2book multi

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

As the days become shorter, there’s nothing more comforting than immersing myself in a sweeping historical novel—the bigger, the better! When my book club recently voted to read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow (Penguin, $18, 9780143110439), I welcomed the opportunity to escape nightly into the grand halls of the Metropol hotel where aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, deemed a threat by the Bolsheviks in 1922, is sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Hotel employees, guests and other visitors round out the vibrant cast of characters in the Count’s orbit as he adjusts to his new circumstances and tries to pursue a meaningful life in confinement. His friendship with precocious 9-year-old Nina is particularly endearing; the pair’s quest to explore every nook and cranny of the hotel is a delight. All the while, outside the Count’s window, political turmoil and inevitable social change are transforming Russian society. Written with wit and warmth, Towles’ tale is one you’ll want to curl up with and return to night after night.

—Katherine, Subscriptions 


The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I spent a few sublime weeks last winter in the company of Umberto Eco’s magisterial debut novel, The Name of the Rose (HarperVia, $19.99, 9780063279636). This medieval whodunit is intellectually absorbing and slyly hilarious as it tracks Brother William of Baskerville and Brother Adso of Melk’s quest to solve a spree of bizarre murders at a monastery in Italy. A historian, philosopher and literary theorist, Eco transports readers into the 14th-century mind, and while things get heady (at one point, Adso contemplates a door for more than a page), Eco never lets his own erudition run away with him. There are impressively gruesome deaths to describe, tangled little dramas of monastery life to tease out and one of the most unforgettable libraries in literature to explore. I read long into the night, wrapped in blankets with a mug of tea at hand, happily looking up Latin phrases and medieval heretics until arriving at Eco’s grand finale, a satisfying conclusion with a few icy notes of existential dread to balance things out.

—Savanna, Managing Editor


The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

To me, coziness is a cat dozing on my lap, but a book that captures the magic of our purring friends will also do. A sublime, delicate meditation on the passage of time within everyday life, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (New Directions, $14.95, 9780811221504) washes over you like a dream, making it an ideal read for a long winter night. A male narrator and his wife fall in love with their neighbor’s cat, naming her Chibi as she begins visiting them at their rented house. The wife tells the man how a philosopher once said that “observation is at its core an expression of love,” and indeed, Hiraide’s ruminations on the quotidian—dragonflies flying towards water sprayed from a garden hose, Chibi climbing a tree—carry tremendous emotion despite the unembellished prose. With equal parts joy and melancholy, the couple’s relationships with the cat and each other shift, along with the course of their lives and Japan, as the late ’80s economic bubble bursts. Hiraide slips in and out of reflection and memory with precise, feline grace.

—Yi, Associate Editor


The New Life by Tom Crewe

There is something so pleasurable about spending a chilly day absorbed in the concerns of another time and identifying resonances with our own. Tom Crewe’s debut novel, The New Life (Scribner, $18, 9781668000847), provides just such a pleasure, placing vivid characters and thorny moral dilemmas against a finely textured historical backdrop. Based on two real life freethinkers in late Victorian Britain, Crewe’s John Addington and Henry Ellis are documenting the lives of gay men for a book that they hope will shift cultural perceptions of homosexuality. It’s risky, but they believe in the cause—and that their status as married men will protect them. However, ideological differences emerge, and Addington begins to wonder if ideals can be legitimate if they are not lived openly. Crewe excels when depicting the nuances of conflict and the question of balancing personal risk against the ability to effect change, drawing readers in with polished old-fashioned storytelling that also speaks to a modern sensibility—A.S. Byatt meets Alan Hollinghurst.

—Trisha, Publisher

Ready the fireplace, put the kettle on and get out some thick woolen socks. These four titles are worthy companions for long winter nights.
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The Clinic

Celebrities in rehab: Newsworthy, if not especially surprising. Celebrities dying in rehab: front page, above the fold for at least a day, maybe even a week. But what about celebrities murdered in rehab? That’s the “what if” at the center of Cate Quinn’s deft new thriller, The Clinic. Let’s start with The Clinic itself, which is easily the creepiest setting for a suspense novel since the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The luxurious rehab center is set atop a remote oceanside cliff somewhere along the Oregon coast, awash in salt mist and mystery. When pop star Haley Banks dies of a heroin overdose at the facility, her sister, Meg, doesn’t believe the official story. Meg is a casino cop of sorts and, after some soul-searching, decides to launch an investigation of her sister’s death by posing as a patient seeking treatment. This will not be much of a stretch for Meg, as she is addicted to both alcohol and Oxycontin. If she is wrong about Haley’s death, she may get clean; if she is right, she may get killed. The story is told in the first-person perspectives of two different narrators: the aforementioned Meg and Cara, the manager of The Clinic. As they alternate chapters, Quinn tightly ratchets up the suspense. And the big reveal? I never saw it coming.

The Wharton Plot

Before starting Mariah Fredericks’ The Wharton Plot, I decided to read up a bit on Edith Wharton. I knew she had been the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Still, I had essentially written her off as the poor man’s Dorothy Parker, sharp of tongue but lacking in humor. But The Wharton Plot showed me how very wrong I was. Fredericks’ mystery reads like a story from an earlier time, as it should. It conjures up the ghosts of American aristocracy in much the same manner as an F. Scott Fitzgerald or a Nathanael West novel, and is filled with historical figures such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and his extended family, and muckraking writer David Graham Phillips, whose real-life murder is investigated by Wharton in the novel. It may take a chapter or two to settle into the narrative, which is written a la one of Wharton’s own novels, but once that hurdle is cleared, the book is simply unputdownable. And as with a healthy meal, at the end you feel a sense of accomplishment, as you have done something good for yourself.

