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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.
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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.
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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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Start with the TV show “Bonanza.” Lose the Ponderosa Ranch, the ten-gallon hats, the wholesome hijinks and Pa’s endless supply of cash. Add a heaping dose of institutional racism, gang warfare and black cowboys. In some ways, Walter Thompson-Hernández’s The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland is a totally different take on the cowboy way of life, but at its heart is the recognizable hope that human goodness will triumph over inequality.

Given that the publication of Thompson-Hernández’s book is accompanied by features in the New York Times and The Atlantic, an exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and an upcoming feature-length film called Concrete Cowboys starring Idris Elba, it’s safe to say that black cowboys are having a moment. Well, another moment. According to historians, black cowboys made up 25% of the cowboy population during the West’s early days. (No, Will Smith was not the first cowboy of color in the wild, wild West.) And though this book alludes to the tradition’s beginnings, its main concern is recent history—specifically, the story of a small group of riders in one of America’s most notorious zip codes.

Today’s Compton Cowboys are alumni of Mayisha Akbar’s Compton Jr. Posse, an equestrian program aimed at providing academic support and an alternative to gang life to low-income students in the Richland Farms area. The program has operated under Akbar’s steady hand since the 1980s, offering Compton’s youth a safe haven in the middle of a neighborhood known for its violence.

The book begins at Akbar’s retirement—a tenuous transition from her strict, formal leadership style to the more laid-back approach of her nephew, Randy Hook. Hook must navigate his move from group member to group leader while securing long-term funding and facing the challenges the group was created to combat: gang violence, poverty and the limiting effects of racism.

Thompson-Hernández’s integration of research into readable prose makes room for readers to grapple with the book’s toughest questions about bias, inequality and the future of the black cowboy tradition.

Start with the TV show “Bonanza.” Lose the Ponderosa Ranch, the ten-gallon hats, the wholesome hijinks and Pa’s endless supply of cash. Add a heaping dose of institutional racism, gang warfare and black cowboys.
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Be honest: Have you ever been guilty of phubbing? Have you ever been Tindstagrammed? Do you often show off your #ootd?

Now really be honest: Do you know what any of those things are? Because I sure didn’t before reading Kill Reply All, a clever and informative guide to online etiquette by Victoria Turk, a senior editor at Wired magazine. (For the record, “phubbing” is snubbing someone in favor of your phone, “Tindstagramming” is stalking someone on Instagram after they rejected you on Tinder, and “#ootd” is a tag used when you post a picture of your outfit of the day.)

Living in the digital age is confusing. By now, most of us know the subtext of the eggplant emoji and understand that using punctuation in our texts is a sure sign we’re old. Still, navigating the online world is complicated. To make things simpler, Turk divides her practical and straightforward advice into four categories: work, romance, friendship and community. Turk’s Marie Kondo-like approach to email inbox management may actually make you excited to tackle those 1,500 unread messages.

The section on online romance—from choosing a photo for your dating app profile to avoiding “some of the invasive species that have made online dating their habitat”—is fairly specific. Not everyone needs a tutorial on online flirting, but for those who do, Turk’s hilarious pointers on what your dating bio really says about you are not to be missed. (When someone is “adventurous,” it means they “did a gap year.”)

Probably the most useful section is the chapter on how to behave in different online communities. The rules vary, and so will your persona. (Think of how you present yourself on Twitter versus LinkedIn.) This chapter offers ample food for thought on how to artfully unfriend someone on Facebook, when it’s appropriate to tag someone on Twitter and how to make a meme. 

At the end of the day, we all fall prey to online pitfalls. The trick is to use your best judgment, use emojis sparingly and, for the love of God, don’t accidentally like a photo when you’re stalking your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page.

Be honest: Have you ever been guilty of phubbing? Have you ever been Tindstagrammed? Do you often show off your #ootd? Now really be honest: Do you know what any of those things are? You will after reading this clever and informative guide to online etiquette.
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The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is hardly a typical biography; it’s more like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, narrated not only by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose but also by a host of colorful experts whom the author tracks down.

Posnanski says he was drawn to the legendary escape artist because he “sparks so much wonder in the world, even today.” Modern magicians seem to concur that, technically speaking, Houdini wasn’t a particularly good magician. However, crowds were mesmerized by his escapes and were convinced he could do the impossible. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt was so gobsmacked that she asked if Houdini could restore her missing leg.

The truth of the matter is that Houdini was a charismatic, brilliant entertainer who was obsessed with fame. This publicity genius was ruthless against critics and competitors and could not for the life of him ignore an insult. He loved making money but wore tattered clothes, preferring to spend his money on self-promotion, magic books and paraphernalia.

