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There comes a time in every hit man or woman’s life to hang up the garrotte and stow away the guns. The assassin protagonists of these books are understandably world- and work-weary, but old habits die hard when you’re a killer for hire.

It’s impossible not to like Billie, Mary Alice, Natalie and Helen, even if Deanna Raybourn’s Killers of a Certain Age makes it abundantly clear that the quartet could easily kill someone and get away with it if they so desired. After all, they’ve done just that many, many times during their 40-year careers as elite assassins for an international organization called the Museum.

The women are smart and funny, each with a specialty (poison, bombs, weapons) and all with extensive training in planning and carrying out assassinations. As Billie quips, “Our job is to eliminate people who need killing.” So it’s quite a shock when, before they’ve even had a chance to enjoy the all-expenses-paid retirement cruise arranged by the Museum, the women realize someone has decided that they need killing—someone who just might be on the board of their former employer. The women take a moment to indulge their anger like any longtime employee would (“We’ve given forty years to those assholes and this is how they repay us.”) and then surge into action, joining forces to figure out who’s after them and why.

Raybourn, an Edgar finalist and bestselling author of the Veronica Speedwell historical mystery series, has created a group of protagonists who are as reliably charming as they are impressively badass. It’s fascinating to follow along as they map out routes, create disguises, work their connections and improvise weapons. They handle it all with practiced aplomb, even if they occasionally groan with aggravation after battles to the death leave them feeling achier than they used to. But the four “avenging goddesses” are also able to use sexism and ageism to their strategic advantage, given that the combo renders them virtually invisible.

Ingenuity and instinct combine with deadly determination in this memorable thriller that celebrates friendship, ponders the meaning of loyalty, and offers plenty of action-packed entertainment among all the, well, killing.

In contrast to the ladies’ collaborative approach, there can only be one top-notch killer in the world of Seventeen. Screenwriter John Brownlow’s debut novel gives that number one spot to his brashly confident narrator, a man known only as Seventeen.

To achieve assassin supremacy, you must kill your predecessor—but Sixteen suddenly disappeared eight years ago. He’s the first assassin in 100 years to have done so, making Seventeen the only one who hasn’t truly earned his spot, according to his handler (who, of course, goes by “Handler”). Seventeen’s a consummate professional nonetheless, with a practical approach to his work: “I’m not saying what I do is a public service exactly, but actions have consequences.”

Now, though, it seems Seventeen himself may have begun to suffer the consequences of his chosen career path. After a multitarget assignment gets a bit messy, and he completes two subsequent jobs in Berlin without his usual finesse, he worries he might be losing his touch, and it seems like Handler might agree. When he informs Seventeen his next job is to find Sixteen and take him out, Seventeen’s hunch intensifies. Can he find and finish Sixteen before Handler sends someone else to finish him, too?

Brownlow’s snappy prose and brief chapters will have readers eagerly flipping the pages. Sixteen may be off the grid, but he’s not going to be off his game: He’s too smart to let his guard down, and he’s got 20 years of experience on Seventeen. As the ultimate showdown nears, compelling secondary characters add to the darkly humorous fun, intense action scenes amp up the suspense, and Seventeen reflects on the tragic childhood events that set him on his ruthless career path. That exploration of the far-ranging effects of trauma, as well as forays into geopolitics and governmental corruption, bolster the cleverly constructed, propulsive thrill ride that is Seventeen.

Can an assassin ever truly retire? The characters in these two thrillers are about to find out.
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American Wildflowers

American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide exists at the intersection of two important movements: the protection of native plant populations from climate change and shortsighted development, and the decolonization of literature. Editor Susan Barba has gathered a captivating bouquet of plant-inspired writings, with prose and poetry from contemporary greats like Jericho Brown, Lydia Davis and Aimee Nezhukumatathil alongside the words of perennial canon-dwellers like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. “The best writers closely observe not only the plant but our words in relation to it, and in doing so they focus our attention and clarify our intentions,” writes Barba. What first drew me to this book were Leanne Shapton’s atmospheric watercolors of pressed flowers, which are as ephemeral as the specimens they interpret. A significant addition to the tradition of writing about plants, this anthology urges us to notice the lessons offered by the tiniest bluet.