The Busy Body

It is, I think, not the easiest thing for a man to write a story from the perspective of a woman. That said, author Kemper Donovan has done that so well in his fun and entertaining mystery The Busy Body that I was totally convinced he was a woman until I read his bio. (I get it that as a male reviewer, I am not the definitive authority on the accuracy of his portrayal, so I will simply say that I never questioned it. Not even once.) The story begins with Dorothy Gibson, a former senator who has arranged for a ghostwriter to pen her autobiography. While they are together at Dorothy’s home in Maine, a neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances, and the politician and her ghostwriter (who is an engaging and offbeat character, even though she is never given a name) launch an amateur investigation into the death. There are overtones of Agatha Christie and Knives Out, both in the unlikeliness of the mystery and the cleverness of its solution. This is, I guess, no surprise as Donovan hosts the podcast “All About Agatha.”

The Ghost Orchid

Psychologist Alex Delaware is back, along with his sidekick, Los Angeles cop Milo Sturgis. Their arrangement is somewhat odd in that it is exactly the opposite of the typical setup in which a cop is the central character and a specialist serves as foil for the heroics. But boy, does it ever work. Author Jonathan Kellerman has created one of the most enduring and acclaimed series in suspense fiction, the latest installment of which is The Ghost Orchid. The tony LA enclave of Bel Air provides the setting for the story, which begins with the murder of Gio Aggiunta, a wealthy Italian high-society ne’er-do-well, and Meagin March, his older—and married—mistress. Both have been shot, and the police cannot determine whether one was the primary target, or if it was just a burglary gone wrong. Nothing seems to be missing, so initially they fixate on March’s husband, a multimillionaire investor, because hey, it’s always the husband, right? But as it turns out, Gio has been the “correspondent” in several affairs with married women, which raises the question: If it is the husband, which husband? Kellerman’s prose is fast-paced without being in any way hurried or abrupt, and Delaware and Sturgis play off one another exceptionally well. The characters are as comfortable as old slippers, fictional friends whose company and adventures readers have enjoyed for decades. The Ghost Orchid is another excellent addition to a series full of excellent editions.

Mariah Fredericks’ new historical mystery turns the magisterial author into a gumshoe and the latest Alex Delaware novel wows our mystery columnist.
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Canadian Boyfriend

Jenny Holiday’s Canadian Boyfriend, in which a dance teacher tends to her own emotional wounds while helping a young widower manage his new reality, is a true romance gem. When one of Aurora “Rory” Evans’ students, Olivia, returns to class after losing her mother, Rory is especially attentive to her and Mike Martin, Olivia’s pro hockey-playing dad. Rory and Mike connect immediately, and after Rory moves in to work as a nanny, they become intimate friends . . . and then lovers. Standing in the way of something more permanent is his grief, her people-pleasing ways—and the fact that when Rory was in high school, she told everyone that Mike was her boyfriend, seeing as he conveniently lived in Canada. Still, the bond between them won’t disappear, no matter what they tell themselves. Told in alternating first-person perspectives that are full of both revealing introspection and engaging banter, the heart-wrenching journey of Rory and Mike is tender, painful, joyful and, most of all, honest. This is everything a romance novel should be: a story of two people who learn from each other and are better together than apart.

Bride

A Were and a Vampyre wed to broker an alliance between their two species in Bride, an impressive change of pace for rom-com queen Ali Hazelwood. Reminding herself that their union will only last a year, Misery Lark steels herself to live with Alpha werewolf Lowe Moreland and his people—who view her with open hostility and dislike. But Lowe himself is harder to read. While he’s at first studiously detached, he begins to connect with Misery over his irrepressible little sister and then aids in Misery’s search for her missing best friend. Danger and power struggles continually surround the pair, but Lowe and Misery offer each other a respite from all that . . . and then more. Told primarily in Misery’s snarky and amusing first-person voice, there is plenty of action, stirring love scenes and intriguing world building that will leave readers wanting more. Snippets from Lowe’s point of view offer insight into the tender interior beneath his tough exterior. Paranormal romance fans will swoon over this one.

Wild Life

Two lonely people find their way to each other and new lives in Wild Life by Opal Wei. Both Zoey Fong and Davy Hsieh have big plans, and neither of them expects or welcomes an attraction that goes from a smolder to full-on flames in a heartbeat. But after former boy band star Davy accidentally absconds with a crucial slide from scientist Zoey’s workplace, she follows him to his private island. Things only get more madcap from there in this hilarious spin on Bringing Up Baby. Wei writes well-drawn, one-of-a-kind characters that will elicit readers’ sympathy and laughter as they spur each other to grow and change. Put together the aforementioned sexual chemistry, a big cat (heard but not seen) and geese (both seen and heard, eliciting an appropriate amount of terror, if one knows geese) and the result is a vibrant, fast-paced and highly entertaining romance.

Fangirl Down

Tessa Bailey sets fire to the pages in Fangirl Down. When bad-boy golfer Wells Whitaker quits the sport in frustration, he stands up Josephine Doyle, his biggest fan, who recently won a lunch with him. Wells’ conscience nags him about the missed meal and he seeks Josephine out, only to find her golf shop in shambles from a hurricane. Wells hits upon an idea to help that will also get him back on his game: She’ll be his new caddy, and they’ll split the prize money. It’s delicious to watch the grouchy golfer find he has a heart after all as he falls for the sunny Josephine. Bailey is known for her witty repartee and Wells and Josephine don’t miss a beat, in addition to having some off-the-charts love scenes. Josephine’s endeavors to manage her diabetes without insurance add some gravitas to this delightful, laugh-out-loud love story.

