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Somewhere beneath the surface of the world, an ancient evil sleeps. The Nameless One, a wyrm so powerful that it once threatened the very fabric of life, is bound beneath the Earth’s crust, in its molten interior. Some think that its defeat came at the hands of a knight named Galian. Those who follow Galian’s teachings believe that his heirs, a line of uncannily identical queens, are all that stand between the world and destruction. Others attest that Cleolind, the queen whom Galian sought to marry, defeated the beast. 

While the old danger sleeps, the Earth has become restless, with volcanoes spewing new terrors in the form of beasts and wyrms. If the world is to survive, its people must learn how to subdue these powerful beasts. For Dumai, the crown princess of Seiiki who has been raised in a remote temple, that will mean learning how to call down the gods to save her people. For Glorian, princess and heir to Sir Galian’s legacy, that will mean sacrificing her childhood for the greater good. And for Tunuva and the rest of the women of the Priory of the Orange Tree, a religious order that Cleolind founded, that will mean fighting in a battle they’ve trained for but hoped would never come. And for all involved, it will require uncommon courage and a will to triumph.

Why Samantha Shannon returned to the world of ‘The Priory of the Orange Tree.’

A Day of Fallen Night is Samantha Shannon’s return to the world of The Priory of the Orange Tree and a prequel to that novel. It is a massive undertaking, clocking in at nearly 900 pages, but with its careful plotting and brilliantly developed cast of characters, it is worth every paragraph. Shannon covers both grand high fantasy themes and more down-to-earth ones, touching on everything from court intrigue and the terrifying frenzy of battle to tender domestic moments. 

The novel overflows with characters whose wins you’ll cheer for and whose failures you’ll mourn. Shannon examines the relationship between mother and child, including the grief that comes with the loss of a child, the hope that a new generation brings and the frustration of trying to live up to your forerunners’ expectations. Her female characters are fierce, but they’re also vulnerable, clever and lonely. At times, her poetic prose overwhelms the senses with sumptuous detail and explosive energy. In other moments, she paints complex emotions with goosebump-­inducing empathy. 

You don’t need to have read The Priory of the Orange Tree to enjoy A Day of Fallen Night. But know that the pull of the priory is strong: Whichever book you start with, you’ll likely want to have the next one close at hand.

Samantha Shannon’s prequel to The Priory of the Orange Tree is just as sumptuous and explosive, immersing readers in a world on the brink of destruction.

Katherine May’s essay collection Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age offers similar meditative pleasures as her previous collection, Wintering—though you don’t need to have read Wintering to enjoy Enchantment. “When I want to describe how I feel right now, the word I reach for the most is discombobulated,” she writes, going on to chart the losses, burnout and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of this era. “Time has looped and gathered, and I sometimes worry that I could skip through decades like this, standing in my bathroom, until I am suddenly old.”

In the opening essay, May describes feeling like she had lost some fundamental part of being alive, some elemental human feeling—like she had become disconnected from meaning. Without this missing piece, “the world feels like tap water left overnight, flat and chemical, devoid of life,” she writes. She began to wonder if she could find a solution in enchantment, which she defines as “small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory.” So she set out to find and record such moments, beginning with the places where she found beauty as a child, such as the farmland outside her grandparents’ English village.

Enchantment’s essays are arranged into four sections—Earth, Water, Fire and Air—detailing May’s investigations into each realm. For example, a visit to an ancient healing well goes in the Water section. “There are steps down to a pool of dark water about a foot deep, the heart-shaped petals of the [briar] rose floating on its surface,” she writes about this hidden well. As in the book’s other essays, May doesn’t gloss over her feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy. “It has the air of a place that has waited patiently for a long time for someone to come along and worship, and now it has me standing awkwardly before it, at a loss. It crackles with magic, but I have no template for how to behave around it, no tradition or culture that prepared me for this.”

May details the small disappointments and larger surprises she encountered on her journey, and her sentences, plain yet gorgeous, cast a spell. The essay “Hierophany” opens simply, “Just after lunchtime when I was a child, my grandmother would sit down to eat an orange, and peace would fall over the house.” Enchantment mixes nature writing and bits of history, theology and literature with memoir—scenes from May’s childhood, her failures at meditation, ordinary marital discontents—to form a lucid, restful collection. Though May’s search for enchantment seems perhaps better suited to the English landscape, with its fairy tale-like ancient sites and villages, than to our American suburban sprawl, Enchantment offers a lovely, meditative way to begin another tumultuous year.