The United States of Cryptids

Speaking of overlooked (possibly) living things, I can’t get enough of the names of creatures featured in The United States of Cryptids. Snarly Yow? Snallygaster? Woodbooger? Wait, back up. What, you ask, is a cryptid? It’s “a creature or species whose existence is scientifically unproven,” and that right there is a freakishly wide net, folks. But author J.W. Ocker’s emphasis is on the lively lore surrounding Bigfoot creatures, et al., and how these tales both shape and are shaped by the animals’ supposed stomping grounds. “Wherever cryptids are celebrated, the story is so much more important than the science,” he writes, and boy does he have a lot of fun telling said stories. There’s even a “world’s largest chainsaw-carved bigfoot” in a state otherwise light on cryptids (looking at you, South Dakota), a wooden beast born of idle hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seems about right for a contemporary cryptid.

Toil and Trouble

Toil and Trouble examines the ways in which women throughout history have found agency, self-expression, financial gain and political influence in witchcraft, tarot and other practices with a spiritual element. Remember Joan Quigley, astrologer to Nancy Reagan? She’s among the fabulous cast of characters included here, along with the witches who hexed Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, spiritualist Achsa Sprague, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau and so many more. Ultimately, authors Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Monster, She Wrote) argue that the occult offers women a way to rebel against the patriarchal Christian constructs of womanhood. Anyone who has dabbled in the craft by way of #witchtok will deepen their knowledge immensely by reading this book, which is as historically thorough as it is fueled by the modern ascendance of the occult in popular culture. With a final chapter titled “100% That Witch,” you know you’re going to learn a lot and have some fun.

This month’s lifestyles column runs the gamut from nature-inspired beauty to straight-up monsters. Brush up on your preferred form of magic with the help of these three enchanting books.

When the main characters in these two novels return to their hometowns after long absences, mysteries past and present collide.

Jackal

In Jackal, 30-something Black woman Liz Rocher reluctantly returns to her childhood home for the wedding of her longtime friend Melissa Parker. While she’s overjoyed at Mel’s newfound happiness and upcoming marriage, she’s less than enthusiastic about her return to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains that immediately rekindles haunting memories.

Years ago, Keisha Woodson, one of Liz’s only Black friends, disappeared after a party in the woods. She was discovered dead, her heart ripped from her chest. Police were quick to close the book on the case, concluding that Keisha died from exposure and that her body was ravaged by a bear. But Liz has always had doubts. When Mel’s daughter, Caroline, also goes missing, Liz launches an investigation into the other Black children who have disappeared over the years. As suspicion, racial tension and even irrational fears of a legendary creature in the woods grow, Liz desperately tries to discover the truth and save Caroline before it’s too late.

In her debut novel, Erin E. Adams transcends the typical hometown mystery with an effective blend of social and supernatural terrors that build in intensity and mystique throughout. Liz’s first-person narration accentuates the emotional stakes of what’s happening in Johnstown, drawing readers in as they sympathize with her plight.

The Witch in the Well

Norwegian author Camilla Bruce’s The Witch in the Well revolves around popular spirituality influencer Elena Clover, whose return to her hometown (referred to only as F”) ignites a feud with her former childhood friend Cathy over their town’s local legend, the titular witch.

Cathy had been researching and blogging for years about Ilsbeth Clark, who was accused of being a witch, then arrested and tried for the deaths of numerous children in 1862. Ilsbeth was eventually acquitted, but believing the court made a mistake, the townsfolk threw her in the local well and drowned her.

Elena, who believes that each person has a voice in their head that can converse with their soul, is convinced that Ilsbeth is that voice for her. She returns to F” to write her next book about Ilsbeth, which prompts Cathy to exact a series of petty retaliations.

The book begins with an open letter to the community from Cathy, who contends that she has been wrongly implicated in Elena’s death. Bruce, who earned accolades for her previous thriller You Let Me In, expertly unravels the trio’s stories, jumping back and forth in time via Elena’s journal, Cathy’s blogs and Ilsbeth’s own archived accounts. The Witch in the Well is a compelling, creepy story of angst, obsessions and lost friendship.

In Erin E. Adams' Jackal and Camilla Bruce's The Witch in the Well, the places you know best are the ones that pose the greatest threat.
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 All the Living and the Dead

We are not born with the innate knowledge that we, and all those around us, will die. At some point, someone has to tell us. A beloved pet or grandparent might pass into the great beyond, prompting a bedside conversation with a parent about the finitude of life. Alternatively, if you are journalist and writer Hayley Campbell, you might absorb the concept of death while sitting in your father’s drawing studio as he studies the decomposition of a kidney. In the background, perhaps crime scene photos of the long-ago victims of Jack the Ripper stare down from a bulletin board.

As the daughter of the artist who created the classic graphic novel From Hell, which fictionalizes the brutal Whitehall Chapel murders, Campbell grew up fascinated by death. In All the Living and the Dead, she takes readers on a tour of the professionals of the death industry, interviewing embalmers, executioners, midwives who work exclusively with stillbirths and more.

