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Barbara Chase-Riboud’s The Great Mrs. Elias is based on the life of Hannah Elias, a Black woman who made a name for herself in early 20th-century New York City real estate, accruing enormous wealth along the way. But in 1903, a murder takes place at Hannah’s opulent home, and her carefully constructed existence changes forever. The narrative flashes back to recount her difficult childhood in Philadelphia and her decision to take on a new identity—a choice that has grave repercussions. Atmospheric and richly detailed, Chase-Riboud’s novel provides a compelling portrait of a remarkable woman. 

Famed sniper Mila Pavlichenko is the heroine of Kate Quinn’s The Diamond Eye. A librarian and single mother, Mila serves as a sniper for the Soviet Union during World War II and becomes well known thanks to her exploits, including a body count of more than 300 soldiers. When she’s wounded and sent to America to bolster support for the war, Mila finds a kindred spirit in Eleanor Roosevelt and makes new connections, but she also faces danger from a former adversary. Quinn’s use of historical sources and the role of women in war are among the novel’s rich discussion topics. 

The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz examines poet Sylvia Plath and the writing of her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, through three narrators: Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s real-life psychiatrist; Boston Rhodes, a jealous, competitive poet who serves as a stand-in for Anne Sexton; and the fictional Estee, a curator who comes across what might be the original manuscript of The Bell Jar in 2019. Each narrator offers a deeply personal perspective on Plath, womanhood and the creative process, with Estee’s quest to find out the truth about the manuscript serving as the suspenseful centerpiece of this mesmerizing novel. 

In Take My Hand, author Dolen Perkins-Valdez takes inspiration from an infamous 1973 lawsuit to create the fictional story of Civil Townsend, a Black nurse in Alabama in the 1970s. Civil becomes involved in the lives of India and Erica Williams, sisters who Civil discovers have been surgically sterilized by the clinic where she works. The girls, ages 11 and 13, come from an underprivileged Black family, and their circumstances haunt Civil as the years go by. This electrifying novel’s powerful exploration of racism, family and civil rights make it a rewarding choice for book groups.

Your book club will love these fascinating fictional takes on real figures and events.
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The Lives We Actually Have

Book jacket image for The Lives We Actually Have by Kate Bowler

Like the psalmists, authors Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Good Enough) examine and affirm the multifaceted human experience in The Lives We Actually Have. In 100 entries written in verse, Bowler and Richie celebrate the beautiful, lament the ugly and recognize the mundane alongside the blindsiding. This book is not the shallow expression of prayer most of us are used to. Instead, these pages hold blessings that make every human experience, even a “garbage day,” worthy of noting and appreciating.

The authors include blessings for every kind of day, including ordinary life, tired life, lovely life, grief-stricken life, overwhelming life, painful life and holy life. Along the way, they do an incredible job of reclaiming blessings from social media’s “#blessed” culture, speaking truthfully about the range of experiences inherent to being human instead of offering blessings for the pristine, uncomplicated lives we wish we had.

Bowler and Richie go where most Christian authors won’t: right to all the messy truths of being alive. Their willingness to meet us where we are makes life feel a little more manageable and a little more worthy of love. Through their words of blessing, readers will find courage, rest, hope to carry on—and maybe even a laugh.

The Book of Nature

Book jacket image for The Book of Nature by Barbara Mahany

Born out of author Barbara Mahany’s curiosity, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text weaves together theology, nature, science, liturgy and poetry. Instead of losing readers in so many captivating details, she brings all these seemingly different mediums together to create a compelling argument that the natural world is the key to understanding God. To Mahany, and the countless theologians, authors and scientists she references, nature is what makes sense of scripture.

Mahany opens her book by sharing how she came to write about the Book of Nature, which is an ancient name for the practice of “reading” nature like a sacred text, “the text of all of creation, inscribed and unfurled by a God present always and everywhere.” Her initial spark of interest led her down a rabbit hole, finding references to the Book of Nature throughout Christian history. She then explains how the separation of religion and nature—that is, science—came about during the Enlightenment and reminds readers that it doesn’t have to be that way now. Through her essays on the earthly, the liminal and the heavenly, Mahany reveals the divine’s presence in our world.

For those in the Christian faith who grew up learning about God only from Bible lessons, The Book of Nature provides permission to wonder, get curious and find God in the tiny details of a sprouting garden, a forest glade, birds in flight or the moon. By showing readers how many respected theologians, seminarians, desert mothers and fathers, tribal leaders and saints found God in nature, Mahany reminds us that there are different ways to encounter God all around us, beyond just in scripture.

 Dancing in the Darkness

Rev. Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and his ministry is steeped in a theological tradition of liberation, love and justice. Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times, his latest collection of essay-sermons, lays out the need for Americans to use the tools of “Just Love” (love linked to justice) to overcome despair and denial. Because of our country’s racialized history, Moss writes that we are doomed to stay in a state of “political midnight” if we don’t reckon with injustice while holding onto agape love.

Moss weaves personal stories, history and prophecy together in a fast-paced, faith-filled way. Readers will breeze through these essays and feel energized to hold onto hope despite the challenges we face as a society. With practical calls to prayer, meditation and authenticity, Moss leads readers into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a “beloved community.”

