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Alison James and Jennifer K. Mann’s inversion of The Giving Tree begins with a nod to Shel Silverstein’s enduring, controversial classic: “Once there was a tree who was very lonely.” Things change when a distressed girl named Rosemary rushes, in tears, across the field to the sugar maple. Children at the nearby school have hurt her feelings, and Maple offers her friendship. Their bond deepens as Rosemary visits daily; she even plants some maple seeds beneath her friend’s branches.

When Rosemary suddenly stops visiting, Maple grieves, but as seasons and years pass, she manages to bloom and grow anyway. The eager saplings shooting up under Maple’s brilliant leaves also mature. Finally, Rosemary returns, now a grown woman, to tell Maple that she’s become a teacher at the school. She hangs a swing from one of Maple’s branches and introduces her students to her old friend. In the end, we see Rosemary as an older woman, her dark hair white with age. She settles next to Maple with a book and, beneath the sheltering leaves, reads aloud to the tree.

With touching emotional authenticity, Maple & Rosemary explores the bonds of friendship and the promises it entails. James portrays conversations between Rosemary and Maple in straightforward dialogue, as though Maple is actually speaking and Rosemary can understand her. When Rosemary’s visits cease, James writes that Maple “ached with loneliness,” because “once you have a friend, you know what you are missing when they are gone.”

Mann’s artwork seamlessly complements James’ vivid text. When we first meet Rosemary, James describes her from Maple’s perspective as something “raining from its eyes” and moving “bright and fast like a shooting star.” Mann brings the story to the page with lush landscapes filled with greens of every shade. She captures Maple beautifully throughout the seasons, and her occasional use of panels expertly progresses the pacing as needed. “Leaves bloomed, burned, then fell,” we read as Mann depicts pink-tipped buds, then verdant green leaves and finally the fiery reds of autumn.  

This tender story is essential reading for tree-whisperers everywhere.

With touching emotional authenticity, Maple & Rosemary explores the bonds of friendship between a girl and a sugar maple tree over the seasons of their lives.
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This Is the Planet Where I Live is the perfect way to jump-start a young environmentalist’s education. Its eye-catching illustrations will capture the reader’s attention, and its lively text will hold it. This is the sort of book that grows alongside children, gaining broader, deeper meanings as their comprehension develops. 

Author K.L. Going writes in rhythmic, occasionally rhyming cumulative verse that focuses on connections. “Here are the people / who share the planet / where I live,” she begins. On the next spread, she continues, “These are the homes / that shelter the people / who share the planet / where I live.” Page by page, Going explores the links between humans, animals, insects, birds, trees, clouds and oceans, her plainspoken verses becoming more complex with each new addition. Finally, she concludes quite simply, “Animals, fields, / shelter for friends, / every creature alive / on each other depends— / all on the planet / where we live.”

Debra Frasier’s dazzling photo-collage art transforms Going’s text into a visual feast for the imagination. Her illustrations will remind many readers of her work in On the Day You Were Born, her beloved 1991 picture book that also makes wonderful use of planetary imagery and themes of interconnectedness. Here, repeated images of Earth and a sunflower-bright sun provide a grounding motif that echoes Going’s cumulative lines, helping young readers realize how all the things mentioned in Going’s text—included readers themselves—rely on one another. 

Along the way, Frasier portrays fascinating variety within each category, such as fields of food that include tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries and onions, or birds such as goldfinches, geese, eagles and seagulls. Bright colors leap off the page, adding energy to every spread. Frequent use of swirls and spirals, which can be seen in clouds, landscapes and, notably, a large curlicue of birds looping in the air, reinforces the central notions of interdependence and the circle of life. 

This Is the Planet Where I Live gloriously captures the teeming natural treasures of our beautiful, delicate world. 