In one chapter, Campbell assists two employees in a funeral home as they care for a body and prepare it for burial, and she is moved by their admission that they got into this line of work because of their desire for a meaningful occupation. Most of her subjects are driven by this kind of loving kindness for the deceased and their bereaved, but not all of them. In another chapter, she interviews the boss of a death cleanup crew that scrubs blood from carpets and removes other physical signs of death from a home. This business posts exploitative photos of gruesome and sad scenes to Instagram for shock value and advertising.

But for the most part, All the Living and the Dead shines a light on those with a tenderness for death, and Campbell is an equally entertaining and sensitive guide to these interesting people and their grisly but indispensable jobs.

Over My Dead Body

It is this same appreciation for the dead, as well as for history, that drives journalist Greg Melville as he explores America’s cemeteries in Over My Dead Body. Melville escorts us through 17 of America’s most notable burial grounds, from the mossy colonial graveyards of New England to sparkling Hollywood memorial parks, all with a perfect balance of geeky joy, deep reverence and a meticulous knack for research.

Melville’s prose is pure pleasure mixed with wry asides. A running theme throughout is the difficulty Melville has in convincing any of his friends or family to accompany him on his explorations (Melville, if you are reading this, I am available), but even among his most amusing anecdotes, he never loses sight of the gravity that still vibrates through the stories of the dead. Upon visiting segregated cemeteries across the American South, underfunded and unmapped, Melville’s writing grows hot and indignant. The same tone arises again when Melville visits Arlington National Cemetery: A veteran himself, he flatly rejects the notion of war providing a glorious death, and he is not afraid to challenge this very American idea.

Though one covers the bodies of the dead and the other covers the ground they are laid to rest in, Campbell and Melville meet in their shared belief in the continuing importance of lives that have ended, and in their willingness to examine the complexities of the death industry. For them, the dead continue to speak to us from beyond the grave. Are you listening?

Dying leaves, dying crops, the dying light of a crackling fire. If October fills you with macabre joy, you will find kindred spirits in the authors of these books.
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The season is upon us: Wrap a scarf around your neck—tightly—and crack open a book of undead intrigue.

A Dowry of Blood

A queer, feminist reimagining of Dracula, S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood starts with its narrator, Constanta, reclaiming a small bit of power. She refuses to grant her abuser a name, instead referring to him as “you” throughout the book. Her abuser is a prototypical vampire, vulnerable to sunlight and silver, who sires new vampires by giving them his blood. He finds Constanta near death, grants her immortal life and, despite calling her his bride, sees her as a possession. Over the years, Constanta is joined by two other consorts—Magdalena, a politically savvy philosopher, and Alexi, a sprightly socialite and actor—who become her friends, lovers and allies. 

A Dowry of Blood focuses on Constanta, her abuser and his other spouses; no other character is present for more than a handful of pages.This narrow focus, along with several time jumps and Constanta’s stream-of-consciousness narration, creates a dreamlike haze. As each new consort enters the narrative, the house’s atmosphere transitions from cloistered and dank to frenetic with need and simmering rebellion. The story’s specificity ebbs and flows according to Constanta’s memory: Events she struggles to recall are blurry, but she hyperfixates on what she remembers in rich detail. 

In the tradition of the best vampire stories, Gibson uses her characters to explore how centuries of time would affect a once-mortal mind. A Dowry of Blood whisks readers through human history, arriving at the dawn of the 20th century, drenched in blood.

House of Hunger

In the fantasy world of House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson (The Year of the Witching), an industrial revolution is in full swing, condemning the ancient houses of nobility to a slow decay into irrelevance. The House of Hunger is one of these dying houses, but it’s still influential enough to continue indenturing bloodmaids like Marion Shaw, who is eager to accept the position when it is offered to her.

At the House of Hunger, she will be treated well, fully fed and paid enough to keep herself and her brother afloat before receiving an enormous pension once her service ends. But during her time as a bloodmaid, Marian’s blood will be harvested to grant health and beauty to the houses’ aristocratic members. In Henderson’s world, blood has magical properties and is also used in medicine, steam engines and other scientific endeavors.

Countess Lisavet, head of the House of Hunger, already has four other bloodmaids, and Henderson uses them to illustrate the dangers of Marion’s choice. Cecilia, the countess’ oldest bloodmaid, is also her favorite lover and primary blood donor. She is consumed with desire for Countess Lisavet and is extremely jealous when the countess’ eye turns toward Marion. Lisavet manipulatively distributes her favors, whether they be sexual, emotional or verbal. She makes her bloodmaids’ lives revolve around her until they find themselves defined by her attention.

