Julia Kelly has written numerous international bestsellers in the realms of contemporary and historical romance as well as historical fiction (The Last Dance of the Debutante). Now, she’s setting her writerly sights on historical mystery with the new Parisian Orphan series, set in London during the Blitz.

In the meticulously researched, murder-and-intrigue-laden A Traitor in Whitehall, Kelly turns the locked-room trope up a notch by beckoning readers deep underground to the Churchill War Rooms (CWR), a command center established by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was constructed to be safe from bombs and prying enemy eyes, cloaked in concrete and characterized by tight security measures—but although every employee is extensively vetted, the CWR is not immune to the darkest human impulses.

Why Julia Kelly decided to set a murder mystery within Churchill’s secret headquarters.

Evelyne Redfern learns this the hard way in the most horrifying first week at work ever. After a patriotic-yet-unchallenging stint at a munitions factory, she is hired for the CWR typing pool by an old family friend, Mr. Fletcher, who knew Evelyne’s parents, French society page regular Genevieve and louche British adventurer (as well as neglectful parent) Sir Reginal Redfern. Their bitter and highly publicized divorce when Evelyne was a child earned her the media nickname “The Parisian Orphan.” 

Now in her 20s, Evelyne has been enjoying the relative anonymity of London but, after months of boredom at her factory job, is ready to make a more meaningful contribution to the war effort. She’s keeping an eye out for anything unusual at the CWR, per Mr. Fletcher’s instructions. Certainly, stumbling across the body of a recently murdered co-worker fits the bill. It’s a shocking yet fortuitous discovery: Since age 16, Evelyne has been a constant reader of mystery novels, and she thinks, “having adjusted to the reality of there being a dead body in my presence, I had been drawn to investigate.”

A minister’s aide named David Poole joins Evelyne’s crime-solving efforts; he’s been on the hunt for a mole, and it’s likely the murder is linked with treason. Kelly emphasizes the duo’s relentless search for the killer via tense, realistic interrogations and nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse sequences through underground hallways and the streets of London. A cast of opinionated side characters and a wealth of fascinating historical details add to the fun in this engaging, atmospheric series kickoff.

A murder takes place in Winston Churchill’s secret war rooms in Julia Kelly’s engaging, atmospheric A Traitor in Whitehall.
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PI Evander “Andy” Mills’ first adventure, Lavender House, was an intriguing mix of gothic and noir elements. In his second Andy Mills mystery, The Bell in the Fog, author Lev AC Rosen outdoes himself, while also firmly establishing the series in the tradition of noir detective novels. Set in 1952 San Francisco, The Bell in the Fog is not only a solid mystery but also a glimpse into the trauma and camaraderie that marked the LGBTQ+ experience of that era.

After being outed and losing his job with the police force in Lavender House, Andy is now offering his services as a detective to San Francisco’s queer community, who cannot seek justice or assistance through traditional means as their very lives are criminalized. Andy’s struggling to make ends meet when he finally lands a case substantial enough to cement his reputation as a trustworthy PI.

His former lover James, a closeted naval officer, is being blackmailed with photos of himself with another man. James is expecting a promotion to admiral, and needs Andy to track down the blackmailer and the photos in order to keep his life from imploding. For Andy, the case is bittersweet—James more or less ghosted him, giving him no explanation for the end of their relationship. His investigation uncovers a scheme targeting many of San Francisco’s queer residents, and when he finds one of the blackmailers dead, Andy is suddenly embroiled in a mystery worth killing over.

The Bell in the Fog brings readers to the underground LGBTQ+ scene of the 1950s and explores the habitual traumas, like police brutality, and ever-present fear of exposure that queer people endured. Rosen balances this by also showing how found families were created and how the community supported each other: Andy is assisted by Lee, a performer who would be understood as gender fluid today and whose network of friends brings Andy vital information, and he’s also given medical care by Gene, a bartender who would have been a doctor had he not been outed himself. The result is an atmospheric historical novel as well as a gritty noir mystery that will thrill both readers who already love Andy Mills and those meeting him for the first time.

The Bell in the Fog is an atmospheric historical novel, a gritty noir mystery and a worthy successor to author Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House.
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With remakes and reimaginings an integral part of our current zeitgeist, discussion of such projects often results in a common refrain: If it was good the first time, don’t bother remaking it. Luckily, no one told Elizabeth Hand this when she set out to write A Haunting on the Hill, a brilliant queer reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic, The Haunting of Hill House. Hand’s work both modernizes and deepens Jackson’s setting, pulling readers into the demented halls of Hill House and the minds of its denizens.

