Summer reading 2022

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“I must go down to the seas again,” begins English poet John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever.” This trio of picture books is the perfect remedy for such an ailment. They capture the wonderful ways that beach days offer respite from our routines as we cool down, splash around and play.

★ Little Houses

Little Houses is a quietly marvelous book about a girl’s day at the beach with her grandparents. Frequent collaborators (and husband-and-wife team) Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek have created an ode to curiosity that urges readers to open their minds and wonder at the world.

The young narrator of Little Houses loves to visit her grandparents at a little yellow cottage “so close to the water you can hear the waves.” As they comb the beach, the girl’s grandmother reminds her to collect only empty shells, because some might be “little houses.” This prompts the girl to ponder what sorts of creatures might have lived in the shells she sees. She even muses about the possibility that vacant shells might harbor the ghosts of their previous inhabitants.

Then the girl overhears her grandmother say “ . . . things we cannot see” above the din of the waves, and what follows is a deft and strikingly realistic narrative move by Henkes. The girl imagines what her grandmother might have been talking about and starts to describe “all the things that might be under the water,” from “fish as big as cars” to “lost toys, lost coins, lots of lost things that were cried over.”

Dronzek gives form and shape to the girl’s speculations in a brightly colored full-spread scene. An enormous dark blue fish with friendly eyes swims in cerulean waters surrounded by marine life—jellyfish, an octopus, a sea turtle and more. Young readers will love spotting the many items scattered along the ocean floor, including a chain of pearls, a toy sailboat and a white toy kitten that will be familiar to longtime Henkes fans.

Every page of Little Houses reminds readers of the infinite ways that oceans, animals, plants and people are connected.

A Day for Sandcastles

As Little Houses looks out at the big world, A Day for Sandcastles keeps a tight focus on three children who spend a day in the sand. In this wordless picture book, the children work diligently together to build the sandcastle of their dreams. As the author-illustrator duo also did in Over the Shop, JonArno Lawson creates a detailed narrative that Qin Leng’s ink and watercolor artwork brings to life.

The journey starts with a bus ride out of the city, and spot illustrations show each character’s excitement as they step off the bus and catch their first glimpses of the sandy beach and ocean water that await. While always present, the two adults who accompany the children remain largely on the sidelines and allow the children to create their own fun.

Leng nimbly alternates between smaller, narrowly framed views of the children’s construction efforts and larger panels, pages and double-page spreads that depict wider scenes of the beach. These views convey the changing position of the sun throughout the day and the rising tide, which is a constant threat to the children’s castle. Leng’s images give this beach day rhythm as readers experience everything from the wrenching agony of a destructive wave to the uniquely attentive pleasure of using a twig to carve tiny windows into sandy towers.

A Day for Sandcastles is a delightful story about perseverance and the joy of seeing a work in progress to completion. It’s lovely to see the children cooperate as they defend their castle from a windblown hat, a wayward toddler and more, but there are plenty of successes too, as shown by Leng through the children’s facial expressions and energetic movements.

The journey home—packing up beach chairs and umbrellas, trudging up a grassy dune, yawning and boarding (or being carried onto) the bus and, finally, gazing out at waters that glimmer against a blazing sunset as the bus drives back to the city—neatly concludes this summer story. A Day for Sandcastles will leave readers longing for a beach trip of their own.

Hot Dog

A lively, lovable city-dwelling dachshund is the star of Doug Salati’s joyful author-illustrator debut, Hot Dog.

With spare text, the book opens as its canine protagonist overheats while out for a walk on a summer day in a crowded city. Eventually, the poor pup lies down in the middle of the street and refuses to go any farther. Fortunately, the dog’s human companion knows just the remedy.

Salati’s illustrations are full of whimsy and soul. He is a master of detail in these bustling city scenes, capturing everything from the displays of eyeglasses in an optician’s shop to construction workers so hard at work that readers will practically hear their jackhammers. These pages radiate heat via shades of orange and yellow, and a particularly effective illustration shows the sun blazing down on our furry hero right before the dog melts down.