House of Hunger begins with dark secrets and ends with secrets darker still. Readers will be on the edges of their seats as Henderson slowly unveils the grotesque horrors at the heart of her inventive, gothic society.

Sink your fangs into these two novels, both of which offer a unique spin on bloodsuckers.

★ Invisible

A fresh and cleverly conceived take on the beloved 1985 film The Breakfast Club, Invisible is a colorful and engaging tale written by first-time graphic novel author Christina Diaz Gonzalez and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein (Claudia and the New Girl). 

Diaz writes in both English and Spanish, the languages spoken by her archetypal characters. There’s George Rivera, the brain; Sara Domínguez, the loner; Miguel Soto, the athlete; Dayara Gómez, the tough one; and Nico Piñeda, the rich kid. Their heritage is linked to different places, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but since they all speak Spanish, the kids keep getting lumped together at Conrad Middle School by fellow students and school administrators alike. 

As Invisible opens, it’s happened again: Principal Powell won’t earn a community service initiative trophy unless 100% of students participate, so he informs George that he’ll be spending mornings with “students like you” helping grouchy Mrs. Grouser in the school cafeteria. The five kids greet each other with wariness that soon becomes bickering as they resist the idea they could actually have anything in common. Sure, they’re all varying degrees of bilingual, and yes, they’ve all been stereotyped because of it. But otherwise? Pfft! But when an opportunity to really help someone arises—one that will require creative thinking plus significant subterfuge—the kids have to make a decision. Can they work together to achieve a meaningful goal? 

Diaz Gonzalez’s previous novel, Concealed, won the 2022 Edgar Award for best juvenile title, and she builds wonderful suspense here as the students strive to find common ground. Meanwhile, Epstein’s art conveys the group’s swirling emotions, from Dayara’s frustration (ugh, homework!) to George’s embarrassment (oh, crushes!) to everyone’s wide-eyed worry that they’ll be caught breaking Mrs. Grouser’s rules. 

In an author’s note, Diaz Gonzalez explains that she knows what it’s like to be a student learning English as a second language “who may feel a little lost . . . when surrounded by words that they don’t yet understand.” Her own experiences fueled her desire to create “a single book that could be read and enjoyed no matter which language you [speak].” 

With Invisible, she and Epstein have done just that. The book’s visual context clues and helpful dialogue bubbles (with solid outlines to indicate speech and dashed outlines for translations) bolster an already meaningful coming-of-age tale. Invisible celebrates individuality and community while transcending language barriers. 

★ Twin Cities

Must a border also be a barrier? In their first graphic novel for middle grade readers, Jose Pimienta compassionately explores this question through the eyes of 12-year-old twins Teresa and Fernando.

The twins live with their parents in Mexicali, Mexico, just over the border that runs between the U.S. and Mexico. For years, they’ve happily been classmates at school and BFFs at home. They spend the summer after sixth grade in a bonanza of togetherness, filling their days with basketball and movies and tree-climbing, all portrayed by Pimienta in a kinetic, wordless double-page spread that hums with the joy of a strong sibling bond.

But the twins’ paths diverge when seventh grade begins. Teresa goes to school in Calexico, California, while Fernando stays in Mexicali. Fernando has noticed that Teresa has begun to rebuff their joint nickname, but it’s not until the first day of class that he realizes she is also eager to put space between them, to try new things alone. 

Pimienta uses evocative, parallel-panel sequences to illustrate the twins’ vastly different experiences, in different countries, just several miles apart. Fernando’s friends, Tony and Victor, join his sister at school in Calexico, leaving Fernando lonely and adrift—and excited to see Teresa when she gets home each day. Teresa, however, feels stifled by her brother’s attention. She has so much homework, and she wants to do well so that she can go to college and perhaps even work in America someday. Tension builds between the twins as they contend with new friends and chores-obsessed parents.

Middle school is never easy, but it’s even harder when you think you might lose your best friend for reasons you don’t quite understand. In Twin Cities, Pimienta addresses this possibility from a place of sensitivity, sympathy and personal curiosity: In an author’s note, they reveal that they also grew up in Mexicali and were offered—but declined—the option to study in the U.S. “I still wonder what would have happened had I made a different choice,” they write. 

That’s just one revelation among many to be found in Twin Cities’ notably substantive back matter, which also includes Pimienta’s musings on siblinghood and identity, character sketches, a map of both border towns and more. From start to finish, Twin Cities is a superbly crafted work of art and emotion that marks Pimienta as a creator to watch.