Dancing in the Darkness is a wonderful soul-reviver. Readers will come away feeling spiritually buoyed, just like they might if they attended worship at Moss’ church. The effect is empowering without giving into unrealistic visions of utopia. It’s like a spoonful of sugar that will help us fight for the world our children deserve to inherit.

All My Knotted-Up Life

Book jacket image for All My Knotted-Up Life by Beth Moore

Many readers have been anticipating the release of All My Knotted-Up Life, author and minister Beth Moore’s memoir. After decades as a women’s Bible study teacher in the Southern Baptist Church, a denomination that only allows men in leadership roles, Moore finally shares her story. She reveals a few surprising secrets here, but her trademark belief in the goodness of Jesus is the memoir’s main draw.

Beginning with her childhood, Moore tells her story of living in a home fraught with mental illness and sexual abuse and the safety she felt going to the Baptist church in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. As Moore moves chronologically through her life, we see her family fall apart and come back together, and we see Moore get married and have children all while feeling called to ministry. Moore struggled to figure out what that would look like in the Southern Baptist Church, but she found a way—first by working around the Southern Baptist Convention’s gendered leadership rules and then by leaving the organization completely—and became one of the most well-known leaders in evangelical Christianity. 

All My Knotted-Up Life will leave some readers wishing they knew more of Moore’s story. Because of her ability to see the humanity in all people, including her abusers, I was personally left wanting to see more of her process of forgiveness. But for Moore, true forgiveness is up to Jesus, who is at the heart of this tender memoir.

These Christian nonfiction books will make readers feel a little bit better about being human.
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When we think about how life will look in 10, 50 or 100 years, we might not consider the poetry that those societies will produce. But if we think about how those societies will look back at us, here in 2023, I would argue that these poetry collections are the perfect snapshots of our world. Ranging from joyous odes to lamentations, the poems in these five collections speak to us and challenge us. They provide answers to our most pressing questions when the future seems uncertain. They remind us that poetry is the only refuge from life that, upon closer examination, is actually just life itself.

★ Promises of Gold

What is love? José Olivarez has the answer in Promises of Gold. In both English and Spanish, these poems explore the facets of love that pop songs rarely do—the gritty, painful parts that everyone sweeps under the rug. In these verses, Olivarez primarily explores the presence and absence of love in Chicano and Mexican communities, creating sparkling, nostalgic portraits of family and friends. Many of the poems also have a political angle, tackling religion or masculinity and ensuring that the forces that continue to shape Mexican culture are thoroughly critiqued. This is not to say the collection is overly analytical, as it is often in Olivarez’s most earnest moments that he is able to pierce the culture, arriving straight at its heart. 

Read our review of the Promises of Gold audiobook, some of which is performed in front of a live audience.


Poetry has always existed in a state of tension: What does poetry have to look like? What should it look like? Should it rhyme? Can it be prose? In Couplets, Maggie Millner replies with a sweeping “Why does it matter?” By employing two forms, the couplet and the prose poem, Millner suggests that these questions don’t need answers and that, within uncertainty, there is room for personal complexity. A love story through and through, this collection uses poetry to document the personal struggles inherent in falling in and out of love. Sometimes love can be uplifting, giving you butterflies; other times it can be obsessive and neurotic, leading you down rabbit holes of insecurity. Millner’s words occupy both forms and feelings, giving the collection a back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they quality. It’s in this liminal space that Millner settles, showing how writing is transformational, both for the self and the world around us. 

★ Above Ground

In Above Ground, Clint Smith proves that, in the words of William Wordsworth, “The Child is father of the Man,” as his poems explore the beauty, fear and sacredness of being a child and then raising his own. Written to and for his kids, Smith’s verses build a nonlinear narrative of his journey into fatherhood, including health difficulties and his attempts to teach his children how to exist in a troubled world. Wonder and joy are prevalent throughout the book, with Smith writing many odes to his children’s quirks and the idiosyncrasies of child rearing, including first smiles and hiccups. In a time when the future is increasingly uncertain, such a touching and profound statement on parenthood is desperately needed. Smith provides the shot in the arm, reinvigorating our ability to love and nurture.

Trace Evidence

For a second it seemed like American culture was approaching a racial reckoning. Though that moment has passed with few tangible results, Charif Shanahan takes advantage of the still-burning embers in Trace Evidence, speaking to the country in sharp, unifying language. Despite perpetual division, or perhaps because of it, Shanahan is able to produce answers to racialized questions of belonging through these poems, emphasizing how humanity goes beyond such constructions. His words are moving and muscular, with each line pulsating with wisely crafted feeling and thought. Poems like “Talking With My Boss About Diversity and Inclusion” allow Shanahan to really shine, showing not just how a person is impacted by race but also how race is shaped by all of us, individually, in every moment. 

a “Working Life”

It is important to stay happy, to maintain daily reminders of goodness and wonder, and in a “Working Life”, Eileen Myles helps us do just that. With their streamlined style and singular devotion to mundane wonder, they show how life can still be surprising despite the inevitability we may feel each day. Contradictions and coincidences, joy and despair, the intricacies of life and death are all captured in these brief, fleeting poems, told in tight verse and with some lines only a word long. They reflect how quickly time goes by and how each second provides something deep and new, creating an infinite loop of meaning—a message that is helpful and frustrating, uplifting and perplexing. Really, it’s life.