What makes Hot Dog so memorable and fun are all the interactions between the pup and his person, a tall, determined redhead who wears round blue glasses, a turquoise fanny pack and a floppy yellow hat. It’s heartwarming when she kneels down in the crosswalk, ignoring the cacophony of honking cars to gaze into her exhausted dog’s eyes, one hand under her pup’s chin, the other grasping a paw. She immediately hails a taxi, which drops the pair off at a subway station.

After a quick train ride, the woman and her four-legged friend board a ferry. The sweltering glow lifts and Salati’s palette fills with sky blues, verdant greens and clean, creamy sands. Readers will feel relief from the heat as the sea breezes billow, providing “a welcome whiff of someplace new.” A series of playful action scenes show the dog relishing every moment on the shore. The pup chases waves and seagulls, rolls around and digs in the sand and collects rocks for his owner. Splendid touches of humor pop up, such as a large rock that turns out to be a seal and a dachshund silhouette that the woman creates out of stones, shells, driftwood and seaweed.

Canine and human return home on a crowded subway to a beautiful summer night in their neighborhood. The day’s heat has faded and a fresh wind blows as families relax around a plaza with a big fountain. Back in their apartment (a clever visual homage to Vincent van Gogh’s well-known painting of his bedroom), Salati offers the perfect summation: “What a day for a dog!”

Hot Dog captures a much-needed summer excursion that readers will enjoy taking again and again.

This trio of picture books capture the wonderful ways that beach days offer respite from our routines as we cool down, splash around and play.

All three of these gorgeous and talented authors have played pivotal roles in movies that are meaningful to fans worldwide. Their Tinseltown lives are glamorous, to be sure, but their heartfelt life stories reveal a darker side to fame, where inspirational journeys and cautionary tales collide.

★ Out of the Corner

Jacket for Out of the Corner by Jennifer Grey

Jennifer Grey knows that her life has been charmed from the beginning. As a child, her famous parents took her to holiday parties with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Patti LuPone and Leonard Bernstein. But although she breathed in rarefied air, Grey felt lonely and lacking. The rising star of her father, Joel Grey, meant the family moved numerous times, and so many instances of starting over, with her parents largely absent, took a heavy toll.

In Out of the Corner: A Memoir, Grey writes, “I’d been so consumed by feeling abandoned that I hadn’t seen the ways I had abandoned myself.” In the decades before she reached that perspective, the actress searched—for affection, connection, approval—even as she achieved great fame.

Grey became America’s sweetheart in 1987, thanks to her indelible work as Baby Houseman in Dirty Dancing, but as she reveals with raw and moving candor, her sunny smile at the premiere belied her physical and emotional suffering. Just before the film’s debut, she and then-boyfriend Matthew Broderick were in a head-on car crash in which two people died. Even before that, her relationship with Broderick had turned toxic, and she’d had other unhealthy relationships earlier in her life. “My first drug of choice was romantic fantasy,” she writes. Other drugs followed, amplifying behavioral patterns from which she’s worked to recover—efforts she recounts with empathy for her former self and encouragement for those with similar struggles.

Grey also addresses what she calls “Schnozageddon”—when a revision rhinoplasty famously and irrevocably altered her face and professional identity—with bravery and clarity. And when she writes about dance, her prose sings with gratitude for the lifelong pursuit that’s taken her marvelous places, from Dirty Dancing to “Dancing With the Stars.” Time and again, Grey reveals herself to be tenacious and dedicated to the show going on—a fitting metaphor for a singular life, which she shares with wit, warmth and wisdom.

★ We Were Dreamers

Jacket for We Were Dreamers by Simu Liu

Simu Liu’s fans are enchanted by his previous work as a stock photo model. They loved him in the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience.” And they rejoiced when he landed the lead in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He shares these stories and more in his engaging, uplifting memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story.

Liu has had an incredible journey so far, but as with any origin story, it hasn’t been without painful obstacles. We Were Dreamers begins with his 1989 birth in Harbin, China, where he lived with his loving grandparents for four years. Then his parents, engineers who had moved abroad after he was born, brought Liu to Canada to join them. After so many years of pursuing a better life, they were not interested in Liu’s dreams for his own life, and they emotionally and physically abused him when he couldn’t achieve their definition of perfection.