Sex, Lies and Sensibility

Nikki Payne offers an engrossing tale that is part family drama, part romance and all deep emotion in Sex, Lies and Sensibility. After their father dies, sisters Nora and Yanne Dash are left with nothing but a dilapidated inn on an island in Maine. To complicate matters, they must rehab the place into a successful business in a year or lose everything. Their first glimpse of the environs doesn’t improve their moods, especially given that they’re the only two Black people around. And while Abenaki eco-tour guide Ennis “Bear” Freeman may be gorgeous, Nora doesn’t need a man. She has good reason not to trust them and she also notices that Bear is reticent to talk about his past. But as their businesses begin to work together, the attraction can’t be denied. Nora and Bear’s past mistakes keep them wary, even as familial and outside forces work against their possible happiness together. Payne will grab readers by the heartstrings even as they fall in love with noble, ambitious Nora and Bear and the eclectic cast of this compassionate novel.

Ali Hazelwood goes paranormal, plus wonderful new takes on Sense and Sensibility and Bringing Up Baby.
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Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom tells the story of Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved husband and wife who—thanks to a courageous plan—fled Georgia in 1848. Ellen disguised herself as a white enslaver, while William pretended to be her captive, and together, they traveled to the Northern free states while successfully evading the authorities. News of their escape made them famous even as they faced new obstacles. Thoroughly researched and beautifully executed, Woo’s narrative explores themes of loyalty, courage and identity, making it a rewarding pick for book clubs.

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner traces the development of the antislavery movement in the early 1800s, especially in New York City, which gave rise to the underground railroad—the secret system that allowed scores of enslaved people to escape the South prior to the Civil War. Foner writes with authority and an eye for detail. Drawing upon new source materials, he documents the efforts of underground railroad agents, courageous abolitionists and determined freedom seekers to provide a revelatory look at a seminal chapter in American history.  

In Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, journalist Cate Lineberry chronicles the extraordinary achievements of Robert Smalls. In 1862, Smalls, an enslaved man in South Carolina, took over a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor, secretly brought his family members aboard and delivered the boat to Union forces, thereby securing their release from slavery. Smalls later participated in naval actions and went on to serve in the House of Representatives. Lineberry pays tribute to a remarkable leader in this meticulous account of Smalls’ life.

Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War assesses the rise of slavery and the rift it caused across the nation, demonstrating that freedom seekers were instrumental in bringing attention to the horrors of the institution. Delbanco looks at watershed moments, like the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, offering fresh perspectives on how they affected the country. Reading groups can dig into rich discussion topics like the notion of justice and slavery’s lasting impact on society.

Commemorate Black History Month with these odes to freedom.
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The legacy of Sherlock Holmes is a wide one, spanning genres. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup give two vigorous nods to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries while embodying radically different tones: While the first is a cozy sci-fi whodunit with romance sprinkled in, the other combines the classic Holmesian ethos with the sort of existential threat epic fantasy can provide. Both novels, however, are tightly constructed celebrations of the mystery form.

The second in Malka Older’s Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti series, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles rejoins Investigator Mossa and her paramour, the botanist Pleiti, as they investigate a series of disappearances around Valdegeld, the university community on the rings of Jupiter in which Pleiti makes her home. As they search for 17 missing students, staff and faculty, Pleiti and Mossa travel from the habitable platforms that surround the planet to Mossa’s childhood home on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. All the while, the specter of their last case looms large in Pleiti’s mind, the conclusion of which shook her faith in both the university and herself. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is a delightful cozy mystery: engaging, concise and as focused on its characters’ relationships as it is on the puzzle itself. If that wasn’t enough, Older delivers a world that is detailed enough to be believable but sidesteps away from distracting technical issues that could bog down the story. While lovers of hard sci-fi might feel frustrated by some of the implausibilities of Older’s depiction of life in Jupiter’s rings, the fantastical backdrop not only enables a clever mystery, but also serves as a subtle reminder of what might be in store for humanity if we can’t get our act together about climate change and income inequality.

Despite those faint warnings, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is ultimately a warm hug of a book. Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Tainted Cup, however, is a shot of distilled paranoia. The city of Daretana is under persistent threat of magical contamination and attack from the massive Leviathans that stalk the waters outside its sea walls. When an officer of the imperial engineering corps dies in a way that is both gruesome and horticulturally intriguing, famed investigator and notorious eccentric Ana Dolabra is pulled onto the case. Ever wary of engaging directly with the outside world, she sends her new assistant, the young Dinios Kol, in her stead. Magically engineered to remember everything he ever experiences, Din becomes Ana’s eyes and ears, and as they dig into the engineer’s death, they find a trail of intrigue that threatens the safety of the empire itself. The mystery within Bennett’s latest novel is slow and methodical, unspooling subtly throughout its 400-plus pages. True to the promise of its epic fantasy backdrop, the novel spins the consequences of the murder into something bigger than any could anticipate. Bennett expands the scope of this story in a way that feels both natural and occasionally surprising, dazzling readers with both his imaginative world building and perfect pacing.

As with many homages to Sherlock Holmes, both The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup are told not from the perspective of their singular investigators, but from the perspective of their assistants. Just as with Conan Doyle’s John Watson, both assistants are in many ways far more three-dimensional than their partners. Older’s Pleiti spends as much time thinking about her research and her budding relationship with Mossa as she does on the case itself. And Bennett’s focus on Din and his occasional misgivings about Ana are often more compelling than any depiction of Ana’s antics.

But even as both novels focus on the everyman features of their investigative assistants, they also continue the tradition of the idiosyncratic, possibly neurodivergent, investigator. Both Ana and Mossa are singular entities, their intellects unmatched by their peers and just as quixotic as Sherlock Holmes himself. While neither wakes up the neighbors at all hours of the night playing the violin, each will worm their way into readers’ hearts in similarly unlikely ways, whether it’s Ana’s tendency to question visitors about the smell of their urine or Mossa’s encyclopedic knowledge of every food stall in the greater Jupiter area. Their lineage is clear, and their prowess is unquestionable.