New poetry collections show the truths of our world—right here, right now.
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Hotel of Secrets

In Hotel of Secrets, Diana Biller whisks readers away to 1878 Vienna. Hotel Wallner is Maria Wallner’s somewhat tarnished family legacy, thanks to her unmarried parents’ decadeslong affair. She’s determined to help the place regain its former glory during Vienna’s traditional ball season. American Secret Service agent Eli Whittaker arrives at the hotel to investigate the theft of secret codes but is soon beguiled by the beautiful, sophisticated Maria and her glittering city. This delightful, highly recommended romance is chock full of fascinating history as it enchantingly depicts late 19th-century Austria, and its secondary characters are just as three-dimensional and as appealing as the leads.

Ana Maria and the Fox

Three Mexican heiresses make a splash in British high society in Liana De la Rosa’s endearing Victorian romance, Ana Maria and the Fox. When France invades Mexico, Ana Maria Luna Valdés and her sisters are sent to London for their safety. Once there, Ana Maria makes the acquaintance of Gideon Fox, an ambitious member of Parliament. The grandson of a formerly enslaved woman, Gideon is passionate about ending the slave trade and finds a sympathetic ear in Ana Maria. Sparks fly between the pair, even though Ana Maria’s already engaged to a man her powerful father approves of. But then political machinations put Ana Maria in danger, and she must turn to Gideon for help. The Lunas are a welcome addition to historical romance, and as series starring sisters are always fan favorites, readers will surely anticipate more happily ever afters from De la Rosa.

Romantic Comedy

A sketch comedy writer finds love in the time of COVID-19 in Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. Sally Milz writes for a weekly late-night comedy show—think “Saturday Night Live.” During the frantic pace of production, she finds herself crushing on the show’s latest guest host, popular singer-songwriter Noah Brewster. Sally’s convinced she’s too average to keep his attention, and she smothers the smoldering attraction. But two years later, an email from Noah shows up in Sally’s inbox, and they become pandemic pen pals. Might they make a go of it after all? Sittenfeld does a stellar job making the reader feel not just the hectic excitement of comedy show life and Sally’s surges of adrenaline as she interacts with Noah, but also the wistful, heartfelt hope of two people sharing their pasts and their dreams via email. Noah and Sally are a charming and, of course, funny pair who are easy to root for all throughout this delightful read.

Eligible author Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book takes inspiration from “Saturday Night Live”—plus, two unabashedly glamorous historical romances.
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I’m Glad My Mom Died

I’m Glad My Mom Died is a celebrity memoir, but even if you (like me) have never heard of actor Jennette McCurdy or seen a single second of “iCarly” on Nickelodeon, getting sucked into this frankly told and deeply nuanced story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship is almost inevitable. McCurdy’s story kicks off when her mother, Debra, pins her own dashed dreams of Hollywood stardom onto her shy 6-year-old daughter. The pressure’s on, and things get worse from there. McCurdy writes from the perspective she had in the moment, creating tension for the reader, who can see the unhealthy dynamic between McCurdy and Debra long before McCurdy can name or understand it herself. After reading I’m Glad My Mom Died, it’s impossible to see Debra as a good mother, but McCurdy’s commitment to portraying her mother as she truly was still somehow feels like a tribute. 

—Trisha, Publisher

Tuesdays With Morrie

I first read Tuesdays With Morrie in my high school English class. Much like Mitch Albom’s teacher Morrie Schwartz, my teacher Mr. Baker longed for his students to understand what makes life worth living. As the book begins, Albom, a successful young columnist in Detroit, walks through life dead-alive, driven by the pursuit of fame and personal gain. He paints the plague of the modern world so poignantly—the slow and silent indoctrination of society, its swift corrosion of the soul. During his Tuesday visits with his old professor, Albom begins to realize that the dying man is more alive than he is. Tuesdays With Morrie is a book full of convincing triteness and truth. We all need Morrie’s reminders to dance with our eyes closed and reach down into the darkness for the sake of pulling up another. I still find myself in need of Morrie’s teachings—that love is all that stands at the end of time. For readers who share my appreciation of this book, be aware that Rob Schwartz, Morrie’s son, will publish his father’s writing posthumously in The Wisdom of Morrie later this month.

—Emma, Editorial Intern

Lessons in Chemistry

Humor must be just about the toughest thing to get right in fiction. It’s so subjective, first of all, and it’s tricky to balance lightheartedness with the serious bits. And then to be funny without being mean? Practically impossible. Bonnie Garmus’ delight of a debut novel made me laugh—often and loudly—while still honoring the hard road of its heroine. Elizabeth Zott is a female chemist and single mom in the 1960s, so obviously the world has it in for her, and this includes an assault early in the novel. But in the face of such cruelties, she is pragmatic and determined and wry, like a grown-up version of Roald Dahl’s indomitable Matilda. She ends up starring on her own cooking show and finds herself surrounded by a supporting cast that’s as endearing as can be. She also has a dog (named Six-Thirty) who’s enough of a lead character to tip the story into the fantastical. Like so many other readers, I absolutely loved it.