Accompanied by dazzling photo-collage art, this cumulative picture book captures the interconnectedness of life on our beautiful, delicate planet.
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Jacqueline Winspear, author of the beloved Maisie Dobbs series, has created a new character for readers to admire. Part Agatha Christie, part “The Equalizer,” The White Lady follows Elinor White, a former World War II operative unafraid to leverage her past to help those who cannot help themselves.

It’s 1947, and Elinor has settled into a home in the British countryside, one granted to her by the government as thanks for her classified service to the nation. Her bucolic life is missing one thing, though: the sense of purpose that came with her wartime career. But when Elinor sees her neighbors Jim and Rose Mackie being violently harassed by Jim’s criminal family, she decides to use her skills to protect them. 

The White Lady alternates between Elinor’s quest to bring down the Mackie crime family in 1947, her work during World War II and her initiation into espionage as a Belgian teenager during World War I. Winspear’s writing is especially effective when conveying the incredible danger Elinor and her sister, Cecily, face as they work to undermine the German military, and the wrenching moral decisions that come with such work. 

The traumas of the past, especially the difficulty of leaving violence behind, are constant refrains throughout the novel. Elinor is haunted by the premature loss of her childhood innocence and, eventually, her family, while Jim and Rose struggle to escape Jim’s criminal birthright. Elinor’s quest to bring down the Mackie family is prompted by her affection for Jim, Rose and especially their young daughter, Susie, but it also provides her with a way to seek absolution for the terrible things she did as a spy.

The White Lady doesn’t shy away from dark subjects, and historical mystery readers searching for a bit of grit and a complex main character will admire its uncompromising storytelling.

Historical mystery readers searching for a complex main character will admire the uncompromising storytelling of Jacqueline Winspear’s The White Lady.
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Tempest Raj, author Gigi Pandian’s magician/sleuth, has an intriguing new locked-room mystery to solve in The Raven Thief.

Tempest is still getting used to working for her family’s business, Secret Staircase Construction, when she’s invited to a client’s home for a mock seance. Lavinia Kingsley hired the company to redo her home and erase all traces of her cheating ex-husband, mystery writer Corbin Colt. To celebrate the work’s completion and her new life as a single woman, Lavinia has a seance to purge Corbin from her life. Tempest, her grandfather Ashok “Ash” Raj and her magician friend Sanjay Rai are among the eight guests when disaster strikes. With everyone seated around a table and holding hands, Corbin’s body literally crashes the party, seemingly falling from the ceiling onto the table below.

The police deduce that Corbin was alive only moments earlier, so the only suspects are the seance attendees. When it comes to light that Grandpa Ash had a history with Corbin, Tempest’s beloved grandfather becomes the prime suspect. She and her friends quickly get to work to clear his name and find the real killer.

The Raven Thief is a worthy sequel to Under Lock & Skeleton Key, with all the magic, misdirection and intrigue that fans are hoping for. Tempest is an exciting, engaging lead whose knowledge of stagecraft, magic and classic whodunits, combined with her devotion to her family and friends, allow her to solve a seemingly impossible crime. Genre fans will appreciate Pandian’s many nods to golden age mysteries and their writers, and there are even some delectable recipes at the book’s end.

The Raven Thief is a worthy sequel to Under Lock & Skeleton Key, with all the magic, misdirection and intrigue that fans are hoping for.

As COVID-19 swept across the United States in 2020, health care professionals and patients quickly learned about the flaws in the public health system. Questions arose about equitable access to health care, the role of insurance and the quality of care in public hospitals serving uninsured people versus private hospitals serving people with private insurance. Taking the public Ben Taub Hospital—Houston’s “largest hospital for the poor . . . who cannot afford medical care”—as an example, medical researcher and practicing physician Ricardo Nuila explores these issues in The People’s Hospital: Hope and Peril in American Medicine.

Nuila has been an attending physician at Ben Taub for over 10 years, and he has discovered that “good care comes from connecting with your patients in whatever way you’re able.” Using the stories of five patients, Nuila weaves an intricate web of questions about the shortcomings of insurance and corporate medicine and reveals how Ben Taub has succeeded in providing access to health care for people who are medically and financially vulnerable.

