unexpected-bookclub-picks

In Uzma Jalaluddin’s sophomore novel, Hana Khan Carries On, a Muslim woman tries to keep her family’s halal business afloat while finding comfort in creating her own anonymous podcast.

Hana Khan has plenty to worry about: her mother’s casual halal restaurant is in dire financial straits, and the Khan household has been turned upside down by the arrival of her aunt and cousin. Her only outlet is Ana’s Brown Girl Rambles, a podcast that Hana launched anonymously and views as a diary of sorts. As it slowly gains a following, Hana starts an adorable online back and forth with a dedicated listener. What she doesn’t know is that very same listener is Aydin Shah, who runs the competing halal eatery that is jeopardizing the Khan family business.

Jalaluddin’s debut novel, Ayesha at Last, was a Pride & Prejudice-inspired journey to romance and self-fulfillment. With Hana Khan, Jalaluddin turns to rom-com classic You’ve Got Mail for inspiration. The bones of the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks film are there, trading bookstores for halal food, but Jalaluddin launches this story into the 21st century. The most obvious update is Hana’s interest in podcasting and auditory forms of storytelling, but there’s also the setting of Toronto’s Golden Crescent neighborhood, which is home to a thriving Muslim community. Jalaluddin demonstrates how this close-knit world provides both support system and motivation for Hana and her family throughout the novel. But she also acknowledges the depressing truth that it makes them targets, especially when Hana experiences an anti-Muslim hate crime that goes viral.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Uzma Jalaluddin uses romance tropes to expand the boundaries of the genre.


It’s a tall order to find someone worthy of such a brilliant and earnest heroine, but Aydin is an excellent love interest. He’s genuine and charming, a perfect foil for his father’s more hostile business tactics, but the novel is more focused on Hana’s journey than his own. There is a satisfying happily ever after at the end, but Jalaluddin explores more than just romantic love in Hana Khan. It’s a story of self-love, familial love, togetherness and compassion between neighbors, and all the different ways we express love with who we allow into our lives.

This modern romantic comedy is full of warmth, and complemented wonderfully by Hana’s courageous self-determination and the scene-stealing secondary members of the Khan family. If Hana Khan Carries On is a sign of things to come, whatever Jalaluddin writes next will be inventive, extraordinary and well worth a read.

In Uzma Jalaluddin’s sophomore novel, Hana Khan Carries On, a Muslim woman tries to keep her family’s halal business afloat while finding comfort in creating her own anonymous podcast.

Debut author Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduces us to detective Lillian Pentecost and her right-hand woman/chronicler, Willowjean Parker, a mid-1940s pair that resembles a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Their investigation into the murder of prominent New York City matriarch Abigail Collins—found with her head bashed in inside her late husband’s locked-from-the-inside study—almost takes a back seat to the intrepid detectives themselves. Willow grew up with a traveling circus, and Lillian suffers from multiple sclerosis, making them as instantly intriguing as any classic detective tandem, whether it be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or the aforementioned Wolfe and Goodwin.

Written with witty prose, Fortune Favors the Dead is and often humorous and fun—nowhere near the stuffy analytical voice of Dr. Watson. Instead, with its cast of suspects (all conveniently listed at the start of the book to help readers keep track), it has the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie mystery, and there’s a delightful dose of noir thrown in for the more hardcore pulp fiction crowd, too. All the tried and true methods of detection are evident here, as Willow follows cagey suspects (including a mysterious medium/spiritualist and a cynical university professor) around the city and interviews everyone from the family of the deceased to the waitstaff. There’s even a local police detective who begrudgingly accepts Lillian’s involvement in the case against his better judgment, a la Inspector Lestrade.

Oh, and that case they're working on? It’s as mysterious and fun a caper as you will ever read, with plenty of misdirection and intrigue to keep you guessing. You don’t need a clairvoyant to realize this duo will be around for years to come.

This historical mystery introduces detective Lillian Pentecost and her right-hand woman/chronicler, Willowjean Parker, a mid-1940s pair that resembles a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Indie publishing favorite Olivia Dade’s Avon debut, Spoiler Alert, is a funny and poignant triumph that defies expectation.

On the surface, April Whittier and Marcus Caster-Rupp are opposites. Industry insiders and fans alike appreciate the good looks of Marcus, an actor on hit TV series “Gods of the Gates” (think “Game of Thrones” meets the Aeneid), but deride his talent, intellect and exuberant, puppylike demeanor. But Marcus is no himbo (a slang term for a lovable and gorgeous but not very bright man) or “well-groomed golden retriever,” even if he effectively plays one in public appearances—for personal reasons and publicity’s sake.