—Cat, Deputy Editor


Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is the type of fantasy novel that seems tailor-made for the exact type of crossover success it has achieved. It’s a seemingly simple story of a young peasant girl trying to save her friend from dark magic, and with its fairy tale-inspired setting, engaging characters and just the right amount of romance, it appeals to fantasy readers and nonfantasy readers alike. I am as intrigued by these types of books as I am leery of them. It’s easy for a story to rest on folklore references and well-known character types within an aesthetically pleasing world and and still never quite step out of the shadows of other works. But Novik didn’t set out to just retell a fairy tale: She wrote her own, and it’s so enthralling that it gave me the type of stay-up-all-night, can’t-put-it-down reading experience I had when I was a 13-year-old first discovering fantasy. I read it within days, its impossibly perfect ending made me cry, and I still think about it more than a year later.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

The Testaments

One of the perks of working at BookPage is getting to read books before they are published, but occasionally a high-profile title gets embargoed, meaning advance copies aren’t sent to the press. If members of the media do receive a copy, they’re forbidden to share the review before the publication date. I’ll always remember the day I was opening mail at the office and unwrapped a finished copy of The Testaments, the long-awaited and heavily embargoed sequel to Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 bestseller, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set 15 years after the events of the dystopian classic, the suspenseful plot is driven by the narratives of three women whose fates converge just when their world’s authoritarian regime, Gilead, begins to crumble. The Testaments is the work of a writer at the top of her game; Atwood sticks the landing in a thrilling conclusion to an all too culturally significant tale. 

—Katherine, Subscriptions

Every once in a while, it feels like everyone in the world is reading the same book—and we can all admit that sometimes, that book isn’t very good. This month, we’re celebrating books that are extremely popular and are actually (believe it or not) as excellent as everyone says.
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You Know Her

Meagan Jennett’s You Know Her is a crackerjack debut thriller. A book about a serial killer is not necessarily notable; there are many of those on the racks at bookstores. Books about female serial killers are in somewhat shorter supply, and a book in which said female serial killer is a narrator is fairly unusual. But here’s the kicker: You kinda want her to get away with it. Our soon-to-be-murderer Sophie Braam is a bartender when You Know Her begins. She has seen it all, and most of what she has seen has not been pretty. And then one day, a minor grievance becomes the proverbial backbreaking straw. A stolen glass of wine should not be a death sentence, you might argue, but if you had that argument with Sophie, there’s a good chance she would bring you around to her way of thinking. Sophie’s new best friend (although it is a somewhat guarded friendship) is police officer Nora Martin, one of the investigators of the first of Sophie’s murders. Nora has also seen it all, or so she thinks, but nothing can really prepare her for Sophie. Which brings us to kicker number two: You also kinda want the skillful, hardworking Nora to solve the murders. She deserves a big win to help her rise to the rank of detective, which would be a reward to be savored in her toxic, good-ol’-boy, small-town police department. Only one can win—let the games begin.

The Last Heir to Blackwood Library

Hester Fox’s The Last Heir to Blackwood Library contains romance, fantasy, the occult and religious zealotry gone off the rails; in short, it’s not your standard whodunit. However, fans of supernaturally tinged mysteries from authors such as T. Jefferson Parker and John Connolly will be intrigued by this historical spin on the subgenre, and other readers will be enticed by Fox’s first-rate writing, which is engrossing from page one. In 1927 London, the fortunes of one Ivy Radcliffe have radically changed. One day, she is sharing a drafty bed-sit apartment with her best friend and living hand to mouth. The next day, she is anointed Lady Hayworth, complete with manor house, staff, motorcar, income and a couple of handsome potential suitors. However, the solicitor who informed Ivy of her windfall neglected to tell her about the previous title holders, all of whom met with a premature and mysterious death. The Last Heir to Blackwood Library hews more closely to the mystery and suspense genre than to any other, I would say. And even though it’s more of a “whatdunit” than a whodunit, mystery readers of all types will enjoy it.

So Shall You Reap

There are series that readers return to again and again for nonstop action or a “ripped from the headlines” vibe. And then there are series that readers devour because the protagonist is a person of evident strength of character. Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoit “Bruno” Courreges, for example, or Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti would emerge close to the top of any such list as well. As So Shall You Reap opens, Leon’s Venetian sleuth visits a lovely, albeit somewhat neglected, old palazzo to inquire for a friend as to whether the property is for sale. A Sri Lankan man answers the door and informs him that the house is not on the market. It will not be their last interaction: The following evening, Brunetti will identify the man’s body after it is pulled from a canal. The subsequent investigation unearths inflammatory political screeds both from Sri Lanka and Italy in the man’s personal effects, which seem to be at odds with his devout Buddhism and calm demeanor during his interaction with Brunetti. It tosses Brunetti’s thoughts back to his time at university, when he was somewhat more radical in his politics than he is now as a world-weary policeman approaching retirement age. Italy in Brunetti’s younger days was plagued with bombings, kidnappings and murders, some of which are still unsolved. But one of them is about to be solved, in part by the dogged persistence of Brunetti, and in part by the almost humanlike persistence of a dog. This is the 32nd book in the series, and if it is your first Commissario Brunetti mystery, you will most likely turn immediately to the other 31.