The Great Detective’s heirs take to the stars and tangle with magical murders.
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Ilium

As Lea Carpenter’s Ilium opens, the unnamed narrator feels not unlike an actor in a play: “I had no sense of what scene would come next, but as each scene evolved, I could start to see the way I would handle it. . . . It never occurred to me that the life you have is only in part the life you choose, because the moment you start to think you know what’s coming next, that’s when lightning strikes, shatters those windows, and rain starts to pool on the floor.” This is a heavy thought for a 21-year-old who has just wed a man 33 years her senior, and she will come to find out it is deeply portentous. Her new husband is a man of many secrets, not the least of which is that he is grooming her for a major role in a joint CIA-Mossad operation, a task she had been chosen for well before their “chance” meeting and subsequent engagement and marriage. All that said, Ilium is not merely an espionage novel, although there is a certain amount of subterfuge, to be sure. It is rather a story of relationships in which the good guys are neither especially good nor especially bad, and pretty much the same can be said for the bad guys. Ferreting out the truth of who someone truly is must be secondary to achieving the operation’s desired outcomes, and “therein,” noted the Bard, “lies the rub.” Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.

Northwoods

There’s precious little bucolic woodland ambience to be found in Northwoods, Amy Pease’s debut mystery set in Shaky Lake, a resort town in northern Wisconsin. Sheriff’s Deputy Eli North is plagued by a host of debilitating issues that date back to his military service in Afghanistan. He is about as beaten down as a man can be, yet he still possesses some sparks that make the reader root for him. As the tale begins, Eli is well on his way toward being drunk. He receives a call about a noise disturbance at a lakeside cabin and stumbles (almost literally) upon the lifeless body of a teenage boy. Murder is somewhat outside the purview of a rural sheriff’s department, so when it is discovered that a teenage girl has gone missing as well, the sheriff—who just so happens to be Eli’s mother—calls in the FBI to investigate. The winding road to the crime’s solution involves everyone’s favorite boogeyman, Big Pharma, and touches on the tension between townies and wealthy “summer people.” I strongly hope that Eli will be afforded a sequel or 10, and that he will find his way back to something resembling a normal life.

Two Dead Wives

It is unsurprising, I suppose, that a spate of recent crime novels have been set during the first COVID-19 lockdown. You would think that time would be the perfect milieu for a locked-room mystery, but Adele Parks’ Two Dead Wives is anything but. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Kylie Gillingham. Somewhere along the way, she took on two identities—one named Kai, one named Leigh (Ky-Lie, get it?)—married two different men and lived two separate lives. Now, she has been missing for two weeks. Statistically, that suggests she is dead, and conventional wisdom pegs the husband as the likely perpetrator. But which husband? One is currently in lockdown in his London apartment, and the other has done a runner to his native Netherlands. Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds about a woman named Stacie Jones, who is recovering at her dad’s seaside cottage after surgery to remove a brain tumor. She has lost a lot of her memory post-operation and, naturally, that suggests that a key to an important lock or two is buried somewhere in her mind. The investigators—one by the book, the other impetuous—play off one another well, and the two-pronged storyline is bound to engage fans of twisty thrillers and police procedurals alike.

Where You End

Where You End, Abbott Kahler’s debut novel, reads like the work of a seasoned writer. There is a reason for this: She has published a number of works of historical nonfiction as Karen Abbott, and boasts an Edgar Award nomination for Best Fact Crime for The Ghosts of Eden Park. As her first thriller begins, Katherine “Kat” Bird is not at all sitting in the catbird seat. She barely survived a car accident a couple of weeks back, and her memory has virtually been erased. She can form sentences and understand when people talk to her, but the only person she recognizes is her twin sister, Jude. Jude is Kat’s mirror twin—she parts her hair on the other side from Kat; her dimple shows up in the opposite cheek when she smiles. Slowly, Jude brings Kat up to date on the events that helped shape their lives for better and for worse: their father’s disappearance when they were young, their mother’s death, their post-high school backpacking trip to Europe. But there are nagging inconsistencies in Jude’s narrative. As Kat learns more about herself and as bits of memory fall into place, she begins to harbor doubts that Jude is being truthful. Couple this with newfound evidence of her own propensity for (and expertise at) violence, and Kat is shaken to her core. However much Kat thinks she knows, however much she is able to relearn, there is one person who knows her better: Jude, for better or worse. Don’t miss this scary, tense and provocative thrill ride!

Abbott Kahler’s debut thriller delights our mystery columnist, plus Lea Carpenter’s latest literary espionage novel impresses.
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In the wake of a difficult divorce, Maggie, the 29-year-old heroine of Monica Heisey’s Really Good, Actually, tries to find her place in the world. As she adapts to the single life, she experiments with dating apps and enrolls in creative writing classes. But processing the divorce proves to be difficult, and Maggie finds herself on a downward spiral. Heisey uses humor to brighten the story of a woman who is mourning her marriage, and the result is a wry, probing breakup book that’s sure to resonate with readers.

In Mona Awad’s All’s Well, Miranda Fitch hits rock bottom after an accident puts an end to her marriage and her dreams of becoming an actress. While coping with chronic back pain, she faces challenges as the director of a university theater where she hopes to produce Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Miranda’s life takes an extraordinary turn when a trio of men—all strangers—tell her they can help her manage her pain. Fitch’s exploration of identity, female desire and, of course, the work of Shakespeare makes this whimsical novel a rewarding choice for book clubs.

Candice Carty-Wiliams’ People Person follows Dimple Pennington, a London-based social media influencer who’s adrift in the world. At the age of 30, she’s living with her mother, hoping to grow her online following and struggling to keep her volatile boyfriend, Kyron, in check. When she is unexpectedly reunited with her half siblings—Lizzie, Prynce, Danny and Nikisha—and their unpredictable father, Cyril, Dimple is reminded of the power and complexities of kin. Carty-Williams touches upon themes of race and self-acceptance in this intense, funny family tale.

