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A surefire way to get bibliophiles to root for your book is to give them a bookish protagonist like Bob Comet, the 71-year-old main character of The Librarianist, Patrick deWitt’s fifth novel. Bob prefers to communicate with the world “mainly by reading about it. . . . The truth was that people made him tired.” He couldn’t have picked a better career, dedicating 45 years of his life to working as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.

And like a good book, every life is full of stories, some joyous, some sad. The conjurer’s trick deWitt performs here is to lull readers into believing they’re about to follow one particular story, then to make it disappear in favor of something deeper and more nuanced.

The novel’s beginning is straightforward enough. It’s 2005, and Bob lives in the brightly colored house he inherited from his mother. Forty years earlier, his wife ran away with his best friend. Bob has lived by himself ever since.

One morning, Bob goes to a convenience store to buy coffee and sees an elderly woman staring at the energy drinks. The clerk tells him she’s been standing there for 45 minutes. Bob discovers a laminated card around her neck that identifies her as a resident of a senior center. After Bob returns her to the center, the woman who runs the place gives Bob a tour, and he volunteers to read to the residents once a week. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that what follows will be a linear narrative about Bob’s experiences socializing with the facility’s colorful residents, but after a clever plot twist, deWitt takes the reader back in time, first to Bob’s early years as an aspiring librarian and his courtship and marriage, then even further back to 1945, when 11-year-old Bob ran away from home and met two elderly women who recruited him to join their traveling theater troupe. 

Reverse chronology is an old technique. Harold Pinter did it in his brilliant play Betrayal, as have many other writers. DeWitt’s transitions aren’t always smooth, but book lovers will adore this large cast of eccentrics anyway. DeWitt’s light touch, memorably demonstrated in his previous novel, French Exit, is on display here as well. The Librarianist is another charmer from an author who knows how to delight.

The Librarianist is another charmer from the author of The Sisters Brothers, who knows how to delight.
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The astonishing first line of Beth Nguyen’s revelatory memoir Owner of a Lonely Heart reads, “Over the course of my life I have spent less than twenty-four hours with my mother.” That time consisted of six brief visits over the course of 26 years, beginning when Nguyen was a 19-year-old college student and reunited with her mother in Boston for the first time since Nguyen was 8 months old.

The explanation for this startling fact is fairly straightforward. In April of 1975, as South Vietnam fell to the forces of the North Vietnamese, Nguyen escaped Vietnam by boat with her older sister, paternal grandmother, father and uncles. Her father and uncles had fought for the losing side and now faced “reeducation,” or worse. So they came to America and ended up in a tiny community of Vietnamese refugees in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nguyen’s mother had been living with her own mother and her other children in another part of Saigon during the collapse. She only discovered that her daughters and their father had fled some days later.

The feelings and implications of these circumstances, on the other hand, are anything but straightforward. Fittingly, Owner of a Lonely Heart is not a chronological memoir. It circulates among memories, embellishing and deepening the reader’s and Nguyen’s understanding of them. In a chapter called “My Mothers,” she writes not of her biological mother but of her grandmother Noi, who provided a safe place for Nguyen in a chaotic household, and of the woman her father married when Nguyen was 3, the daughter of Mexican migrants whom Nguyen credits with saving her life. In another chapter, Nguyen writes of her “white mother,” a high school boyfriend’s parent who taught Nguyen the “ways of whiteness” and helped her read the hieroglyphics of a coded society. Throughout the memoir, Nguyen also writes movingly about being a mother herself, something that has clearly shifted her perspective on her experiences.

During her childhood, Nguyen’s family did not talk about Vietnam or the war. They had no vocabulary for trauma, and her father’s unacknowledged PTSD bodied forth in anger, drinking and home improvement projects that never reached completion. A superb writer, Nguyen gives readers a tactile sense of her childhood home life and the love and anguish she felt there.

“Growing up,” Nguyen writes, “I was afraid all the time. It was a low-lying fear that I couldn’t explain to myself or dare admit out loud.” In her beautiful memoir, Nguyen finally acknowledges this fear—and much, much more—out loud.

Beth Nguyen has only spent 24 hours with her mother over the course of her adult life, and her revelatory memoir depicts all the love and anguish bound up with this fact.

Anyone seeking medical care for a serious illness wants certainty in their diagnosis and treatment. The unsettling message of Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health, however, is that those understandable desires are often undermined by pure chance. 