April’s image, in contrast, is that of a consummate professional, an accomplished scientist whose figure defies narrow beauty conventions. She’s confident and comfortable in her skin but finds it harder to claim her playful and sexual side in public, let alone acknowledge her online identity, which is separate enough from her real life to have its own vocabulary. Her IRL friends, she fears, wouldn't understand the hours she spends crafting cosplay outfits, shipping and writing fan fiction about her OTP, and obsessing over alternate narratives for her favorite show. Like Marcus, April worries about being taken seriously, but unlike Marcus, she’s reached her limit with hiding parts of herself.

That’s what ultimately leads to their meeting in real life. Fueled by her impatience with the status quo, April posts a photo of herself on Twitter in full “Gods of the Gates” cosplay. After the tweet goes viral, Marcus gallantly rises to her defense when fat-shaming trolls start attacking her size. Marcus’s swift response:

“I know beauty when I see it, probably because I see it in the mirror every day. @Lavineas5Ever is gorgeous, and Lavinia couldn’t ask for a better tribute.”

To Dade’s credit, this scenario plays out with originality and minimizes harm to sensitive readers. Marcus’ save is superfluous because April is no wilting flower. She knows how to block and tackle and “wrestle her mentions into submission,” then move on with her day. Plus, the text doesn’t get bogged down in listing out the insults on the page.

Marcus asks April out on a date and though they don’t know it at the time, the introduction is redundant. On the internet, where identity and appearances can be cloaked and Marcus and April feel more fully themselves, they’ve actually been friends for two years.

Within the confines of the “Lavineas” server (a portmanteau of Lavinia, April’s favorite “Gods of the Gate” character, and Aeneas, the role Marcus plays), they met on an even playing field. April (username: Unapologetic Lavinia Stan) and Marcus (aka BAWN/Book!AeneasWouldNever) both love the foundations of the show but hate a lot of what the producers have done with it (again, much like “Game of Thrones”). So they write terrific fan fiction and give each other support and feedback. Their fan fiction, direct messages and server posts add depth to their relationship and a new dimension to the celebrity/normal person trope.

That Spoiler Alert so effectively forces the reader to see the significance of the common ground between the scientist and the star is a testament to Dade’s skill as a storyteller. This romance also masterfully conveys both the fun and misery of fandom and social media, as only a text authored by someone who knows these worlds intimately can. It’s clear that Dade isn’t faking those geeky credentials.

On top of all that, Dade also gives weight to the challenges that many people must deal with closer to home. Marcus and April have weathered childhoods spent with parents who didn’t approve of important aspects of who they are. The book is smart enough to show that this gives them something in common, but can also pull them apart as they struggle with trust and conflict. By depicting these characters with their parents and then with each other in the wake of those parental interactions, Spoiler Alert illustrates the damage that families can inflict on children they judge to be flawed. The family scenes are powerful and unflinching; they might even make some readers cry, but they never overwhelm Marcus and April's love story.

Despite the high level of difficulty involved in taking on these topics in combination, Spoiler Alert surpasses every mark. Even when the waters April and Marcus are navigating become choppy, it never feels like you’re drowning. So it’s fitting when, towards the novel's end, the fictive author of the Gods of the Gates book series sends Marcus an email with the following message: “life isn’t all misery, and finding a path through hard, hard lives to joy is tough, clever, meaningful work.” This could well be a vision statement for this novel and, if so, mission accomplished. Dade has gifted readers with a thoughtful, swoonworthy and emotionally satisfying contemporary romance that has the added benefit of a realistic, multilayered and relatable portrayal of the digital world. If you’re into fan culture and practices, it will be an even greater pleasure. Loyal Olivia Dade fans and new readers alike will love it.

Indie publishing favorite Olivia Dade’s Spoiler Alert is a funny and poignant romance that defies expectation.

If you’ve disregarded the Miss America pageant as nothing but frivolous cheesecake, you are not alone. But consider taking a closer look at this cultural artifact, which has been around nearly as long as women have had the right to vote. In Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, historian Margot Mifflin encourages us to view Miss America as more complicated than just sashes, hairspray and high heels.

If you’ve disregarded the Miss America pageant as nothing but frivolous cheesecake, consider taking a closer look at this cultural artifact.

Miss America has never represented all American women—and that was kind of the point. From its beginnings on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1921, the pageant has rewarded an idealized version of young womanhood: white, childless, unmarried, thin and beautiful (by the beauty standards of the day). 

As patriarchal white America ceded its control of women and people of color, Miss America slowly changed along with the culture. The pageant grappled with social revolution regarding women’s “ideal” bodies, sexual expression, sexual orientation, educational opportunities, gender roles and careers. “The pageant has been in constant dialogue with feminism, though rarely in step with it,” writes Mifflin.

Mifflin’s deep research, numerous support texts, nuanced analysis and punchy writing weave an engaging account. (The history of the bathing suit portion of the pageant is especially fascinating.) She interviewed over a dozen past pageant contestants, pageant employees, a judge and others for a comprehensive behind-the-scenes narrative. 