Heart of the Nile

Although many readers regard Will Thomas’ Barker & Llewelyn mysteries as an homage to those starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I would suggest that they more closely resemble Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries. In both cases, the main sleuth’s assistant is the narrator, with both Goodwin and Llewelyn taking a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in regard to the vicissitudes of their curmudgeonly senior partners. Both teams regularly run circles around the cops, be it NYPD or Scotland Yard, engendering awe (occasionally) and annoyance (much more regularly). Thomas’ latest mystery, Heart of the Nile, is the 14th installment in the series. It deals with the discovery of a mummy in the British Museum’s collection of ancient artifacts, the treasure trove of looted antiquities fondly known as “England’s Attic.” This particular mummy, however, may be the remains of Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra. Supporting that notion is an immense uncut ruby laid in the chest cavity once occupied by her heart. The ruby disappears, people start to meet untimely and violent deaths, and Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn are summoned to unravel the mystery. This is an exceptionally entertaining series, jampacked with Victorian arcana and 19th-century London history, anchored by the quick wit and pithy observations of narrator Llewelyn.

In this month’s Whodunit column, Meagan Jennett’s crackerjack debut thriller tracks that doomed friendship. Plus, read all about the latest Commissario Brunetti mystery.
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Although Leta McCollough Seletzky wasn’t born until eight years after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she has always been haunted by the photo of that tragic night—one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. And no wonder, since in it, her then 23-year-old father, Marrell “Mac” McCullough, can be seen kneeling beside Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, holding a towel over the civil rights leader’s wounded face, trying to staunch the bleeding. Several other people stand nearby, pointing toward a spot in the distance.

“In my mind,” Seletzky says, “those were accusatory fingers. I felt a sense of blame, that on some level, those fingers were pointing at me or [at my father].” The lawyer-turned-memoirist and California resident spoke by phone about her fascinating debut, The Kneeling Man: My Father’s Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This “black-and-white image of horror” was something Seletzky’s family rarely discussed, despite her father’s presence in it. His work had always been shrouded in secrecy and silence, and in many ways, the fact that he eventually opened up about it is nothing short of a miracle.

Read our starred review of ‘The Kneeling Man’ by Leta McCollough Seletzky.

Seletzky’s parents separated when she was 3 and later divorced. In high school, she learned from a newspaper article that her father, who by then lived elsewhere and worked for the CIA, had been an undercover officer for the Memphis Police Department at the time of King’s assassination, tasked with infiltrating and keeping tabs on a group of young Black activists called the Invaders. “The revelation felt like a body blow,” she writes. Had her dad’s work spying on the Invaders been similar to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tactics for harassing and controlling the Black Panthers, she wondered? Despite her curiosity and concern, Seletzky didn’t inquire about Mac’s role until 2010, after the birth of her second son. “One of the main reasons I thought it was so important to tell this story,” she says, “was so [my sons] would not be left wondering or feeling that sense of silence and dread.”

When Seletzky eventually asked her father about that night, he responded with a 17-page document. However, Seletzky was so saddened by his description of growing up in poverty in Jim Crow Mississippi that she stopped reading after three pages, putting his account away for five years. Finally, in 2015, she read to the end of the letter. After that, she plunged into years of writing, research, Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews and, most importantly, collaboration with her father. The resulting book provides an account not only of the amazing trajectory of her father’s life but also of her own reconciliation with his mysterious past as a Black man spying on a Black Power activist group for the police.

“One of the main reasons I thought it was so important to tell this story was so [my sons] would not be left wondering or feeling that sense of silence and dread.”

Book jacket image for The Kneeling Man by Leta McCollough Seletzky

While writing The Keeling Man, Seletzky and her father visited King’s assassination site together, and she also facilitated a 2017 meeting between her father and Andrew Young, an early leader in the civil rights movement who was also present the night King was murdered. “It felt like walking into history,” Seletzky says. “I mean, not only were we meeting with Andrew Young, but we were at his house. It was something I’ll never forget.” One of the most endearing moments of their encounter was Young’s recollection of Dr. King playfully swatting him with one of the Lorraine Motel’s pillows just hours before his assassination. “He was a hero, but he was a human being,” Seletzky says. “I feel like sometimes this gets lost when we lionize people.”

Seletzky also interviewed numerous members of the Invaders, the activist group her father was spying on, and was surprised by their warm welcome. “They were not upset,” she says. “They were not angry.” In fact, she’s come to think of one of the group’s leaders “as family.”