Weike Wang’s Chemistry is narrated by an unnamed female student working on a doctorate in chemistry at Boston University. The narrator’s future looks bright until her boyfriend proposes and she’s paralyzed by doubts about their relationship. Faced with stressful lab work and the expectations of her Chinese immigrant parents, she suffers a mental collapse. Wang’s portrayal of the narrator’s emotional unraveling and path back to normalcy is powerful, compassionate and at times comic. Topics like family conflicts, the importance of work-life balance and the pressures of academia will prompt lively dialogue among readers.

Dodge the New Year hustle with these four novels featuring lovably floundering protagonists.
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★ An Inconvenient Earl

Julia London delivers a delightful heroine and a happy ending that at first appears impossible in An Inconvenient Earl. To her everlasting relief, Emma Clark’s cruel earl of a husband left her behind in England when he embarked on an expedition to Africa. After many months, a stranger arrives with the bad tidings that her husband has died, meaning Emma will be left without a home or funds—unless she doesn’t tell anyone the news. That tangled web is made even stickier when the very attractive Luka Olivien, Earl of Marlaine, arrives to return Emma’s husband’s pocket watch. He knows that she’s a widow but she . . . doesn’t? Luka’s confused by her increasingly clear attempts to dodge what he knows to be true, but he also can’t resist the charming and now smitten Emma. Characters from previous books make welcome appearances in this fourth entry in London’s Royal Match series, and while this Victorian romance seems like a romp, there is wrenching emotion and a beating heart of gold underneath. 

The Night Island

Jayne Ann Krentz’s Lost Night Files series follows a trio of women who team up to determine the cause of their new psychic abilities. In the latest spooky entry, The Night Island, one of the trio, podcaster Talia March, is trying to figure out what happened to Phoebe, a fan who had some vital information but has recently disappeared. Professor Luke Rand is also on Phoebe’s trail, and clues lead him and Talia to Night Island, where an exclusive, unplugged retreat is about to begin. The pair soon discover that they’re in danger from someone at the retreat and maybe from the island itself, which is inhabited by creepy and threatening vegetation. The Pacific Northwest setting enhances this shivery, senses-tickling read. As usual, Krentz’s name on the cover guarantees imaginative, immersive entertainment.

Red String Theory

A scientist and an artist test their opposite philosophies of life and love in Red String Theory by Lauren Kung Jessen. Rooney Gao is a struggling, striving artist in New York City. Jack Liu is a NASA engineer in Los Angeles. They have one night of near-magical connection, but then their numbers exchange goes awry. Fast forward a few months and Rooney is hired by NASA to be Artist-in-Residence with Jack as her liaison. Their attraction blossoms again, but logical Jack can’t swallow Rooney’s belief in the Chinese legend that a red string of fate connects everyone to their true love. The pair contemplate science, art, fate, choice and belief as they fall in love. Jessen writes such sympathetic, well-rounded characters that even cynics may believe in soulmates after reading this brainy, kisses-only love story.

Plus, a delightful Victorian romp and a brainy contemporary love story charm our romance columnist.

Gardening Can Be Murder  

Horticultural expert Marta McDowell has explored the links between writers and gardens in previous books about Beatrix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and U.S. presidents. It’s only natural that she’s turned her attention to the ways in which gardens have played a role in mysteries. After all, she says, “In gardens, the struggle between life and death is laid bare.”

McDowell’s Gardening Can Be Murder is as full of delights as an English cottage garden in summer. McDowell explores the connection between gardens to mysteries from all sorts of angles (as any good detective would). She provides an overview of gardening detectives from classic to contemporary, beginning with Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 thriller The Moonstone. Cuff is a “horticulturally inclined investigator” who dreams of retiring from catching thieves to grow roses. Naturally, McDowell includes Miss Jane Marple, who often makes use of gardening and bird-watching to inform her keen-witted observations of life—and death—in St. Mary Mead. 

McDowell discusses gardens as crime scenes, as well as gardens and flowers as motives. In a chapter playfully entitled “Means: Dial M for Mulch,” she recounts examples of the deadly use of garden implements in crime fiction. Poisons, of course, merit their own chapter, and McDowell also investigates authors such as Agatha Christie, who lovingly cared for the gardens of her country home, Greenway; Rex Stout, “an indoor plant whiz”; and contemporary author Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Japantown mystery series as well as books on Japanese American gardens.

Along with photos and period illustrations, the book is visually enhanced by Yolanda Fundora’s distinctive silhouette illustrations. As an added bonus, McDowell appends a reading list of plant-related mysteries, ranging from The Moonstone to 21st-century writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. It’s not always possible to garden in winter, so dig into this book and enjoy! 

★ The League of Lady Poisoners

Lisa Perrin, an illustrator who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, begins her highly entertaining and lavishly illustrated study of 25 female poisoners with this dedication: “For my parents, who really hoped my first book would be a nice children’s picture book.” And while The League of Lady Poisoners may not be for young children, it’s a sure bet that adults will eat up (pun intended) this original, thought-provoking and visually stunning book.

Perrin’s sense of color and design makes it a pleasure to simply turn the pages. The distinctive arsenic green on the eye-catching cover is used to excellent effect throughout, often as the sole color offsetting a stylized pen-and-ink illustration. For example, a skeleton with green bloodlines graces Perrin’s introduction to poisons, which includes a “toxic timeline” tracing the knowledge of plant poisons back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are also some gorgeous botanical illustrations of poisonous plants and creatures. (One can’t help wonder: Will they inspire some new nature-themed mysteries?)

Perrin organizes her profiles by the motives that led these women to perform their deadly deeds: money and greed, anger and revenge, and love and obsession. Each main subject appears as a full-page, color illustration, beginning with Locusta, a poison expert and assassin for hire in first-century Rome. 