Will grumpy teachers, evolving friendships and mountains of homework spell disaster and doom for these heroes, or will lunchroom hijinks, video game extravaganzas and amazing discoveries prevail?
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When you’re a spy, regime change is tricky. Even positive shifts can make for treacherous times. Two novels uncover the messy, uncertain lives of intelligence operatives in times of tectonic political change: Allison Montclair’s The Unkept Woman explores English life after World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, while Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work illuminates the turmoil surrounding German reunification as the Cold War was coming to a shaky close. 

The Unkept Woman

A lighter riff on the espionage novel, Montclair’s The Unkept Woman is the fourth in a series about two women—Gwendolyn Bainbridge, an upper-class widow, and Iris Sparks, a former British spy—who run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, a matchmaking service launched in the wake of WWII. 

Witty and suspenseful, the novel brims with Noël Coward-esque banter. The primary mystery is how Helen Joblanska, an aspiring Right Sort client, ended up dead in Iris’ apartment. And why was a woman tailing Iris in the days before the murder? The events may or may not have something to do with the sudden reappearance and subsequent disappearance of Andrew Sutton, Iris’ married former lover and fellow spy, who had recently turned up on her doorstep looking for a place to hide out. 

As the prime suspect in Helen’s murder, Iris is determined to find the truth, but she’s facing strong tail winds. The local authorities are openly hostile due to their resentment of her involvement in previous cases, and Gwen is unable to help Iris as her own freedom and future are hanging in the balance. She has been trying to recover custody of her son and her inheritance, but having once been labeled a “lunatic” and committed to an asylum by her family, it’s an uphill battle.

Montclair paints a compelling portrait of two intelligent, formidable women working against systems and circumstances that put them at a distinct disadvantage. They’ve grown used to having careers and being in charge of their own fates, often in the absence of men. But both Iris and Gwen are considered disreputable, and the social change they represent is seen by some to be a monstrous encroachment on the normal social order. As unruly women in an uncertain time, Iris and Gwen are as intriguing as the mystery they’re investigating.

Winter Work

Like The Unkept Woman, Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work savvily leverages the inherent messiness of the life of a spy. When Lothar Fischer, a colonel in the now-defunct East German foreign intelligence service (more commonly known as the Stasi), is found dead in the woods near his dacha, his right-hand man, Emil Grimm, is determined to find out what really happened. Some suspect suicide, as many other senior Stasi officials have made that choice in the face of potential prosecution now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Emil thinks that’s nonsense. To complicate matters, the surrounding neighborhood is thick with former spies, and there’s soon a scuffle over jurisdiction. 

As a sympathetic Stasi officer, Emil provides a fascinating perspective for Western readers. In addition to the troubles of being an aging Cold Warrior, Emil also worries about his wife, who is seriously ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the Stasi dismantled amid the general upheaval, Emil’s income and health care are uncertain, which makes his situation particularly precarious.

As Emil scrambles to make sense of what happened to Lothar while trying to secure his future, Fesperman effectively balances building the mystery with illustrating the broader historical context and personal stakes. The social dynamics in the story are handled brilliantly, with the lines between personal and political motivations appropriately nuanced throughout. There are a multitude of competing interests in Berlin, chiefly Russians trying to shut down the flow of information and Americans offering top dollar to informants. For Emil, who has long since lost his belief in the East German system and grown wary of surveillance in his own life, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is a shaky figure who can’t be relied upon to help displaced men like him in this new world order. With the Russian leader “too preoccupied with making the Americans fall in love with his new Perestroika,” some of Emil’s fellow officials are looking for hope in other figures. In a chillingly prophetic note, one of them is Vladimir Putin: “The KGB station chief in Dresden, that Putin fellow, is as outraged as we are,” they remark. The heavy toll of authoritarianism looms over the entire proceeding, making for a complex tale that will have readers rooting for a Stasi agent.

Regime change, murder—and matchmaking? In two thrilling novels, spies both former and current contend with a host of challenges.
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 The Curanderx Toolkit

In her expansive look at ancestral and herbal healing and wellness, Atava Garcia Swiecicki introduces us to curanderismo, a multifaceted approach to healing that draws from the folk medicine traditions of the Latinx diaspora. In The Curanderx Toolkit, readers will learn about the teyolia, or heart center, akin to the soul. Teyolia is one of our four energetic bodies; when it is harmed or imbalanced, we may experience depression or sadness. As founder of the Ancestral Apothecary School of Herbal, Folk and Indigenous Medicine and an expert in herbal medicine, Garcia Swiecicki provides an overview of herbalism and brujeria, or witchcraft, in Mexico and profiles the healers she has studied or practiced in community with for decades, most of whom are based in California. As Garcia Swiecicki observes, the effects of white supremacist patriarchy are all but impossible to ignore, and as a result, space is being claimed during this cultural moment for traditions and ways previously sidelined, silenced and dismissed. This book is part of that important work.