Even if you’ve never watched a single Miss America pageant on TV, anyone with an interest in American history would benefit from this deep dive into a complex cultural figurehead. 

If you’ve disregarded the Miss America pageant as nothing but frivolous cheesecake, consider taking a closer look at this cultural artifact, which has been around nearly as long as women have had the right to vote.

Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun is a space opera of genre-defying dimensions. Elliott’s largely inactive blog bears the title I Make Up Worlds, a phrase that feels like an understatement when considering the breadth of detail, character development and story-building expertise Elliott displays in this epic tale inspired by the life of Alexander the Great.

The story follows three main characters whose lives eventually dovetail: Princess Sun Shān, heir to the Republic of Chaonia; Persephone “Perse” Lee, a former cadet who fled to the military to escape the conniving, poisonous noble House of Lee; and Apama At Sabao, four-armed lancer and lieutenant who discovers more than she bargained for about her heritage as she embarks upon life-threatening missions and rushes into galactic battles. In addition to seamlessly weaving together these very different voices, whose fascinating personal stories feel like they are only just beginning in this volume, Elliott structures the characters in intricate hierarchies and caste-like levels that reveal dangerous alliances, intertwinements and enemies as the plot unfurls.

Elliott’s stellar world building prowess is strengthened by the attention she pays to imagery inspired by the natural world, as well as ancient Greek and Asian history and culture, transposing the tales of empires, heirs, consorts and conquerors into space. Readers will grow protective and supportive of the three protagonists, but they will also relish the cultivation of relationships between the royals, like Sun, and their Companions (committed allies and at times consorts to the royals), and in turn, the Companions’ cee-cees (companions to the Companions), as these two groups revolve around Sun like, well, her planetary namesake, and help propel her through family deceit, warfare and political quicksand.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Kate Elliott on drawing from the distant past to create the future.


The Chaonian government doesn’t bat an eye at, and legally acknowledges, same-sex unions, and the book’s queer characters are interesting, genuine and developed beyond the mere fact of their sexual orientation. The government is run by ruthless and independent queen-marshals (a gender-neutral term), a position to which Sun will succeed one day unless another viable heir is quickly produced. Nevertheless, Elliott’s world is ravaged by rampant tensions and biases, with the Chaonians, Gatoi, Phenes and Yele, among other peoples and creatures, battling each other to attain control. Even in outer space, Elliott makes clear that differences worry and scare some, and inevitably lead to a power struggle over the vast spans of the galaxy.

As for Sun, the pivotal royal, she contains multitudes. She is, despite her unorthodox plans and youth, the Chaonians’—and possibly her world’s—last hope at removing the tarnished branches of the system and ensuring that the Core Houses and different peoples are able to see past bad blood and contrived hearsay. She and her newly cobbled crew ride into the jaws of danger and death, taking us along for the breathtakingly thrilling ride and leaving us craving the next installment.

Kate Elliott’s Unconquerable Sun is a space opera of genre-defying dimensions, inspired by the life of Alexander the Great.

Stephen Graham Jones pulls off an interesting feat in his new novel, The Only Good Indians. He makes you question whether you should root for the four Native American friends who shot and killed a family of elk on a hunting trip or for the spirit of the elk as it seeks revenge against them.

Ten years ago, while hunting on land designated for use by their tribal elders, Ricky, Lewis, Gabe and Cass opened fire on a small elk herd with reckless abandon, killing far more than they should have, including one that was pregnant. The now 30-something men have moved off of the Blackfeet reservation, but the incident still haunts Lewis, who has always felt guilty about the deed as well as about having turned his back on his culture.

When Lewis sees a vision of the elk’s calf in his living room, his guilt begins to consume him. He suspects the elk’s spirit has taken the form of a friend, Shaney, and he sets a grisly trap for her. But Lewis’ irrational fears continue, and before long, he suspects the entity has switched forms again, this time taking on that of his wife, Peta. Confused by Lewis’ actions at first, Gabe and Cass soon begin to experience the wrath of the elk’s spirit as well, leading up to a frantic finale.

Borrowing a bit from his previous novel, Mongrels, which explored the mindset of a family of werewolves, Jones’ latest novel dips into the elk’s perspective in several chapters. As a result, the reader is torn as to which faction—men or beast—is more deserving of empathy. The Only Good Indians unfolds at a slow and steady pace that offers ample opportunities for sharp commentary on history, past choices and the identity crises of a group of Native American men. It toys with impending doom, then slaps you in the face with violence.

Stephen Graham Jones pulls off an interesting feat in his new novel, The Only Good Indians. He makes you question whether you should root for the four Native American friends who shot and killed a family of elk on a hunting trip or for the spirit of the elk as it seeks revenge against them.

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