While some names, such as Cleopatra, will be familiar to readers, Perrin’s well-documented research has unearthed little known stories including that of the women of Nagyrév, a small village in Hungary, who in the early 1900s sought to poison their abusive husbands with arsenic. With the aid of a midwife, the poisoning “epidemic” took hold, with at least 40 confirmed murders. Years later, when the police finally investigated, some women were sent to prison or executed while others women died by suicide to avoid such fates. 

Despite its gruesome subject matter, The League of Lady Poisoners is a beautiful book. And who knows? Perhaps Perrin will turn her attention to fictional poisoners next.

Murderabilia

Readers interested in the history of true crime will be fascinated by Harold Schechter’s clever new book, Murderabilia. The title refers to objects owned by killers or otherwise connected to their crimes—artifacts that are often sold on the internet in the present day. But as Schechter makes clear, this impulse to look at or collect grisly mementos has been around for a long time. 

Schechter brings a lifetime of research to this topic: He is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, where he has taught for four decades. Along with nonfiction works about serial killers, he’s also penned detective novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and has a novelist’s sense of what makes a good story. And the stories here are good. As he uncovers the history of 100 grisly artifacts, Schechter provides a fascinating examination of the often unexpected and surprising ways in which crime has seeped into social history and popular culture. 

Schechter begins in 1808, with the tombstone of Naomi Wise, a North Carolina indentured servant who became pregnant by a clerk named Jonathan Lewis. Lewis promised to elope with Wise, but instead he strangled her. This sad tale was memorialized in the murder ballad “Little Omie”; in other words, we’re not the first to find the gruesome compelling.

Given the author’s deep familiarity with Poe, the master of the macabre makes an appearance here too, with Schechter linking one of Poe’s detective stories to the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a cigar girl. Schechter also details other kinds of murderabilia, including a hammer wielded by John Colt to murder a printer; a kind of bottled mineral water that nurse Jane Toppan laced with poison and used to kill 31 people; and a shovel used by serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Short chapters and copious illustrations make Murderabilia a great choice to leave on the night table to dip into before bed. Then again, given the subject matter, maybe not.

If you don’t have a clue what to get the true crime lovers and cozy mystery readers on your gift list, fear not—we’ve done the detecting for you.
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In Lynn Steger Strong’s stirring Flight, siblings Kate, Henry and Martin struggle to make it through the holidays after the death of their mother. Assembling at Henry’s home with their respective families for Christmas, they try to be cheerful while sorting out big issues like whether to keep their mother’s house. When the daughter of a friend disappears, the siblings offer support, and the crisis transforms each of them. Strong’s powerful novel features a range of discussion topics, including grief, inheritance and the bonds of family.

Set on the border between Texas and Mexico, Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester chronicles the marriage of Isabel and Martin. Martin’s late father, Omar, deserted the family when Martin was a boy. But every fall, on the Day of the Dead, Omar’s ghost visits Isabel and begs her to convince Martin and the rest of the family to forgive him. As the novel unfolds, Isabel learns more about Omar and his past, and her discoveries threaten her happiness. Themes like loyalty, memory and the Mexican American immigrant experience will spark spirited dialogue among readers.

In Jean Meltzer’s The Matzah Ball, Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, successful writer of Christmas romances (an occupation she conceals from her Jewish family), is asked to pen a love story set during Hanukkah—an assignment that proves daunting. Rachel finds Hanukkah lackluster compared to Christmas, and she hits a wall while dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. In need of motivation, she helps organize a Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball, reconnecting with an old flame along the way. Meltzer mixes humor with romance to concoct a delightful holiday frolic.

December takes an unexpected turn for the Birch clan in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us. Emma and Andrew Birch look forward to spending Christmas at Weyfield Hall, their country house, but when their daughter Olivia, who’s a doctor, returns from Liberia where she was exposed to a dangerous virus, the family is forced to quarantine for a week. Despite rising tensions and the reveal of a huge family secret, the Birches become closer than ever during their Yuletide lockdown. Poignant yet festive, Hornak’s novel is a treat.

There’s nothing more fun than gossiping about fictional characters with your book club.
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In The Book of (More) Delights, poet and essayist Ross Gay continues the practice of recording everyday pleasures that made his 2019 volume, The Book of Delights, an award-winning bestseller. In Gay’s hands, the habit has become an exercise in ecstasy, a way to cultivate gratitude and develop a spirit of inquiry.   

Gay’s guidelines for compiling delights—“write them daily, write them quickly, and write them by hand”—has resulted in a collection of 81 essays that span a year. His newest enthusiasms (yellow jackets, Snoopy, paper menus) may seem simple at first glance, but they yield arresting complexities under his observant eye. Each piece in the book is a snapshot moment of relished experience that emphasizes discovery and revelation. 

Gay’s images are precise and poetic (garlic sprouts look like “little green periscopes”; a favorite spoon has “a slight impression—as though touched by an angel—on the handle”), and his reflections on aging, relationships and the passage of time are heartening. Informal yet inspired, off-the-cuff yet beautifully composed, his essays reveal the riches hidden in quotidian experience. With a reading list of works that have influenced Gay’s process, The Book of (More) Delights provides abundant avenues to appreciate our world.  

In his gem of a memoir, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, Gay Talese takes stock of his working life as a journalist and author—a remarkable run of roughly seven decades. Now 91, Talese entered the business as a copy boy at the New York Times. Over the course of his career, he helped define contemporary nonfiction narrative through innovative magazine pieces and books like Honor Thy Father (1971), which featured the novelistic techniques of New Journalism. 

Bartleby and Me finds Talese focusing on his early years and inspirations, most notably his fascination with the “nobodies” of the world—figures reminiscent of Herman Melville’s reticent character Bartleby, who toil in obscurity and usually never make the news. These unassuming yet oddly intriguing individuals (to wit, “a seventy-eight-year-old grandfather’s clock of a man” named George Bannon, who rings the bell during boxing matches at Madison Square Garden) have long served as subject matter for his work.  