Struggling playwright-turned-teacher Holly Sherwin has landed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the form of a $10,000 grant. The funds are her big chance, allowing her the time and flexibility to develop her newest play. When a wrong turn leads her to the isolated Hill House, renting it out as a rehearsal space feels like fate. Against the better judgment of nearly everyone in Holly’s life—her girlfriend, Nisa, her friend Stevie and even the owner of Hill House herself—Holly moves her cast into the spacious home for several weeks of strenuous rehearsals and rewrites. From momentary delusions to black hares appearing out of nowhere, things start to go wrong as soon as they arrive. But as soon as its new inhabitants consider escape, their minds are suddenly changed. Desperate pleas to flee become arguments as to why they should stay as the house insinuates itself into their wildest fears and desires. To survive, they need to leave—but they are beginning to forget why they’d want to in the first place.

While fans of Jackson will no doubt revel in some of the obvious homages, Hand’s fresh text doesn’t require deep knowledge of Hill House lore to be intelligible or frightening. And its modern setting allows Hand to play with the paranoia and worries of a new age. A Haunting on the Hill explores age discrimination and the shadows of abuse as thoroughly as it does infidelity and professional jealousy, turning each into a tool that the house can use against Holly and her friends. True to Jackson’s original and the tradition of the haunted house novel, the eeriness builds subtly before bursting into full terror. There are no rattling chains nor wheezing ghosts; Hill House plays to its inhabitants’ expectations and warps their minds, needing nothing more than a trick of the light or a bit of faulty memory to unsettle and manipulate. But rationality begins to slip away soon enough, replaced by the glorious terror of one of literature’s most iconic haunted houses.

A Haunting on the Hill is a brilliant queer reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
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Author Harrison Scott Key narrates his book How to Stay Married (8.5 hours), the self-proclaimed “most insane love story ever told,” in which he tears down all the cultural boundaries of marital secrecy to spill the details of his wife’s five-year-long infidelity. In a confessional-like manner, Key recounts the aftermath of when Lauren Key, the mother of his three children, asks for a divorce—a moment when everything he knew about Lauren, love and faith all come crashing down. While he grapples with this new reality, he discusses his own personal failures and doubts. “The truth will set you free,” Key writes, then adds, “free to lose your mind.”

Key’s deadpan delivery makes the wisecracks all the more hilarious and bitter (especially when making fun of “Chad,” the man with whom Lauren fell in love), and the heartbreak all the more aching. One chapter near the end of the book titled “A Whore in Church” is written by Lauren, and she reads her own honest words with a clear voice.

With ample comic relief, How to Stay Married is an absolute whirlwind of brokenness and humility that’s also embedded with hope and forgiveness.

Read our starred review of the print edition of How to Stay Married.

Harrison Scott Key’s deadpan delivery reading How to Stay Married makes the wisecracks all the more hilarious and bitter, and the heartbreak all the more aching.


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Greg Marshall has penned a different kind of coming-out memoir: With Leg (10 hours), he writes about his evolving understanding of his identity not only as a gay man but also as a disabled person. Out of a well-intentioned desire to prevent their son from focusing on his differences, his parents kept his cerebral palsy diagnosis a secret and led Marshall to believe that he just had “tight tendons” until his early thirties. Marshall’s memoir-in-essays (some of which have been published elsewhere in standalone form) transforms what could have been a fairly tragic tale—growing up as a disabled kid with two chronically ill parents—into wry comedy, thanks in no small part to a colorful family life, a fair amount of raunchy humor and a willingness to make fun of himself. Marshall, who reads his own work, forewarns listeners that they may “notice occasional mouth sounds that accompany this reading” due to his disability, but even this author’s note is couched in wit and humor.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Leg.

Greg Marshall’s memoir-in-essays transforms what could have been a fairly tragic tale—growing up as a disabled kid with two chronically ill parents—into wry comedy.

Edoardo Ballerini’s magnetic performance draws out the beauty and darkness of places and people in Return to Valetto (9 hours), Dominic Smith’s elegant multigenerational family saga set in the splendor of the Italian countryside.