Wintering author Katherine May returns with Enchantment, a lovely, meditative ode to finding connection in a disconnected age.
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Early in Cathleen Schine’s poignant, very funny novel, effervescent 93-year-old Mamie Künstler demands that her grandson, Julian, drag himself away from the screen of his phone. “I want your attention,” she announces. “I mean here you are.” And boy, is he. The 24-year-old has just broken up with his girlfriend, can no longer afford his rent in Brooklyn and has been sent by his parents to Venice Beach, California, to look after Mamie, who has fractured her wrist. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic arrives, trapping the pair together indefinitely in Künstlers in Paradise.

As a diversion from endless hours of watching MSNBC “like hollow-eyed drug addicts,” Mamie begins to tell Julian stories of her life, beginning with her emigration from Vienna at age 12 with her parents and grandfather in 1939. The family delayed their departure for as long as possible, rarely leaving the house during that time. As Mamie explains, storytelling is “what Grandfather and I did to amuse each other. We told stories when we were stuck in the house.” Once the family began their journey “off to a land of make-believe,” Mamie says, “I was amazed, enchanted! I was like Odysseus on Calypso’s island!”

Mamie’s tales of her adopted country read like a who’s-who of old Hollywood: repeated encounters with Greta Garbo (who becomes an important person in Mamie’s life), tennis lessons with composer Arnold Schoenberg and Thanksgiving dinner with Aldous Huxley, actor Anita Loos and Adele Astaire (Fred’s older sister). Schine’s sharp wit is constantly on display, as when Mamie interrupts her narration to comment on Julian’s lack of familiarity with many of these celebrities: “We will have an intermission while you google.”

Few authors could pull off the storytelling format of Künstlers in Paradise, but Schine does so seamlessly and marvelously, creating a multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history. In addition to a cavalcade of humor, there is great and sobering substance amid the stark contrasts, conveyed in the slightest touch of Schine’s well-crafted prose: “The physical beauty of Venice and the moral ugliness of America were more difficult for Julian to reconcile. On the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer kneeling on his neck, the jacaranda trees burst into bloom, canopies of unnatural color, a spectacular purple, blossoms lush and bizarre.”

As story after story unfolds, Julian and Mamie are transformed. After Julian hears Mamie describe a Künstler family photo taken back in Vienna, he notes, “She didn’t skip a beat at the mention of Dachau. . . . Or of her cousin who perished there. What an intricate, convoluted bundle of emotional strands she must carry around inside that heart.”

As Mamie concludes in her own delightful way, “I do not believe in life after death. . . . I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death: it is all so improbable.” Künstlers in Paradise is truly a trove of unexpected rewards.

Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history.

Well-crafted characters add to the heartfelt drama in Now You See Us, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s alluring literary mystery that’s a gem for fans of Nita Prose’s The Maid and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.

Reserved Corazon (Cora), headstrong Donita and altruistic Angel are Filipina domestic workers and friends living in Singapore. They support one another through their group text message thread, where they share stories of their treatment by their affluent employers, from Cora’s discomfort around her employer’s attempts at camaraderie, to Donita’s frustration with the controlling Mrs. Fann, who punishes her determined young maid at every opportunity. 

One night, when Donita is sneaking home from a rendezvous with her boyfriend, she sees her friend, Flordeliza, getting into a taxi. The next day, Flordeliza is accused of murdering her employer. Donita enlists the help of Cora and Angel to prove Flordeliza’s innocence, though getting close to the crime risks unleashing secrets that would destroy them all.

Jaswal’s scathing indictment of the exploitation of immigrant labor unfolds against a tantalizing backdrop, revealing the rich culture of Singapore while shedding light on systems of oppression and entitlement. She explores the class disparities between the maids and their gossiping employers, as well as the race- and ethnicity-based social structures among the domestic workers; for example, a maid from the Philippines will receive a higher wage than one from Myanmar. “Foreigners made the mistake of assuming that all house help would get along, but there were hierarchies and histories,” Jaswal writes.

While the sleuthing maids make for an engaging plot, the nuances of Jaswal’s characters and their relationships are even more complex and intriguing. In simple yet evocative ways, she peels back the layers of each woman, revealing how their choices are restricted by their past predicaments and current circumstances.