On the night of King’s assassination, Mac and several Invaders had just returned from a shopping trip with one of Dr. King’s aides, who invited them to dinner. As they walked from Mac’s car toward the motel, shots rang out, and Mac, who had been in the Army, sprinted up the stairs to the balcony. “He was trying to save Dr. King’s life, and he ran into the zone of danger to try to do that,” Seletzky says. Although federal investigators never raised concerns about Mac’s presence that night, he was eventually questioned and called to testify at a Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. He was even warned that the attorney of James Earl Ray, the convicted killer, might stand up and accuse Mac of assassinating King. “Sometimes I think about what it would feel like if you had tried to save someone’s life and instead you were painted as having been a wrongdoer,” Seletzky says.

“When Seletzky let her mom read the final draft, she told her daughter, ‘Leta, I didn’t know 75% of what is in this book.’”

But the toughest part of Seletzky’s writing process was writing about herself. “It was difficult to weave my story through the magnitude of his,” she says. “I felt that it really should just be all Mac, but at the same time, I feel this story is more than that.” Three memoirs were particularly helpful as she figured out how to walk that line: James McBride’s The Color of Water, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family.

Ultimately, Seletzky is thrilled that writing this book brought her closer to her father. “I am in awe of him,” she says, “and the way he allowed his experiences to mold him into who he is.” She was also pleased by her mother’s response to The Kneeling Man. Her mother was a reporter in Memphis for many years, and when Seletzky let her mom read the final draft, she told her daughter, “Leta, I didn’t know 75% of what is in this book.” “I was shocked,” Seletzky says, “because she was born and raised in Memphis, and she was married to my dad for several years.”

When Seletzky asked her father what he wanted people to understand about his life and choices, he responded, “What I want them to understand is exactly what you wrote in that book.” That, Seletzky says, was perhaps her proudest moment. “At that point, I said to myself, ‘OK, well, the book is a success no matter what.’”

Author headshot of Leta McCollough Seletzky by Gretchen Adams

It took nearly 35 years for the debut author to ask her father why he was present on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Kneeling Man now reveals the full story.
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It’s been six years since Victor LaValle published his acclaimed modern fairy tale, The Changeling. Now the author returns with another fantastical story that could only take place in America. Set in 1914 Montana, Lone Women follows Black homesteader Adelaide Henry, who, after the mysterious death of her parents, flees her home in California with only an extremely heavy, firmly locked steamer trunk in tow.

Montana is nearly a character in and of itself in Lone Women—both the initial, utopian vision of it in Adelaide’s imagination and its stark, harsh reality. What drew you to Montana, and especially to its winters?
This whole book began with a work of nonfiction called Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own, edited by Dr. Sarah Carter. I came across the book after I did a reading at the University of Montana. I bought a book of local history because I wanted to better understand some aspect of the place I’d just been.

The book is a great overview of the women who traveled to Montana to homestead land at the start of the 20th century. I’d never known they existed! Even more surprising? When I found out this phenomenon wasn’t only reserved for white women. There were some Black women homesteaders. There were a few Latina women, too. There was a good-sized Chinese population in the state at the time, but they were not legally allowed to homestead because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to make any kind of immigration to America “illegal.” Before that, anyone who could make it here was welcome. This was all fascinating, so I only dove into more and more of this history. At first I was reading simply to educate myself, but eventually I realized I was doing research for a novel.

“A woman like Adelaide . . . is usually edited out of the official history.”

The historical details in the book, from what it was like to stake a claim to the growth of opera in the American West, make it feel incredibly concrete. What was your research process like?
As I say, it all began with Dr. Carter’s book, but after that I went on a tear, following my curiosity. I read books by homesteading women (their journals) and histories of homesteading across the state. I read a great deal about the Black experience in the West, a history I admit—sadly—I knew very little about. I spent a few years just reading and making notes. Altogether, I’m sure only about a quarter of what I learned made it into my novel. I wanted it to be enough that the world felt concrete but not so much that the reader was pulled out of the story. It’s my hope that I found the right balance.

The maxim that history is simple but the past is complex appears multiple times in Lone Women. How did this idea influence the way you created Adelaide’s story?
That phrase, that idea, came to me at some point in my research experience. There was so much I thought I understood about this place and time, but the more I read, the more I understood the past simply couldn’t be summarized by the kinds of texts we’re given in, say, high school or in our popular entertainment. History has to make choices of some kind, right? You can’t include everything. But what gets left out, and why? That’s what I really wanted to get at. A woman like Adelaide—and the other lone women at the heart of my novel—is usually edited out of the official history. The gift of being a novelist is that I can, in my small way, write them back in.

Why do you think the Henrys chose to keep their burden rather than be rid of it?
I wanted to tackle this question in the most honest way I could. Why does any family accept the burdens placed on them? To take a step back, I wondered how and why a family decides that something, or someone, is a burden rather than a gift. I know there are families that split apart and never speak to one another again, but my own experience is that family pushes and pulls at one another; we grow weary but we are also bound by history and love. In this sense, I imagined the Henrys were like so many of us.

Read our starred review of ‘Lone Women’ by Victor LaValle.

The Mudges, a family Adelaide encounters multiple times in Montana, are at once irredeemable and intensely compelling. Did you have any particular inspiration for that family?
The Mudges were inspired by some particularly awful neighbors we had when I was a teenager growing up in Queens, New York. I knew them as a general nuisance, but I was a teenager so I didn’t pay them too much mind. They were a particular problem for my mother though, because she had to deal with all the ways the mother of that family made life harder for my mom. They have become a bit of a family legend: the worst neighbors we have ever known. Their name has become shorthand between my mother, sister and I whenever we want to explain a particularly awful person we encounter. I poured all that feeling into the Mudges because, with time, I realized those neighbors may have been terrible, but they sure were memorable.