Even today, Houdini “lives on because people will not let him die,” Posnanski writes. He introduces readers to a variety of Houdini’s modern disciples, such as Kristen Johnson, “Lady Houdini,” who says that after she tried her first rope escape, “she felt alive in a whole different way.” Magician David Copperfield takes Posnanski on a tour of his private museum in Las Vegas, discussing his predecessor’s influence. Australian magician Paul Cosentino admits, “I guess . . . he saved my life. Little boys like me, we need Houdini, you know? He’s a symbol of hope.” As Posnanski concludes, “Houdini is not a figure of the past. He is a living, breathing, and modern phenomenon.”

When a talented writer like Posnanski tackles a subject as endlessly fascinating as Harry Houdini, the results are, quite simply, pure magic.

Hardly a typical biography, this book feels like taking an up-close-and-personal tour of the escape artist’s life, as told by author Joe Posnanski in his wonderfully entertaining prose and through the voices of a host of colorful experts he tracks down.
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Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed, leaving her abandoned on a world whose people speak in poetic allusions; name themselves after flowers, abstract concepts and sometimes vehicles or appliances; are dealing with a looming war of succession; and want her dead more frequently than is, strictly speaking, healthy. Mahit must navigate this lethal maze and maintain her independence while choosing the right allies to keep her home from being devoured by the ever-hungry Teixcalaanli fleet. And all while searching for a way to regain her connection to Yskandr’s knowledge and guidance without of course, telling anyone she’d ever had such access.

A Memory Called Empire is a political thriller inspired by the Byzantine Empire and featuring plot points reminiscent of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”’s Trill symbionts and the linguistic games of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star. It is science fiction, and is certainly operatic in scope, but calling it a space opera seems like cheating somehow, as if there’s something being left out. Arkady Martine’s prose is an incisive, self-aware blend of tense action and delightful humor. Scenes extolling the virtues of alcohol when forced to praise bad poetry and mocking an otherwise irrelevant character that named themselves after a snowmobile are sprinkled liberally amongst the murder attempts and diplomatic machinations. A Memory Called Empire is dense, packed full of ulterior motives and subplots and beautifully realized characters, but its variety makes it eminently readable.

But the most memorable aspect of Martine’s debut may be the society she has crafted. Teixcalaan is utterly fascinating, its libertine self-image and obsession with art and style mixed with an almost superstitious fear of the human mind. Its veneer of gentility, elegance and enlightenment is profoundly fragile, and all the more precious for it. Smiling with one’s mouth is gauche, but it is also deeply personal. Mastery of allusion and subtext are such clear markers of social and political power that only the highest and the lowest in Teixcalaanli society dare speak plainly. The empire is the center of civilization, surrounded by barbarians who live on space stations and burn and recycle their dead, and yet in times of civil war, its inhabitants commit ritual suicide to earn the favor of gods they don’t quite believe in. They fear the depths of the human psyche, yet live in a city and under the protection of a police force that are both controlled by an artificial intelligence.

Imperial Teixcalaan is a brilliantly realized world of contradictions, and A Memory Called Empire is filled with poets, politicians, spies, soldiers and a thousand degrees of moral ambiguity. Oh, and some of the best names in all of science fiction.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGERead our Q&A with Arkady Martine about A Memory Called Empire.

Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed.

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Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price. If you’re a waiter, and the “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five” who is the protagonist of French Exit enters your restaurant, make sure you’re polite to her, or she just might take out her perfume, spritz the centerpiece and set it on fire.

She has nice qualities, too—she gives money to charities and the homeless—but she’s also likely to leave for a ski holiday in Vail rather than contact the authorities when she discovers that her husband, a ruthless litigator, has died of cardiac arrest.

The tabloid scandal caused by her indifference hasn’t stopped her from living an extravagant Manhattan lifestyle since her husband’s death 20 years ago. But enforced austerity is about to begin. Her financial adviser tells her that the money she inherited has run out. Sell everything that isn’t nailed down, he tells her, and begin again.

When an old friend offers her the use of a Paris apartment, Frances reluctantly accepts. Soon, she’s sailing across the Atlantic with Malcolm, her 32-year-old kleptomaniacal “lugubrious toddler” of a son, and Small Frank, an elderly cat she is convinced houses the spirit of her late husband.

Patrick deWitt has great fun with this premise. He populates the story with such characters as Susan, the fiancée Malcolm leaves behind in New York; Madeleine, a medium who can tell when someone is about to die because they look green; and Madame Reynard, an American widow who befriends the Prices because of her fascination with the tabloid scandal.

If French Exit doesn’t always reach the zany heights it strives for, it’s still an entertaining portrait of people who are obsessed with the looming specter of death and who don’t quite feel part of the time they were born into.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Whatever you do, don’t mess with Frances Price. If you’re a waiter, and the “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five” who is the protagonist of French Exit enters your restaurant, make sure you’re polite to her, or she just might take out her perfume, spritz the centerpiece and set it on fire.

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