While sleuthing maids make for an engaging plot, the nuances of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s characters and their relationships are even more complex and intriguing.
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“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “They have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” Perhaps this is why Sotheran’s, one of the oldest rare and antique bookstores in the world (“One year away from closing since 1761,” as the store’s running joke goes), seems like a dark forest full of adventure.

In Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, satisfyingly named book dealer Oliver Darkshire extends an invitation into the shadowy and ever so slightly dangerous realm of this London bookshop. Health and safety hazards lurk around every turn. Towers of forgotten boxes rustle without prompting. Crumbling esoteric publications must be delivered to nameless agents on train platforms. As Darkshire portrays it in his humorous and hyperbolic memoir, bookselling is as far from a tame profession as you can get, more akin to joining MI6 or the CIA, or perhaps taking up professional snake handling.

Oliver Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book about a 262-year-old bookstore came to be.

Darkshire insists he simply stumbled into a career at Sotheran’s by responding to an advertisement after a series of failed attempts to land or hold down other jobs. His quirkiness, his adoration of history and his wide-eyed sense of wonder at the magic of books marked him as uniquely suited to the position (which largely entailed sitting behind a postage stamp-size desk by the door, as a first line of defense against customers). As Darkshire leads readers through the stacks, opening and closing various mysterious cupboards, we experience the thrill of being invited into his secret world. Peopled with taxidermied birds, a resident ghost and a band of frazzled booksellers, Sotheran’s constitutes its own small, puckish kingdom. Darkshire’s prose is so confiding in tone that the reader feels firmly included in this insular, bookish underworld.

For the devoted book hoarder and hunter, reading Once Upon a Tome is similar to the deliciously bewildering experience of wandering through a rare bookstore, not knowing what treasure might be just around the corner. Darkshire’s chapters are helpfully labeled with headings such as “Natural History” and “Modern First Editions”—but upon closer scrutiny, they are stuffed with stories that sometimes connect to the subject they are filed under only by the thinnest thread. In some books this would tangle the narrative into a volume of pure chaos, but through some kind of cheerful alchemy, it only adds to the magic of our journey through Sotheran’s. One is never in control in a bookstore; this is an indisputable fact long known by all book lovers. The sooner you surrender to the curious internal logic of this world of books, the sooner the magic begins.

In his memoir, Oliver Darkshire invites readers into one of the oldest antique bookstores in the world and acts as their hilarious, bookish guide.
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In her first picture book as author and illustrator, Qing Zhuang invites readers on a colorful, immersive shopping trip in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood.

As Rainbow Shopping opens, a young girl is feeling as gloomy as the gray, rainy weather outside her window. She has nestled herself under a blanket on her bed, a tin of crayons by her side as she draws in a notebook. The girl’s family recently emigrated from China, and her parents and grandmother always seem to be working, as busy as the city itself. But her mom has a plan for today, one that involves both comfort and connection.

Mom’s remedy is a journey to Chinatown to buy ingredients for a family dinner. When the pair arrive at the market, Zhuang’s palette brightens visibly as mother and daughter shop and enjoy their time together. As Mom selects fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, she shares wisdom and tenderness with her daughter. “Bamboo plants are flexible and strong, surviving the toughest storms,” she says as she shops for produce. The girl’s responses are often feisty, as when she tries to convince her mom to let her buy an armful of candy. (“Mom says I only get to keep one bag,” the girl reveals. “I think she must have eaten too many bitter melons in her life.”)

When the two return home, Dad makes a delicious meal for the family and reveals secrets of his “kitchen kung fu,” such as cutting bitter melon thinly to reduce its bitterness. Everyone gathers around the table after a long week, sharing not only the food but also the girl’s drawings and stories of their family’s past. As the rain continues to pour and the girl slips into sleep, she dreams of walking with her family “in rainbow rain.”

Zhuang’s artwork is as warm and inviting as her story. Her watercolor, crayon and colored pencil illustrations burst with detail, allowing for new discoveries with each read. A wordless spread of the subway ride home reveals a small dog strapped to its owner’s chest, a brown paper bag labeled Trader Moe’s and a commuter in lime-green Crocs.

Sweet, fun and spunky, Rainbow Shopping is a beautiful, touching portrait of a family’s love for one another.