As a young adult, getting laid off from an accounting job for which he was spectacularly ill suited brought shame but also opportunity, as Liu finally felt free to try out performing gigs, from acting to stunts to playing Spider-Man at kids’ parties. He recounts his step-by-step approach, providing a helpful blueprint for other aspiring artists who lack a supportive family or industry connections. For him, this plan worked marvelously: He obtained life-changing work as an actor in the U.S. and became an advocate for Asian representation in media in the process.

As an adult, Liu forged a truce with his parents, and he writes that “families today could learn from us and steer themselves from the same mistakes.” A compelling case for pursuing an authentic life, We Were Dreamers provides fascinating insight into a newly minted Marvel superhero who wants readers to take to the skies along with him.

Read our review of the audiobook edition, narrated by Simu Liu.

★ Mean Baby

Jacket for Mean Baby by Selma Blair

Since birth, Selma Blair has struggled to unstick the labels others applied to her. As an infant, she had a sneer on her tiny face that caused neighbors and family to call her a “mean baby.” As she grew older, her mother said she wasn’t enough—pretty enough, thin enough, good enough, talented enough . . . the list goes on. And yet, as Blair writes in her painfully lovely Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up, “I lived for her approval.”

Although that approval was ever elusive, Blair loved her mother. However, she had learned from her mother that if she showed she was in pain, it would only be met with laughter. So even as Blair began to experience strange sensations in her limbs, facial pain and other ailments that lasted for decades, she told herself she was fine. Fans already know where this is going: In 2018, Blair was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As she writes with a poignant mixture of grief and relief, “There is great power in words. In an answer. In a diagnosis. To make sense of a plot you could hardly keep up with any longer.”

Blair writes about what fans may not know, too, such as her alcohol addiction that began at age 7 and surged and receded over the years. Blair also shares many thrilling Hollywood encounters, vividly conveying the profound feeling of disorientation that was her constant companion even as she starred in movies like Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde and Hellboy; modeled for high-end fashion magazines; and developed friendships with the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Karl Lagerfeld and Carrie Fisher.

Blair drew from her journals, her favorite books and her love of writing to craft this memoir, which is an elegiac contemplation of her life through the lens of a chronic illness that only recently made her past clear. For those seeking a similar sense of enlightenment, reading Mean Baby is a worthy and affecting undertaking.

Memoirs by Jennifer Grey, Simu Liu and Selma Blair reveal that even out-of-this-world stars have down-to-earth problems.

“Those were the good old days” is a phrase people love to say as they wax poetic about bygone eras. It’s understandable to feel nostalgic given our current chaotic landscape, but as The Lunar Housewife points out, it’s not necessarily merited. Caroline Woods’ historical thriller, set in the final days of the Korean War and the onset of the Cold War, spins a tale of big-city intrigue as it follows a promising young waitress-turned-writer and the increasingly disturbing secrets she uncovers. The result is an addictive binge of a read that’s equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

It’s 1953, and Louise Leithauser has come a long way from Ossining, New York. The 25-year-old daughter of a housecleaner is now rubbing elbows with the likes of Truman Capote and Arthur Miller in New York City as a writer for the hip literary magazine Downtown. Louise is writing political pieces for Downtown (under a male pen name, but why look a gift horse in the mouth?), dating the magazine’s handsome co-founder, Joe Martin, and penning a sci-fi romance novel, The Lunar Housewife, in her spare time. She’s also certain her twin brother, Paul, who is missing in action in Korea, will come home any day now. But when Louise overhears a conversation between Joe and his colleague Harry regarding mysterious surveillance and their magazine’s dangerous connections, she begins to wonder if anything in her carefully constructed existence is really what it seems.

Coming off her critically acclaimed debut Fräulein M., Woods takes the reader into the tangled web of American-Soviet relations and the dark secrets underneath the New York literary scene’s sparkling surface. Even Katherine, the protagonist of Louise’s novel-in-progress, isn’t immune. A former World War II pilot who voluntarily defected from the States to go on a groundbreaking mission to the moon, Katherine starts to suspect all is not well on Earth or in space. Both Louise and Katherine live in a world that is run by men, but these smart, capable women are not going down without a fight.

The Lunar Housewife will have readers thinking long and hard about how good the “good old days” really were.