For example, there’s Christian, a patient with chronic kidney disease who developed mysterious, debilitating knee pain. Because he was uninsured and had to pay out of pocket for his diagnosis and treatment, he traveled to a clinic in Mexico where he hoped his money would go further. A few weeks into his therapy, his knee pain diminished, and he moved back to Houston—but within weeks, he found himself facing the same medical issues again. When his kidneys started to fail and the insurance company denied him coverage, his mother admitted him to Ben Taub, where he started receiving hemodialysis on a regular basis and eventually left the hospital with hope.

Readers also meet Ebonie, who was 19 weeks into her pregnancy and experiencing dangerous levels of obstetric bleeding. After bouncing from hospital to hospital, she eventually landed at Ben Taub, where Nuila and another doctor developed a plan to deal with bleeding in the future and made sure she would be admitted to Ben Taub when it happened. Ben Taub also helped Ebonie apply for Medicaid so she would have an insurance safety net. Through his own experiences, and those of his patients and fellow health care professionals, Nuila paints a picture of a world where “people find healthcare and revere it like treasure.”

The People’s Hospital is an inspiring book that raises crucial questions about the future of American health care. Nuila illustrates that hospitals that make holistic decisions about care provide more effective and equitable treatment than those that ask simply about the ability of patients to cover expenses, reminding readers that the most effective health care systems always elevate humans and their needs over monetary gain.

Using the stories of five patients, physician Ricardo Nuila reveals how a public hospital in Houston has succeeded in providing health care to people who are the most vulnerable.
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First came The Madman’s Library. Now comes its weird kid sister, The Madman’s Gallery, packed with tres bizarre art through the ages.

Words won’t quite do it justice, of course, but mastermind author/curator Edward Brooke-Hitching does his best: “Here is the art of ghosts, the art of madness, imaginary art, art of dog-headed people, the first portrait of a cannibal, and a painting of the Italian monk who levitated so often he’s recognised as the patron saint of aeroplane passengers.” We’re talking giant Olmec heads, phalluses growing on trees, decaying cadavers, Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a nude Mona Lisa, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s fruit and veg portraits, hirsute women, Salvador Dali’s clocks, Frida Kahlo as wounded deer, AI creations and so much more. This one is occasionally disturbing, and always fascinating.

Mastermind author/curator Edward Brooke-Hitchings’ The Madman’s Gallery is packed with tres bizarre art from every period of history.
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A decade after her father and sister were tragically murdered in Moscow, Rosie is a doctoral student at Oxford University’s Mathematical Institute and is prepared to finally put her trauma behind her. But after she meets older historian Alexey Ivanov, author of an acclaimed memoir recounting his experiences in Stalinist Russia, Rosie is given the opportunity to spend a summer as his research assistant in her homeland. 

Grappling with ghosts of times past and a desire for closure, Rosie sets out to uncover her family’s legacy. She follows a pathway of clues, beginning with a small key that belonged to her mother, and this journey will keep readers in constant suspense. 

The Last Russian Doll blends the best of two genres by embedding a riveting mystery within a masterfully researched historical narrative. Drawing on her background in Slavic studies, first-time novelist Kristen Loesch incorporates historical details with care. History enthusiasts will enjoy piecing together this fresh perspective on 20th-century Russia, while fans of contemporary whodunits will relish the ever-increasing drama.

Spanning eight decades and three generations, The Last Russian Doll is unavoidably but satisfyingly complex. Rosie shares the spotlight with three other narrators, each of whom has their own distinct voice and storyline. Short passages of fables interspersed throughout the novel impart fantasy and mystique while adding heft to an already exemplary plot. Each of these time periods and narrative styles is well rendered, eventually intertwining in beautiful ways.

Loesch writes with a subtly dramatic flair, which contributes to the novel’s propulsive sense of forward motion. The Last Russian Doll is a deeply emotional and irresistible story of what it takes to find one’s way through a country with a story like none other.