A grocery-shopping trip and a shared meal provide moments of comfort and connection in this touching portrait of a family’s love for one another.
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Jenny Odell’s 2019 book, How to Do Nothing, was a massive success that established her as an authority on attention in the digital era. Since its publication, a groundswell of writers have attempted to imitate Odell’s unique combination of cultural criticism, academic research and nature writing. But Saving Time proves that no one can do Odell like Odell.

As Saving Time explores why we believe time to be scarce and how this has informed our digital-age obsession with efficiency and productivity, it adds a practical approach to the work Odell started in How to Do Nothing. These fixations, Odell explains, are not new. They’re the products of industrialized capitalism and wage labor that we’ve internalized as virtue. “Now it’s not just the employer who sees you as twenty-four hours of personified labor time,” she writes. “It’s what you see when you look in the mirror.”

Read our interview with Jenny Odell about ‘Saving Time,’ her brilliant, hopeful critique of our obsession with efficiency.

Saving Time is a fascinating book to read during the recent rise in labor organizing. Odell looks at many forms of labor rights and resistance throughout history, from 19th-century worker movements to the ongoing “lying flat” movement in China, started by a young Chinese factory worker who quit his job in 2016 to ride his bike 1,300 miles to Tibet, living off of part-time work and “chilling.” The “lying flat” movement was met with an unsurprising backlash once it made its way to the United States, similar to the anger around the recent “quiet quitting” phenomenon. In response to people who oppose these kinds of anti-work movements—people who would prefer that everyone maintain the status quo of scrambling to get ahead—Odell writes that “advice for winning the rat race assumes that you’re running in it, rather than peeling away from a vanishing dream,” identifying the gap between those who have bought into the bootstrap myth and those who have refused it.

Alongside these threads of historical analysis, Odell also makes space for her contemplative relationship with nature, her quiet reminder of the beauty and joy that exist outside of the capitalist grind. But Saving Time is not a list of flat aphorisms about mindfulness, nor is it a screed. Rather, it’s a carefully constructed vision of hope with meaningful advice that will linger. What is it that you want to do, Odell asks, and why aren’t you doing it? It is possible to free yourself from the all-devouring cult of productivity, and Odell imagines a world where we have all done so. “If time were not a commodity, then time, our time, would not be as scarce as it seemed just a moment ago,” she writes. “Together, we could have all the time in the world.”

Many writers have imitated Jenny Odell’s unique style since the publication of How to Do Nothing, but Saving Time proves that no one can do Odell like Odell.

Flames flicker around the edges of Margot Douaihy’s Scorched Grace, casting light and revealing darkness, hinting at the sort of destruction that offers the possibility of a new beginning.

That’s what Sister Holiday Walsh was looking for a year ago when she joined the Sisters of the Sublime Blood after fleeing the wreckage of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Sister Holiday is not a typical nun: While she and her brother, Moose, were raised Catholic by her former-nun mom and police captain dad, being wholly reverent has never been her thing. Rather, she’s the self-described “first punk nun,” a heavily tattooed loner who hides her ink under scarf and gloves and conceals her trauma under a jauntily sarcastic demeanor.

Although she’s somewhat found her footing as a music teacher at Saint Sebastian’s, the New Orleans school the nuns oversee, Sister Holiday’s emotional armor cracks open when an arsonist strikes and Jack, a well-liked janitor and her confidante, is killed. Stunned at his loss and baffled as to why someone would commit such violent acts against the school, Sister Holiday turns to chain-smoking and recalling memories of her former lover Nina to soothe herself. 

How Margot Douaihy turned to noir’s hard-boiled past—and looked to its future—to create Sister Holiday.

But it’s not enough: She mistrusts the police, she doesn’t feel safe, and the Raymond Chandler novels she escaped into as a kid are looming large in her mind. “Sleuthing and stubbornness were my gifts from God,” she thinks, and she’s sure as hell going to use those gifts to solve the mystery on her own. 

Scorched Grace revels in its unreliable narrator and bounty of plausible suspects, from shifty authority figures to mercurial students to enigmatic women of God. Douaihy, a poet and professor who shares Sister Holiday’s punk sensibility, immerses the reader in her hyperlocal New Orleans setting and the murky depths of Sister Holiday’s tormented soul. Her prose is frequently lyrical and often lacerating, her characters layered and intriguing. 

It’s not surprising in the slightest that this series starter is the first book published by Gillian Flynn’s eponymous new imprint. Scorched Grace is both entertaining and devastating, dominated by a queer sleuth with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.