The Future Is Fungi

A few years ago I watched the documentary Fantastic Fungi and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is currently on my TBR pile. Which is to say: Count me curious about the mysteries, magic and medicine of mushrooms. There’s so much to learn—and so much yet to be unearthed by science. If this is the kind of thing you like to geek out about, too, you’ll be captivated by Michael Lim and Yun Shu’s The Future Is Fungi, with its 360-degree view of shrooms, spores and such. As if mirroring the depth and range of a mycelial network, the book covers mushrooms’ culinary and medicinal uses, psilocybin and even mycorestoration and mycoremediation (fungi deployed to fight pollutants and break down plastics). While this is a text-rich book, not scrimping on research and detail, the visuals are equally stunning.

Mission Vegan

Mission Vegan, the inventive new cookbook from Danny Bowien, co-founder of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York City and subject of the sixth season of “The Mind of a Chef,” makes my mouth water for dishes I could have never imagined, like smashed cucumbers with tingly granola and microwave mochi with sesame ganache. A Korean adoptee with white parents who raised him in Oklahoma, Bowien made his way to Korean cuisine peripatetically via kitchens on both coasts, and along the way he laid off the beef. While his new book doesn’t limit itself to straight-up Korean food—there’s a pomodoro recipe tucked within, in fact—it does draw fond inspiration from Korea’s traditions and ingredients, including many takes on kimchi and other banchan. With Mission Vegan, Bowien is, in his own words, “embarking on a new journey rather than documenting one I’ve already been on.”

You’ll find healing wisdom from Mexico, plant-based flavor from Korea and more in this month’s roundup of lifestyles books that are glossy, colorful and beautiful to behold.
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From the Greek isle of Corfu to Washington’s Whidbey Island, hope can always be found in friendship.

Where the Wandering Ends

The latest novel from bestselling author and three-time Emmy Award-winning producer and journalist Yvette Manessis Corporon is a work of incredible depth, brimming with turmoil, compassion and remarkable historical detail.

Set on the gorgeous Greek island of Corfu, Where the Wandering Ends is a multigenerational, decades-spanning story that begins in 1946, when Greece appears to be on the verge of civil war. Despite the brewing unrest, life in Katerina’s village of Pelekito remains calm. She even has the opportunity to go to school, unlike provincial girls in older generations. 

As the conflict between communists and monarchists escalates, the war eventually reaches Pelekito, and the villagers are forced to flee. Katerina is separated from her best friend, Marco, but they both promise to someday return.

Corporon’s characters are indelible and authentic. Katerina’s father, Laki, is horrified by the divisions in his country: “Greek killing Greek. Cousin killing cousin. Brother killing brother. . . . Laki never would have imagined that his own people would turn against each other the way they had.” Meanwhile, Marco’s mother, Yianna, holds fast to the stories told by her own mother, who was a maid to Princess Alice, wife of Prince Andrew, both of whom were exiled from Greece after the Greco-Turkish War of 1922.

Written with a perceptive eye, Where the Wandering Ends considers the challenges faced by people during wartime and highlights the determination to survive despite painful circumstances. Corfu’s beauty, which Corporon describes in sumptuous detail, is juxtaposed against the turbulence and devastation caused by war. Fascinating historical facts and references to mythological Greek tales intertwine with moving scenes, tension-building plot points and surprising revelations to create a powerful, soaring story. This is a spectacular novel about the enduring devotion of family and the steadfast loyalty between friends.

Heirlooms

Bestselling author Sandra Byrd blends romance, laughter, community and family secrets in her novel Heirlooms, a delightful story of uplifting female friendships.

After her husband’s death, Choi Eunhee, a Korean woman living in the United States, turns to Helen Devries for help. It’s 1958, and both women are Navy widows. While living together in Helen’s farmhouse on Whidbey Island, Washington, the women assist each other through their losses and develop a lifelong friendship. 

In the present day, Helen’s dying wish is that her granddaughter Cassidy Quinn will pack up the attic at the Whidbey Island house with help from Eunhee’s granddaughter Grace Kim. While going through Helen’s hope chest, Cassidy and Grace discover a family secret. 

Meanwhile, Cassidy must work to save her grandmother’s property from foreclosure, so she turns to her ex-boyfriend Nick for help. Helen’s house was the setting of many beloved summers for Cassidy, and she dreams of reinstating her grandmother’s garden to its former glory. 