The Last Russian Doll blends the best of two genres by embedding a riveting mystery within a masterfully researched historical narrative.
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If the title of Elizabeth McKenzie’s third novel (after The Portable Veblen) were the strangest thing about it, it would still be remarkable. Luckily for readers who like their books odd, haunting, strange and surprising, it isn’t. 

As The Dog of the North begins, narrator Penny Rush is recently separated from her husband and heading from Salinas to Santa Barbara, California, where she knows she has problems waiting for her. Penny’s story intertwines with that of her grandmother, Dr. Pincer, a quirky, cantankerous hoarder who values privacy above all; and Burt, a lonely man who shares his toupee with his brother and loves his Pomeranian. Burt’s van is the titular Dog of the North, and it becomes Penny’s home and the place from which her adventures spring. 

Penny is searching for connection, for meaning in her life after quitting her marriage and job. Throughout her episodic travels, there are missing parents, a grandfather ready for an adventure, strange objects that perform mysterious and surprising functions, Dr. Pincer’s science experiments, shared meals, injuries, ailments and bits of hope.

Penny’s voice is curious and kind; she’s empathetic and reserves judgment from both herself and others. Her route—through places and among people, through landscapes both internal and exterior—surprises her. She doesn’t know what she’ll find or who she’ll meet, and her openness allows experiences to take shape that otherwise simply could not. Her presence unsettles some characters, forcing them to share more than they might have intended, and this enables a deeper connection between McKenzie’s characters and the reader, illuminating challenges we could’ve missed. 

Through Penny’s eyes, we see the beauty in the seemingly broken, in the flawed stories we tell ourselves—and what happens when those stories delightfully shatter.

Through Penny’s eyes, we see the beauty in the seemingly broken, in the flawed stories we tell ourselves—and what happens when those stories delightfully shatter.

Throughout his broadcasting career, journalist and host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” Ari Shapiro has made connections with people from all walks of life. In his sparkling memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories From a Life Spent Listening, Shapiro intimately invites readers into his childhood and beyond to show them how his youthful curiosity and desire to learn have helped shape him into the person he is today.

Shapiro was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but when he was still a child, his family relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he embraced public speaking. As a teenager in Portland, he came out as gay and joined the city’s queer underground to nurture his sense of identity and community. Throughout the book, Shapiro explores his gay and Jewish identities and the surprising ways they have both affected and not affected his life. 

After recounting the unusual and almost magical story of his path to becoming a host on “All Things Considered,” Shapiro delves into his most fascinating experiences as a reporter, including an international incident in Ireland, a surprise interview with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One and a chance to report on the war in Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Along with these stories, he supplies some very entertaining vignettes about his side gig as a singer for the band Pink Martini.

However, Shapiro is at his best when he’s discussing the most poignant and personal moments in his life. “Happy Endings,” which describes his whirlwind 2004 wedding to his husband, Mike, and “The Other Man I Married,” about his best friend and former producer, Rich, are two of the strongest and most moving pieces in the collection. Full of emotion and wit, these essays remind readers how funny and heartbreaking, often in equal measure, life can be. They also emphasize that anyone can have impostor syndrome or feel scared to be authentic, even when they’re someone who has interviewed the president of the United States.

NPR listeners will especially appreciate this book as a trusty companion to “All Things Considered,” but you needn’t be an NPR listener to enjoy these essays. Personal and contemplative, but also funny and at times devastating, The Best Strangers in the World will instill a newfound appreciation for the hard work journalists do and a sense of awe for the scope of history they get to observe up close.

With his sparkling memoir, “All Things Considered” host Ari Shapiro gives readers insight into the hard work journalists do and the incredible scope of history they get to observe up close.
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Poverty, by America, the new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond (Evicted), focuses on the root causes of Americans’ economic suffering. Mixing statistics and tales from real people’s lives, Desmond makes a convincing argument that poverty is a sinkhole too powerful for anyone to pull themselves out by their bootstraps alone. 