After a two-year absence from Europe, where he studied Italy’s vanishing villages and towns, writer and historian Hugh Fisher returns to Valetto, Italy, for six months. This time, he’s focusing on family matters: namely visiting his aunts and 99-year-old grandmother and tending to the cottage left to him by his late mother, who died a year earlier. With an impeccable Italian accent, Ballerini portrays the tense dynamics as family members bicker over the cottage. After a squatter claims Fisher’s grandfather left it to her family in exchange for sheltering him during World War II, Ballerini’s adroit narration conveys subtle changes in the family that occur as the ensuing investigations unearth troubling secrets involving Hugh’s mother. The smooth effortlessness of Ballerini’s narration immerses readers in this tumultuous family history set against the backdrop of Valetto’s changing landscape.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Return to Valetto.

The smooth effortlessness of Edoardo Ballerini’s narration immerses readers in this tumultuous family history set against the backdrop of a changing Italian village.

What would Hansel and Gretel be like as adults? Kell Woods’ inventive retelling explores the answer to this question, following Hans and Margareta “Greta” Rosenthal as down-on-their-luck German peasants struggling to make a living in a world still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War.

Greta has never felt like she fit into Lindenfeld, a little town on the edge of the Black Forest—not before she and Hans fell prey to the gingerbread witch, and not after their return. Nothing has been easy for the siblings: They’ve lost their father and endured a stepmother rotten to her core. Now, reckless Hans continually mishandles their money, and instead of considering suitable suitors, Greta deals with nightmarish visions and other strange sensations After the Forest quickly reveals how the Rosenthals have kept themselves afloat: Greta’s descent into witchcraft, aided by the gingerbread witch’s grimoire. 

When a handsome stranger emerges from the forest with seemingly good intentions, while at the same time, Lindenfeld explodes in prejudice towards the wild animals and supposed witches that plague the land, Greta must make difficult decisions about her path in life and who she can trust. At first, she confines herself to baking magically scrumptious gingerbread to sell at market, but Greta soon evolves into a greenwitch, working with the forest itself to achieve her goals and save those she loves. As her powers grow, she learns about the terrible effects of more powerful, darker spells. Naturally, Greta swears off this dangerous magic at first, but the evil forces lurking in the woods outside Lindenfeld grow ever stronger, and she might not be able to keep her hands clean. 

Readers will root for Greta to finally achieve her happily ever after while also relishing Woods’ dark, folklore-infused story. Each chapter begins with a snippet of a fairy tale about noble sisters Liliane and Rosabell, who at first seem unrelated to Greta—until Woods unravels the secrets that bind them together. After the Forest is full of enchanting references to various folk tales and truly feels like a children’s storybook come to life, albeit one with delightfully wicked and haunting twists. With its cookbooks that speak (and bite!) and enchanted gingerbread, After the Forest is a tantalizing treat.

In Kell Woods’ darkly enchanting After the Forest, Greta of Hansel and Gretel-fame has become a witch herself.
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In The Country of the Blind (8 hours), Andrew Leland explores the culture, politics and history around blindness—a topic that is especially important to him because he is slowly losing his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa. Leland takes listeners on a wide-ranging examination of blindness: both how it’s treated and how those who have it experience the world.

Leland’s honest and emphatic narration of The Country of the Blind emphasizes the personal nature of this book. Acting as both writer and narrator helps him bridge the gap between his research on vision and the intimate accounts of those who have vision issues, including himself. His reading is straightforward but warm, echoing the heavy and hopeful themes of the stories he shares.

Nuanced and emotional, The Country of the Blind explores difficult conversations around disability with empathy. By placing individuals’ accounts within historical context, Leland tells real stories with authority and authenticity.

Nuanced and emotional, The Country of the Blind explores difficult conversations around disability with care and empathy.

Everyone knows the term “serial killer” in today’s true crime-obsessed landscape. But Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women takes the reader back to a time before constant content about murders and those who pathologically commit them, though to say life was better then would be a vast oversimplification. Moving between past and present, Bright Young Women is a searing, feminist take on the mythology of serial killers that prioritizes the voices of survivors and victims.

It’s 1978 and The House, Florida State University’s smartest sorority, is prepared to take on the world. The sorority values friendship and achievement above all else, especially with senior Pamela “Pam Perfect” Schumacher as its president. But one late night, the pre-law student is startled awake and witnesses a strange man exiting the sorority house. Two of Pamela’s sisters are found gravely injured, and two are dead—including Denise, Pamela’s best friend and a protege of iconic artist Salvador Dali. Decades later, Pamela is a successful lawyer. The perpetrator—who left a trail of female bodies in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest before terrorizing Florida—has long since been prosecuted, but a still-haunted Pamela needs one final answer before she can finally put her ghosts to rest.