The Lunar Housewife is an addictive read that's equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

As This Time Tomorrow opens, Alice Stern is about to turn 40, and her life is mostly fine—not great, but fine. She works in the admissions office of the private school she once attended, she has a boyfriend and a handful of good friends, and she’s content to live alone in her basement studio in Brooklyn. But one aspect that’s not fine is Alice’s dad, Leonard, who’s dying. Leonard is essentially Alice’s only family, and she spends all of her free time visiting the unconscious Leonard in the hospital.

Late on the night of Alice’s birthday, something mysterious happens, and when she wakes the next morning, she’s 16 years old and in her childhood home. With the help of her longtime best friend, Sam, who was with Alice on her original 16th birthday, Alice begins to puzzle out her new reality.

What follows is a time-travel story that blends aspects of other time-travel and time-loop stories, such as the movies Peggy Sue Got Married and Groundhog Day, which Alice references as she unravels her own mystery. The novel lays the groundwork for its more fantastical elements by situating Alice in a storybook setting: She grew up in a small house on Pomander Walk, a tiny hidden neighborhood of Tudor-style houses on New York City’s Upper West Side. When Alice was little, Leonard wrote a time-travel novel, Time Brothers, a mega-bestseller that spawned a much-loved TV series. He never published another book, but instead devoted himself to caring for Alice and attending fan conventions, where he and his writer friends debated fictional time travel.

While This Time Tomorrow is propelled by Alice’s quest to figure out what happened and learn what she can about her dad’s illness, it’s also a dual coming-of-age story. The novel’s more meditative passages convey Alice’s midlife regrets, her loneliness at being left behind by the friends who’ve married and had children, her yearning for something beyond the life she’s made and her grief and love for her dying dad.

Like Alice, author Emma Straub is a New York City native whose father is a well-known novelist. With wonderful place details, This Time Tomorrow evokes the Upper West Side of the 1990s and offers some sly observations on class, especially the subtle gradations between New York’s merely privileged and its ultra-privileged. Alice’s high school scenes are sprinkled with ’90s music and pop culture references, which will be especially enjoyable for millennial readers.

This Time Tomorrow’s many references to other time-travel stories occasionally stray into metafictional territory, but ultimately it’s a story with a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.

Emma Straub’s time-travel novel has a lot of heart, some satisfying plot twists and a bittersweet, open-ended finale.
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Bree, a middle school math enthusiast, has just moved to Palmetto Shores, Florida, with her dad so he can attend a technology training program. Bree’s friendship with her new neighbor Clara helps alleviate the nerves of attending a new school, but disaster strikes on the first day of classes: Nearly every elective, including the math puzzles course Bree had looked forward to, is full. Bree’s only option is Swim 101. The problem? Bree is scared of pools and doesn’t know how to swim.

It turns out that Palmetto Shores is utterly obsessed with swimming, from the fancy prep school that always wins the state championship, to the diner whose menu is full of pool puns (“Sea Biscuits,” “Orca Julius”), to Bree’s own Enith Brigitha Middle School, named after the woman who became the first Black athlete to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Bree’s new friends, Clara and Humberto, along with her neighbor Miss Etta, convince Bree to face her fears and learn to swim. When Bree turns out to have a natural talent for racing, she joins the swim team with Clara and begins to embrace the water, developing a passion for the way competing makes her feel. But faced with stiff competition from Holyoke Prep, mounting tension among the team and a busy schedule that prevents Bree’s dad from attending meets, Bree’s newfound love of swimming may fizzle as quickly as it sparked.

Featuring a countdown-to-competition plot, well-developed and relatable characters and expressive, inviting art, Swim Team delivers an energetic, heartfelt look at an exciting sport, as well as crucial context about its history. As Bree learns, racism and segregation directly impacted Black people’s access to public pools. Although this meant many Black people were denied the opportunity to learn to swim, it also created a stereotype—voiced by Bree herself at one point— that “Black people aren’t good at swimming.” While Swim Team includes a few minor inaccuracies that may be distracting to readers who swim competitively, its depiction of swimming’s joys and challenges is spot on.