In their revealing book, Harvard Medical School professor and economist Anupam B. Jena and critical care physician and health care policy researcher Christopher Worsham rely on natural experiments—studies based on collecting and analyzing data from random events occurring in the real world instead of controlled environments—to illustrate the role that randomness plays in America’s health care system. It’s a system that, in 2019 alone, spent $3.8 trillion—17.7% of the United States’ gross domestic product—and yet is “inefficient, inequitable, and poorly performing compared with other wealthy nations,” they write.

Jena and Worsham report on numerous studies, some of which they helped conduct, that attempt to answer some vexing questions: Why do children born in the fall have markedly higher influenza vaccination rates than their counterparts with summer birthdays? Why, despite similar conditions, are some patients more likely than others to receive an opioid prescription in the emergency room and maintain that prescription long after they’ve returned home? Why is an obstetrician more likely to perform an unplanned cesarean section if their previous patient’s vaginal birth presented complications? The answers, they argue, can provide critical insights into how to improve the quality of health care.

The book’s sometimes whimsical chapter titles conceal serious findings. “What Happens When All the Cardiologists Leave Town?” examines the survival outcomes for high-risk cardiac patients who are hospitalized during the annual professional conference for interventional cardiologists, versus those treated when those same cardiologists are back home. “What Do Cardiac Surgeons and Used-Car Salesmen Have in Common?” considers “left-digit bias,” a cognitive blind spot Jena and Worsham believe explains the differing care patients with heart attack symptoms who are just under 40 sometimes receive compared to those who have recently passed that milestone. 

If these unexpected insights sound familiar to readers of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, there’s a reason. In addition to his professional duties, Jena hosts the podcast “Freakonomics, M.D.,” where he explores similar behavioral economics issues. Though their tone is occasionally lighthearted, he and Worsham repeatedly drive home a serious point: The American health care system is failing to deliver optimal care, often due to the unquestioned assumptions and inherent biases of its providers. If this provocative book can spark conversations about how to examine these persistent problems with fresh eyes, its authors have accomplished something truly important.

In their revealing book, Anupam B. Jena and Christopher Worsham illustrate the role that pure chance plays in medicine.
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Aurelie possesses the rare skill of Seeking, the art of finding people, but she’s given up on magic—it’s an outdated practice in the kingdom, anyway. Being a baker’s apprentice isn’t her dream, but it’s safe and stable, and she’d be content to remain a baker forever. That is, until a bounty hunter named Iliana visits her shop and asks for help in her quest to rescue Prince Hapless. Aurelie joins Iliana and her troll associate, Quad, and gets swept up into a kingdomwide adventure involving strange creatures, mysterious assassins and royal conspiracies. Their odyssey takes Aurelie far from the bakery and calls into question whether she’s living the life she really wants.

While author Emma Mills takes inspiration from classic fairy tales in Something Close to Magic, she also challenges traditional fantasy tropes. Magic, for example, is seen as antiquated and pointless, and those who practice magic are largely dismissed by society. And Prince Hapless is the story’s damsel in distress, needing the female characters to save him. Mills also gives each character more depth than a traditional fable would, diving into Aurelie’s complex emotions about her future, Hapless’ tense relationship with his role as a thirdborn royal son, Iliana’s hidden past and Quad’s perspective on humanity. Nuanced, profound scenes mingle with lighter, humorous moments, making the characters feel real and their growth believable. It’s easy to root for their success as a team after watching the steady development of their relationships.

Mills’ mastery of language is on full display here, with fun, clever prose and dialogue that are bound to make readers laugh out loud. The banter between characters feels natural, with conversations showcasing Aurelie’s tenacity, Iliana’s wit, Hapless’ charm and Quad’s candor.

Classic fairy-tale settings, compelling mysteries and a charismatic cast of characters make Something Close to Magic an entertaining, fast-paced read, and its ending strikes the perfect balance between satisfaction and the promise of more adventures. Readers will be reminded of The Princess Bride; Something Close to Magic may be a fantastical tale, but it’s also one with relationships that hit close to home.

Emma Mills’ Something Close to Magic will remind readers of The Princess Bride: a fantastical tale with relationships that hit close to home.
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Some horror doesn’t require jump scares. Sometimes only a rambling country estate, an eternally fallow field and the mountainous grief of a parent mourning a child are needed. Starve Acre is a meditative disaster story, a slow-motion record of life imploding.

When Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s troubled 5-year-old son, Ewan, dies unexpectedly, their lives become a daily struggle to maintain equilibrium. Eventually they stop leaving the titular country estate Richard inherited from his father, nursing their wounds in rural isolation. Juliette continues her descent into bereaved delirium and Richard spends his days conducting archeological research on the ancient oak that once stood in the dead field behind the house. Slowly, it becomes indelibly clear that something is very, very wrong at Starve Acre.

Author Andrew Michael Hurley (The Loney) is a beautiful writer and a clever narrative architect. He doles out information piecemeal in remarkably fluid prose, leaving ample space to dissect his fascinating, flawed characters. Richard and Juliette are coping with Ewan’s death in understandably dysfunctional ways, while Juliette’s sister, Harrie, proselytizes the services of the therapist who rescued her from her own trauma. Were it not a horror novel, Starve Acre would make an excellent Ibsen play.

But Starve Acre is, in fact, a horror novel, and so it inevitably seeks to explain the human tragedies of isolation, mental illness and grief via inhuman foes. In this universe, the normal cruelty of children pales before the fey capriciousness of the spirits hidden in the Willoughbys’ lifeless yard. At times, the novel teeters on the edge of casting aspersions at children deemed “antisocial” and folk spirituality, and strays dangerously close to outdated ideas that psychiatric or developmental disorders were caused by demonic possession. Psychiatry itself also comes out worse for the wear, with practitioners portrayed as rigidly manualized know-it-alls unwilling to step outside the annotated bounds of their anesthetized profession.

Still, Hurley succeeds in crafting a remarkably realistic world where there are no paragons and no ideal institutions. Starve Acre is a beautifully crafted slice of melancholy, a dig through the darker corners of British folklore and a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how grief can linger.

A frightening dig through the darker corners of British folklore, Starve Acre is also a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how grief can linger.

Swimming and mini golf and reading and hiking and piling all together at one table to eat or solve jigsaw puzzles . . . phew! When the school year ends for a little boy named Ravi, a boisterous family vacation filled with fun activities, delicious food and lots of bonding time begins. 

As Ravi explains in Newbery Honor winner Rajani LaRocca’s sweetly nostalgic Summer Is for Cousins, he and his parents, sister Anita, aunties, uncles, grandparents and five cousins all stay in “a house that’s not any of ours, / near the ocean / and a lake.” 

It’s always wonderful to see his family again, but Ravi is feeling a little uncertain this year. His older cousin Dhruv has grown up so much; his voice is deeper, he’s gotten even taller, and what if he doesn’t remember that he and Ravi have the same favorite ice cream flavor? (It’s banana—delicious but hard to find.) Fortunately, as the pages turn and the days pass, Ravi is able to put aside his worries and remember how kind and supportive his cousin is. With Dhruv’s encouragement, he even goes on the rope swing he was too afraid to try last year! “Dhruv is my big cousin,” Ravi thinks, “but now I’m bigger, too.”

Abhi Alwar’s colorful and emotive illustrations enhance the warmth of LaRocca’s appealing tale, empathetically conveying Ravi’s initial hesitancy and burgeoning confidence. All 15 family members have charming visual cues, too, so readers can spot their favorites on every page. For example, shutterbug Anita is never without her instant camera, while Puja’s barrette keeps her hair in place whether she’s building sandcastles or barreling along on a bicycle. Animals get in on the fun too: An energetic dog frolics across the pages, and inquisitive ducks avidly supervise the family’s water-based activities.

Summer Is for Cousins nicely hits all the emotional beats of a superfun family-filled vacation and reassures readers that people may grow and change, but affection endures.

Summer Is for Cousins nicely hits all the emotional beats of a superfun family-filled vacation and reassures readers that people may grow and change, but affection endures.
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Magnets push and magnets pull. Will White and Rosie Winters, schoolmates who barely know each other, are unexpectedly swept up one night and talk for hours at a bonfire. Focused Rosie is full of future plans and listens to her mother’s voice in her head; her goals are getting good grades and practicing her music and leaving Norfolk for university at Oxford. Will, branded the bad seed of their school, drives a motorbike and worries his grandma but helps Rosie’s twin brother, Josh, with math. 

Then one night, another party, alcohol, a cliff edge—the unthinkable happens to these teenagers, simultaneously tearing them apart and bonding them forever in shared grief. “The worst thing, the most not-okay thing in both of their lives, occurred, because the world is cruel and unpredictable and things just happen, sometimes, and their understanding of this is what brings them back together, over and over, in spite of it.”