Early in the book, Desmond establishes that poverty is about not just money but “a relentless piling on of problems,” with housing insecurity, eviction and the instability of low-wage gig and temp work at its core. The rising cost of living in American cities and the decline of career work with benefits are also contributing factors, as are our country’s aggressive carceral and criminal justice systems. In a chapter on welfare, Desmond points out that while the amount of aid available to poor people has increased since the 1980s, many of the people who qualify never take advantage of it. This, coupled with the astronomical costs of healthcare, wreaks havoc on every demographic, but immigrants and single or unmarried parents are often hit the hardest. Desmond debunks the logic used to blame these groups for relying on public assistance. 

One of Desmond’s fundamental assertions is that America has little incentive to reduce its level of poverty because those in power profit from the labor and rent money of those living more precariously. For example, employers’ gradual victory over unions is a major reason employees are now unable to escape workplace exploitation, from low wages and no benefits to noncompete clauses and workplace surveillance. Payday loans, overdraft fees and racially discriminatory interest rates are other ways American institutions financially benefit from civilians’ poverty. This all combines with the costly privatization of more and more public goods and services, like when California’s Proposition 13 capped property taxes for homeowners and consequently gutted funding for public education in the state.

Desmond devotes a fair section of this slim volume to proposed solutions, repeatedly stating that those living well will need to sacrifice some affluence to alleviate others’ suffering. However, he balks at the phrase “redistribution of wealth,” saying it “distracts and triggers.” Instead, his practical solutions seem tailored to those who are willing to sacrifice in moderation—for example, by supporting businesses with unions, paying their full taxes and pressuring upper classes to do the same. Few of his solutions seem likely to form the political pressure cooker needed to regulate predatory banking, end exclusionary zoning and pry tax dollars from executives’ claws.

While Poverty, by America may not be a how-to for the revolution that many fed-up Americans are calling for, it’s a solid primer for those living in relative comfort about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.

Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America is a solid primer about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.
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One hot August in the well-to-do community of Kitchewan, New York, an act of violence tarnishes the veneer of security and shine. The insular suburb may have “great schools, upscale people, and gorgeous river views,” but just like a body of water, the surface never tells the whole story.

Indian American immigrant Babur Singh and his daughter, Angie (formerly Anjali), are making their way in a very white world, neither of them knowing the rules that others seem to intrinsically grasp. In a traumatizing instant, Angie is thrust into the very spotlight she wants to avoid: Walking home from swim practice, she finds handsome, popular jock Henry McCleary stabbed on the football field. Biases reveal themselves as public opinion solidifies in predictable ways, and soon all fingers point to Chiara Thompkins, one of the only Black students at Kitchewan High School, who has disappeared.

From this bang of an opener, Vibhuti Jain’s debut novel is marked by crime and prejudice, building to a story of human nature at its most vulnerable and manipulative. The lives of Chiara, Henry, Angie, Babur and Didi (Chiara’s cousin) grow more and more entwined in the aftermath of the incident, which is not as straightforward as everyone believes. The characters’ tumultuous minds are captured in arresting detail, although the chapters that incorporate multiple perspectives and points in time are a bit muddled. Still, Jain excels at developing multidimensional characters and an atmosphere of intrigue while also calling attention to the complicated web of class and race dynamics. 

Everyone in Our Best Intentions carries a secret shame: something they want to conceal or protect, even as they also wish to be free of it. Angie especially is looking for absolution in the midst of all her tangled teenage emotions about what really happened between Henry and Chiara. Babur is looking for the light in his daughter’s eyes and the laugh in her voice to return. And although the authorities may be looking for Chiara, not enough people in Kitchewan are searching for the truth. But eventually the truth will out, as it always does. 

Crime and prejudice mark Our Best Intentions from the beginning, building to a story of human nature at its most vulnerable and manipulative.

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