Talese also shares anecdotes related to writing and research and reconsiders classic works like his 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” For the most part, his backdrop is New York, and the volume reads as a tribute to the city as a place of endless evolution. Wistful, understated and urbane, Bartleby and Me is vintage Talese—the exemplary work of a gentleman journalist. 

Fans with an insatiable appetite for the mysteries of Martin Walker will savor Bruno’s Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from a French Country Kitchen. Bruno Courreges, the clever, self-possessed hero of Walker’s popular series, serves as police chief for St. Denis, a rustic village in the Périgord region of southwestern France. Bruno is an exceptional detective and accomplished cook, and in each book in the series, the ritual of mealtime, whether it be a leisurely lunch or convivial dinner, proves to be an important component of his daily routine. 

Inspired by his gastronomic passion, Bruno’s Cookbook, which was co-authored by Walker and his wife, Julia Watson, has more than 90 recipes neatly categorized according to the suppliers of the ingredients, from the winemaker (le vigneron) to the fisherman (le pecheur). The volume is packed with handsome photos, insights into the food culture of the Périgord and dishes to please every palate, including intriguing menu items like Snails in Garlic and Butter, Bruno’s Meatballs with Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes and A Most Indulgent Chocolate Cake. (Of interest to the canine diner: a recipe for Balzac’s Best Dog Biscuits.) Easy-to-follow cooking instructions and copious Bruno-related anecdotes make this a delicious gift for the well-read epicure.

Transporting readers to the green moors of Yorkshire, The Wonderful World of James Herriot: A Charming Collection of Classic Stories provides a detailed portrait of the beloved veterinarian and author.

Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, published his first book, If Only They Could Talk, in 1970. In that volume, he adopted the narrative approach that made his work so popular, writing from a first-person perspective that blended fact and fiction as he detailed his rounds as a country veterinarian, all in a voice that was poetic, affable and expert. His subsequent books, including All Creatures Great and Small, served as the basis for two PBS TV series of the same name.

The Wonderful World of James Herriot is a sampler of stories from Herriot’s works with lively supplementary text by his children, Jim Wight and Rosie Page. Featuring chapters on Herriot’s career, family life and the Yorkshire region, it offers fresh perspectives on the man and his work. Herriot aficionados needn’t fret—Siegfried and Tristan Farnon put in plenty of appearances. Brimming with personal photos and enchanting illustrations, it’s a perfectly cozy collection from start to finish.

We’ve collected a quartet of treats for the bibliophiles on your list.
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The Takedown

Carlie Walker’s The Takedown is an engaging story filled with danger, drama and introspection—and a Christmas romance you won’t want to miss. When CIA agent Sydney Swift learns her sister plans to marry crime lord Johnny Jones, she instantly regrets the familial distance she’s encouraged due to her dangerous job and agrees to help the FBI take Johnny down. At Grandma Ruby’s for Christmas, Sydney must keep her mission a secret even as she’s sharing quarters with not only Johnny, but also his best man and head of security, the far too attractive Nick Fraser. Celebrating the season while sussing out the Jones clan’s nefarious next moves isn’t easy, and Sydney does some soul-searching about her career while trying not to fall for Nick, who must be as bad as Johnny—right? This untraditional Christmas tale is as fun as can be and will have readers whipping through the pages.

Three Holidays and a Wedding

Bad luck turns to good fortune in Three Holidays and a Wedding by Uzma Jalaluddin and Marissa Stapley. Maryam Aziz is on her way to her sister’s wedding, and Anna Gibson is about to meet her boyfriend’s parents. But both are stranded along with their entire flight after a blizzard traps them in the adorable and fantastical town of Snow Falls, Ontario, where the sequel to a beloved Christmas movie also happens to be filming. As Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr approach (the novel is set in 2000, when all three celebrations fell within days of one another), Anna must deal with the displeasure of her boyfriend and her attraction to the movie’s leading man, while Maryam manages her extended family and her childhood crush, Saif. Jalaluddin and Stapley expertly braid the three faiths together and each character sparkles in their own way. The holiday(s) spirit is strong in this one!

Faking Christmas

For pure festive rom-com fun, look no further than Faking Christmas by Kerry Winfrey. Laurel Grant thinks of herself as the “other twin,” the one who constantly screws up, while her identical sister Holly lives on a farm with her husband and kids, raises goats and cooks like a dream. Laurel is the social media manager for a magazine promoting the charms of Ohio, and may have pretended her sister’s life was her own to get the job. But then her boss invites himself to a holiday meal. Luckily, Holly doesn’t mind letting Laurel step into her place . . . with the exception of playing wife to her husband. There’s another man for that role: Laurel’s nemesis, grouchy and fun-averse Max Beckett. Of course, there’s a blizzard and romantic sparks and misunderstandings, as well as movie marathons and dance parties. Max learns to smile on occasion and Laurel finds out she’s not such a screw-up after all. This is hot chocolate in book form—warm and sweet.

A Holly Jolly Ever After

An unlikely pairing enjoys a scorching Christmas romance in A Holly Jolly Ever After by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone. After years in good-girl roles followed by a shocking divorce, actor Winnie Baker is ready to end her people-pleaser ways and take charge of her life. First up is starring in a Christmas soft-core porn film alongside ex-boy band member, Kallum Lieberman (who was “the funny one”). Though she’s been in the entertainment business since childhood, the challenge of acting sexy, especially pretending to enjoy sex on screen, is such a hurdle that Winnie confides in Kallum—and he’s eager to help. He’s had a crush on her since her early TV days, and awakening her to carnal pleasures is a joy that threatens to turn into love. But their idyll in Christmas Notch, Vermont, the charming backdrop for their movie, is supposed to be no-strings. The love scenes smoke, the characters and their sidekicks are funny and sweet, and readers will root for Winnie to get all she deserves.

