned about new research indicating that owls are more clever and intentional than previously realized: They have emotions, engage in altruism and play. “We think we know something about them, and then, poof! they dispel our theories, offering up bent or broken rules and unexpected qualities,” she writes.

Ackerman also reminds readers that owls are at risk of extinction, thanks to “human-induced climate change” via deforestation and development, rodenticides, wildfires, et al. What should we do? “Everything in our power,” she writes, to learn about and preserve owl populations around the world. Reading the edifying and immersive What an Owl Knows is an excellent place to start.

Bestselling author and passionate bird advocate Jennifer Ackerman goes around the world to find out why owls so intrigue humans in her wide-ranging and wonderful new book.
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Early on in her job, Barbara Butcher got an invaluable piece of advice from a colleague: “When you leave here each day, surround yourself with things of beauty. Enjoy nature and art and food and music and love. Just do it, and don’t skip a day.” Those words turned out to be crucial, lifesaving wisdom for Butcher, who spent 22 years working at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. It was her job to investigate the circumstances surrounding unexpected deaths, carefully examining the bodies and their surroundings for clues to determine if it was an accident, a suicide, a death by natural causes—or a murder. Although she calls it “the best career I could ever imagine,” the emotional toll was painful—often excruciating—as she explains in her colorful, compelling memoir, What the Dead Know: Learning About Life as a New York City Death Investigator.

Barbara Butcher shares fond and chilling memories from the career that both saved and ruined her life.

Butcher’s life was almost upended by depression and alcohol addiction. Despite rising in the ranks as a physician assistant and a hospital administrator, she was on an extreme crash course to destruction when she landed in Alcoholics Anonymous. By chance, after she got sober, she was hired as a medicolegal death investigator. Butcher was only the second woman to hold the job; the first had quit after only a month.

Writing in a fast-paced, no-nonsense, sometimes funny and always precise style, Butcher shares a treasure trove of life and death stories that touch on racism, wealth, poverty, prejudice, misogyny, justice and injustice. In many ways, it’s the ultimate behind-the-scenes tour of the Big Apple from the 1990s through 2015, including the 9/11 attacks. Butcher guides readers through mansions, flophouses, back alleys, squatters’ buildings, train tunnels and more while taking note of the immense breadth of humanity, both living and dead.

Visceral, impassioned and hard to put down, What the Dead Know is a lively account of an unimaginable career.

Writing in a fast-paced and precise style, Barbara Butcher shares a treasure trove of stories from her 22 years as a death investigator in New York City.

The old saying “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” was seemingly coined for Jacintha “Jack” Cross and Gabe Medway, both of whom are even more enamored with their jobs because they get to work with the person they love most. The married couple runs a London penetration testing firm that does extensive security assessments for a range of well-paying clients. Gabe handles the digital aspects and Jack the physical; as she sneaks around supposedly secure buildings in search of vulnerabilities, her husband is the flirtatious and supportive voice in her earpiece.

Alas, not long into bestselling author Ruth Ware’s action-packed thriller Zero Days, everything comes crashing down: After a late-night job, Jack arrives home to discover Gabe has been murdered. Even worse, she is the prime suspect.

Reeling from shock, contending with horror and confusion and highly skeptical of law enforcement, Jack goes on the run. She puts her prodigious skills and hard-won confidence to use as she attempts to solve the crime and identify the real killer. “Solve the next problem,” she tells herself. “And then the next one after that. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Until you can’t walk any further.”

Ruth Ware thinks you need a password manager.

Ware humanizes the badass Jack by rendering her vulnerable to injury, self-doubt and exhaustion. There’s London’s vast CCTV system to consider, too, plus the impossibility of knowing who she can trust to help her find shelter, money and information. She’s got her sister, Helena, and Gabe’s oldest friend, Cole, in her corner, but Jack can’t shake her fear and wariness as she moves through the city and plumbs the dark web in search of answers. 

In Zero Days, Ware creates escalating tension while immersing readers in Jack’s tumultuous emotions and instinctive decision-making. She layers her story with fascinating details about Jack’s unusual profession while offering an implicit (and clearly well-researched) warning about the vagaries of technology. The book’s focus on the impact of intense grief is balanced by glimmers of hope among the devastation. As Jack reflects, “Gabe’s death had brought me close to the worst of humankind—but there were still good people out there.”

Ruth Ware’s action-packed thriller Zero Days is as much an exploration of grief as it is a warning about the vagaries of technology.

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