Helen and Eunhee’s friendship is much like the garden, tended with loving care over many years. As the women draw faith and strength from each other, their bond becomes akin to sisterhood. From this foundation grows Cassidy and Grace’s own connection, and the two young women learn to lean on each other throughout Cassidy’s fight for her grandmother’s house and garden and as Grace begins to doubt her chosen career path.

With warmth and sensitivity, Heirlooms examines the challenges faced by immigrants living in the United States, and the difficulties for women seeking health care and financial security for both themselves and their children throughout American history. As friends become family, readers will marvel at the strength found in community and the deep connections that can exist between generations.

Authors Yvette Manessis Corporon and Sandra Byrd intertwine past and present in two stories of love, courage and survival.
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Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules

Lupe Lopez is ready to rock and roll her way into kindergarten. Fresh from a summer of drumming and perfecting her hip new look, she knows all rock stars make their own rules. Lupe is committed to never letting anyone tell her what to do, being as loud as possible and making “fans, not friends.” Unsurprisingly, this works great for Lupe—but not so well for Ms. Quintanilla, Lupe’s new teacher. 

Little by little, Lupe learns that even rock stars have to adhere to the rules (sometimes). Drumming belongs more on a stage than in the classroom, and friends are much better than fans—especially when they start a band together! Best of all, Lupe finds a way to remain the one-of-a-kind, “Texas-size” kindergarten rock star she is. 

Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules is a fun, fresh addition to the back-to-school picture book canon. It’s perfect for young readers who march to the beat of their own drums but may benefit from a gentle reminder to respect the needs of others around them. 

Lupe is the brainchild of a picture book dream team: co-writers e.E Charlton-Trujillo and Pat Zietlow Miller (Be Kind), and illustrator Joe Cepeda. Stonewall Award-winning Charlton-Trujillo’s influence as a South Texas native is clear in the familiar and joyful portrait of Lupe’s predominantly Latinx Hector P. Garcia Elementary school, complete with the requisite map of Texas on the classroom wall and bilingual labeling of classroom objects. (Don’t miss the nod to legendary Tejano musician Selena in Ms. Quintanilla’s name.) 

Zietlow Miller’s signature voice contributes to the story’s rhythm and narrative structure, both of which make Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules an excellent read-aloud. Children will love drumming along with Lupe when she shouts “¡Ran! ¡Rataplán! Boom-tica-bam! ¡Pit-a-pat. Rat-a-tat. Wham-wham-wham! ¡Soy famosa!” 

Pura Belpré Honor recipient Cepeda’s crisp, classical illustration style is perfect for a story with this much heart. He spares no detail in bringing Lupe to life on the page, right down to the pigtails in her hair and the pencils she uses for her drumsticks. 

Together, Charlton-Trujillo, Zietlow Miller and Cepeda have created an unforgettable heroine who will leap off the page and right onto your bookshelf. Fans of feisty heroines such as Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances, Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Monica Brown and Sara Palacios’ Marisol McDonald will be clamoring to join Lupe’s band.

One Boy Watching

As many children in rural areas know, living in the country often means being the first to board the school bus in the morning and the last to get dropped off at the end of the day. It means mornings of quiet reflection as the world wakes up and evenings spent on winding gravel roads toward home. 

One Boy Watching is a nearly wordless picture book that opens as the sun is just barely beginning to rise, when a school bus arrives at a boy’s rural home. Some introductory descriptions follow the unnamed protagonist as he steps onto the bus (“Twenty-eight empty seats. . . . One bus at sunrise under an infinite sky.”), but the scene’s beauty can be found in the serene spaces between those phrases. The reader is invited to sit peacefully, to breathe deeply, to soak in the prismatic watercolor and colored pencil sunrise skies. 

Author-illustrator Grant Snider, the creator of the popular webcomic “Incidental Comics,” reprises the same hushed feeling found in his earlier picture books, including What Color Is Night and What Sound Is Morning. His artistry seems simple: It’s light on distinct detail and heavy on bold lines, capturing the shapes of objects just barely visible in the early dawn, such as bulbous trees or the peak of a roof. Later spreads contain sights that will be familiar to rural school bus riders: pastures of hay bales, the glow of headlights in the early dawn, fields of rusted cars, water towers, the silhouettes of distant barns and feed silos. 

The real wow factor, however, is in the quietly powerful way that Snider uses color. By blending colors, lines and shapes into one another, Snider mimics the blur of what children see from a bus window on the way to school. As the journey continues and more children board the bus, the reader can almost hear the sound of their laughter, the rumble of the bus’s engine and the wail of a train horn at the railroad crossing—all with hardly any words on the page. 