Scorched Grace is an entertaining and devastating mystery that introduces Sister Holiday, a queer nun with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.
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Anita Kelly’s Something Wild & Wonderful accomplishes an interesting feat: Its rich, lyrical writing manages to make hiking the 2,500-mile Pacific Crest Trail sound positively stunning but also like the last thing anyone but the most outdoorsy of us would want to do. But oh, these characters—I’d go on a journey with them anywhere.

Alexei Lebedev is hoping that hiking the trail will help him transition from Alexei 1.0 to Alexei 2.0: a version of himself who is more open, more adventurous, braver and happier. Someone who will be able to move past the emotional blow of his parents disowning him six months ago, after he came out as gay. Alexei 1.0’s life revolved around family and church, and now he has neither. He needs to figure out what comes next, but he never expected something as amazing as Ben Caravalho.

Where Alexei is a meticulous planner, Ben is spontaneous. Where Alexei is shy and socially awkward, Ben is outgoing, making friends around every corner. Alexei is dazzled by Ben right from the start, and some of the early speed bumps in their relationship come from the fact that Alexei struggles to believe that Ben could want not only him but also something long term with him. But that same openheartedness that so appeals to Alexei causes problems for Ben, who always falls too fast and gives too much of himself.

Something Wild & Wonderful is a journey of self-discovery, as Alexei comes to terms with who he is and learns to let go of who he was. It’s a journey of self-actualization, as Ben learns to stop blaming himself for past mistakes and accept a future built on the things that make him happy. It’s an actual, physical journey through a wide range of landscapes and climates, all of which Kelly depicts in gorgeous, moving prose. But most of all, it’s a journey to true love, made all the more believable thanks to the firm foundation Alexei and Ben start from. This isn’t a romance in which the main couple tease and taunt and drive each other up the wall before they finally hook up. This is a romance in which affection, desire, admiration, appreciation and respect radiate from every page. It’s crystal clear from the start that Alexei and Ben don’t just enjoy each other—they are actively good for each other. Something Wild & Wonderful is so sweet and satisfying that you’ll want to read it again and again, just to experience the various journeys within its pages.

Anita Kelly’s Something Wild & Wonderful follows two men who fall in love as they hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and it’s so sweet and satisfying that you’ll never want it to end.

After 15 glorious years exploring the 12th-century Indian Ocean with her tightknit crew—acquiring precious jewels and artifacts, prevailing in all manner of violent encounters and reveling in the wildness of life on the sea—pirate captain Amina al-Sirafi grounded herself. Why, after all her legendary adventures, would she leave behind her beloved Marawati and abandon the great wide ocean? Because she gave birth to her daughter, Marjana, whom she wants to protect from the sorts of people she used to live among—the sort of person she used to be herself. 

But as Shannon Chakraborty’s historical fantasy The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi begins, the past calls to Amina in the form of an irresistible job offer from the wealthy and imperious mother of Amina’s former crewmate Asif. Asif’s daughter has been kidnapped, and if Amina can rescue the girl, she will receive a million dinars, a life-changing sum that could buy the security and privacy she craves. “It was tempting,” Amina thinks. “It was tantalizing. It was me. For I have always had a gambler’s soul . . .” 

Shannon Chakraborty sets sail for a new horizon.

Desire and ambition prevail over misgivings, and Amina returns to the sea after 10 years in hiding, convincing her former crew to join her once again. They encounter people, creatures and secrets that inspire fascination right along with terror and doubt. After all, everyone is older, wiser and burdened by regrets about roads (well, sea routes) not taken. But they’re also thrilled to be together again, and Chakraborty creates a rousing and inspiring portrait of the beautiful alchemy that results when a group of people fit perfectly together, challenging and supporting one another in invaluable and often hilarious ways.

As in Chakraborty’s internationally bestselling Daevabad trilogy, magic and dark forces and bizarre beings pop up in the pages of The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, the first volume in a new trilogy. Impressively researched history underpins it all, offering fascinating context and realism that elevate this swashbuckling, adventurous tale of a fantastical heist as it explores parenthood, faith, ambition, friendship and the enduring allure of forging a legacy.

Shannon Chakraborty’s follow-up to her bestselling Daevabad trilogy is a swashbuckling high seas quest that’s rousing, profound and irresistible.

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