Knoll made a name for herself with her smash-hit debut thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive (2015), and Bright Young Women solidifies her status as one of the most thoughtful suspense writers working today. As well as brutal violence against women, the story investigates the ramifications of sexual assault, the complexities of grief and antiquated, destructive attitudes toward queerness. The killer himself is not glorified; Knoll describes him in bits and pieces and never names him outright, referring to him only as The Defendant. She keeps a tight, controlled focus on the novel’s women: sharp in their intelligence, fierce in their convictions and slowly accepting their own justified anger. In the hands of a less capable author, Bright Young Women may have been too much, but Knoll has crafted a primal scream for women past and present, navigating a world still designed to violently fail us.

Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women is a primal scream for women past and present.

Author, bird enthusiast and advocate Jennifer Ackerman (The Bird Way) reveals intriguing discoveries about owls in What an Owl Knows (9 hours), as well as how and why they are important. Owls have graced international mythology, art and literature. Now science shows how increasing our understanding of these birds impacts human life and even technology. Studies of how owls’ vision and hearing interact can have implications for human medicine, and studies of their feathers can influence the development of stealth aircraft. Ackerman’s fondness for and fascination with owls is clear in her narration, which is filled with softness and enthusiastic admiration as she describes her observations and interactions with the owls she has encountered in her travels. Ornithologists of all levels are sure to delight in Ackerman’s research and reflections in this book.

Read our starred review of the print edition of What an Owl Knows.

Ornithologists of all levels are sure to delight in What an Owl Knows.
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Sharon Salzberg is a well-respected teacher of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness with many books to her name. Her newest, Finding Your Way, gathers bite-size insights derived from her decades of work in the field. As such, for readers who seek ballast in the midst of busy schedules, it’s a godsend, a garden ripe for the picking. Passages touch on gratitude, the connection between joy and resilience, lovingkindness, self-talk, attention and more. “Comparison is disempowering. It disassociates us from our own potential,” she writes, offering a mental image to encourage slow, steady progress—a bucket filling drop by drop. (Don’t get distracted by peering into others’ buckets!) Salzberg foregrounds other voices, too, sharing conversations and experiences she’s had with other thinkers and in spiritual places, making this book equal parts retrospective and informative, a beautiful gift.

For readers who seek ballast in the midst of busy schedules, Sharon Salzberg’s bite-sized Buddhist insights are a garden ripe for the picking.
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Foraging may be hot right now, but let’s be honest: It’s also intimidating, even in one’s own backyard. Ellen Zachos’ How to Forage for Wild Foods Without Dying keeps things simple, focusing on 35 common plants that grow everywhere and won’t send you to the emergency room, pinky swear. Take dandelions—yes, those yellow flowers you’ve known since you were a kid. The leaves, flower buds and roots are all edible. Oxeye daisies? The leaves are your best bet. I had no idea milkweed pods were edible until now (they must be immature, and they must be cooked), and the same goes for magnolia buds and young cattail shoots, which apparently taste like cucumber. Foraging feels like one of those hobbies that could easily take over your whole life and you wouldn’t be mad about it; Zachos’ guide is a wonderful enabler.

In this guide, Ellen Zachos focuses on 35 common plants that grow everywhere and won’t send you to the ER if you eat them, pinky swear!
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I find it impossible not to feel a mite sad while scanning 50 Years of Ms., which comes along at a time when print magazines, and the newsstands that used to stock them like boxes of bonbons, are a vanishing breed. But really, this is no time for tears: Ms., which has advanced and amplified feminist perspectives on society from diverse angles like no other publication, thrives on in both print and digital form with the tagline, “More than a magazine, a movement.” And as founding editor Gloria Steinem writes in a foreword, “A movement is a contagion of truth telling: at last, we know we are not alone.” Back in 1972, the first issue sold out in eight days; in it, 53 prominent American women “shouted” their abortions. Clearly, we desperately need the work of this media group more than ever. The book, including pieces by Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and other heavyweights, provides an essential look back while making an impassioned case for the critical role of feminist writing going forward.

This collection from the iconic magazine provides a look back while making an impassioned case for the critical role of feminist writing going forward.

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