No opposites-attract love story is without conflict and tension, and Talking at Night certainly has the lion’s share of youthful desire as well as hidden pain. Debut novelist Claire Daverley’s descriptive powers make even the ordinary seem significant, as things often do when life is emotionally charged. 

Half-truths and concealed feelings throttle Will and Rosie’s relationship from the start. Over the years, they fight, grow apart, show up for each other and almost decide to go for it many times, occasionally talking or texting at night when they can’t sleep. Their lives diverge and intersect throughout their 20s and 30s, and Daverley teases out their attraction to its climax, capturing all the perplexing contradictions of people in love. The lack of quotation marks is a perennially controversial structural choice for dialogue, likely as it is to cause confusion, but it lends a sense of urgency to the plot that suits and reflects the nature of Will’s and Rosie’s tumultuous thoughts.  

As much as Talking at Night is a love story between two people, it is also a meditation on family and the vagaries of grief when bonds are broken. Daverley’s sensitive novel evokes a line from the Edmund Spenser poem “The Ways of God Unsearchable”: “For there is nothing lost, that may be found if sought.” Through all their losses and misfires, Will and Rosie keep looking, and readers will keep turning pages, hoping that these two characters will find each other at last.

As much as Claire Daverley’s debut novel is a love story between two people, it is also a meditation on family and the vagaries of grief when bonds are broken.
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Susie Finkbeiner (All Manner of Things) invites readers along on the inspiring journey of a young baseball player who dreams of playing for the first women’s professional baseball league in the adeptly crafted coming-of-age novel The All-American.

To the disappointment of her mother, and despite her home economics teacher’s warnings against future spinsterhood, Bertha Harding has no interest in mastering domestic skills like the other girls. Bertha’s true passion is baseball, and the 1952 season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) is about to begin. Bertha can hardly wait to see the Workington Sweet Peas play, but she fears that her hopes of playing for the team are crushed when her father is accused of being a member of the Communist Party. Her family flees Detroit to her uncle’s home in a small town in Michigan. Still, Bertha remains hopeful, and in time, her journey with the Sweet Peas begins. 

Told through the voices of Bertha and her sister, Flossie, The All-American offers an intimate glimpse into their lives and the challenges they face. Fitting in at school is tough for both of them, thanks to Bertha’s lack of interest in marriage and Flossie’s struggle to make friends. But their lives expand through the bonds they forge: Bertha’s love of baseball is supported by the Sweet Peas pitcher, and Flossie learns true friendship and empathy from her friend Lizzie. 

Captivating historical details contextualize the story and add conflict and tension. The Red Scare casts a shadow over everyone’s lives, straining relationships and fomenting fear of tarnished relationships. Finkbeiner also includes fascinating background information on the AAGPBL, offering a beautiful celebration of the women who broke barriers for other girls and women in baseball.

Led by relatable characters, The All-American is a moving novel, fit for inspiring any reader to dream big and believe that anything is possible.

Susie Finkbeiner offers a beautiful celebration of the women who broke barriers for other girls and women in baseball.

Most art thefts are simply for financial gain. The thieves, often opportunistic crooks and rarely art connoisseurs themselves, view their stolen masterworks as loot to be fenced. Stéphane Breitwieser is different. Growing up in the Alsace region of France, he fell in love with art and artifacts under his grandfather’s tutelage, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had begun to steal compulsively from museums, auction houses and even churches. In eight years, often aided by his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine, he filched more than 300 irreplaceable works—including small oil paintings, silver chalices, ivory sculptures, tapestries and a historic bugle—estimated to be worth billions. When he was ultimately caught, Breitwieser said his sole motivation for stealing was to surround himself with beauty. He never sold anything he procured but instead displayed it all in a cramped attic room he and Anne-Catherine occupied in his mother’s house.

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by journalist Michael Finkel is a fascinating account of Breitwieser’s crime spree that attempts to understand the mind of this criminal aesthete. This proves a herculean task, since Breitwieser’s singular condition has defied clear-cut diagnosis by a passel of mental health experts, but Finkel’s re-creation of the thief’s nefarious activities is nonetheless a riveting ride. As the only American journalist who was granted interviews with Breitwieser, Finkel spent some 40 hours with him, even accompanying the now ex-con on visits to some of the museums and churches from which he once stole. From this personally reported material, as well as other interviews and documentation, Finkel has fashioned an engrossing true crime narrative—mostly told in present-tense prose to heighten the drama—that takes readers along on Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine’s daring robberies, quite often carried out in plain sight. 