In recent years, your oeuvre has expanded to include comic books. How is your process different as you move from medium to medium? How does it stay the same?
At heart, I’m trying to tell stories that tackle ideas that matter to me at the time I’m writing them. My hope is that my concerns are, at least in part, concerns that others have as well. My comics tackle questions of climate change and police brutality, just as my novels wrestle with questions of history, of love and guilt. The biggest difference is that my words in the comics are accompanied by brilliant and beautiful artwork. At the very least, even if you hate the writing, the images will give you something to love.

Lone Women is in many ways a very intimate book, and it feels claustrophobic despite its vast Montana landscape. Was that juxtaposition something that was present from the beginning? What did that contrast reveal for you as a writer? 
I’m glad this feeling came through. I hoped the reader would experience the landscape as a grand and open arena, but, of course, Adelaide is trapped no matter where she goes. Adelaide is stuck inside her family history, and her role within that history, and whether she’s in Montana or California or even on the moon, she’ll stay stuck until she faces the truths of her history with all honesty. It’s only then that she might have the chance to breathe deep and inhale new, fresher air.

Photo of Victor LaValle by Teddy Wolff.

The author’s Western horror novel follows Adelaide Henry, a Black homesteader who keeps a terrible secret locked in a steamer trunk.
Behind the Book by

The books I’ve written so far began almost accidentally. Not the day-to-day, year-to-year accumulation of words—no accidents there. But the inciting moment or the controlling idea that ended up as the buttress for the whole contraption was unplanned, and usually came from me just playing around with words. With Big Fish, I was passing the time taking care of my baby son and writing brief modern myths while he napped, and after a couple of years, I discovered I had enough of them to make a book. The Kings and Queens of Roam, a long and complicated story about two sisters, two men, blindness and revenge, began as a couple of pages about an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician was drawn from a character in a discarded screenplay.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, my first nonfiction book, followed this same script but in a different way. The accident didn’t come in the form of an unforeseen inspiration but in the accidental discovery of my brother-in-law’s journals, 10 years after he died. They were hidden in the back of a closet beneath the stairs of my sister Holly’s home, covered in dust and protected by a herd of camel crickets. My brother-in-law, the writer and artist William Nealy, died in 2001 by what the death certificate described as an “intra-oral gunshot wound.” Then in 2011, his wife, my sister Holly, died herself of what seemed like a dozen different things, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and grief. My remaining two sisters, my wife and I were cleaning out her house when I found the journals. There were about 15 of them, and they dated from 1977, when William was 25 years old. I put them all in a glass-doored bookcase in the hallway outside of my office and finished the novel I’d been working on, Extraordinary Adventures.

Read our starred review of ‘This Isn’t Going to End Well’ by Daniel Wallace.

Two years passed before I took them out of the bookcase. It took me that long to parse through all the incumbent taboos, the ethical considerations and my own desires. Were they mine to read? Did I even want to read his journals, and if I did, why? What did I think I’d get out of that? William’s suicide was, like all suicides, the kind of tragedy that changes the course of many lives; even after 13 years, it felt fresh. And though he’d left three long suicide notes, two to Holly and one to his mother, they somehow felt insufficient to explain what at the time I saw as the ultimate betrayal of my sister, of me, of everyone who loved or knew him. I was mad at him for killing himself and stayed that way for a long time. But eventually I dove in, was mesmerized from the very first page and knew almost immediately that I would be writing about this, about him—that William’s story would become a book. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.

But this was a bit of a leap. I’d never written a book of nonfiction before, had never wanted to, had no idea how to go about it. Even so, I thought, all writing is hard; how much harder could it be?

As I discovered over the next five years, very hard. Very. Very. Very hard.

Each book presents its own challenges, its own problems to solve. You would think that with practice a writer could skate from book to book without breaking a sweat. But nothing about writing has gotten easier for me, and each book has taken longer than the last to finish. So I was ready for a learning curve. But writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.

“To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.”

I was drawn to becoming a fiction writer in the first place because of the freedom of that form. In a novel I’m constrained by logic and time and character, but I’m in charge of the constraints; I make up the rules I am then expected to follow. In writing a so-called true story, you enter a world that’s already been created, telling a story that has already happened and maybe already been told. A novel is a story only one person (the novelist) has access to; a story about an actual person is a story dozens, maybe hundreds of people know at least a small part of. If you knew my brother-in-law, or my sister, or me, you are in some tangential way a part of the story; you have feelings about it, about him. This meant that in order to write the book, I actually had to leave my office and talk to people. I had to interview them. I recorded conversations and quoted from them or used them as “background.” Suddenly it was as if I were collaborating with a small village.

This turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be. I was able to see old friends and meet new ones, and as a reporter, I got to ask them questions a civilian could never get away with.