Swimming is only part of the story. Author-illustrator Johnnie Christmas, best known for illustrating Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird graphic novels, creates an affectionate portrait of Bree and her friends, a group of kids who love their sport, long to win and get up to some funny hijinks along the way. Christmas conveys the enthusiasm that Bree and her teammates have for working hard, improving their abilities and supporting one another, excellently portraying the way that sports can serve as channels for personal growth and lasting relationships.

Swim Team captures the fun of an athletic endeavor that can—and should—be enjoyed by everyone.

This energetic, heartfelt graphic novel captures the joys and challenges of a sport that should be—but hasn’t always been—freely enjoyed by everyone.
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Cat Sebastian returns to the Georgian-era setting of 2021’s The Queer Principles of Kit Webb with The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes, a charming story about two chaotic bisexuals who cross each other’s paths while pursuing their criminal endeavors.

It’s hard to be sanctimonious when you have to rely on the man blackmailing you. That’s exactly the situation Marian Hayes, the Duchess of Clare, finds herself in after shooting her husband. The only person she can think to turn to for a quick exit strategy is Rob Brooks, the cheerful highwayman and con artist who’s blackmailing her. If she could reach her own rear end, she’d kick it. And thus starts another highly enjoyable romance from Sebastian.

Sebastian’s prose is playful, and she sets a fast, jaunty pace as Marian and Rob ramble around the countryside, trying to figure out their next moves. She has a knack for making her characters relatable to modern audiences while still ensuring that they feel like people who live in 1751 and thus have to grapple with a rigid class system. Rob is an impulsive, reckless career criminal with an enviable resume of robbery, counterfeiting and horse theft. His secret is that he’s recently become the heir to a dukedom that he doesn’t want, seeing as he is firmly opposed to the aristocracy on a philosophical level. Meanwhile, the quick-witted and courageous Marian married a duke in order to ensure her family would be taken care of, but she soon learned that the price of the title was too high to pay. Unlike many historical romances, wealth never gets the characters of The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes anywhere: It never makes them happy, and it never truly changes the circumstances of their lives.

The couple’s mutual (and initially grudging, on Marian’s part) fondness morphs into a sweet romance moored by their shared practicality and humor, and by the quiet wounds of loneliness that echo in each of their hearts. Rob loves Marian almost from the beginning, and even though she struggles to open her heart in return, she always treats his love as the precious treasure that it is.

If you’re not already a fan of historical romance, you will be when you’re done reading this one.

If you're not already a fan of historical romance, you will be when you're done reading The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes.

David Sedaris’ latest essay collection, Happy-Go-Lucky, finds the author in late midlife, mining his life, the lives of his family—including his longtime boyfriend, Hugh, his siblings and his 98-year-old dad—and their surroundings for comedic stories. In the book’s opening essay, “Active Shooter,” Sedaris and his sister Lisa visit a firing range in North Carolina, which offers him a chance to plunge into the oddities of gun culture as they learn to shoot pistols. It’s a perfect David Sedaris essay: one that lures you in with funny family anecdotes and self-deprecation, gives a sideways look at some aspect of society, then ends with an unexpected emotional punch. This essay, like several others here, also offers deft, sharp commentary on masculinity. One of the collection’s delights is a commencement address delivered at Oberlin College that skates along on the surface with funny throwaway lines and ridiculousness while offering slyly sensible life advice underneath.

The collection progresses somewhat chronologically, beginning with essays that look back to Sedaris’ childhood and to his young adult years when he was writing plays with his sister Amy in New York City. Later essays recount Sedaris’ experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, walking New York’s empty streets and wondering if his livelihood—reading works-in-progress to audiences all over the country—is gone for good. But in 2021, he returned to the road in a changed America, making pointed observations about different states’ vastly different approaches to the pandemic along the way.

These essays offer plenty of laughs, but the tone is often dark as Sedaris contemplates his dad’s failings, and his own. “I’m the worst son in the world,” Sedaris jokes to a nursing home aide about not visiting his dad more often. At first these confessions feel callous, but as the essays reveal more about his dad’s abusive, competitive behavior, such remarks take on a different feel. In “Unbuttoned,” I teared up at Sedaris’ evocation of both the pain of such abuse and the unexpected moment of connection between the two men at the end of the elder Sedaris’ life.

Happy-Go-Lucky is an entertaining collection, both cringey and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably Sedaris way.