The Breitwieser whom Finkel deftly portrays is a social misfit, a virtuoso of stealth, an inveterate moocher and, most of all, a self-deluded hero. (He claims he is protecting and preserving the art by stealing it.) Anne-Catherine seems a complicit accomplice—a lovestruck Bonnie to her cultured Clyde—until Breitwieser is caught and the tables turn. Breitwieser’s enabling, much-in-denial mother, meanwhile, alters the course of events in a way that will shock and disturb art and history lovers. Obsessive crime, dangerous beauty, ill-fated love: The Art Thief is the stuff of noir fiction, made all the more compelling and audacious for its authenticity.

Stéphane Breitwieser stole more than 300 irreplaceable artworks. Journalist Michael Finkel now attempts to understand why this criminal aesthete hoarded those treasures in his attic.

Nishanth Injam’s perceptive and penetrating debut collection, The Best Possible Experience, offers a quietly powerful look at a fundamental human desire—for a sense of home, a place to belong—through an intriguing cast of characters from the Indian diaspora. Of the 11 stories, only two have been previously published: “The Math of Living” in VQR and Best Debut Short Stories 2021, and “Come With Me” in The Georgia Review and Best American Magazine Writing 2022.

In the touching title story, the formidable bus driver Mr. Lourenco does his best to instill optimism in his son despite societal prejudices. Mr. Lourenco’s strategies to provide opportunities for his son are creative, albeit sometimes questionable. In “The Immigrant,” Aditya follows a “simple” plan to earn a master’s degree from an American school and find a good job to pay for a lung transplant for his mother. In restrained yet dramatic fashion, Injam reveals how this strategy gets complicated.

A journey home takes a turn in “The Bus,” in which the story’s unnamed protagonist, a “techie” who works at a Bank of America call center in the bustling Indian city of Bengaluru, procures a ticket on a luxury bus, complete with a toilet and air conditioning. It’s the weekend of Diwali, but the trip to his village is anything but festive, as things soon spiral into a Stephen King-esque nightmare. “Summers of Waiting” is a gentle yet ominous odyssey through memory as Sita races home from the U.S. to see the grandfather who raised her. 

There are affecting observations on Indian and American cultures in “Lunch at Paddy’s,” in which Paddy is thrilled that his 12-year-old son has invited a school friend home for lunch but is consumed with worry about what to serve and how to act around a white boy. And in “The Protocol,” Gautham has paid a Black woman to marry him, and as he nervously prepares for his green card interview, he discovers his increasing affinity for her. 

Injam compares and contrasts his many characters, their situations and experiences—specifically, what constitutes home for them and how they cope. Masterful descriptions convey their heart-rending memories and hard-hitting emotions. An enlightening collection full of cultural and societal insights, The Best Possible Experience is a must for readers who loved Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses.

The Best Possible Experience is a must for readers who loved Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses.
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In a follow-up to his fascinating Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, multifaceted writer and chef Michael Ruhlman applies that concept to cocktails. Even more so than culinary creations, boozy drinks “are fundamentally defined by their ratios, rather than by a unique combination of ingredients,” he writes in The Book of Cocktail Ratios: The Surprising Simplicity of Classic Cocktails.

Ruhlman explores this thesis through six classic tipples—the Manhattan, the Negroni, the Daiquiri, the Margarita, the Martini and highballs, with a few outliers thrown in for good measure (the Paper Plane, the Hot Toddy, etc.). For example, a Martinez, which likely predated the Manhattan, swaps gin for the Manhattan’s bourbon or rye in a 2:1 ratio of spirit to vermouth. Sub bourbon in for gin in the 1:1:1 ratio of a Negroni, and boom, you’ve got a Boulevardier—or try mezcal, if you dare.

I’m not much of a numbers person, but this simplification of the sometimes-arcane world of mixology goes down easy and pairs well with sweet watercolor illustrations by Marcella Kriebel. Ruhlman suggests that the art of the cocktail is rather forgiving, a place to mess around and find out. Just commit a few basic ratios to memory first.

Even if you’re not much of a numbers person, this guide to the ratios involved in six classic tipples goes down easy.

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