On a craft level, I didn’t know how to create a scene from my own life that’s as compelling as one I could make up, with all the bells and whistles of inventive possibility. Is imagination possible in this ready-made world I was writing about?

Yes—kind of. It’s not really imagination, though. Writing nonfiction is closer to reimagination, where you’re calling forth a memory and giving it life on the page. Memories half a century old are dim, fragile and fleeting. You have to pin them down the best you can and take a long look at them, editing them for meaning and clarity and supplying supporting details (what the room looked like, what the weather was like that day, what you were wearing) that might be, at best, stabs in the dark.

“Writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.”

But the hardest part of this project was writing a book about people I knew and loved. There was so much I wanted to say about them! So many stories. The first few drafts of this book were twice as long as the final version ended up being, which is not unique for early drafts. But each time I had to cut a scene, I felt like I was cutting out a part of their lives, and I believed (and still believe) that without all these stories the reader wouldn’t get to know them for who they were. The story, for instance, of William hunting down the man who stole the motor off my mother’s pool filter, or how he tried to save a man’s life at the drugstore. And what about the time Edgar (William’s best friend who died in 1993) was robbed and tied to a chair in a hotel room, left there until he was discovered by the staff eight hours later? The time Holly wrote a song about our father and rented a recording studio to record it? And so many other cool things. I could write another book about them, I think. And maybe I will.

This Isn’t Going to End Well isn’t “drawn from life,” the way my novels are; it’s full of people who actually existed, same as you and me. In this book I’m not trying to create or imagine a life, I’m trying to reconstruct one. I think I’m also trying to resurrect my sister, my brother-in-law, their best friend—a risky enterprise (see: “The Monkey’s Paw”). In this book I share details from their lives that would embarrass them, were they here, and, in some cases, get them into a lot of trouble. But they’re not embarrassed or in trouble because that’s one of the pluses of not being alive. Which is the real difference between this book and all the others I’ve written, and the most stubborn of facts I can’t deny or get around: Their deaths are what made it possible.

Headshot of Daniel Wallace by Mallory Cash

The acclaimed novelist wondered how hard writing a memoir could really be. As it turned out: very, very, very hard.
Behind the Book by

The main character of Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh’s debut novel, is a vicious, ambitious teenage girl brought up in an isolated community of humans intent on avenging the destruction of Earth. Kyr is anything but “likable”—and, according to Tesh, that’s the point.

A few years ago, I had an idea for a novella. I thought of it as something squarely in my comfort zone: a cute little queer romance between two very different people, one of them Large and the other Chatty. (If you have read my Greenhollow Duology, cute queer romance novellas about Large Gruff Type x Chatty Weirdo is about as precisely my style as it is possible for a story to be.) The fun part of this one would be the setting—in space!—and actually, perhaps there could be a cute alien involved? And I’d just been rewatching “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which contains one of my favorite villain-to-awkward-teammate arcs of all time, so could I maybe do a Zuko thing?

I wrote one scene: the protagonist reenacting the death of the Earth, racing against time to save a doomed world, sacrificing their own life and still failing. It’s still the opening scene of the book, almost unchanged from that rapid first draft. But after I got 500 words into my cute little romance, I thought: This isn’t cute. This isn’t little. And this would be better if it were about the Zuko-esque character’s awful sister.

“Girls don’t get to be shitheads. And if they are, they don’t get any sympathy.”

I’d spent years mostly writing stories with male protagonists. But I changed all the pronouns in my opening scene, and suddenly I had a monstrous, cruel, ambitious, abused, horrendously angry beast of a character: Kyr. She began as an echo of Azula, a major antagonist in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” who unlike her brother, Zuko, never gets a redemption arc or a second chance.

Kyr is awful. She really, truly sucks. I found that being subtle about it didn’t work; we have expectations about teenage girl characters, words like “relatable” and “likable.” Male characters are allowed to be complex, difficult, morally gray, even outright shitheads and still get sympathetic antihero arcs. But female characters aren’t supposed to behave that way. Girls don’t get to be shitheads. And if they are, they don’t get any sympathy.

I didn’t want anyone to mistake Kyr for “relatable” and “likable.” If you want to write a villain redemption arc, you have to start with a villain.

Read our review of ‘Some Desperate Glory’ by Emily Tesh.

Kyr is the villain. The monster girl, the unlovable and unworthy. I remember writing an early scene in which she mercilessly bullies a small child in a glowing triumph of self-righteous arseholery and thinking, is this clear enough? Will they even let me do this? Do I have to tone her down? I was a long way outside my creative comfort zone. But you can feel it, as a writer, when the thematic underpinnings are locking into place: justice or vengeance, heroism or self-destruction, the past or the future. Kyr proves in that original opening scene that she can do what every lovable teen protagonist has to do sooner or later: sacrifice herself to save the world. I had to spend the whole book turning her inside out, remaking her, undoing her, until she finally found a way to do the opposite: sacrifice her cruel and narrow and hateful world in order to save herself.

Picture of Emily Tesh by Nicola Sanders Photography.

In Emily Tesh’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’-inspired debut, Some Desperate Glory, a teenage girl realizes her community is a militaristic cult.

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