Happy-Go-Lucky is both entertaining and poignant as it celebrates love, family and even aging in an inimitably David Sedaris way.

Fans of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, Election (the inspiration for the beloved film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick), will be delighted that protagonist Tracy Flick gets another star turn. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sharp-elbowed high schooler with visions of becoming the first female president is now a 40-ish, world-weary (albeit still driven) assistant principal of Green Meadow High School in suburban New Jersey, where she hopes to ascend to the top job after the principal announces his retirement. The darkly comic story that ensues is further proof of Perrotta’s mastery of the subtle complexities of American suburban life.

Tracy’s quest for what she believes is a well-deserved promotion plays out against the search for the first inductees into the high school’s Hall of Fame. The institution is the brainchild of Kyle Dorfman, an alumnus and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s returned to his hometown and now serves as president of the school board. Kyle believes the plan to honor some of the high school’s distinguished graduates will help dispel the “pall of mediocrity and depression hanging over the place.”

As the principal succession search plods on, fueling Tracy’s anxiety at the prospect that she’ll be passed over for a less-qualified candidate, the Hall of Fame committee dutifully sifts through the list of nominees. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Vito Falcone—a former football star who played briefly in the NFL—but the memory of his achievements on the field has been darkened by his alcoholism and the wreckage of three failed marriages. Several of the other candidates, among them a local car dealer and an obscure novelist, possess even more dubious backstories.

Perrotta expertly plumbs the depths of his characters’ lives and loves from multiple points of view, sympathetically assessing their achievements and regrets at falling short of their own expectations and those of the people around them. At the center of the story, of course, is Tracy, whose dream of a life at the pinnacle of American politics vanished long ago in the face of familial duty.

With a light touch, Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success and how we judge what counts as a meaningful life. By the time the Hall of Fame induction ceremony arrives, he has skillfully laid the foundation for the shocking climax of this fast-moving novel. Just as in real life, there are winners and losers, but as he reminds us in this deceptively simple but memorable story, assigning them to their respective categories may not be as easy as it might appear.

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by Lucy Liu and a full cast!

With a light touch, Tom Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, his memorable return to the heroine of Election.
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In the alternate modern-day U.K. setting of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, a recent civil war among witches and warlocks has left their community in shambles. The titular congregation of witches has protected and supported the monarchy through wartime and peace alike, but their coven is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Many of its members were killed in the violence of the internecine war, while others have left in favor of either practicing in solitude or forming more inclusive covens than the stodgy and traditional HMRC.

Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle were bound by their girlhood oath to the HMRC and their friendships with one another. But those friendships, like the HMRC itself, are showing wear. While Helena, the new high priestess of the HMRC, has stayed within its stifling halls, the others have moved on. Niamh, still reeling from the death of her fiancé and the betrayal of her twin sister in the war, has retreated into her veterinary practice. Elle, who hails from an ancient line of powerful witches, has elected to live as a mundane housewife, while Leonie has risen as the queen of a new coven that welcomes witches from marginalized backgrounds into its ranks. Their bonds are further tested when a powerful young warlock threatens to destroy the HMRC for good.

British author Juno Dawson’s adult fiction debut is a femme-forward story of power, morality and fate that is not shy about its politics. While the political arguments in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are couched in magical terms, they closely align with issues in our own world. Dawson explores the complexities of modern feminism with particular poignancy: The HMRC is stuck in its ways and takes a rigid view of womanhood and witchcraft, holding up a mirror to the failures of modern feminism. Despite its stated good intentions, the coven often discounts or even demonizes both trans witches and the traditional practices of non-white witches.

Beyond its politics, what especially makes Her Majesty’s Royal Coven shine is its impeccable voice. Dawson’s conversational, matter-of-fact tone calls to mind writers like Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones; it’s at times funny, at others heartbreaking, but always perfectly calibrated. Dawson makes you feel like she has laid all her cards on the table, but every so often she manages to pull a hidden ace from her sleeve that shocks you.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is a thoughtful entry into the witch canon that intrigues and challenges as much as it delights.

Her Majesty's Royal Coven uses the setting of an alternate Britain where witchcraft is real to mount a delightful and thoughtful exploration of modern feminism.
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Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.

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