Reserved, thoughtful readers who prefer to spend time lingering over illustrations or making up their own stories about the stories they read will especially appreciate One Boy Watching. It vividly conveys the experiences of those first-to-get-on, last-to-get-off students who witness a sunrise every morning and a sunset every evening as they mark the beginning and end of each school day.

The first day of school is a momentous occasion for many children. These picture books capture the experience with sparkle and style.
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The best picture books tap honestly and unpatronizingly into children’s emotions. These two books remind children that being human means appreciating the complex emotions we all experience. 

Sometimes I Grumblesquinch

“I’m a really nice kid,” declares protagonist Katie Honors on the first page of author Rachel Vail and illustrator Hyewon Yum’s Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, a tale about the pitfalls of trying to tame emotions. Katie tries to be on her best behavior at all times. She’s “a good sport” when she loses a soccer match: “‘Good game,’ I say. . . . I hardly frown.” Katie’s mom declares that her daughter is “such a pleasure,” and Katie takes pride in knowing that her parents are proud of her. But readers, privy to Katie’s inner thoughts, know that she contains multitudes.

Katie’s little brother, Chuck, annoys her, and she routinely bottles up how he makes her feel. “Sometimes I grumblesquinch,” Katie confesses. When this happens, her “insides tighten” and she has “mean thoughts,” such as wishing that she had “a trampoline or a tree house or a giraffe instead of a brother.” Vail captures Katie’s feelings with an unequivocal, refreshing candor that’s deeply respectful toward Katie’s complicated interior life: “I wish I could pop [Chuck] like a balloon. . . . I wish he would disappear.” When Katie finally snaps, Yum’s soft color palette and smooth linework are transformed: Intense colors and ragged, angular lines embody Katie’s acute fear that her parents “won’t think I am such a pleasure anymore.” 

But Katie’s mother gently validates Katie’s feelings, telling her daughter that she understands how a person can hold both frustration and love for someone. A shocked Katie nods and tells readers, “This nod is true.” These four words convey so much about how children—especially girls—are encouraged to suppress their feelings and minimize their emotions. When Katie acknowledges that her nod is “true,” she’s also suggesting that some of her smiles have been insincere, even forced. 

It’s moving to watch Katie begin to understand that attempting to ignore healthy but negative emotions, all in the name of being likable, still causes harm. Even after failing to grumblesquinch all her feelings, Katie still receives a loving hug from her mom, who has space for “the whole me” in her arms.

What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking    

Polish author Tina Oziewicz offers readers a whole host of emotions in What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. (Kudos to Oziewicz’s American publisher, Elsewhere Editions, for placing the translator’s name prominently on the cover.) 

Because the book’s title tells readers precisely what to expect, the first spread dives right in, introducing Curiosity, a creature with large ears who sits atop a tall chimney, eager to see what’s beyond the horizon. Curiosity is followed by Joy, Gratitude, Calm, Envy, Insecurities, Shame, Courage, Bliss and more, each depicted on its own spread. 

Illustrator Aleksandra Zając (making her picture book debut) introduces an endearing cast of characters, conveying these emotions as furry, amicable creatures who move about on clean, uncluttered backgrounds. Her crisp, fine lines and gray-tone palette (with subtle touches of coral, sky blue and sage) ensure that even the more volatile emotions, such as Anger, won’t frighten the youngest readers.

This is a picture book filled with surprises. There are unexpected personifications (“Jitters sit in a rusty can in a dark corner under a wardrobe.” “Nostalgia sniffs a scarf.”), but Oziewicz also has a startlingly succinct and evocative way of capturing these feelings. “Anxiety juggles,” for one. These two words float amid ample white space next to an unhappy-looking creature atop a unicycle trying to keep five balls in the air, its mouth a thin, wavy line. A full-bleed illustration shows a wide-eyed creature attempting to blend in with patterned floral wallpaper: “Fear pretends it isn’t there.” And what else would Hope do but pack “a sandwich for the road”? 

Oziewicz and Zając link two spreads in an especially meaningful way: Readers learn that Hate “chews through links and cables. Can’t connect! Can’t connect!” But in the book’s final spread, Love, who is an electrician, holds an oversize lightbulb aglow with amber hues. The bulb seems to run from the same rose-colored cable Hate tried so vehemently to destroy. 

What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking will prompt thoughtful conversations about the wide range of feelings a person can experience. It’s exactly the sort of book that Katie Honors—and all children—need. 

These children’s books put some of our most complex emotions into words (and pictures!).

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