Wreck the Halls

In Tessa Bailey’s Wreck the Halls, the progeny of an infamous female rock duo get involved in a band reunion—and with each other. The Steel Birds broke up before their respective kids, Beat and Melody, were born. But their legend lives on, and since Beat’s in a financial bind, he tries to get the women back on stage. Though Melody only met him once when she was a teenager, she feels so connected to Beat all these years later that she jumps on board with his idea. The holiday reunion setup and The Steel Birds are interesting, but it’s Beat and Melody’s intense bond that drives the story and gives it oomph. Bailey masterfully sells the sublime connection between the two characters, whether in conversation or more carnal situations. It’s delicious and delightful, the stuff of pure fairy tale romance, and readers won’t want it to end.

The annual avalanche of festive love stories is upon us—here are the books you should put on your list.
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The Final Curtain

For those of you who have followed Keigo Higashino’s Kyoichiro Kaga series since its inception, I bear sad tidings: The fourth installment in the series, The Final Curtain is also its last. If you haven’t read the previous three, don’t fret; the author brings you up to speed on everything you need to know in order to fully appreciate Tokyo Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga’s final case. The story, partly told in flashbacks, explores the possible connections between a pair of present-day murders and the strange disappearance of Kaga’s mother, Yuriko Tajima, who vanished when he was a teenager. Kaga didn’t hear a peep from or about her until he was summoned to pick up her ashes from a club owner who had once employed her. As a longtime police detective, Kaga dislikes unanswered questions by nature, particularly when the questions are ones that have haunted him since childhood. But the mystery of his mother’s disappearance has persisted. Ten years later, however, another woman dies in an eerily similar manner: alone in an apartment, far from home. The narrative is complex and there are many names to keep track of, requiring the full attention of the reader; that said, Higashino has thoughtfully provided a list of characters at the beginning of the book. Japanese police investigations unfold in a rather different way than their counterparts in the West, which adds a layer of novelty for those who aren’t familiar with the series on top of the satisfaction of watching a clever, methodical detective get the job done.

The Fourth Rule

The fourth entry in Jeff Lindsay’s popular Riley Wolfe series, The Fourth Rule finds the thrill-seeking thief considering a heist of epic proportions: stealing the Rosetta stone from the British Museum. Never mind that it weighs the better part of a ton and is likely the most heavily guarded treasure in the U.K. after the crown jewels. This would be an over-the-top caper for even the most cunning James Bond villain, but for Riley, it actually borders on the believable. As he smugly notes early on in the narrative, “It’s just me, alone on top . . . Riley Wolfe, top of the heap, the best there ever was. End of discussion.” Um, hubris much? And we all know what happens to people in the iron grip of hubris. Comeuppance, that’s what happens. The grander the self-aggrandizement, the grander the comeuppance. Despite all this, Riley is something of a realist, mostly obeying the rules—Riley’s Laws—he has set out for his life of crime. Riley’s Fourth Law states: “Even if you’re the best there is, watch your back. Because somebody better is coming.” This rule should probably doubly apply when an attractive stranger enters the picture, but hey, even Achilles had a heel, right? The Fourth Rule offers up a tasty combination plate of humor, deception, suspense and villainy—and that is just on the part of the protagonist. Wait until you meet the villain(s).

Murder Crossed Her Mind

Ace private investigator Lillian Pentecost and her sidekick Willowjean “Will” Parker are back in Stephen Spotswood’s fourth mystery starring the duo, Murder Crossed Her Mind. The year is 1947; the location is New York City. The pair has been hired to look into the disappearance of retiree Vera Bodine, who has embarked on a late-in-life mission to expose Nazis hiding in postwar America, an uncommon and dangerous avocation for an 80-year-old. Bodine is reputed to have a photographic memory, and there are some villainous characters who would like to pick her brain or silence her forever. Perhaps both. Lillian, the senior member of the duo, has been somewhat sidelined by advancing multiple sclerosis, but she is as intuitive (and as crusty) as ever. She may do most of her detecting from an armchair these days, but she’s still very invested in securing the well-being of the heroic yet vulnerable Bodine. Will is the action figure, the Archie Goodwin to Lillian’s Nero Wolfe; like Goodwin, she is the narrator (and also like Goodwin, she’s a smartass). The feel is very much of the period in terms of lexicon, fashion and all the other minutiae that make for authentic storytelling. However, as Will and Lillian are both women and Will is gay, they have different perspectives on life as hard-boiled detectives in the 1940s than their forebears in the genre.  

The Other Half

I have long been a fan of English bad-boy writers of the mid-20th century: Kingsley Amis, et al. There is something about the boredom and superficiality of the posh and their hangers-on that appeals to my decidedly middle-class upbringing, and their humo(u)r is of the understated but wickedly delicious variety that I could feast on for hours. Fast forward to 2023, and their spiritual heir—or I should say heiress—is Charlotte Vassell, author of The Other Half, an equal parts modern and traditional English murder mystery chock-full of the rudderless overprivileged, trendy social media influencers and those drawn inexorably to their flame. As the book opens, socialite Rupert Beauchamp is hosting a somewhat ironic 30th birthday party for himself: replete with coke (not of the capital-C variety) and champagne—at McDonald’s. He is about to finish things with his girlfriend, Clemmie, and throw her over in the hopes of winning his longtime inamorata, Nell, who, it must be said, is less than thrilled with that prospect. When Clemmie turns up murdered the following morning, the partygoers comprise the primary suspect pool. Unsurprisingly for regular readers of mystery novels, everyone has an alibi, but trust detective Caius Beauchamp (no relation to Rupert, which becomes something of a running joke) to get to the bottom of things. Blisteringly funny, full of twists and turns, and featuring a cast of characters you will love to loathe, The Other Half deserves to be on your “read now” list.

Plus, the Kyoichiro Kaga series comes to a close and master thief Riley Wolfe tries to steal the Rosetta stone in this month’s Whodunit column.

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